The Baader-Meinhoff Complex

December, 2009, Drama


The Baader-Meinhoof Complex


The title of this German docu-drama carries a clever double meaning; on the most obvious level, it neatly describes the loose confederation of terrorists that plagued Germany in the late 60’s and 70’s with bombings, robberies and assassinations across the Federal Republic - - but on a more ambiguous note, the title can be taken as a description of what Uli Edel, (the film’s director and co-writer) believes motivated this group of well-educated, middle class thugs. In 2 and a half hours, Edel compresses Stefan Aust’s exhaustive book on the rise and chaotic fall of this gang as he chronicles the anarchic chaos they generated and the fatalities, (both direct and peripheral) which flowed from it. Avowedly communistic, Baader’s group described themselves as anti-imperialist urban guerillas and justified their attacks as both moral and politically necessary, using much the same logic and tactics as those employed by The Weatherman, the violent wing of the SDS, (Students for a Democratic Society) who operated in this country at the same time as the Baader-Meinhoff group did in Germany.


Baader was a professional radical, one of three co-founders of The Red Army Faction, a left-wing political movement which declared war on what it described as the “fascist” governments of West Germany and the United States. Meinhoff was a respected German journalist who became radicalized as a result of her coverage of the RAF, finally becoming its principal apologist. After committing a series of armed robberies and assassinations, Baader was captured, but Meinhoff and some of her movement allies were successful in helping him escape. That triggered a massive manhunt which culminated in their capture and imprisonment, along with other key members of the organization. After a trial disrupted by the same tactics employed by the Chicago Seven at their trial in this country, Meinhoff grew increasingly depressed and paranoid. She committed suicide by hanging herself in the special cellblock where she was incarcerated along with other members of the group, which caused many of her sympathizers to insist she had been murdered by prison officials.


In an effort to free Baader and several of his movement comrades, other RAF members kidnapped Hanns Schleyer, a controversial member of the German business community, simultaneously hijacking an airliner in an effort to win the release of Baader and those RAF members imprisoned with him. But the hijacked passengers were freed by German commandos and the efforts to win Baader’s release were frustrated. In response, Schleyer was shot and dumped on a country road. Baader and two fellow convicts then joined Meinhoff by killed themselves, which once again prompted movement supporters to insist they had been murdered by the authorities. The Red Army Faction’s campaign of terror continued for nearly a decade and a half after Baader’s death…


Working with a cast of European actors rarely seen in the U.S. and the  often clinical, expository techniques employed in documentaries, writer/director Edel creates a chilling portrait of narcissistic idealists convinced their violent confrontations with the authorities provided the only way to prevent West Germany from sliding back into the fascism which corrupted that country under Hitler’s Nazi regime. As it traces the increasing violence and paranoia of Baader’s inner circle, the film suggests that what began as a clarion call to arms designed to win public support for a socially radical point of view descended into a grim and blood-thirsty struggle between the authorities and a small cadre of extreme malcontents determined to gain power at the expense of their innocent fellow countrymen. The film sticks to facts on the record and in the offhand manner the participants use to speak for themselves; The Baader Meinhoff Complex grows increasingly ominous.


In addition to providing a sobering examination of a violent chapter in post World War II history, Edel’s film offers a troubling comparison to the sporadic acts of U.S. terrorists during the same era. They also came from the same strata of society as their German counterparts, as did those responsible for 9/11. Why this eerie similarity? Baader-Meinhoff makes no attempt to tackle that troublesome question, settling instead for simply presenting a seemingly endless series of horrific acts and inviting the audience to reach its own conclusions. Terrorism’s global blossoming in the past decade makes finding answers - - and solutions - - ever more important.


The Verdict? A brutally detached examination of fanaticism which forces audiences to draw comparisons with today’s headlines. This one’s  definitely not for the faint hearted.


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