Reviewing a film about terrorism is always hard- making one is of course harder. A film like the Baader Meinhof complex tells the story of the terrorists- in that sense it invites you to sympathise with them and it disregards the pain of their victims because that is not what it shows mostly on screen. The danger is glamourising terrorists and turning them into heroes- furthering the myth of their own creation, that they are in some sense the only principled ones standing against a society of compromise. I think this new German film about the Baader Meinhof gang- a group of leftwing terrorists in the Federal Republic in the 1970s (with one exception I have to say I rely in this review on the film for my account of them)- partially avoids that danger. We will discuss how partially it does in a minute- but first its worth describing the story of what happens to the Gang in the film.
In the late 1960s, student revolt swept through Europe- against the Vietnam War and various other injustices around the world. In Germany this swept up for various reasons a group of journalists (like Ulrika Meinhof), students (like Gudrun Ensslin), dropouts (like Andreas Baader) and even lawyers (like Horst Mahler- now curiously a neo-Nazi activist). These individuals then decided that unlike the main student leaders- who include many of the current German social democratic and green leadership (Joshka Fischer included)- they would not merely pursue peaceful protest but would violently attack the institutions of the Federal state and in particular those of its allies the United States. They trained with the Palestinian terrorists- came back to Germany committed various acts of arson and assacination and then were captured. After their capture, their noteriety became mythical- and others inspired by their story joined the gang. From within the prison, thanks to messages smuggled out with their lawyers (Gerhard Schroeder was one- though I hasten to add not guilty of the smuggling)- they kept the network going. Other atrocities followed- including the storming of the German embassy in Sweden, the hijacking of planes and further bombings, murders and kidnappings. Eventually the campaign to release Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin failed and the three of them, with some of their fellow prisoners, committed suicide- the group calling itself the Red Army Faction survived but gradually petered out into the 1990s and finally called a ceasefire in 1998.
The film takes this story until the suicides in the late seventies. Partly because after then- though there were further murders, the strength of the group died away. What it shows is the personal lives of these terrorists- their plots and conspiracies and the things that moved them to do what they did. Most of them it portrays in a very unedifying light. Andreas Baader in particular comes across as a pure thug- a sexist, violent bully. Baader on this account found a narrative that would award him the right to take on bourgeois society- and used that narrative to justify his speeding, gun toting lifestyle. The moment in the film which exemplifies his character is when he steals from someone- a minute later someone else steals his car- suddenly property is important and theft is not so funny. There are others too in the group for whom you can tell that the old adage that a political terrorist is a gangster with the sense that they are justified is right. The cast is glamorous- one issue I have with the film makers- but its still possible to see that Baader is not that far removed from Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas or Al Pacino's in Scarface- save for the fact he lacks their cunning and has a political ideology to make him a 'hero'.
The other main strain in the group is an ideological one- one that believes the myth of Baader. Ulrike Meinhof is our main illustration of this tendency. Meinhof worried that she could not fully commit to revolutionary socialism without committing violent acts to overthrow the capitalist regime. She saw Baader at various points- according to the film- as someone entitled to judge her bourgeois socialism. Something as the savage bully that he was he took full advantage of. Ideology committed her to a cause- and everything else came second to that cause. But it is a curious kind of commitment- for this is commitment to 'the people' and not to any people- to principles of love, charity and equality, rather than to behaving lovingly, charitably and equally. She uses her political beliefs as a crutch, as Baader, to give her life a meaning and to look down on others- her view may be more intellectual but it is no less selfish. It is also worth noting what kind of causes these ideologues espoused- quoting Mao in the late sixties and early seventies is as forgivable as quoting Hitler in the forties with approval. For them one senses that the millions dead in the Cultural Revolution were comparable to the tens they killed in terrorist atrocities: the revolution had decided that these should die and therefore they were no longer part of 'the people' but only dispensible people.
This is particularly evident when the gang go to Palestine. One of the things that they talk about constantly is their concern for the third world. But when they arrive in the third world- they insult its inhabitants. We see this from an earlier scene where Baader calls an Italian a 'wop'. But we also see it, in Palestine. The group refuse to live like the PLO fighters they stay with- refuse to segregate the sexes- and furthermore the women sunbathe naked. I have nothing against that, but the PLO did- and rather than take their objections seriously, the response of the group was thoroughly stupid. They told the PLO guards that they understood anti-imperialism better than the PLO, they even told them that 'shooting and fucking were the same thing' whilst refusing of course to do any training. Its odd but in their attitude to the Palestinians- the fundamental self righteous, self obsessed nastiness of the group comes over.
The film is clearly told and well acted. There are no bad performances here- there are plenty of good ones and throughout the story is conveyed simply. It should not be easy to make the German politics of the 1960s-70s uncomplicated and simple but the director has acheived that. But he has done that at the expense of two things that were central to the Gang. The first was that they saw themselves as battling the 'Auschwitz generation'- many of their victims were former Nazis. In reality though, the terrorists were backed by the Communists- the Stasi gave them aid- and lauded and quoted approvingly Mao (who genocidally murdered millions of Chinese people across the same rough period as the gang formed) and Ho Chi Minh. Clearly telling the story means that you miss this larger context and you do need to know it in order to understand the group and its true nature.
They were convinced totalitarians- in a way the communism seems to me to have been less important to some of them (Mahler, Baader) than the violence it allowed them to commit- many of them could easily have gone the other way to the extreme right and quite a few (Mahler, Ensslinn) had flirted with it. Dispositionally as well as ideologically there may not be as much to choose between the extremes as we sometimes think. In that sense the film gives food for thought. It is entertaining- but it is also something to dwell on and unpick. Perhaps it has no real message about terrorism, but I would suggest it is a film to see if you want to develop an idea of what terrorism is and why people become terrorists.