Born from the radical student movement of the late sixties, the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof group, as it was known in the press, threatened the stability of the West German state for a decade. Their violent attacks against a right-wing establishment that they saw as a direct continuation of Nazi Germany deeply polarised the nation and put into question the very foundations of German democracy. It’s been thirty years since the group’s leaders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, died in prison, and the ICA is marking the event by presenting a season of films that focuses on the role women have played in the revolutionary movement. We talked to Pamela Jahn, curator of the season, to find out more.
Virginie Sélavy: The thirtieth anniversary of the death of the Baader-Meinhof gang leaders is a strange anniversary to mark. In your view what does it represent?
Pamela Jahn: First of all, when I was thinking of putting the season together I struggled with marking the death of the leaders as an anniversary, so I decided to call it not an anniversary but rather a season to remember the German Autumn. I think that the debate over the deaths in Stammheim over the last few years is about German democracy, and the way that the police dealt with them is still something that interests a lot of people in Germany, especially because many former RAF members are now being released from prison. There’s a lot going on in Germany and I thought that might well be of interest to people elsewhere too.
VS: Yes, definitely, I think there’s an interest in this all over Europe. Why did you decide to concentrate specifically on the role of women in these filmic representations of German terrorism?
PJ: Two reasons mainly. The first one was that I personally found it really interesting that when you look at, for example, old wanted posters you see that almost half of the people that the police were looking for were actually women. I think that women played a very important role in the RAF. While I was looking for films a lot of filmmakers pointed out the struggle that women had experienced personally and politically at that time.
VS: It is striking to see the number of women who were part of the RAF, not just the leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, but many other young women. How do you explain that? Why did so many young women join such a hardcore revolutionary movement at the time?
PJ: I think one of the reasons was that it all started in the late sixties, and even though I wouldn’t call it a feminist movement, I think a lot of women were given the opportunity to actually act within the group. They also found a base to fight against what was going on in West Germany and everything that they didn’t agree with. And I think they were given as much space as men, and maybe that was something rather typical in West Germany, more so than in other countries at that time.
VS: There definitely seems to be a link between the involvement in the RAF and the feminist struggle in the story of people like Inge Viett, that we see in Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom. In her case, there seems to be a clear connection between personal and political struggle.
PJ: I think Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom is the best example of the way the women explain why they did what they did and I think that what Inge Viett says applies to most of the women who were active within the RAF. This is why it’s a very important film within the season, as much as The Legends of Rita, in the way that it shows how a lot of women terrorists had to take on another identity. I find it incredibly interesting how SchlÃÂ¶ndorff deals with the fact that there’s a woman actually on the other side [the East German side] who’s trying to change her life, to escape from her previous identity and to find a new identity in a new country. All these films focus a lot on the political situation in the separated and then unified Germany.
VS: You’ve mentioned Volker SchlÃÂ¶ndorff and it’s interesting that in such a short season that features only five films, there are two films by him, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and The Legends of Rita. Why did you include those two films in the selection?
PJ: Because I think SchlÃÂ¶ndorff was not only important at the time – he also plays an important role in Germany in Autumn, which was made in 1977-1978 as a reaction to the events of the time – but it’s also very interesting to see his development within his own filmography. He comes from The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and then [25 years later] he picks up the topic again to do The Legends of Rita. I think he’s one of the crucial directors when it comes to terrorist films made in Germany and especially within New German Cinema.
VS: What’s also interesting in the comparison between the two films is that in Katharina Blum you have a character who’s come into contact with a terrorist but is not actually one herself. In The Legends of Rita, Rita is actually a terrorist and she’s been involved in violent action. Do you think that SchlÃÂ¶ndorff could have made a film like this in 1975 or do you think that at the time it would have been unacceptable to portray such a violent female terrorist?
PJ: I’m pretty sure he could have. What I think he was more interested in back in 1975 when he made The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was the way the media dealt with the German Autumn and the death of Baader and Ensslin in Stammheim. I think that at the time he wanted to point out the particular problem of the media’s attitude in West Germany rather than show the personal destiny of someone who was an active member of the group. I think what was more important to him was to show how you can become a victim of the media even if you are not directly active yourself. But at the same time it shows the character’s own sense of democracy and resistance.
VS: In The Legends of Rita, Rita is a kind of composite of various female members of the RAF. There are elements in her character that come from the real life of female members of the RAF. How does SchlÃÂ¶ndorff portray these women terrorists through the character of Rita? What does he show about them through that character?
JD: I think he shows her struggle to carry on living. Whether you want to or not you have to take on a new identity and live under cover to survive. And that’s not really related to Meinhof or Ensslin who actually decided to end their lives in prison instead of doing everything they could to survive. Rita Vogt was never like a real character, she was never a real terrorist. Interestingly enough, it’s a story SchlÃÂ¶ndorff wrote with [Wolfgang] Kohlhaase, who is an East German screenwriter, which makes it even more interesting in the connection between East and West Germany. I think that it is really about the second movement of the RAF and what happened after the German Autumn and how these active men and women who had played an important part in the movement had to struggle to go on and had to keep their will to fight for whatever they thought was the political future of Germany.
VS: In Rita’s story there are echoes of the life of Inge Viett, a member of the RAF who took refuge in East Germany to escape prosecution in the West and whose life is documented in Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom. By including these two films in the season did you think that it would be interesting to have this kind of echo between this fictional story and the real story of someone like Inge Viett?
JP: They are connected to each other, of course, and even though The Legends of Rita was made up it certainly relates to real-life stories.
