Do not be put off by a title that suggests some sort of psychological dissertation. Do not be cowed by the fact that Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex is in German with English subtitles (there are occasional outbursts of English) or that it’s two-and-a-half-hours long. This is one of the most compelling films to come along in a while—and, believe it or not, it’s also what could be called “action-packed.” Don’t, however, assume that “action-packed” means mindless explosions, car chases and shootings à la Michael Bay. The action here is brutal and, while often excitingly staged, is not a glorification of violence, nor is it used gratuitously.
This is a richly detailed, emotionally complex, character-filled examination of the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction (RAF) from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Its origins as part of the overall political turmoil of 1968 are sketched in, but the RAF is depicted as something different—something distinctly German and born of German youth of the era seeing little (or no) difference between not engaging in active resistance in 1968 and their predecessors not having done so during the rise of Nazi Germany. It’s an interesting concept and not an inapt one, since much of what the film is about is trying to understand what drives people to terrorist activities. In fact, that’s the approach that German official Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz) tries in vain to get his government to understand—and a question that he seems to be the only person to wonder about, or ultimately understand at all.
Much of the film’s focus is on Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and her transformation from housewife and writer of leftist articles to active terrorist. The film has been criticized in some quarters for not making her motivations clearer than it does, but I think it strikes exactly the right note—suggesting a combination of factors. It seems in part disillusionment with her marriage, a lack of a sense of self-worth and a compulsion to put her pure ideals into impure practice—this last, in part, due to a kind of peer pressure from her burgeoning terrorist friends to “walk the walk.” But there’s more than that to it—there’s an underlying current of empowerment and twisted glamour that goes with it all.
This is a difficult film to reduce to a few lines of text. It’s far too complex for that and peopled with far too many characters. And that last is the one aspect of The Baader Meinhof Complex that I might consider a weakness. There are so many characters that it becomes hard to keep track of them all—especially in a single viewing. On a second or third viewing, I suspect a greater understanding of the various aspects of the film’s characters would become evident. Fortunately, it’s the kind of movie that’s good enough and compelling enough to warrant subsequent viewings. And in this age of often overly simplistic movies, it’s actually refreshing to encounter a movie that can’t be assimilated in one sitting.
I should note that the film isn’t a pleasant experience. That’s not the point of it all. This is an examination of terrorists and what drives them to their acts. This is inherently uncomfortable material that raises questions about our own complicity in such matters—on either side of the equation—and these are questions that many of us don’t want to consider any more than the government wants to consider them when Horst Herold raises them in the context of the film. That the film can offer no concrete answers adds to the discomfort. Ulrike is only one case. What of the others? They’re all driven by different things and are often co-opting the cause for extremely personal reasons that may have little to do with actual ideology. In other words, this isn’t a movie for people who don’t want to think about what they’re watching.
This is a film I strongly recommend to filmgoers in search of works that actually have some depth and meaning. But that’s a recommendation that comes with a warning, because the film is extremely violent and its violence is unflinching, which means it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste or sensibilities. It is, however, worthy, challenging and often brilliantly achieved filmmaking that ought to be seen by anyone who is up to it. Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.