The story of the radical left in the ‘60s and ‘70s has proved to be fertile ground for many filmmakers and by now constitutes a mini genre unto itself. The convulsions of the time, as revolutionary ideals gave way to frustration, disenchantment and violence, inspired several contemporary accounts — movies as different as Robert Kramer’s “Milestones” and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Third Generation” — but cinematic depictions have only truly proliferated in the past decade or so.
Offering multiple points of view on the global wave of left-wing militancy, these films overlap and complement one another, suggesting one larger meta-film with dozens of parallel and intersecting stories. In Germany, the saga of the Red Army Faction, so-called urban guerrillas who robbed banks, bombed police stations and assassinated judges, was recapped in Uli Eder’s action docudrama “The Baader Meinhof Complex” (2008). Volker Schlondorff’s fictionalized “The Legend of Rita” (2000) offered a more intimate perspective, as did Christian Petzold’s “The State I Am In” (2000), about a pair of former anarchists, now parents of a teenager, struggling to lead a normal life.
Marco Bellocchio’s “Good Morning, Night” (2003) recounts the kidnapping and murder of the Italian politician Aldo Moro by members of the Red Brigade. Steven Soderbergh’s dialectical case study “Che” (2008) restages the two campaigns — in Cuba and Bolivia — that defined the ultimate icon of the radical left, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Olivier Assayas’ kaleidoscopic, globe-spanning miniseries “Carlos” (2009) is a similarly analytical portrait of a man and a myth: the international terrorist and media superstar known as Carlos the Jackal.
These are all films told with the benefit of hindsight, concerning events and personalities that have both receded into memory and hardened into history. Some have been disparaged as radical chic — revolutionary politics repackaged for art-house consumption — but the best of these films avoid romanticized nostalgia, or at least offset it with critique. They evoke the seductions of outlaw mythology and militant rhetoric only to peel them away, and they remind us that the current political landscape, although vastly different from the Cold War world, was nonetheless shaped by it. (It’s no coincidence that these movies have mostly emerged since 9/11 and sparked a renewed urgency to confront difficult questions about terrorism.)
“United Red Army,” the most prominent Japanese entry in the cycle (just out on DVD from Kino Lorber), hews to a familiar narrative of idealism and disappointment. But this absorbing, cumulatively devastating three-hour movie from 2007 has an additional advantage in that its director, Koji Wakamatsu, brings an insider’s perspective.
A gonzo auteur with a knack for flavorsome titles (“Go Go Second Time Virgin,” “Violated Women in White”), Wakamatsu was himself an active member of the radical left and is barred from entering the United States because of his political affiliations. In his most interesting films — such as 1972’s “Ecstasy of the Angels,” about the implosion of an extremist cell — he combined kinky soft-core with avant-garde shock tactics and New Left politics.
The film opens with a whirlwind history lesson, accompanied by Jim O’Rourke’s propulsive rock score. Using newsreel footage and scripted scenes, Wakamatsu summarizes the radicalizing events of the 1960s, beginning with the widely opposed signing of a security treaty with the U.S. and culminating in student strikes and bloody demonstrations in downtown Tokyo.
It then becomes a harrowing chamber piece after two depleted ultra-left brigades form the United Red Army. Holed up in a rural cabin, the ragtag group rips itself apart as their commanders start to behave like cult leaders. The Maoist practice of “self-criticism” takes on lunatic dimensions: Members perceived as ideologically weak are shamed and beaten unconscious in the hopes they will be “reborn” with a new revolutionary awareness.
“United Red Army” mutates again in its final hour, turning into a tense action thriller as Wakamatsu restages a 10-day standoff at a mountain lodge between the police and the handful of remaining Red Army members.
A scrupulously researched docudrama, brimming with dates and names and incidents, the movie is also something of a personal reckoning. Wakamatsu emphasizes the tragic failures of his protagonists without trivializing their urgent desire for change. The opening image, of students marching through the snow, is accompanied by the title “Once, armed youth cried out for revolution.” One of the last lines of dialogue is blurted by a chastened radical, who sobs, “We had no courage.”
In more ways than one, “United Red Army” transpires between these statements, in the chasm between fervent hope and cruel reality.