VS: I think this mirroring of fiction and reality among the different films in the season is quite interesting.
PJ: Definitely. And it’s really cleverly done, for example The Legends of Rita never mentions any RAF events, it’s never said, it’s never shown, there aren’t many references directly given in the film. But you don’t have to know much about the RAF when you’re watching the film.
VS: Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom is the only straightforward documentary in the season. Why did you pick this one in particular, rather than for instance, a film like Ulrike Marie Meinhof, the 1994 documentary about the RAF leader?
PJ: I found it interesting to see not just a portrait of one of the most famous leaders of the RAF but to show the personal struggle of all these women who were fighting within the RAF and for its aims. I thought that the comparison between the destinies of the two women [Inge Viett and Urugayan anarchist Maria Barhoum] was done in a very sensitive and very interesting way. When I first saw the film I was really impressed not only by those two lives but also by the emotional impact it has on everyone, even someone from a later generation.
VS: It is a very interesting film, also because there is no commentary to help you figure things out. It’s just these two women reminiscing and meeting in Cuba, and although it obviously has a lot of meaning for them, that’s never overly emphasized.
PJ: I have to say that one of my major problems in putting this season together was that a lot of the films that I would have liked to have shown are just not subtitled. I really wanted to have Greater Freedom, Lesser Freedom and at the same time screen Marianne and Juliane, which is related to Ensslin’s life, and it would have been incredibly interesting to show them as a double bill, but unfortunately there is no longer any subtitled print available.
VS:Yes, it seems like an obvious film to show in this season.
PJ:I know, I was hoping until the last minute that we would be able to get hold of it but unfortunately we couldn’t.
VS:There were two other films that I was going to ask you about, two films that were actually made by or connected to the two main female leaders of the group. Ulrike Meinhof made a film called Bambule in 1970, a TV drama set in a girls’ boarding school. It wasn’t broadcast until 1997, and it’s obviously a very rarely screened film, so this would have been a great opportunity to show it. Did you consider including it?
PJ:I would have loved to show it but as it was only produced for TV there is no subtitled version of it and we can’t show anything that is not subtitled, even though I think that there is actually a large German community in London that would have been interested in seeing it.
VS:I think other people would have come as well. Even if you don’t understand, it would be such an amazing thing to see!
PJ:Of course, but even with the few films that we’re showing I was already struggling. It’s a shame because there are a lot of very interesting documentaries that were made for TV in Germany, which don’t necessarily concentrate on women but which would have been very interesting to show to an audience that is not directly involved in the whole political situation. I’m glad that I can at least screen Germany in Autumn. I used it as a kind of historical background even though it also deals with women’s struggles in a lot of ways. It is interesting to see Fassbinder in a very emotional conversation with his mother who’s completely passive because of the generation she’s from – basically the WWII generation – but it also shows a few women who were not terrorists but who were trying to deal with German history at that time. So even that film is somehow related to what I wanted to show with this season. There have been a lot of seasons about this subject, in other European countries and also at the ICA in 2002. Personally I found it most interesting to show the women characters depicted in the New German Cinema films.
VS:The other film I was going to ask you about is the one that Gudrun Ensslin starred in in 1967, Das Abonnement. I suppose that must be even more difficult to get hold of than the other films?
PJ:Yeah, I would have loved to see that film but I couldn’t get hold of it. It would have been incredibly interesting to see her acting. But it was made before she became a leader of the RAF.
VS:It sounds like a very intriguing film: it’s been described as pornographic and experimental at the same time.
PJ:Yes, it would have been interesting. In Germany now they’re currently shooting the film version of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the book that was written by Stefan Aust. It would have been great to show that as well but I would have had to wait until next year.
VS:Three of the five films you’re showing were made in 2000, while the other two were made in the 70s. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to mix films from the time with more recent films?
PJ:I really wanted to show the development not only in terms of time going by and how people from different generations are now living with what happened in the late 60s and 70s, but also to show the development of the New German Cinema. I think 2000 was a crucial date. After the wall came down a lot of filmmakers started to think about how to deal with that subject again. It’s all related to the new unified Germany in some way or another. So I wanted to make people aware of that development, in the political situation and the personal situation of the terrorists, because it was only in the early 90s that they said they would stop their activities.
VS:The State I Am In is a bit different from the other films you’re showing because it focuses on the daughter of former terrorists. Why did you choose to include that one in the season?
PJ:Because even though she’s only fifteen, in a way she’s a woman. What also interested me was that even though she’s from a completely different generation, she has to deal with whatever her parents did, she’s thrown into a life that she didn’t choose. It made me think of the lives of women like Anne Frank, who basically don’t have a choice in the first place. She’s a strong character, you can see where she comes from, her family roots are showing in the way she struggles to deal with her situation; even though she’s looking for a normal teenage life, she is very political in her own right.
VS:There’s another German film that deals with the younger generation’s attitude towards 70s politics, called The Edukators in English. It’s interesting that there is a focus in these two recent films on how the younger generation responds to this period, and on their way of being political, because it’s different from the previous generation.
PJ:Yes, it is. I think it’s also got to do with the fact that the whole RAF movement and the Baader-Meinhof Complex is becoming more and more a sort of cultural phenomenon, as it happens with a lot of political events and especially personalities, if you look at Che Guevara for instance. I think that there is this strong political stance among the German youth, probably because of our history. It’s a great topic for filmmakers to pick up and to show how they think we can deal with that and how to go on in life if you have a history like that.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy