Baader-Meinhof bad dreams

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Feature by Milan Rai

Reactions have been mixed to The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a new film encapsulating the history of the ruthless German urban guerrilla group. The Red Army Faction (RAF), founded in 1970, led by Andreas Baader and radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof, killed more than 30 people.

Meinhof’s daughter, journalist Bettina Roehl, has called the film’s portrayal of her mother’s crimes the “worst-case scenario”: “it would not be possible to top its hero worship.” “It glorifies brutal killers as good-looking idealists,” in her view: “It trivialises their terror.”

On the other hand, The Baader-Meinhof Complex has been praised by Jörg Schleyer, son of the business leader Hanns Martin Schleyer, whose assassination is a culminating moment in the film. For Schleyer, the film finally portrays the RAF as the “merciless, ruthless murder-gang” it was.

He accepted the film’s unblinking portrayal of savage violence: “Only a movie like this can show young people how brutal and bloodthirsty the RAF’s actions were at that time.”

The central character in the film is clearly Ulrike Meinhof – we open with her family holiday at the beach, just before the ill-fated demonstration against the visit to Germany of the shah of Iran. The demo ended with the shooting dead of student protestor Benno Ohnesorg. (While many think this was done by the German police, the film has a pro-shah demonstrator doing the shooting – in full view of the police, who do nothing to arrest him afterwards.)

The beating of the anti-shah demonstrators, the killing of Ohnesorg, and then the near-fatal shooting of left-wing Marxist Rudi Dutschke (by a young anti-communist fanatic) are all depicted at length in the opening, framing scenes.

Meinhof just a few years earlier had been a pacifist committed to nuclear disarmament – according to British journalist Neal Ascherson, who met her at the time. One imagines that these shootings were key events in Meinhof’s evolution into the kind of person who could write: “The guy in a uniform is a pig, not a human being…. We shouldn’t talk to him…. And of course we use guns.”

We imagine that the shootings affected Meinhof, but we aren’t shown this. We are barely shown anything of anyone’s internal life. According to Ascherson, producer Bernd Eichinger (Oscar-nominated for his work on the Hitler film Downfall) uses a method he calls Fetzendramaturgie – “the drama of fragments” – which means that the story of the RAF is shown in a million shards, all as faithfully presented as a police report or a court document, but with no more psychological narrative than a filing cabinet of such memos.

Two key moments for Meinhof in the film come in relation to the No. 3 in the RAF hierarchy, Gudrun Ensslin, Baader’s lover. In jail for firebombing a department store (at night), Ensslin is interviewed by Meinhof, and attacks the journalist for her lack of action – for contenting herself with “theoretical masturbation”.

Then, after Ensslin’s arson trial, Meinhof overhears an interview with Ensslin’s parents, in which they praise her fighting spirit – Ensslin’s mother says she herself feels liberated. Meinhof’s eyes widen.

Eberhard Foth, a judge at the marathon RAF trial in 1975 in the specially-constructed prison-court at Stammheim has recently written of an encounter at the time with Ensslin’s father: “I had the feeling that he saw in her a spirit of resistance that he had not dared to show during the Third Reich. He was no Nazi but he did not protest, either – like so many Germans at that time. For him, Gudrun led a proxy war.”

The bombings, shootings, kidnappings and armed bank robberies carried out by the RAF (all depicted faithfully, accurately) were morally unjustifiable, politically suicidal and based on a desperate misreading of the situation in Germany – but there was truth in their accusation that the German establishment was compromised.

One of the puzzles of the film is the de-emphasising of the RAF accusations against “the Auschwitz generation” still ruling West Germany, and the Nazi associations of some of the RAF’s targets. We are not told, for example, that Hanns Martin Schleyer, who we see being kidnapped with extreme violence and being held hostage for six weeks in 1977 in an attempt to free Baader and other RAF leaders, was an active Nazi, as the RAF claimed at the time. (We know now that Schleyer joined the SS in 1933 and the Nazi party itself in 1937, and he served in occupied Czechoslovakia during the war under the infamous Reinhard Heydrich.) Schleyer’s brutal past cannot excuse the violence used against him, his driver or his guards, but it is a curious decision to effectively censor this information.

Several commentators have pointed out that post-war left-wing urban guerrilla warfare in the industrial societies is a phenomenon of the former fascist powers: Germany, Italy and Japan. (Nationalist movements such as ETA and the IRA fall into a different category.)

What is less often remarked on is the fact that the fascist and collaborationist political, economic, judicial and military establishments in West Germany, Italy and Japan were largely preserved by the US and Britain, contributing to the situation where desperate radicals turned to the gun.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex doesn’t explain why these young people made this turn, but it does present a thought-provoking, lengthy (two-and-a-half-hour!) and comprehensive account of what was done.

There is one other point I should make: remember how the film opened with Ulrike Meinhof on the beach with her daughters and husband? It is a nudist beach. There is a lot of nudity in the film, in keeping with the sexual revolution proclaimed by the central characters. (Sexual, but not feminist, as Baader’s frequent misogynistic comments makes clear.)

The high point of the sexual revolt comes in the desert, at a Palestinian guerrilla training camp, when the RAF group goes on strike, sunbathing on the top of their barracks. The Arab guerrillas (who soon after evicted the Germans) are shocked at the sight of naked women parading on the rooftop. Baader shouts down: “Fucking and shooting: it’s the same thing.”

It’s not quite the same thing, but the intent behind many of the RAF’s actions was the same: to shock – without, one suspects, real hope of change.