Radical chic goes to the movies
When it comes to movies with a radical political bent, all the talk for months has focused on Steven Soderbergh's "Che," which has been getting a rocky reception on the festival circuit for its somewhat gauzy-eyed portrayal of Che Guevera and his role in the origins of the Cuban revolution. Now it's time for the German version of "Che," which arrived in L.A. on Friday night with the premiere of "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," a new Uli Edel-directed film about the infamous West German terrorist group that emerged out of the student protest movement in the late 1960s. The film has sparked passionate debate in Germany, where it just opened last week.
Although it doesn't have a U.S. distributor, "Baader Meinhof" will surely be getting more attention here in the coming months as Germany's submission for this year's Academy Awards. My colleague Mark Olsen, who was at the film's first American screening Friday night at the Aero Theatre, says the film pulls no punches. But is it a cold-eyed portrait of urban guerillas? Or just another example of Hollywood radical chic? Here's his report:
“The Baader-Meinhof Complex” is directed by Uli Edel and produced and adapted by Bernd Eichinger from the book by Stefan Aust. (Edel and Eichinger previously collaborated on “Christine F.” and “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”) Here, they take on the complete tale of the Baader-Meinhof Group, the collection of middle-class intellectuals who took up armed, violent resistance to what they saw as the imperialist tyranny of the West German government as the good-vibes idealism of the 1960s gave way to the extended bum-trip of the 1970s. During their campaign of kidnappings, bombings and bank robberies, the group attained a certain countercultural cache and outlaw cool though, ultimately much of their leadership would die by suicide while in prison.
The film is imperfect, compelling, meticulous, draining, unnerving and more than a little thrilling. The filmmakers have accomplished the remarkable feat of capturing the gang’s glamorous sex appeal -- such details as the way a thigh pokes out of a mini-skirt while leaping over the counter during a bank robbery or the importance of just the right sunglasses -- while also getting at their failure and futility. In portraying a full 10 years of events, with complicated comings and goings and fast-changing times, the film suffers under the weight of its own ambitions, at times a prisoner to its own attention to historical accuracy.
The three central performances by Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu and Johanna Wokalek as Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin are nuanced and engaging, giving some sense of how these people became leaders and how their progressive ideals led to despicable deeds. Alongside certain stylistic tics such as the too-frequent use of jarring stock footage as establishing shots, one of the film’s weakest spots is the shoehorning in of a character played by Bruno Ganz, a federal police officer assigned to track and capture the terrorist-revolutionaries. His scenes never feel integrated into the overall fabric of the story, and seem to exist to simply get Ganz -- who played Adolf Hitler with spectacular venality in “Downfall,” also written and produced by Eichenger -- into the film.
Following the screening at the Aero, Martin Moszkowicz, executive producer of the film, did a short Q&A. (Full disclosure: I moderated the Q&A but had neither seen the film nor met Moszkowicz until the event Friday night.)
As to how the filmmakers dealt with the essential conundrum of how to portray what may have been genuinely radical, or at least groovy, about the Baader-Meinhof Group without condoning their actions, Moszkowicz replied, “The idea was not to judge what was done but just to show it. And just by showing that they were murderers and there were innocent people killed, we thought this would be strong enough to show there were no glories about it.”
At a moment when films interested in the historical reenactment of protest and revolutionary action such as “Che” and “Hunger” are working the festival circuit on their way to distribution, it will be interesting to see if anyone wants to put out “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” in America. It will also be worth watching whether it gets any traction out of the academy, where the nominating process for foreign language films has been undergoing some amount of retooling. While in the past a film as rigorous and brutal as “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” would have been a definite non-starter, this year there is a conceivable scenario whereby such violent and politically minded films as “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” as well as Italy’s “Gomorrah” and Denmark’s “Flame and Citron” could break into the race.
Photo from "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," with Moritz Bleibtreu, left, and Johanna Wokalek, center, from Constantin Film