Once upon a Time in Germany
Movies have often romanticized Communist revolutionaries—think Benicio Del Toro as Che. But a new action thriller, The Baader Meinhof Complex, counterpunches, exposing the violent psychosis that gripped the young militants of the Red Army Faction in 1970s West Germany.
by Christopher Hitchens
The number of Communist revolutionaries in the world has declined much faster than the number of gangsters and stickup artists, but at the movies it’s still a fairly safe bet that such stories will be portrayed in such a way as to inspire at least a twinge of penis envy. You will know what I mean, even if you didn’t actually bother to watch Benicio Del Toro playing Che, or Johnny Depp taking the part of John Dillinger. It’s a trope that goes back at least as far as Viva Zapata!: the quasi-sexual charisma of the outlaw.
So don’t miss the opportunity of seeing the year’s best-made and most counter-romantic action thriller, The Baader Meinhof Complex. Unlike earlier depictions of the same events by German directors such as Volker Schlöndorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Uli Edel’s film interrogates and ultimately indicts (and convicts) the West German terrorists rather than the state and society which they sought to overthrow.
It does this in the most carefully objective way, by taking the young militants, at least in the first instance, at their own face value. It is Berlin on June 2, 1967, and the rather shabby and compromised authorities of the postwar Federal Republic are laying down a red carpet for the visiting Shah of Iran. A young journalist named Ulrike Meinhof has written a mordant essay, in the form of an open letter to the Shah’s wife, about the misery and repression of the Iranian system. When students protest as the Shah’s party arrives at the Berlin Opera, they are first attacked by hired Iranian goon squads and then savaged by paramilitary formations of brutish German cops. It’s the best 1960s street-fighting footage ever staged, and the “police riot” element is done with electrifying skill. On the fringes of the unequal battle, a creepy-looking plainclothes pig named Karl-Heinz Kurras unholsters his revolver and shoots an unarmed student, named Benno Ohnesorg, in the head.
That is only the curtain-raiser, and the birth of “the Movement of 2 June.” Not much later, the student leader Rudi Dutschke is also shot in the head, but in this instance by an unhinged neo-Nazi. Now the rioting begins in earnest as West German youth begin to see a pattern to events. The shaky postwar state built by their guilty parents is only a façade for the same old grim and evil faces; Germany has leased bases on its soil for another aggression, this time against the indomitable people of Vietnam; any genuine domestic dissent is met with ruthless violence. I can remember these events and these arguments and images in real time, and I can also remember some of those who slipped away from the edge of the demonstrations and went, as they liked to think of it, “underground.” The title of the film announces it as an exploration of exactly that syndrome: the cult of the urban guerrilla.
There was a prevalent mystique in those days about the Cuban and Vietnamese and Mozambican revolutions, as well as about various vague but supposedly glamorous groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In the United States, the brief resort to violence by the Black Panthers and then by the Weather Underground was always imagined as an extension of “Third World” struggles onto the territory of imperialist North America. Other spasmodic attempts to raise armed insurrection—the so-called Front for the Liberation of Quebec, the I.R.A., and the Basque eta—were confined to national or ethnic minorities. But there were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponized and organized group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honor of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy.
You may notice that the three countries I have just mentioned were the very ones that made up the Axis during the Second World War. I am personally convinced that this is the main reason the phenomenon took the form it did: the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do. And this was also a brilliant way of placing the authorities on the defensive and luring them into a moral trap. West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s is not actually holding any political prisoners. Very well then, we will commit violent crimes for political reasons and go to prison for them, and then there will be a special wing of the prison for us, and then the campaign to free the political prisoners by violence can get under way. This will strip the mask from the pseudo-democratic state and reveal the Nazi skull beneath its skin. (In a rather witty move that implicitly phrases all this in reverse, the makers of The Baader Meinhof Complex have cast Bruno Ganz as the mild but efficient head of West German “homeland security,” a man who tries to “understand” his opponents even as he weaves the net ever closer around them. It requires a conscious effort to remember Ganz’s eerie rendition of the part of the Führer in Downfall five years back.)
It doesn’t take long for the sinister ramifications of the “complex” to become plain. Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts. (The gang bought its first consignment of weapons from a member of Germany’s neo-Nazi underworld: no need to be choosy when you are so obviously in the right.) There is, as with all such movements, an uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both. As if curtain-raising a drama of brutality that has long since eclipsed their own, the young but hedonistic West German toughs take themselves off to the Middle East in search of the real thing and the real training camps, and discover to their dismay that their Arab hosts are somewhat … puritanical.
