Allow Me To Explain

The Baader-Meinhof Complex: A deficient portrait of the RAF

Posted in Film reviews, Germany by amte on September 1, 2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, a German film directed by Uli Edel, attempts to tell the story of the RAF (Red Army Faction or Red Army Fraction depending on the translation), a group describing itself as an “urban guerrilla” that operated in Germany.

The title of the film alone betrays its approach to the subject. The group depicted called itself the RAF. It was the German press that labeled the group the “Baader-Meinhof Gang” in an attempt to portray it as a non-political criminal outfit.

The founders of the RAF saw themselves as a section of an international movement actively fighting against imperialism. They didn’t expect to take power or have a strategy for doing so. They viewed their actions as attacks which would draw some of the attention of the imperialists away from the forces fighting against their domination in places like Indochina and Latin America.

There is much to be criticized in the RAF’s politics and actions, but The Baader-Meinhof Complex doesn’t give a complete enough picture of them to serve as the basis for any real discussion.

While a few references are lightly interspersed throughout the film, no real focus is given to the brutal imperialist war lead by the U.S. in Viet Nam, the occupation of key positions in the German government by former Nazis, the export of guns to bloody African dictatorships by the German imperialists, the repressive actions of the west German state against dissidents or the outright lies meted out by the capitalist media – all of which served as the background for the formation of the RAF.

The RAF arose in a “democratic” west Germany governed by a “Grand Coalition” of the Social Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Union with a former Nazi at its helm, in which the Communist Party was outlawed, radicals were gunned down in the streets and individuals with “unacceptable politics” were blacklisted from jobs.  This is not brought out in the film.

The closest thing to an explanation of the RAF’s motives and politics The Baader Meinhof Complex offers are snippets of political statements written by Ulrike Meinhof, a left wing journalist and original member of the group, and a few pieces of dialogue from a police commissioner who states that terrorism can only be prevented by the elimination of poverty in the Third World.

While important facts and events are ignored, too much attention is given to episodes of violence and infighting.

Large segments of the two-and-a-half-hour film are dedicated to the RAF’s bombing campaigns and dramatic gun battles between the group’s members and police in pursuit.  Predictably, the police stories that the RAF members always shot first, and without provocation are presented as unchallenged fact.

Little is done to show how the group was able to continually draw members into its ranks and gain the sympathy of a large number of Germans. Instead, excessive focus is given to arguments and break downs among the group and its members. Bitter disputes are shown in full detail.

In the latter part of the film, RAF members Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe are shown having killed themselves while in prison. In reality, the circumstances of their deaths are still very much in question.

Ulrike Meinhof is shown having committed suicide after becoming ostracized by the rest of the RAF prisoners.  But this tale of her separation from the others is simply a theory cooked up without any concrete proof. Indeed, many continue to believe she was killed by the German state, and for good reason.

The films also shows defense attorneys smuggling weapons into the prison for Baader, Ensslin and Raspe to use on themselves if they so chose. When the three prisoners were found dead in their cells, this “premeditated suicide” explanation is what was provided by German officials. But later tests showed that it would have been impossible for Baader to have shot himself at the angle that would have produced the fatal wound at the base of his neck.  On top of this, the left-handed Baader had powder burns on his right hand while Raspe had no powder burns at all. In spite of all this, and more, the official story is never questioned.

A film that purports to depict historical events must be held to a high standard. At the very least, it should stick to the known facts.  Instead, The Baader Meinhof Complex presents a flawed picture in a quest to represent the RAF as nothing more than a band of hopeless romantics with guns completely isolated from reality.

The acting in The Baader Meinhof Complex is superb, but it’s not enough to rescue the film from its own inadequacies.  The same can be said of the film’s fine cinematography.

In their attempt to create a historical “action film” acceptable in modern capitalist society, the creators of The Baader Meinhof Complex produced a film that falls flat.


Everlasting Moments: A film in the service of the status quo

Posted in Film reviews by amte on August 23, 2009

Rather than capturing the essence of the tumultuous times which it portrays, Everlasting Moments, a Swedish film directed by Jan Troell, is dull, dry and drawn out.

Based in early 20th century Sweden, the film follows the working class Larsson family through its ups and downs.

Maria Heiskanen plays Maria Larsson, a housekeeper and mother of seven broken down by her work, her abusive, lying, alcoholic husband Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt) and the banality of domestic servitude.

