It’s no secret that many people view the Best Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards as a mess. Between the country by country submission process, the process of selecting a shortlist, and the process of choosing five final films, there are a ton of roadblocks in which snubs can occur. This was made particularly clear in 2007, when important films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days were ignored in favor of off the radar oddities like Beaufort, Katyń, and 12. Many also complained about the 2008 lineup, but if you think about it they really stepped up that year. Among the nominees were the Palm D’or winner The Class, critical favorite and future Criterion-laureate Revanche, the wildly creative animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, and Departures, a film whose victory baffled many but which got solid reviews once people finally got a chance to see it. Really, that’s what the category’s major problem is, its dealing with movies which few people have actually had a chance to see and which have had no ability to get buzz stateside. That’s probably the problem that The Baader-Meinhof Complex had when its nomination baffled many. Had it had the stateside released then which it is now finally getting it might have been less of a shock.
The film tells the true story of the RAF, that’s not the Royal Air Force, it’s the Red Army Faction; a group of disillusioned youths who turned to violence in an attempt to cause social change in late sixties Germany. The group could probably be equated to The Weathermen, except that they were more violent and more active than that American group. In short, these were left wing domestic terrorists who reaped havoc throughout Germany for about a decade, and that’s a topic that needs to be approached carefully.
The title refers to RAF members Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), who became the group’s most famous members. However, the movie does not necessarily focus on either of them and they do not appear to be bilateral leaders of the organization. Rather, this is an ensemble film about an organization that appears to have been somewhat loosely organized. Baader is the member who more closely lives up to what one would expect from an RAF member, he’s young, angry and political. The kind of person who’d normally just wear a Che Guevara T-Shirt but who instead ended up taking arms and emulating him. Meinhof is a bit more intriguing. She began her career as a respected left wing journalist, but finally came to sympathize and ultimately sacrifice everything in order to join the group.
These young people are raging against a lot of things around them, particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam (for which the United States has been using bases in Germany), the treatment of Palestine by Israel, and the general belief that corporations have been controlling everything. They come to the conclusion that to do nothing in the face of all this would be as much of a sin as the conformity the previous generation showed in the face of Nazism. That’s what drove them philosophically, additionally; they were living in a time of worldwide counterculture which is something the film shows very well. The film has a number of montages (perhaps too many) that really drive home the environment which bread this organization and why so many of the youth in Germany came to sympathize with them.
The group’s build is rather interesting as there is a fascinating gender equality to the Baader Meinhoff group. Three of the most important RAF members (Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), and Meinhof), are women and many of them act as aggressively as the men. Do not expect Baader and Meinhof to be some kind of Bonnie and Clyde style lovers in crime. This is the late 60s and the group practices free love, a fact that does not amuse their Palestinian colleagues as evidenced by a scene where they went to a terrorist training camp and gained the reputation of being screw-ups among their peers in the terror business.
Of course, amidst all the 60s clothing and rock music, one must face the fact that these people were killers. Perhaps they were idealistic and well intentioned killers, but killers none the less. That’s what makes this subject matter so challenging; terrorist are probably the least popular people in the world today and with good reason, how do you make these characters sympathetic enough to follow without glorifying them or whitewashing their less savory aspects. This is perhaps not unlike the challenges posed by making a serious film about gangs and organized crime, but magnified by the political elements. To deal with this Edel has chosen to make this a straightforward film about historical events told with meticulous detail and research. Stefan Aust’s book was clearly important to this production for far more than its catchy title, one feels like Edel was interested as much in making an accessible illustrated historical record as he was in telling a cinematic story.
The history here is interesting enough for such a treatment, but it’s also the movies Achilles Heel. The material is never dry, but because this is trying to be so accurate there are developments that go against the nature of film storytelling; important characters emerge in the final act and events occur that seem separate from the main narrative thrust and in general it affair seems a bit unfocused. One wonders if this would be perfected if Edel had been willing to composite a few characters and simplify elements. Quentin Tarentino lovingly asserted in the finale of Inglorious Basterds that film is a stronger force than history, and while I certainly am not recommending that The Baader Meinhof Complex needed to take any departures as radical as Tarentino did, I do think Edel probably should have taken his duties as a film maker a little more seriously than his duties as a historian. Still, the way the film steadfastly presents history in a way that is cinematically compelling if not narratively clan, does make for a very interesting film.
***1/2 out of Four.