German quasi-biopic remembers when terrorists were young, stylish, and sexy--but doesn't have anything to say about them
Somewhere in Uli Edel's long, brutal, and failed account of Germany's infamous Red Army Faction's 30-year reign of terror, a security operative asks his superior what causes people to murder bystanders. His answer? "A myth."
We wait for more, but that's it. For another 144 minutes we wait, but "a myth" is it.
And so Edel's technically impeccable movie, complete with nerve-wrackingly randomized violence that shows somebody's been watching their Italian realism DVDs, is a magnificently wasted opportunity that chooses minutia-mad historical replay and simulation over the greater truths of artful guesses. And so what we get is hours of good-looking young people spouting leftist vagaries, blowing shit up, getting arrested, getting out of jail, blowing shit up, rinse repeat. Which is a drag as The Baader Meinhof Complex's first half-hour simmers with wild energy as it builds the case for the now unthinkable concept of "terrorist chic."
It's the late '60s. Germany's repressive right-wing government, the "Vietnam genocides," and the mainstream media's stranglehold on truth have given the first post-Nazi generation a mess of guilt-free stuff to rail against. Edel opens with Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau), a dashing petty con, and his lover Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) as they tear through the night streets in stolen cars while blasting the Who. Equally enamored of Lenin and Pierre Cardin's latest, they're a glamorous gang of human powder kegs waiting to blow. When Germany kisses up to the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and with the existence of known Nazis in the government, they do.
Baader, Ensslin, and some pals firebomb a chic department store. The "action" gets the attention of Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a left-leaning journalist slowly radicalized by Baader and Ensslin's combo of guns and Mao and rock 'n' roll, although it's suggested that her husband's infidelity was a co-contributing factor (and so ends the movie's sole engagement with human motivation).
For a while, the gang focuses on attacking "legitimate targets"--the police, politicians, American military posts. With their trademark logo--a machine gun set against a red star and the letters "RAF"--they were the first to brand terror. And, for a while, they had the support of one in four frustrated German citizens.
It's all good anarchistic shits and giggles until an attack on the Springer newspaper chain's HQ goes bloodily afoul. The RAF slowly devolves into a full-time terrorist group that would be involved in kidnappings, assassinations, and, in general, fucking shit up until its dissolution in 1998. You will have a hard time keeping track of who's being whacked for what reason and when--if a movie ever demanded box-office Cliffs Notes for its American release, this is it.
Edel has been bouncing around Hollywood (the Madonna mess, Body of Evidence), TV (episodes of Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street), and German cinema and TV for decades; his greatest contribution to the cinema of Earth was guiding Jennifer Jason Leigh to her career-high turn as Tralala, the feral whore in Edel's otherwise amber-encased 1989 adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn. And while Baader Meinhof's game cast glower, speechify, and kill with great energy, they're stuck with a script--co-written by Edel and producer Bernd Eichinger--shaped by a terrible idea.
The idea is that by using, where possible, the actual words said by the actual miscreants taken from real documents and messages, they'll end up with a more true representation of the gang. Besides being akin to thinking you could figure out a dead man's dreams by reading his laundry bill, this cutting and pasting adds nothing to these angry ciphers, while betraying a weird mistrust of the whole art-making thing.
Eventually, you get sick of the lot of them and try relating to the middle-aged, anti-terrorist experts trying to bring them to justice. But as the movie helpfully mentioned earlier, a good lot of them are Nazis, so, you know, fuck them.
As you battle with sleep after interchangeable-feeling carnage and chatter by people you couldn't care less about, it's easy to miss the movie's one isolated insight--and it's got nothing to do with a "myth." It's the moment where, after another killing, one of RAF's hot terrorists feels a draft of guilt. It's quickly staunched by a peer's assurance that the victim isn't really human if she's on the wrong side of the ideological divide, and therefore nothing to mourn. A investigation into how humans devolve so easily to that level--that would be a movie to watch.