Hurtling across the 10 years from 1967 to 1977, “The Baader Meinhof Complex” tells with exacting detail the roots, formation, revolutionary rise and spectacular fall of the West German terrorist network called the Red Army Faction. Popularly known as the Baader Meinhof Group, it sprang from the late-'60s student protest movement, launching an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist campaign that included robberies, kidnappings, bombings and murders that held the nation spellbound.
If there were an analogous American story, it would include elements of the Weather Underground, the Manson family, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the shootings at Kent State. Picking up the spirit of counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian idealism, only to drive it off the cliff, the German group was like the romanticized rhetoric of the Rolling Stones song “Street Fighting Man” roaring to fearsome life.
Directed by Uli Edel, perhaps best known for his 1989 film “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” from a screenplay by writer-producer Bernd Eichinger (who also wrote the 2004 film “Downfall” about Hitler’s last days), “Baader Meinhof” has a rather dazzling sense of sweep and scale, a historical epic of the relatively recent past. Said to be the most expensive German-language film ever -- Edel puts the budget at 18 million or 19 million euros (about $25 million) -- the movie, which opened in Los Angeles on Friday, was nominated this year for best foreign-language film at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
“What we tried to show in the film was a development,” said Stefan Aust, the German journalist on whose book (recently re-released in English as “Baader Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F.”) served as the blueprint for the film. “A development from protest into violence into terrorism, from very humane ideas against the Vietnam War and the Nazi past in Germany to this point of hyper-morality where they ended up being very immoral themselves, very cruel. There was no way back for them.”
The group’s main leaders, Andreas Baader, his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, and leftist journalist-turned-outlaw Ulrike Meinhof -- played with unrestrained emotion by Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek and Martina Gedeck, respectively -- could be thought of as the body, soul and mind of the group, as each had a specific skill-set for the operation.
“They were almost like rock stars,” Edel said of their fleeting youth-culture popularity.
Meinhof was a widely read columnist and fixture on TV talk shows in Germany before she participated in a plan in 1970 to spring Baader from jail and set herself on a course that ended with her suicide in prison in 1976. (Baader, Ensslin and fellow member Jan-Carl Raspe would later all commit suicide in prison on the same night in 1977.)
For Edel, a student in Germany during the faction’s early years, it is important for American audiences to appreciate the context of the times in which the film’s events took place, amid the first generation that came of age with the scars of World War II. “We said this is a movie about our generation,” Edel said. “The postwar generation where the first commandment was, ‘We will not allow this ever again, so we have to resist anything that shows fascist signs.’ And if you don’t understand this, you don’t understand the movie, why it happened in Germany.”
The film captures much of what made the group appealing and a media sensation, a rock ‘n’ roll-inspired sense of glamour and mystique with the members’ fast cars, rebel attitude and sharp outfits. As with the image of a foxy naked woman reading Trotsky in the bath, the film often has a mix of intellectualized rebellion, palpable danger and sex appeal. At the same time, it explores with unblinking, horrifying candor how group members pushed themselves over the edge into needless violence and genuine madness. With painstaking attention, the film charts how they came together, their relatively brief life on the run and the protracted process of their trials and imprisonment.
“This is really how we thought we should make the film,” said Aust, who crafted an early script adaptation of his book before handing it over to Eichinger. “Some people say you’re making cool anti-heroes out of them, and we say, ‘This is what they were at the time, this is the reason people followed them into the underground, then on to killing and then into prison and death.’ ”
The Baader Meinhof Group might have been woefully ineffective as a political force in its time -- its members’ notoriety was actually a hindrance to more genuine activists -- but its cultural reach has remained strong across the decades. Such diverse artists as filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the rock band Hawkwind, painter Gerhard Richter and writer Don DeLillo have created works inspired by the group.
Specters of the past
The exhaustive attention to detail behind “The Baader Meinhof Complex” brought the production to many of the actual locations where events took place, such as the opera house in Berlin where in 1967 a student was killed by police during a protest-turned-riot, a key turning point in the student movement of the time. The courtroom where the Red Army Faction leadership was tried was used for the film’s re-creations of those same scenes. Specific images in the film are framed to replicate well-known news photos, bringing up the haunting specter of the past.
“People ask, ‘Why did you get so close to reality?’ ” said Edel. “I said not because I wanted to pretend it was reality, it’s still a movie, but some of the images are in the German consciousness, so burned in, everybody knows those images -- like an American knows what exactly happened when Kennedy was shot, how it looked. You cannot go there and stage it slightly different.”
Perhaps Edel’s truest inspiration in making the film was found right under his own roof.
“I’ve been living for a long time in Los Angeles,” said Edel, who has directed several TV movies, including 2001’s “The Mists of Avalon,” “and my two sons, who at the time were 20 and 21, don’t speak German. So that was for me the key. We have to tell it in a way my sons can understand it. To say, ‘When I was 20 or 21, this happened.’
“I felt I wanted to tell them this story: These were people not from some far-away culture, these were people I might have sat next to in university, and that I was at first excited and then I was shocked and disgusted, how it started with all the hope and all the dreams and ended up in a blood bath.”