MPI // 2008 // 149 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // March 30th, 2010
The children of the Nazi generation vowed fascism would never rule their world again.
Between 1967 and 1977, West Germany was the victim of several brutal acts of terrorism committed by an extreme left-wing organization that called itself the Red Army Faction. The West German media, however, would refer to the group by the names of its two celebrity cofounders: the Baader Meinhof Group. The Baader Meinhof Group would become, in many ways, a template for modern terrorist organizations that followed in their wake. They understood the idea of media manipulation, they marketed themselves as celebrities, and they chose their targets for maximum press coverage. In the process, they became so globally renowned that when the Black September group held eleven Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympics, they cited the Baader Meinhof Group by name as ideological comrades. This, then, is a hugely important and fascinating story, and director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) has delivered a sprawling, gritty epic that depicts it. Unfortunately, while The Baader Meinhof Complex is indeed a reasonably entertaining film, it isn't an entirely satisfying one.
In 1967, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck, The Good Shepherd) is one of West Germany's most famous left-wing journalists. She regularly appears on TV to discuss the growing anti-war and anti-capitalist protests that are occurring on West German streets and she is considered an expert on the burgeoning left-wing youth culture. Meinhof, however, is becoming increasingly drawn to shed her bourgeois trappings and join the movement even though she's a married mother of two. She gets her opportunity when she interviews thuggish anarchist Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu, Speed Racer) and his ferociously devoted girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek, Aimée & Jaguar), who have been arrested for firebombing a department store. Meinhof's growing sympathy for Baader and Ensslin leads her to eventually participate in a violent jailbreak for Baader and to abandon her family to join Baader, Ensslin, and their followers in launching a series of bombings, murders, robberies, and shootouts that leave a trail of death and terror throughout West Germany and other parts of Europe.
There is a lot to admire in The Baader Meinhof Complex. As a filmed reenactment of one of the most important chapters in Germany's (if not the world's) history, it's at least a well-crafted piece of entertainment. It does not, however, go as deep as it should have. Visually, the film is excitingly directed, with scenes that are gut-wrenching and enthralling, and the attention to detail is astounding. You really will feel like you're in West Germany in the early 1970s watching the country erupt into bloody chaos. Emotionally, however, the film too often feels cold and distant. It tells the story of what happened, all right, but it never seems to understand, or even ask, why.
The key failing is in the character of Ulrike Meinhof. In any telling of the Baader Meinhof story, Meinhof is the central and most fascinating character. It's her journey that defines the story of the group as it forms and becomes more destructive, since her life takes a parallel turn. The decision to abandon her children, her career, and her friends to become an outlaw is especially shocking, particularly since she was so celebrated in West Germany at the time; in today's terms, it would be as astonishing as Glenn Beck walking away from Fox News Channel to go underground with an extremely violent faction of the Tea Partiers. Why did she do it? Did she ever regret it? In an early scene in the film, she writes a forceful editorial attacking the Shah of Iran for his appalling human rights record. How did she go from that to penning a bloodthirsty manifesto for the RAF in which she proclaims that police officers are not human and are therefore legitimate targets for murder?
These questions are at the heart of the story. In order for The Baader Meinhof Complex to work completely, Meinhof has to be the film's emotional center. Yet she isn't, really. For much of the film, she's a cipher whose motives are not just ambiguous but downright unclear. The filmmakers haven't done a good job of really getting us into Meinhof's head to try to empathize with, or at least understand, why she does what she does. Consequently, her story is never really as affecting as it should be, especially in her last scenes in the film. Viewers who are familiar with how her story ended in real life will understand the significance not just of what happened but also when it happened, but those who aren't may find her final scenes puzzling and nebulous. Because the film was made for a German audience, it assumes that viewers will draw on their knowledge of the real story to fill in the holes, but that's not necessarily true.
