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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.