Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Baader Meinhof, Complex

Although it came out more than a year ago to much fanfare here in Germany, it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I finally got around to watching Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, one of the glossier and more internationally successful German films of recent years.

The film had an intensely mixed reception here (as, I think, do most films and books about Germany's past), and I think I was at the time put off the notion of seeing it by the suggestions that it romanticised its subject (a highly condensed and dramatised history of the Red Army Faction), which only seemed confirmed by the trailers, which seemed to presage a film heavy on retro-glamour and action and light on historical context, psychological complexity and moral judgement.

When I finally got around to seeing it, however, I was pleased to discover a far better film than the one I'd expected. Quite apart from its excellent production values and many strong performances, I thought that the film ultimately--and effectively--condemned its urban-guerrilla protagonists, despite (or perhaps because of) the many opportunities it gave them for grandiose political posturing.

On this note, Terry Glavin today points us to a recent Vanity Fair essay by Christopher Hitchens on the film, which expresses many of the things that occurred to me while watching it, only clearer than I probably could have myself. (And Terry's embedding of the godawful American trailer for the film might help to explain my initial reluctance...if anything, it's even more glamourising than the, in comparative retrospect, much more ambiguous German one.)

Among the film's strengths, I think, are its unflinching attention to the bloody consequences of the RAF's violence and its emphasis on the (often twisted) dynamics in the group members' psychology.

As Hitchens notes:

It doesn’t take long for the sinister ramifications of the “complex” to become plain. Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts. (The gang bought its first consignment of weapons from a member of Germany’s neo-Nazi underworld: no need to be choosy when you are so obviously in the right.) There is, as with all such movements, an uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both. As if curtain-raising a drama of brutality that has long since eclipsed their own, the young but hedonistic West German toughs take themselves off to the Middle East in search of the real thing and the real training camps, and discover to their dismay that their Arab hosts are somewhat … puritanical.

Researching this in the late 1970s in Germany, I became convinced that the Baader Meinhof phenomenon actually was a form of psychosis. One of the main recruiting grounds for the gang was an institution at the University of Heidelberg called the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv, or Socialist Patients Collective, an outfit that sought to persuade the pitifully insane that they needed no treatment save social revolution. (Such a reading of the work of R. D. Laing and others was one of the major “disorders” of the 1960s.) Among the star pupils of this cuckoo’s nest was Ralf Reinders, who was arrested after several violent “actions” and who had once planned to destroy the Jewish House in Berlin—a restoration of the one gutted by the Brownshirts—“in order to get rid of this thing about the Jews that we’ve all had to have since the Nazi time.” Yes, “had to have” is very good. Perhaps such a liberating act, had he brought it off, would have made some of the noises in his head go away.

I recommend that you read the whole thing.

And its maybe an opportunity to reiterate the comments of our friend Andrew on the same topic:

The RAF itself is, as a subject of study, unedifying. Having spent some time researching them for a project, I came away feeling nothing but vague contempt for it, and complete mystification at the attention it still receives. Active RAF members fell, as near as I can tell, into two general groups: ruthless monomaniacs or deluded dupes. What united both camps was their second-rateness and insufferable pomposity. Their "manifestos" are dull and turgid; their personalities one-dimensional and unappealing. Once they began their RAF careers -- at the very latest -- most RAF cadres morphed into Godzillas of screechy self-righteous bitterness.

And more comments from Andrew on RAF-related topics are here.


mikeovswinton said...

Interesting post. I was amazed after seeing this film that ostensibly serious journalists were suggesting that it glamourised the RAF. My response was similar to yours, and while I wouldn't say I enjoyed it (in the way I enjoyed Coco avant Chanel, for instance) I was very glad to have seen it.

The Wife said...

I absolutely wanted to see Coco avant Chanel (and now maybe John will accompany me). If and when they show it in our more than provincial little town ....

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks Mike. I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt that way.

I'm looking forward to seeing Coco, either here at the local cinema palace or at some point on DVD.

mikeov the Cornerhouse screen 3 said...

If John does the decent thing and you both go to Coco avant Chanel (and IMHO its one to see in the cinema rather than on DVD, if possible), can I suggest you try to spot;
a. The volume of Proudhon.
b. The odd World War.

A may prove a touch easier than B.
Its a pretty good film despite its elision of the odd unpleasantness.

Lofton said...

I really enjoyed The Baader Meinhof Complex. I found it very intriguing how the group developed from ideologues into radicals who seemed to lose their roots. Highly recommended film