Friday, 2 January 2009
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a film on the Baader Meinhoffs (aka Red Army Faction) proved controversial in its native Germany. Ignes Ponto, widow of one of their victims, even returned her Federal Cross in outrage over what she saw as a glamourisation of their brutality. But of course you hear that its based upon a book by a mainstream journalist (Stefan Aust’s ‘The Baader Meinhof Group’) and imagine the reverse, a smear campaign against anyone who ever questioned an orthodoxy. In fact it neither whitewashes nor pillories the group’s often-murderous acts, so much as lays them bare. But, lacking anything very insightful or imaginative to say on the subject, its attention falls almost by default to the photogenic business of shootouts and bombings. After all, mainstream cinema will happily glamourise poverty, so how is it likely to cope with an gunfight? In short, it sidesteps radical chic to end up in heist-movie cliché.
Even when much of the furniture is placed scrupulously in place, it fails to perform its function and just sits there inertly on the screen. The RAF were the sharp end of a wave of radicalism unleashed when the police attacked an anti-Shah demonstration in ’67, and murdered Benno Onhnesorg. But as played here the scene is so hackneyed and overblown you get little sense of verisimilitude – you simply feel like you’re watching a scene from a film. Not a particularly good film.
“The filmmakers can also hardly be blamed for the fact that quite a few of Germany's most wanted were ridiculously good looking in real life,” claims Channel 4’s reviewer Ali Catterall, “and they've cast accordingly.” But it’s instructive to examine the exception to this rule. Martina Gedeck’s is actually made up to be more dowdy than Ulrike Meinhof in real life, in order to provide her with a ‘journey’ that threads together the first section.
Though lipservice is paid to Vietnam and all the usual suspects, the makers’ main thesis is that the gang were really a generation gap writ large. As a middle-aged radical, Meinhof therefore starts the film stuck upon a fence from where she must decide which way to jump. (A metaphor given a somewhat gormless literalisation.) In an early conversation with Gudrun Ensslin, she states she couldn’t take to a life underground as it would mean leaving her kids behind. Ensslin states flatly she never sees hers. In a later scene, a pram is but a disguise for a gun. The ‘radicals’ must abandon their children to be the children –Germany’s children, middle class youths groomed for good careers, now in revolt against her.
As Catterall later puts it: “Substitute those guns for guitars and this could almost be the biopic of a rock band, from early hits to mid-period mismanagement and fatal fall-outs over direction and differences.” There’s a point in the Stammheim trials, where they all take turns to call the Judge an “asshole”, which can’t fail to remind you of the Pistols on the Grundy show. Only without the politics.
Of course, the film is correct to suggest they are encouraged into their infantilisation by their times. Their parents’ generation were what every adolescent years for – a bunch of Nazis to rebel against. Many Nazis had escaped punishment and continued to hold prominent positions, at a time when a law explicitly excluded leftists from official employment. When echoed through the shrill RAF mindset, these genuine criticisms turned into the rhetoric that post-war Germany was still a Nazi state. Ensslin was forever saying things like “This is the Auschwitz generation, they aim to kill us all!”
But if the film’s line is correct, that doesn’t make it adequate. It merely rehashes what has by now become an orthodox view. ‘The Baader Meinhof Simple” may have been a more fitting film name. Jillian Becker’s book on the RAF, tellingly titled Hitler’s Children had even been published in 1977! Even if the RAF leadership themselves were merely proffering adolescence as ideology what of their widespread support among the young? (Frequently reflected in contemporary opinion polls.) Or the fact that, as soon as they were caught, another ‘generation’ arose after them? And how did they relate to the wider youth movements?
But for all their tubthumping and hissy fits perhaps the most absurd figure in the film isn’t a RAF member at all but a Police Chief – Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz.) Herold isn’t so much a character as a white flag flown to appease those who might otherwise take the Ignes Ponto view. A chest-thumping liberal, he is forever reminding his knuckle-dragging staff of things like “the horrors of the Third World” which have led to the protest movement. Let us suppose, just for the sake of conjecture, that he was the walking cliché as portrayed here – so what? Did his men take up his theme, jump in their squad cars and duff up the IMF? Perhaps they even put a collection box for the Third World by the till in the police canteen. Herold, in fact, achieves precisely nothing, even within the distorted world of this film. We are supposed to look at him and respect the way mainstream society could embrace self-critique. Whereas his presence actually proves quite the opposite.