This in turn raises another question, with its own therapeutic implications. Did it have to be the most extreme Palestinians to whom the Baader Meinhof gangsters gave their closest allegiance? Yes, it did, because the queasy postwar West German state had little choice but to be ostentatiously friendly with the new state of Israel, at whatever cost in hypocrisy, and this exposed a weakness on which any really cruel person could very easily play. You want to really, really taunt the grown-ups? Then say, when you have finished calling them Nazis, that their little Israeli friends are really Nazis, too. This always guarantees a hurt reaction and a lot of press.
Researching this in the late 1970s in Germany, I became convinced that the Baader Meinhof phenomenon actually was a form of psychosis. One of the main recruiting grounds for the gang was an institution at the University of Heidelberg called the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv, or Socialist Patients Collective, an outfit that sought to persuade the pitifully insane that they needed no treatment save social revolution. (Such a reading of the work of R. D. Laing and others was one of the major “disorders” of the 1960s.) Among the star pupils of this cuckoo’s nest was Ralf Reinders, who was arrested after several violent “actions” and who had once planned to destroy the Jewish House in Berlin—a restoration of the one gutted by the Brownshirts—“in order to get rid of this thing about the Jews that we’ve all had to have since the Nazi time.” Yes, “had to have” is very good. Perhaps such a liberating act, had he brought it off, would have made some of the noises in his head go away.
The Baader Meinhof Complex, like the excellent book by Stefan Aust on which it is based, is highly acute in its portrayal of the way in which mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical. More arrests mean that more hostages must be taken, often in concert with international hijackers, so that ever more exorbitant “demands” can be made. This requires money, which in turn demands more robbery and extortion. If there are doubts or disagreements within the organization, these can always be attributed to betrayal or cowardice, resulting in mini-purges and micro-lynchings within the gang itself. (The bleakest sequence of the film shows Ulrike Meinhof and her once seductive comrade Gudrun Ensslin raving hatefully at each other in the women’s maximum-security wing.) And lurking behind all this neurotic energy, and not always very far behind at that, is the wish for death and extinction. The last desperate act of the gang—a Götterdämmerung of splatter action, including a botched plane hijacking by sympathetic Palestinians and the murder of a senior German hostage—was the staging of a collective suicide in a Stuttgart jail, with a crude and malicious attempt (echoed by some crude and malicious intellectuals) to make it look as if the German authorities had killed the prisoners. In these sequences, the film is completely unsparing, just as it was in focusing the camera on official brutality in the opening scenes of more than 10 years before.
Two real-world developments have made this movie even more relevant, and helped to vindicate the critical attitude that it manifests. Of the surviving members of the Baader Meinhof circle, one or two went the whole distance and actually became full-blown neo-Nazis. The gang’s lawyer and co-conspirator, Horst Mahler, has been jailed again, this time for distributing CD-roms inciting violence against Jews. Contempt for German democracy can’t be taken any further than that. And Ulrike Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Röhl has published files from the archives of the East German secret police, or Stasi, showing that subsidies and other forms of support flowed regularly to the group from the other side of the Berlin Wall.
Most astonishing of all, perhaps, in May of this year it was revealed from the same files that Karl-Heinz Kurras, the twitchy cop who shot Benno Ohnesorg on June 2, 1967, thus igniting the whole train of events, was all along an informer for the Stasi and a card-carrying member of the East German Communist Party. (Herr Kurras, now 81, was interviewed and made no bones about it.) This doesn’t necessarily prove that the whole sequence of events was part of a Stasi provocation, but it does make those who yelled about the “Nazi” state look rather foolish in retrospect. (Rudi Dutschke, it now turns out, left a posthumous letter to his family stating his fear that “the East” was behind his own shooting. Dutschke’s family has called for an investigation.) What this means in short is that the Baader Meinhof milieu, so far from providing a critique of German society, was actually a sort of petri dish in which bacilli for the two worst forms of dictatorship on German soil—the National Socialist and the Stalinist—were grown. It’s high time that the movie business outgrew some of the illusions of “radical” terrorism, and this film makes an admirably unsentimental contribution to that task.
Vanity Fair, 17 August 2009