Magazine article Artforum International

Leap of Faith: Gary Indiana on the Baader Meinhof Complex

Magazine article Artforum International

Leap of Faith: Gary Indiana on the Baader Meinhof Complex

Article excerpt

ULI EDEL'S BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX is a hyper-compressed, epic, tile-work rendering of Stefan Aust's definitive 1985 book of the same name. Aust, before becoming editor of Der Spiegel, covered the activities of the Red Army Faction as a young reporter, from the RAF's inception in 1970. His exhaustive account begins at the end--with the death of Andreas Baader in his Stammheim Prison cell on October 18, 1977. Edel, director of such films as Christiane F. (1981) and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), begins his narrative, on the contrary, before the beginning of the story, with two vignettes establishing Ulrike Meinhof's dual pre-RAF credentials as haute bourgeois and gifted leftist polemicist. Thus the film opens in May 1967, on the North Sea resort island of Sylt, summer encampment of German celebrities, where Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), star columnist for the monthly konkret, and her husband, Klaus Rainer Rohl (Hans-Werner Meyer), who founded the magazine, are soaking up the sun on a nude beach with their twin girls. Next we see Rohl, back home, urging his reluctant wife to regale the guests at an upper-crust, leftist cookout with a reading of her latest column, written in response to a recently published interview with the empress of Iran.

The piece is a blistering attack on the shah, then visiting Berlin with his wife--and, as Rohl boasts, tens of thousands of copies have been distributed among radical students. On June 2, all hell breaks loose in the streets as demonstrators are attacked outside the Berlin Opera House (where the empress and shah have arrived for a performance of The Magic Flute), first by pro-shah demonstrators (actually agents of the notorious SAVAK), then by the West German police. Amid the tear gas, cudgeling, and wholesale chaos, twenty-six-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg is shot to death.

Ohnesorg's killing, the 1968 arson attack on a Frankfurt department store by Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) in protest of the Vietnam War, and the attempted murder of SDS activist Rudi Dutschke (Sebastian Blomberg) that same year set off a sequence of escalating violence and calls for "resistance to the state" by such groups as the June 2 Movement and what would later become known as the Red Army Faction.

The newsreel rapidity of Edel's film doesn't exactly eliminate all space for reflection on what happens in it, but it is difficult to decide whether the film intends to enclose an especially traumatic historical era in firmly planted parentheses or to stimulate questions about the consequences of the "German Autumn." It maintains an equivocal, even sympathetic stance toward the RAF's terrorism, almost as if the adrenaline thrill of violence that overcame the RAF's founders constituted exculpatory evidence on their behalf. Of course, many would argue that the state's excesses in response to the RAF made the escalation of violence inevitable; then, too, the RAF's goal was precisely to strip what it called the Raspberry Reich of its mask of democratic freedoms, reveal its true, repressive nature, and thereby create a popular revolution. That isn't what happened.

As The Baader Meinhof Complex faithfully reenacts, Baader and Ensslin, arrested, tried, and convicted of arson, skip bail while out on appeal. Baader is soon captured by the police, and "the group" now focuses its energies on liberating him from Tegel Prison. Meinhof, sympathetic to their cause, helps out by obtaining permission for Baader to meet with her at the Dahlem Institute for Social Research, where they are allegedly to collaborate on a book. On May 14, 1970, while Baader and Meinhof pretend to work in the reading room, Ensslin and her cadre storm the institute, in the process shooting a staff member. They escape through a window.


In the film, Meinhof (played by Gedeck with a mixture of astute curiosity, willful delusion, and self-abnegation) hesitates: She could, quite plausibly, have stayed in the reading room, "decoy" that she was supposed to be, feigned horror at the whole business, and pleaded ignorance of the planned escape. …

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