However, unlike most of the gang’s actions, the film’s not a dead loss. It has one quite distinct, if presumably unintended, advantage. If its is quite ludicrous most of the time, then so were the people it has been made about. If it’s not sure whether the RAF were a revolutionary militia or just defiant posers, neither were they. There are several points where it is genuinely and quite deliberately funny. For example, there’s the scene where they have their car stolen. As Baader rages, the others have to remind him they’d stolen it themselves in the first place. (There you’re reminded of Student Grant from Viz Comics.) Yet it’s often hard to tell such times from when it’s merely being kitsch, such as the innumerable scenes where they shout sloganistically at each other inside their hovelly hideouts, or go for long speeding drives like in some shitty juvenile delinquent movie. Unlike Ignes Ponto, you find yourself wishing they had merely gone all-out for the absurdist black comedy angle – The Comic Strip Presents The Anti-Imperialist Movement At Home In Deutschland, Ja?
As mentioned earlier, much of the big units of the furniture in this story are in place. However, this does not mean it’s accurate – in fact even my passing knowledge of the subject found major flaws. (Disclaimer: Having never read Aust’s book, I have no way of knowing whether these mistakes are theirs or his.) The RAF are perpetually called ‘anarchists’ whereas they were really subscribed to Leninist anit-imperialism filtered through a gang mentality. Meanwhile, student leader Rudi Dutschke does get called an communist where he was really an anarchist! (Though he later drifted towards liberalism.) When the Stammheim inmates die, the surviving members call it murder. Brigitte Monhaupf then defiantly proclaims it suicide, as a story better fitting the RAF’s own mythology. (“They were not victims” etc.) We’re supposed to chill at her propogandist shiftings. Except, as Robert Gerald Livingstone has said in the New York Times: “It remains an article of faith on the left that their keepers killed the prisoners.” The notion that it was group suicide has always belonged with the authorities.
But worst of all is when we’re shown the ‘second generation’ plotting the kidnapping of Schleyer. It is never mentioned why he was chosen – he was an ex-SS member who had gone entirely unpunished after the War. Are the makers worried that, should we be given this dangerous piece of evidence, we’d leave the cinema to buy ourselves AK47s or something?
Even though it gives itself the liberty to play with the facts, the film still manages to lack dramatic structure. The later ‘second generation’ section in particular is incoherent and hard to follow, with characters hanging around as if waiting to see what the script wants from them. Meinhof is given us as the linking thread, but with her death this thread which snaps well before the film’s end. At times this incoherence seems to be played up; for example, we’re given rapid crosscutting or voiceovers which swap so fast they virtually overlap. But there is never anything so sophisticated as the presenting of multiple points of view, there is merely incoherence masquerading as statement. We’re watching neither decent docu nor well-crafted drama. In a particularly risible line, Baader proclaims “it’s more fun with a gun.” But he’s proved wrong. The film allows itself to play with the guns, then still fumbles with them.
Had I made a film on this subject, I would have thrown the audience straight into a situation of carnage – say the kidnapping of Schleyer or the murder of Jurgen Poto. I’d then have snapped back to the idealism of the mid-Sixties to show the same people initially acting quite sympathetically, to demonstrate how such social movements soured into terrorist gangs. And, if we are to have a parallel story for the Police, perhaps a young officer caught up in the anti-Shah demonstrations who vows to change things from the inside. If we need a Herold, he should at least feel a genuine frustration. The ‘second generation’ section would need to go one way or the other – either providing us with a new Meinhof or deliberately keeping them shadowy. And while, as we’ve seen, the RAF’s fascist fixations were present, this film sorely lacks any sense of the international context. The astonishing feature of this era was the global spread of radical movements.
While this film is often entertaining (in the sense of laughable), it’s tragedy is that a good film on this subject still lies waiting to be made. The Spectacular Times’ slogan “terrorism is always counter-revolutionary” is of course accurate, but it is also necessary to understand how such mistakes came to be made. The nearest we have is Reinhard Hauff’s Stammheim, a narrower but more successful reconstruction of the trials from their transcripts. Other decent films on similar subjects are Good Morning Night (on the Italian Red Brigade) or the documentary The Weather Underground (on the American group.)