If Not Us, Who?

If Not Us, Who?


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In the wake of 2008's The Baader Meinhof Complex comes another, very different film examining this troubled period in German history and some of its key players. Unlike its predecessor, its focus is not so much on the activities of the famous gang but, rather, on the personal and intellectual developments that led up to it.

Taking its title from the popular activist slogan which it later takes some trouble to defend (there are better, albeit slower, ways to change the world, suggests a prison governor), If Not Us, Who? looks at the moral importance and emotional burden of taking responsibility for the world. It's thoughtfully constructed with several double-bluffs that make it all too easy for viewers to get carried along further than they might intend to go. It's also historically evocative, making good use of archive footage - Vietnam, the atom bomb, ich bin ein Berliner - with great period tunes. This not only provides it with a strong period atmosphere but also enables viewers to engage with the events that radicalised a generation.

Initially the film is centered on Bernward Vesper (August Diehl), the brilliant but troubled son of Nazi author Will Vesper, to whom the young man remained loyal. Eloquent enough to dazzle fellow students at his university despite his political confusion, he's also good looking and charismatic and forms a magnetic attachment to the equally striking Gudrun Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis). Her devotion to him, her willingness to downplay her ambitions and support his for several years, gives the impression that she is a young woman in thrall to an increasingly powerful man. Only gradually does she emerge as the intellectual heavyweight (with a similarly odd mixture of extreme left and right wing ideas), as Vesper dwindles.

These are demanding roles and both Diehl and Lauzemis are impressive, carrying their characters through a decade of life and significant personal and ideological shifts. It's a shame there isn't much time to flesh out the third main character, the habitual criminal Andreas Baader, as we get more than halfway through the film before we meet him, but Alexander Fehling still makes an impression. This apparently off-kilter approach to what might be considered the story's main events (barely witnessed, more horrible for it) offers a more substantial take on Gudrun as a political force. Though this is a very sexy film, with a healthy dose of passion, it mercifully escapes the familiar trap of presenting her (and Ulrike Meinhof, whom we barely see) as characters motivated more by their sexual and romantic attachments than their concerns about the world.

Elegantly photographed, with beautifully constructed sets, this is a film that exudes quality from beginning to end. Underlying its principal narrative is a poetic take on events that accords well with the younger Vesper's writing and the spirit of the age, and its later images have an almost magical realist quality; it is no less tragic as a result.

If there's any justice in the world, this film will make stars of its young leads. It has an appeal that goes beyond the subject itself (though fairly accurate, it trims down events a little), with a style and character that makes it as interesting in its own right. One of the best historical films of recent years.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2012
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A fictional take on the story of Gudrun Ensslin and Bernward Vesper in the run-up to the formation of the Baader Meinhof gang.
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Director: Andres Veiel

Writer: Andres Veiel, Gerd Koenen

Starring: August Diehl, Lena Lauzemis, Alexander Fehling

Year: 2011

Runtime: 124 minutes

Country: Germany


Glasgow 2012

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If you like this, try:

The Baader Meinhof Complex