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.