Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Generation Later and Still Unrepresentable, The Baader Meinhof Complex, dir. Uli Edel

Before even seeing this film, the first obvious question is "why now?" and the second, "why in this form?"

The Baader Meinhof Complex comes at a time when "terrorism" is on the mind. So that's the simple answer to why a narrative film that follows the events of the rise and fall of the RAF in the late 60s and 70s in Germany would be made twenty years later. But this is also where the problems with the film begin. Because, as the RAF themselves insist when they are being trained in Jordan, they saw themselves as urban guerillas, with very different goals, and different actions, than the terrorist actions of the twenty-first century. It is true that the German State labelled the Baader-Meinhof group and successive generations as terrorists, but it's a term that is highly problematic in this context. And The Baader Meinhof Complex makes no attempt to address, or even reflect on this.

This kind of unself-conscious narrativization of the RAF story is typical of the film, and it's what, ultimately, makes it troubling throughout. Perhaps most problematic is the fact that it is never makes clear what the point of this film is. What is it that we can now learn from this historical moment that we have hitherto been too close to see and know? Or, to put it another way: why do we need to re-look at the RAF and its activities? Thus, at the most basic level, this film fails to do or say anything political.

Its indecision around the RAF's violent actions as a response to the political and social injustices of the West German State in particular, and the West in general is also troubling. It's true that the most admirable representations of this dark period in German history have been those with an ambivalent, undeclared stance towards the highly complicated issues of the RAF vs. the German State. See, for example, R.W. Fassbinder's contribution to Germany in Autumn, or the Andres Veiel's Black Box BRD from 2001, in which the respective filmmakers' refusal to take sides opens up the space for the spectator to take responsibility for the continued thinking about the events. But The Baader Meinhof Complex oscillates uneasily between sympathizing with the cause of the young radical extremists - usually through quotation of their philosophical and political beliefs - and horror at the bloodshed that was their response to the perceived injustices. This material is way too charged, and way to important, to spectacularize without a sustained interrogation of the issues at stake.

The film draws heavily on Stefan Aust's authoritative Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, 1985, mainly for the historical details - all of which were very accurate in the film. However, what the film doesn't manage to do, and therefore, does injustice to Aust's indispensible volume, is to convey this history with detachment. Objectivity is not "untranslatable" on the screen, but unfortunately, Edel and his team have chosen audience entertainment over responsible reflection, or dare I demand it, a polemical statement.

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