Engaging with a Past of Terror: The Enduring Legacy of The Baader Meinhof Complex

There is a fine line for filmmakers between compelling viewers to understand characters of lesser moral standing, and convincing viewers to defend the actions of these characters. Germany’s Generation War (2013) sparked controversy after being accused by critics and viewers alike of presenting Nazis (or characters who supported the fascist regime) in a sympathetic light. The conversation persists today, as more and more films attempt to dissect motivations of immoral characters, most electing to maintain a healthy distance from the subject in order to take a clearer stance.

As a filmmaker, one still wants to maintain the intimacy of storytelling, which leads to the question: how does one tell a story of characters whose actions continue to be unforgivable and should be condemned as such, but have viewers reach an understanding of their motivations? This, I believe, is the perfect time to return to the 2008 Oscar-nominated film, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, because it has an answer.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel and written/produced by the late German legend Bernd Eichinger, does not focus on WWII, rather on the lesser known leftist terrorism throughout the 1970s in West Germany, focusing primarily on the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. Still seething in the wake of growing up in the Nazi era, the generation presented in the film is at war with the world: against the Israeli treatment of Palestine, against the “fascist” media, and against the “police state” that West Germany had become. This tension boils over to acts of terrorism, leading up to the infamous hijacking of the Lufthansa flight 181.

While the film is rightfully hailed for its dedication to historical accuracy, there were certainly aspects that rely too heavily on the viewer’s own knowledge of the events related to the RAF. The murder of student protest leader Benno Ohnesorg and the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke are incredibly important to the plot, but not completely explained. Being the catalysts for the original leaders of the RAF, Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, to descend into terrorism, to not discuss the full reaction and its implication leaves the less informed viewer disoriented in the early part of the film.

Some of this disorienting effect works in the film’s favor, however. It is the only savior to offset the Bonnie and Clyde clichés littered throughout the opening scenes. After being arrested for their early works of terror, Baader and Ensslin go to prison and make acquaintance with left-wing journalist, Ulrike Meinhof, who is covering their trial. After serving their sentence, the three build the beginnings of the RAF. Everything is wonderful; the young, attractive terrorists conduct bank heists, assembling a group of young people to help, all while Baader and Ensslin carry out their passionate affair in the wake of the sexual revolution. All of this while “Talkin’ About My Generation” by The Who and other typical anti-authority power ballads frame every scene. Meinhof writes sweeping declarations after every attack, condemning capitalism in prose that could leave the viewer swayed by the lifestyle led by the protagonists, if it weren’t for the onslaught of graphic violence accompanying every scene.

Critics attacked The Baader-Meinhof Complex for being a glamorization of terrorism. That would be the case if there was not so much actual terror depicted throughout the film. Whereas the characters discuss how moral they are and their hatred of everything deemed fascist (which is everything they disagree with, from the Bild-Zeitung to Meinhof’s ex-husband), the actual news footage and the events as they happen say what the filmmakers do not explicitly have to say: these people were wrong. They used violence to fight against violence and ended with more pain and suffering than they could have imagined.

The cast, rounded out with recognizable German actors, such as Moritz Bleibtreu (Im Juli) as Andreas Baader and Martina Gedeck (Leben des Anderen) as the lead protagonist, Ulrike Meinhof, each contributes to the overall impact of the film. Gedeck specifically, in her portrayal of the journalist who eventually bombs a journalism office, shines as a once-sympathetic-character turned convicted terrorist. The viewer is not compelled to sympathize with Meinhof, rather to come to an understanding with her background and what led her to be the first of the terrorists to take her own life in solitary confinement.

The smartest creative decision made, and what separates Baader-Meinhof from the likes of Generation War-like films, was not to use emotional ploys to create likable characters. Viewers do not need likable characters in order to take something away from a story. There is nothing likable about Meinhof and the others, and when they reach their ultimate demise awaiting trial in Stammheim Prison, the film’s stance is clear: they were not victims of their own martyrdom. The suicides, though not shown on screen, were gruesome and difficult to process because we’re not given very clear answers. The filmmakers do not try to construct answers that were not actually there; they instead try and make the viewer understand how it would have felt at the time it was actually happening.

At times, this was a bit frustrating. For all of its artistic impact, the film is long. Movies, especially those meant for more than just simple entertainment, are allowed to be long, but the goal is for the viewer not to feel its length. Following a decade of violence (Benno Ohnessorg, the initial RAF martyr, was murdered in 1967 and the terrorist attack in the film, the hijacking of the Lufthansa plane occurred in 1977), there were moments where the plot simply dragged, especially in the beginning. The ending scenes being as important as they are, I wish Baader-Meinhof had chosen to concentrate less on the beginnings of the group, and focus on what make it more unique and thought-provoking.

As for other films depicting the lives of RAF members, such as 2011’s Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (Engl: If Not Us, Who?) which focuses on Gudrun Ensslin in the events leading up to forming the RAF, the choice to include the trial and the hijacking of the Lufthansa plane is an important distinction from some of the sensational aspects of the earlier scenes. These were no longer idealistic young people fighting against fascism and violence: they were the violence, and they were the ones people had become afraid of.

If there is one specific answer from Baader-Meinhof as to how to tell an intimate story while maintaining distance in thought is to do just that: take the viewer outside of the characters’ headspace for a portion of the film. The character of Horst Herald, the leader of the BKA (federal police department), was able to comment on the terrorists’ actions, while serving as a mouthpiece for some other thoughts viewers would be having throughout the film. It is not enough to focus on stopping these specific terrorists; one must also change the conditions that lead to the terrorism in the first place. Commenting on not only the actions, which are still irredeemable no matter the motive, rather the political aspects that lead to such acts of mass terrorism, transforms this film from a mere biopic to a still relevant critique on social issues that persist to this day.

The film is an unflinching portrayal of what it means to enact unthinkable terrors for all of the right reasons, and ultimately gives no redemption to its protagonists. It does not leave anyone off of the hook, and it’s better for it. In a day and age where the truth is distorted from all sides, and blame is a five-letter word, it is immensely refreshing to watch a film that is willing to tell a story from all perspectives.