The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Format: Cinema

Release date: 14 November 2008

Venue: Curzon Soho, Odeon Covent Garden, Vue West End (London) and key cities

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Uli Edel

Writers: Uli Edel, Bernd Eichinger

Based on the book by: Stefan Aust

Original title: Der Baader Meihof Komplex

Cast: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz

Germany 2008

150 mins

An enormous amount of effort, on both a stylistic and technical level, has been poured into The Baader-Meinhof Complex, and – unfortunately – it shows. The craftmanship is so strenuously neat that each scene seems designed to get the movie nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. Produced by Bernd Eichinger (Downfall), directed by Uli Edel and assembling an impressive cast of top-rated German actors, the film painstakingly chronicles the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF), better known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, who rocked the West German democracy of the 1960s and 70s with a series of increasingly violent attacks against targets identified by the group as representing capitalism and American imperialism.

More than 30 years after the notorious German Autumn, the fascination and horror sparked by the Red Army Faction (RAF) remains darkly resonant and continues to inspire artists. Based on Stefan Aust’s bestselling non-fiction book of the same title, The Baader-Meinhof Complex prides itself on its historical accuracy. However, the film’s style is somewhat conservative for a filmmaker who is best known abroad for his astonishing, controversial 1981 debut Christiane F, a grim, ghastly look at the real-life case of a 13-year-old girl who turned to heroin and prostitution, and his striking adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s novel, Last Exit to Brooklin, both of which were also produced by Bernd Eichinger. A shame, then, that there isn’t a breath of spontaneous life and so little genuine emotion in The Baader-Meinhof Complex to back up the fast-paced plot.

Focusing on the active history of the RAF, there are, as there ought to be, a number of action sequences, from the bloody escalation of the 1967 Berlin demonstration against the Shah of Persia to the various bombings, fire attacks, bank robbery campaigns and gruesome assassinations, culminating in the Lufthansa hijack and the kidnap and eventually murder of German industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer in October 1977. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is Germany’s contemporary history told in fast motion, frantically and violently edited, while a multi-layered wall-to-wall soundtrack pumps up the energy.

The crucial problem lies with the clumsy, cluttered storyline that is meant to string together the harrowing events. ‘When you are dealing with historical events where people have been killed and others have become killers, you have a responsibility as a filmmaker to be as precise and as thouroughly researched as possible’, said Eichinger, who co-wrote the script. ‘The RAF decided to turn their back on political debate and to resort to violence; therefore it’s only logical that the film follows suit and concentrates not so much on what the RAF said, but what they did. I firmly believe that we don’t define ourselves as humans by what we say but by what we do.’

If historical accuracy means echoing original conversations between the group’s leading members and counting the number of bullets fired in each murder, the film certainly feels authentic. But in its over-ambitious attempt to encompass the wide-ranging series of events that occurred between the first explosions in department stores in 1967 and the deaths of Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe in Stammheim prison a decade later, the film ends up being nothing more than a series of striking but overly stylised images. Edel rushes from one set-piece to the next, giving his cast hardly any time to fully develop their characters beyond chic, style-conscious terrorists. Moritz Bleibtreu as Baader and Johanna Wokalek as Ensslin lack the charisma necessary to be convincing in these roles. However, Martina Gedeck is outstanding in the central role of Ulrike Meinhof; a fallen angel as depicted in Aust’s book, she leaves her two kids and brittle marriage behind and gets fatally caught in the whirlpool of events. As likeable as the Meinhof character is, any kind of initial empathy with the terrorists slowly turns to indifference, an awkward feeling that intensifies over the course of the film, until the intended message emerges in the last sentence: ‘You didn’t know them. Stop seeing them as they never were’, admonishes Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), one of the following generation of terrorists.

Perhaps the film suffers from its huge budget as well as from comparisons with the documentaries and features that have dealt with the legacy of Baader-Meinhof in the past, the first and arguably most intelligent of those being Germany in Autumn (1978), a provocative mixture of reportage, autobiography and melodrama by the foremost German filmmakers of the time. In the end, however expansive, action-packed and powerfully shot The Baader-Meinhof Complex undoubtedly is, it remains a disturbing hybrid that leaves the viewer jaded, bizarrely perplex and ultimately unsatisfied.

