Following on from Downfall and The Lives Of Others, Uli Edel’s film is further evidence of German filmmakers’ willingness to confront the darker episodes of their recent past – and spark a controversy in the process.

It arrives in Britain via the London Film Festival trailing a stream of articles from the German media, accused by several relatives of gang members and victims alike of glamourising or distorting their actions. Others have applauded it as a corrective to “terrorist chic” portrayals of the group. Such a reaction is hardly surprising considering the dark shadow they cast over West Germany in the Seventies and surely expected by Bernd Eichinger, who is also the producer and weathered a similar storm over Downfall. The question is: does it work as a film?

Copy picture

Up to a point. Veteran helmer Edel (who also made Christiane F and Last Exit To Brooklyn) clearly relished the chance to work on a broad historical canvas and creates several memorable set pieces, as well as coaxing excellent performances from his cast. But in the end, condensing such a complex story into one film, even at two hours plus, proves too much for him.

It opens with a typical German family enjoying a holiday in a Baltic seaside resort in 1967. The mother (Martina Gedeck) is reading a glossy mag, chiding her children for staying out in the sun too long and having a brief flash of jealousy as her husband chats to a nude bather, a picture of happiness and prosperity in the economically successful but socially liberated West Germany.

But she is Ulrike Meinhof, a journalist on a left-wing paper, and on her return she pens an article protesting at the state visit of the Shah of Iran. The growing number of German counter-culture activists are incensed by the official recognition of an undemocratic despot and turn up en masse to demonstrate on his arrival in Berlin.

When they start throwing flour bombs, a pro-Iranian group in the crowd starts fighting them and the police wade in en masse. In scenes eerily reminiscent of the Nazi era, they beat anyone in sight, refuse to let the injured seek medical attention and accidentally shoot one protester dead.

The incident galvanises the extreme element of the left-wing movement and when their leader Rudi Dutschke is shot and seriously injured by a right-wing fanatic a few of his associates decide that the time has come to do more than simply protest peacefully.

Chief among them are Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), a charismatic hothead scornful of the more intellectual members of the movement, and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), a pastor’s daughter who leaves behind a husband and young child to join the struggle. They begin to acquire weapons and bomb-making equipment, but are arrested after firebombing a department store.

Meinhof visits them in prison and when Ensslin is released, agrees to help her attempt to spring Baader from jail. Using her publishing connections, she arranges for Baader to be taken to a research institute under guard where gang members will overpower the police and free him while Meinhof feigns surprise. But the attempt gets out of hand, a librarian is shot – and on impulse Meinhof flees with the rest of them.

The gang members leave the country, eventually ending up in a revolutionary training camp in Jordan, where their nude sunbathing and Baader’s refusal to submit to anything resembling military discipline infuriates the Arab guerrilla instructors. They re-enter Germany in secret and fund their newly-christened Red Army Faction through a string of violent, high-profile bank raids.

The media begins to take notice, fuelled by a string of press releases from Meinhof, and their outlaw persona strikes a chord with a section of German opinion dismayed by the rightward, authoritarian drift of the Government. Their action escalates, but more and more innocent people are being hurt. And the group’s central figures are beginning to quarrel among themselves.

The film in no way glamourises terrorism. The group’s actions are shown with a graphic, brutal directness that contrasts sharply with the high-sounding slogans of their press releases and scenes of the gang making bombs at their kitchen table with bottles of weedkiller strike a chilling chord in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. It also vividly illustrates the gulf between their ideals of universal equality and comradeship and the backbiting power struggles between the principal members. Baader is portrayed as a rampant sexist and racist, exploiting the tensions between his two female cohorts and relishing the hero worship of the younger gang members. Ensslin and Meinhof don’t get off lightly either, transforming from passionate idealists to control-freak ideologues who justify everything in the name of ‘liberation’.

In fact, the only truly sympathetic character in the film is Ganz’s police chief, Horst Herold, applying a good copper’s commons sense and cunning to doggedly hunting them down while still acknowledging the problems in German society that fuelled their discontent

Matters come to a head when the triumvirate, and several other key members, are captured. As a lengthy, shambolic trial drags on the new generation of the gang orchestrate the kidnapping of an industrialist and the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet to try to force the authorities’ hand. They refuse to back down, and the situation becomes increasingly chaotic.

The film’s climax reflects this, with just too many characters and plot strands floating around to make a coherent narrative. It ends abruptly, with no information on what happened to the movement afterwards and a frustrating sense of a story only half-told.

But at its best moments it’s as gripping and powerful as Downfall or The Lives of Others. The period detail is spot-on, right down to the last wide collar and dodgy hairstyle. The performances are universally excellent, with special mention for Bleibtreu, last seen as the Nazi colonel in Female Agents. His role here couldn’t be more different, but he captures all of Baader’s narcissism and self-delusion. The film clearly shows that, like the movement he founded, a dangerously seductive exterior concealed a brutal and ugly reality.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2008
Share this with others on...
As protests against the West German government of the late 1960s become increasingly violent, a group of young left-wingers decide to take direct action.
Amazon link

Director: Uli Edel

Writer: Stefan Aust, Bernd Eichinger

Starring: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz, Simon Licht, Jan Josef Liefers, Alexandra Maria Lara, Heino Ferch, Nadja Uhl, Hannah Herzsprung

Year: 2008

Runtime: 150 minutes

Country: Germany


London 2008
BIFF 2009

Search database: