There's only so much thinly veiled allegory a viewer can take. And director Uli Edel and writer Bernd Eichinger push our allegorical tolerance to the breaking point in their technically wonderful yet overlong emotionally arrested film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.
Edel and Eichinger meticulously recreate late-1960’s and 1970’s Germany in the film as they revisit the years that the Baader Meinhof Group, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), terrorized West Germany. The RAF was an ultra-left wing militant group that sprung out of the global protests that characterized much of 1968. The group was led by Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a journalist before giving up her life for the revolution; Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu); and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek).
Like their comrades in America, France, Mexico, and elsewhere, the RAF raged against American imperialism, the threat of the police state, and the authority apparatus that they viewed as corrupt. But unlike the students in, say, the US, the RAF really ran with the idea of fighting a revolution. They abandoned their children, robbed banks, shot people, planted bombs in heavily-populated buildings, kidnapped state leaders, and trained in Jordan with militants fighting Israel. The Weather Underground had nothing on the RAF.Every event in Der Baader Meinhof Komplex is played out in fine detail, either through recreating the moments directly or using contemporary news footage. There isn’t a murder, move in prison, or piece of operational minutiae that isn’t left unexplored. Edel and Eichinger even go through recreating world events that had some sort of impact on the RAF, like the assassination of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972. (That event itself was the subject of meticulous cinematic recreation, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich.)
The result is a well crafted historical drama that plays more like a spy thriller than a history lesson. In moments like the brazen kidnapping of an important government leader and the coordinated robbery of three banks, Edel gives the movie a vitality that earned its recent Golden Globe Awards nomination for Best Foreign Film.
But Edel, as a co-writer on the movie, is his own worst enemy. He and Eichinger sap the directorial vigor out of Der Baader Meinhof Komplex by making the movie totally unapproachable emotionally. Viewers can’t latch onto any of the characters as someone worthy of identification. The members of the RAF are awful, cold-blooded people who blame society for their crimes, while the government is an ineffectual albatross struggling to contain this new threat to its existence called “terrorism.” So when we hear Urlike Meinhoff or Andreas Baader complaining about the police state or the “pig” cops or what they see as resurgent fascism in their country, we don’t say, “Yeah, you ARE oppressed! I hope those people in the government get what they deserve.” Instead, we think, “You deserved harsher punishment.” That’s no way to think about your protagonists.
It doesn’t help, either, that Edel and Eichinger seem to take a dim view of their anti-heroes. They don’t celebrate the actions of the RAF by any stretch. Instead, they present them very matter-of-factly, through television reports and their own recreations. In the absence of any sort of editorializing, the actions of the RAF stand on their own merits and demonstrate how repugnant these “revolutionaries” were. Edel and Eichinger never come right out and reject the RAF, nor do they openly accept them. Rather, they sheepishly leave it to the viewer to either condone or condemn the group and its acts.
Oh, and about that group and its acts, did you know they were terrorists and they created terror throughout Germany? And did you know that they did what they did because America was in Vietnam and that was just bad for everybody?
Edel and Eichinger browbeat the audience throughout Der Baader Meinhof Komplex about terrorism and how American imperialism was the direct cause of so much terror and bloodshed in places far removed from the battlefield. They’re clearly miffed about that whole Iraq War and occupation of the Middle East thing.
There isn’t much intellectual heavy lifting (or originality) involved in comparing the general scheme of world events in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to what is happening today. But that doesn’t stop Edel and Eichinger from giving a lot of screen time to it in the form of political meetings, student demonstrations, and television reports. Their determination to draw parallels early and often between 1968 and 2008 becomes oppressive and tests the viewer’s patience.
But it’s the narrative repercussions that harm Der Baader Meinhof Komplex the most. Edel and Eichinger are already giving viewers characters that are wholly unlikable and unworthy of emotional attachment. Piled on top of that is squandered opportunity. The leaders of the RAF are legitimately interesting people, and the group they created is an important one. But they are never fleshed out because the filmmakers are more concerned with proselytizing. They never stop to consider that they might be preaching to the choir and would be better served investigating the RAF and the drama of its moment in time.
The RAF, reprehensible as it may have been, is certainly deserving of a big screen exploration. It’s a dramatic organization that existed during a dramatic period of the 20th century, and a legitimate, substantive cinematic exploration would be well worth watching. Der Baader Meinhof Komplex isn’t that movie. It’s technically wonderful and at times mighty pleasurable to watch. But there is no ignoring the deep cracks in its narrative foundation.
An edited version of this piece was published at EmanuelLevy.com.