Baader-Meinhof film divides Germany

James Woodall on a new movie accused of lending ‘terrorist-chic’ to the notorious urban guerrilla gang

BY James Woodall LAST UPDATED AT 09:45 ON Mon 20 Oct 2008

Towards the end of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a new film about Germany's infamous urban guerrillas of the 1970s, a car in a leafy suburb is held up by a group of four young people, two men and two women. They approach, pull out machine-guns and pump round after round into a driver and a minder: 119 bullets, precisely.

The scene, the most drawn-out in a film full of graphic violence, is sickening. The men's corpses soon become nothing more than twitching sacks for target practice. The leading industrialist whose car it was is taken alive as kidnap barter.

Uli Edel's reconstruction of the life, deeds - over ten years - and ultimate failure of the Baader-Meinhof gang is doing brisk box-office in Germany, and stops at nothing to be historically accurate. In that 1977 slaughter, the police indeed tallied 119 bullets. If you have the stomach to count, that's what you'll see in the film.

Much of the dialogue and the articulation of the gang's main ideas - anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and, above all and most lethally, armed struggle - are taken from contemporary documents and eyewitness reports.

Protagonists Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin (pictured on next page with Baader) are brought brilliantly to life by three of Germany's most charismatic actors: Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck and Johanna Wokalek.

But there is something a little too sexy for comfort about their depiction of the gang and this has snagged nerves amongst many Germans, now in their 50s and 60s, who remember Baader-Meinhof (or the Red Army Faction - 'RAF' - as they called themselves from 1970). Accusations of 'terrorist-chic' ripped through reports and reviews in Germany after the film's release last month.

The widow of one of the gang's victims, banker Juergen Ponto - his murder is as shocking as anything else in the film - has returned her Federal Cross of Merit, Germany's highest civilian honour, to the German government in protest.

Ulrike Meinhof's own daughter has slammed the film, saying it is not possible to surround her mother's crimes with greater "hero-worship". However, Joerg Schleyer, son of the kidnapped industrialist, eventually executed, is unabashed: the above-described scene is, he has said, "the only way to make clear to young people how brutal and bloodthirsty the RAF was at the time".

Producer Bernd Eichinger, also responsible for 2003's Downfall, a harrowing depiction of Hitler's last days, denies any motive to glamorise. Whatever Baader-Meinhof claimed they stood for, the film isn't shy of stating the obvious: they were fanatical killers. "I firmly believe," says Eichinger, "that we don't define ourselves as humans by what we say but by what we do."

Reactions to the film show that, as with so much else in 20th-century German history, people are ambivalent about exactly where they stand on matters of extreme political violence. Most were physically untouched by Baader-Meinhof and might wonder why a feature film (as opposed to a documentary, of which there've been a few) should be made about them at all.

Some might have understood, and still sympathise, with the gang's thinking, but remain appalled at their tactics. A younger generation, not born when the bombs exploded and the killings multiplied, probably think Baader-Meinhof is a rock band.

'The Baader-Meinhof Complex' is premiered at the London Film Festival on October 26. · 

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