The Larsson family is plagued with contradiction. Sigge is a loving and carefree one minute and violent and demanding the next. He’s saddened immensely by his addiction to alcohol, but yet still unable to shake it. Religion and social pressures keep Maria trapped in this seemingly endless cycle, even when she wants to escape.

Impoverished and concerned with the well being of her family, Maria tries to sell a camera she won in a lottery to a Danish photographer (Jesper Christensen). But when the photographer sees the one picture Maria has taken, he urges Maria to keep the camera and shoot more, even giving her the materials she needs.

Maria has an on and off attraction with the camera and the photographer (although she never gives in to the temptation to act on it). At one point, she sets up a makeshift studio in her undersized apartment and becomes a popular photographer, drawing the contempt of Sigge, whose ego is bruised by her independence.

In some of the best scenes of the film, Maria uses her camera to help one mother accept the death of a daughter and another to see the beauty within her Down’s syndrome stricken child.

For his part, Sigge becomes swept up in the emerging labor movement. A hard working dockhand, he becomes convinced of the need for socialist revolution through a combination of life experiences and conversations with fellow workers. But it is not his only focus. When Sigge gets involved in a militant strike on the docks and is falsely accused of carrying out an explosive attack in support of it, he is forced to reveal that he was having sex with a barmaid to prove his innocence.

Not enough attention is given to the rising tide of working class militancy of the period. Such a long film could have easily spent more than the few moments it did on the suicide of Sigge’s best friend, an active anarchist who hung himself out of despair.  And what’s worse, after that event we don’t hear any mention of the proletarian struggle at all.

Eventually, the Larssons move to an old house in the country and Sigge opens his own transportation business that quickly grows. Maria is shown taking the first and last picture of herself. She died soon after, we’re told, content of the life she’d lived.

Everlasting Moments does a good enough job of depicting the life of the Larsson family, and the acting is strong and believable. But in the end, the film serves the status quo with its moral that everything will eventually work out if you just hang in and bear whatever misery you are faced with.

Because of that, the film looses whatever worth it may have otherwise had. After all, the point is not simply to observe the world as it is, but to change it

The Goods fails to deliver

Posted in Film reviews by amte on August 22, 2009

The involvement of a plethora of well known comedians isn’t enough to save The Goods:  Live Hard, Sell Hard, a comedy directed by Neal Brennan.

The Goods revolves around a failing used car lot in California owned by an aging salesman played by James Brolin. The lot is staffed by a group of unsuccessful salespeople played by Tony Hale, Charles Napier, Ken Jeong and Jonathan Sadowski.

While Jeremy Piven seems like the perfect choice to portray Don Ready, the fast-talking traveling car salesman called in to turn things around, he comes up very short on laughs.

His cohorts, played by David Koechner, Kathryn Hahn and Ving Rhames, don’t fare any better.

It’s not that Piven and company don’t try. The film is littered from beginning to end with punch lines and gags. The problem is that they just aren’t funny.

Most of the “jokes” come at the expense of workers, women and homosexuals.

In what has to be the most difficult to watch scene, the staff of the car lot is provoked by a nationalist “inspirational speech” and anti-Japanese slurs to carry out a mob attack against an Asian-American salesman. After the attack comes to an end, the perpetrators admit to committing a hate crime but plan to defend themselves with the false claim that the Asian-American came at them with a samurai sword. For his part, the victim of the attack (Jeong) agrees to dismiss the whole thing, saying, “Actually, I’m Korean.”

A cameo appearance by Will Farrell and a boy band spoof by Ed Helms add little.

Similarly, the obligatory love interest that arises between Ready and the daughter of the car lot’s owner (played by Jordana Spiro) fails to rescue the film in any way.

Watching The Goods, one gets the feeling that the writers may have intended the film’s more over-the-top aspects to serve as some form of social commentary. If that is indeed the case, they definitely missed the mark.

But even if, on the other hand, their goal was simply to illicit a few cheap laughs, they still fell short.

The Goods could have been something much more. There was no lack of comedic talent and the used car business, marked as it is by fierce competition, predation and deception, is ripe for parody.  Unfortunately, The Goods simply doesn’t deliver.

