Why, one official wonders. What motivates young West Germans to continually support the Red Army Faction (RAF), the radical left-wing group responsible for several terrorist attacks across the country?
"A myth," replies Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the law enforcement leader tasked with combating terrorism in West Germany.
Perception versus reality is one conflict at the center of Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), based on the book by Stefan Aust. To a large segment of the West German population, the radicals in the RAF are noble revolutionaries resisting the efforts of a fascist right wing government, and it's why, even after members rob banks, shoot government officials, and plant bombs in cities, many disaffected university students and others continued to support the group. The violence is quite graphic, sudden, and shocking. It's not a clean affair.
That's not to say the group is without reasons. Most are opposed to the presence of American military bases in West Germany to conduct the war in Vietnam, which they are also against, but they feel unable to partake in peaceful action. The film opens with a student demonstration against the Iranian Shah's visit being crushed by police. Unarmed students are bashed, beaten, and chased down by officers on horseback and arrested, and when the students are attacked by pro-Shah demonstrators, the police stand by and watch. Later, pro-Communist leader Rudy Dutschke is gunned down in the streets shortly after a speech. It's important to note the film is set in the first generation after World War II, and to many of the students, events such as these feel like a return to fascism. Even Herold notes the oppressive methods of the state are fueling further rebellion.
The Baader Meinhof Complex takes place in the late 1960s into the mid-seventies and chronicles how the RAF was formed, operated, eliminated, and replaced by more radical organizations. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the aggressive leader of the group, and Ulricke Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is an intellectual journalist supporting the students' cause who eventually abandons her children and joins the underground group. I don't know how much of the movie is historically accurate, but it does paint a fascinating picture of a chaotic time in world history. Not only is West Germany shaken by riots and protests when the movie begins, the Vietnam War still rages, the 1967 War between Israel and the Arab states is on, and social unrest is ongoing in Mexico, Bolivia, and Czechoslovakia (the use of real news footage for such montages is effective).
The movie asks about what pushes an individual to action over talk. At the onset, Meinhof is a respected journalist with a family who writes columns supporting the students. However, the other group members often deride contributions. One asks her, "Do you think your theoretical masturbation can do anything?" To them, the government is not listening or changing. So at a key moment, Meinhoff goes out an open window, her point of no return. Only action will make a statement, and to the RAF, terrorism is equated with political action. So when several members are in jail, they win public sympathy to get moved out of solitary confinement, so they can plan more violence for members outside the walls to carry out.
The Baader Meinhof Complex certainly looks and feels like the period, and there is some fascinating historical and social discussion to be had, but it feels packed with too many characters and going-ons that it's very easy to get lost and confused. Several players are introduced and shuffled off before they register. New characters are brought in late in the film, and the established ones get left out. While this contributes to the idea of continuous and escalating violence, it keeps the characters from being anything other than basic.
Others feel shortchanged. Meinhof could have been the focus of the entire film, but aspects of her character, such as her decision to abandon her children, are never addressed. Similarly, we never see what makes Baader tick. He's always raving about the injustices of government, but he seems to be someone who goes against any sort of authority not his own.
The movie contains a lot of thrilling and shocking scenes and socio-political history, but it feels empty. We're just watching events unfold. As a history lesson, it's compelling. As drama, it's lacking.