The history of the so-called Red Army Faction of home-grown terrorists that used bombings, shoot-outs and jailbreaks to fight the establishment in the cause of righteous revolution in the sixties and seventies is covered in what many will consider undue detail in Uli Edel’s epic-sized docudrama. “The Baader Meinhof Complex” can’t be faulted for a lack of accuracy, and the gritty, cinema verite style certainly gives it a vivid sense of time and place. What it fails to provide is any serious analysis or reflection on the group and its underlying philosophy. One’s left with a vast, complicated story told in entirely surface terms.
Bernd Eichinger’s script begins in 1967-68, with a protest against a visit by the Shah of Iran that ends with a demonstrator shot and the attempted assassination of a left-wing politician, both dramatized within the context of news footage showing the chaotic world situation of the day. That leads hot-tempered activist Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), the radical daughter of a minister, to launch a concerted, violent assault against the status quo, an effort in which they’re soon joined by scores of other disaffected youths as well as leftist writer Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedrick).
What follows is a montage of killings, bombings, bank robberies, rants and training sessions with Palestinian militants in Jordan, shot at hectic, rushed speed, and intercut with sequences of Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the chief government lawman, quietly mapping out plans to systematically cripple the group (scenes that are nicely contrasted by being filmed in a more conventional, sedate style). At about the halfway point, after many of their cohorts have been arrested or killed, the ringleaders are captured and put on trial, and what follows is the story of their time in prison cells or the docket, while outside the next generation of their not-so-little band undertakes actions designed to force their release, ending with a botched kidnapping and airline highjacking that have unintended consequences.
The only characters who really emerge with much clarity in Edel’s high-octane rush are Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin, and they’re all well-played, though Wokalek is by far the most eye-catching as a middle-class young woman transformed into a raving ideologue. By contrast Bleibtreu’s manic ravings grow increasingly tiresome, and Gedeck’s more solemn rationalizing more than a bit dull. It has to be said, though, that at least the picture doesn’t sentimentalize the trio, or their hangers-on; they’re presented as the insufferably smug, reckless, brutal true believers they certainly were. In fact, the most sympathetic character is actually Herold, played with admirable restraint by the veteran Ganz, who throughout cautions that it’s necessary to try to understand the motivation behind terrorism rather than merely using force to stamp it out. It’s a rational, enlightened view that’s obviously intended to raise comparisons to present-day circumstances.
But happily “The Baader Meinhof Complex” doesn’t present that argument in a didactic, hectoring way; it merely lets the facts of forty years ago speak for themselves, and one can’t deny that its dramatization of them has enormous energy and urgency.
At the same time, you can’t help wishing that it occasionally got under the surface of events to dissect the movement they represented with greater insight and probe further into the “why” behind it. And so it’s somehow appropriate that the end titles are accompanied by Bob Dylan’s famous refrain that the answers are “blowin’ in the wind.” After watching this film for two-and-a-half hours, they still are.