Little courage in film portrayal of the Heroic Guerrilla

Posted in Cuba, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Film reviews, History by amte on July 9, 2009

Director Steven Soderbergh has produced a fairly straight-forward, if uninspired, film in “Che,” a two-part presentation of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s participation in revolutionary wars in Cuba and Bolivia.

The first part of the four-hour, 18-minute film depicts the Argentine-born Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s participation in the revolutionary war in Cuba, which ousted the bloody-dictatorship of the U.S.-government and mafia backed Fulgencio Batista. The film progresses with the rag tag group of guerrillas as they make their way across the island, gaining support, recruits and victories. Events from Che’s initial meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Mexico through his last battle before victory are accurately portrayed. Throughout the fighting, we are continually brought forward to Che’s historic speech at the United Nations in 1964, in which he exposed the U.S. government, which “is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetrator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population.”

The second part of the film depicts the guerrilla war initiated by Che and a group of his comrades in Bolivia, aimed at toppling the military dictatorship that existed there and paving the way for the construction of socialism. Despite a drawn out introduction which aptly demonstrated Bolivia’s location in the heart of South America, those not familiar with Che’s ideas may not realize his continental strategy, which was to start in Bolivia with a group of internationalist guerrillas who would, upon gaining enough strength, branch out into the surrounding countries and initiate similar struggles. Using different cameras and filming styles from part one, Soderbergh and company do a good job of recreating the struggle. Most of the events that contributed to Che’s defeat – from the monumental betrayal by the leader the Communist Party of Bolivia Mario Monje (Lou Diamond Philipps), who refused to help the struggle as promised and instead actively worked against it, to the treachery of the Argentine artist Ciro Bustos (Gastón Pauls), who drew identifying pictures of all of the guerrillas after being captured by the Bolivian army – are covered. While most fight scenes are realistic, the portrayal of Che’s capture in battle is lacking.

While some will undoubtedly argue that film is too long, it could hardly have been otherwise. The historic episodes portrayed in the film deserve serious attention. A condensed biopic of the Che’s extensive revolutionary career could not have done it justice.

A better criticism would be to question the exact moments and events that Soderbergh decided to focus on. Noticeably absent from the film were any depictions of the general strike that sealed the Rebel Army’s victory and their victorious ride into Havana. Further, there was no mention of the U.S. government’s role in Che’s execution. While outside the scope of the film, brief overviews of Che’s life both before meeting Fidel Castro and during his time in the Cuban government would have been helpful.

Helpful too, both for audiences and the film team, would have been filming the first part of the film on location in Cuba. Of course the blockade that the U.S. government has maintained against Cuba for decades prevented that.

Benicio del Toro is fitting as Che, though he is unable to muster the energy or replicate the depth of the fallen revolutionary.

Demian Bichir does a fairly good job as Fidel Castro, but he lacks the charisma of the Cuban leader. Other actors do good jobs of portraying their respective characters, but Spanish speakers will notice differences in their accents. Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays the Cuban Aleida March (Che’s second wife), maintains the accent of her native Colombia throughout the film. Many others portraying Cuban revolutionaries carry the accents of their native Mexico.

As was the case in his previous film “The Good German,” Soderbergh fails to properly develop the characters in “Che” – an unforgivable mistake in a film based on well documented events and historical figures.

In the end, Soderbergh remains too far outside of the main character. Unlike Che, he fails to take any risks. While he doesn’t obscure the facts (and briefly allows revolutionary  theory and practice to be described from the perspective of revolutionaries themselves instead of the capitalist rulers and their mouthpieces – a rare feat in post-blacklist cinema), he also avoids taking up Che’s cause: the cause of humanity.

Thankfully, Soderbergh’s film didn’t reflect his belief that revolutionary war is “a type of war that can’t be fought anymore,” or star Benicio del Toro’s ridiculous assertion that today “revolutionaries can use elections and other nonviolent methods to promote change.”

Sorderbergh has stated that he “wanted to show day-to-day stuff – things that have meaning on a practical level and on an ideological level, but that, from a narrative standpoint, aren’t necessarily in support of some goal” to show “what it might have been like to be there.” In that he succeeded.

“Che” does a sufficient job of portraying Che and his participation in the Cuban Revolution and guerrilla war in Bolivia. But little courage was shown in making the film, which is very regretful. “Che” was sufficient, but it could have been much more.

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