Pamela Jahn


  1. Historical accuracy!?

    Then why, didn’t they mention the tortures suffered in prisons by all the RAF members; why didn’t they mention the killing of the filmmaker Holger Meins, at the times ‘sold’ to the public as a pitying therapy. Why didn’t they mention the brain cancer paining Ulrike Meinhof and the way they ‘cured’ it: lobotomy. Why?
    Since we have the incommensurable luck to live in terrorizing (unless we want to consider De Palma’s ‘Redacted’ as Al-Quaeda’s propaganda) and terrorized democracies we should opt (at least at the movies) for the enlightening practice of doubt leaving the simplistic rhetoric of (dis)order and (in)security to our governments, pardon, the terrorists.

  2. The greatest flaw of a film dealing with terrorism (or shall we use the more appropriate term ‘armed struggle’?) is to do not make the audience understand the sense of what is being narrated. Not to decide which uniform to wear (red or black, good or bad), but to understand the political perspective of he who the film has written, directed and perhaps even produced. In the case of Edel’s film the oscillation between spectacularization of the events and historical pretence (I would not speak of factual reconstruction) constitutes the structural cipher of the whole project. As if there was an implicit commercial desire (panis et circenses) to miraculously please both, RAF sympathizers and law enforcers aficionados, as well as pop-corn eaters waiting for the nipples of Johanna Wokalek and Moritz Bleibtreu’s empty boasts. To be honest, the spectacular aesthetic dimension seems to be the most original and accomplished element of the film, at least in the shoot-outs, where the camera’s dynamics, the stalwartness of the editing and a musical comment never to invasive nor didactic manage to capture the improvised ardency, the rage and feverish excitement of the first generation, the one jailed and massacred by the state, or did they commit synchronized suicide? The guns, the bombs and the breaching of road blocks at the law enforcers’ expenses represent the mutinous gesture – ethically motivated for some and unacceptable for others – of David against Goliah.
    But the director hastily reduces the German armed struggle as a cranky answer to police brutality, the government’s intransigent need for order meets the hard up communiques (ideologically spectacular) of Ulrike Meinhof, was that it? No, there was much more than that, it is just that these days we do not seem to care that much about historical accuracy especially when it comes down to terrorism…
    The film is also didactically and narratively informed by a BBC documentary directed by Ben Lewis titled “In Love with Terror”. Being ‘informed’ in this case means, not only reproducing entire sequences belonging to the collective imaginarium (the detail of a Baader-Meinhof adhesive on the dashboard of a car is framed as the original black and white picture), also to follow chronologically the mentioned facts and reproduce them as they really occurred (the arrest of Badeer’s naked accomplice is identical to the real one). The necessity of a mnemonic mimesis to facilitate the German spectator viewing experience, which present numerous narrative clarifications, or mere stylistic laziness?
    The film does not answer one very important question: what kind of persons were these terrorists? Tobias Kniebe, from the daily newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, notes that: “Some say that the terrorists were turned into heroes in a perverse way, others say that they were reduced to mere criminals without any morality. In fact, this political and ideological ambiguity of the film is astutely intended, and it is a strategy taken from Hollywood blockbusters”. Sharp observation. Guns and pop-corns. The heroic dimension happily cohabits with the deranged folly of fanaticism.
    All in all the film entertains while confusing those who do not know or enraging the few that still care about history and how it ‘really’ unfolded.

  3. more like pop-guns and corn. as a teenager during vietnam, paris,angry brigade, german autumn, IRA, PFLP,black panthers, black september,tupamaros,weather underground etc i saw the rotte armee fraktion as a glorious middle class attempt at creating a vanguard of the working class to fight the attempts to remove the person/community/class spirit and idealism which followed the end of the second great capitalist war. leninists and trotskyists might argue it was inappropriate. anarchists might argue it was middle class opportunism. the traditional left opposition can be ignored for their vacillation and class betrayal. but… comrades.. thousands took to the streets in the so-called developed states.. hundreds of thousands died in wars after the second war to end all wars in so-called undeveloped states and continue to do so. the memory of the RAF should be as important, given time and space, as che, ho chi minh, the portugese revolution of 1974, brazil, shining path, lutte ouvriere, RCP,irish republicans,red brigades, japanese red army, palestinians- all have a heroic dimension which refuses to cohabit with the deranged folly of acceptance of a system which dehumanises, brutalises and subjugates the majority of the human race in the interest of a parasitical, malevolent power-class. aust’s book and it’s cinematic interpretation speak volumes about aust, middle-class germans of his sort at that time and their vacillation, about their need to destroy baader, enslinn, raspe etc but to myth-make/qualify/explain meinhof as one of their own- not about the fact that ulrike was murdered in jail as were her comrades-that she disowned their middle-class ‘protests’- that she was fighting for the liberation of humanity from them as much as from capital.John Maclean Kommando

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