There are other places where the film seems uncertain or detached in a way that undermines its effectiveness. The scene in which left-wing activist Rudi Dutschke (Sebastian Blomberg) is shot by a right-wing fanatic in 1970 is a perfect example. The film posits that this incident galvanized the left-wing movement in Germany generally and Meinhof particularly. However, the film spends far too much time depicting the capture and arrest of Dutschke's shooter. Since neither this character nor storyline are significant for the rest of the film, why bother with it? A few minutes would have been enough. It's the film's ending, however, that's the most unsatisfying. Again, viewers familiar with the real story will understand the significance of when and how it ends; although the RAF lasted after the leadership of Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin well into the 1990s, the organization never again commanded the same cultural cachet after the events depicted in the final scenes. These last scenes, though, don't really make this or any other point. If anything, they seem genuinely confused, as if the filmmakers couldn't really come up with a conclusion about why this story was so important and so just sort of let the film slowly grind to a halt.
Watching the interviews with Edel and producer/screenwriter Bernd Eichinger on the multiple featurettes included here, it's easy to see how the film ended up as it did. There are five: "The Making of" (29:46), "The Actors on Their Roles" (37:49), "Scoring Baader" (11:56), "On Authenticity" (20:39), and "Behind the Scenes" (12:58), and in almost all of them, Edel and Eichinger discuss the extensive research they did on this story, right down to the fabrics and shades of paint used in the production. It's clear that they may have missed the forest for the trees, resulting in a film that's impeccably crafted and detailed but isn't entirely successful as a whole. Nonetheless, these are all excellent featurettes that give plenty of information on how the film was made and how the cast and crew approached such a controversial story. There are also additional extended interviews with both Eichinger and Stefan Aust, author of the book on which the film is based. These can be a bit arduous at times, especially when they focus on less-renowned aspects of German culture, but are generally worth seeing as well. The package is rounded out with the film's theatrical trailer (2:15).
As for technical specs, they're excellent. The anamorphic 1.85 transfer is nicely rendered. The film was shot in a grainy and desaturated style to emulate the look of early-'70s newsreels, but the transfer is so sharp that the result is more immersive than distracting. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is equally impressive. It makes full use of the surrounds, but even at its most chaotic it's still easy to understand which element -- whether dialogue, music, or sound effect -- is meant to be the main focus.
When The Baader Meinhof Complex does work, it works like a shot. While the characterization of Meinhof is flawed, the depictions of Baader and Ensslin ring true effortlessly. Baader, as depicted by both the writing and Bleibtrau's performance, is little more than a violent drunken lout. For all his revolutionary cant, he cares about nothing except using ideology as an excuse to indulge in antisocial behavior. As for Ensslin, she's arguably the film's most memorable character. She's so cunning and ruthless that she's at least a borderline sociopath and Wokalek's steely performance does not allow for even a trace of vulnerability. After watching her, you'll have no doubt that it was really Ensslin who was the driving force behind the Baader Meinhof Group. Plus, even if Meinhof isn't as fully defined as she should be, Gedeck still delivers an impressive performance. As the film progresses and Meinhof slowly begins to realize that she's thrown away her life for nothing, Gedeck delivers a brilliantly understated portrayal of increasing devastation.
It's also worth pointing out that Edel's direction is generally masterful. They storytelling isn't as taut as a film like this could use, but many of the individual scenes work perfectly. The documentary style visuals coupled with finely rendered period details really do evoke just how harrowing that era must have been. Some German reviewers complained that the film glamorizes terrorism, but that's a criticism that doesn't really hold water. Indeed, the film graphically depicts just how horrific the group's bombings and murders really were, so squeamish viewers should take note that in this regard, the film definitely does not pull its punches.
You'll need to know a lot about the Baader Meinhof story in order to get the most out of The Baader Meinhof Complex (see Accomplices section). Even then, however, you still won't be fully satisfied with the film. It has moments of intense visceral power and the story and dialogue are both more or less well-crafted, but it's simply not as emotionally gripping as it could have been and leaves the audience asking too many questions. It's worth watching for anyone interested in this story. Even though it's a good film, in better hands, it could have been a great one.
Guilty of not telling the full story, but let off with a fine for generally solid filmmaking.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site