'The Baader Meinhof Complex': Student Unrest, By Kurt Loder

From Germany, a fiery action film with lots more on its mind.

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" is a smart and explosively powerful movie about a German student terrorist gang of the 1970s, and the wave of arson, robbery, kidnappings and murder with which they shook their country's government — in the process triggering exactly the sort of right-wing repression against which they claimed to be crusading. The picture was a deserving Oscar nominee earlier this year for Best Foreign Language Film, and in its weaving-together of the intricacies of social ferment and the bullet-riddled reality of what the gang wrought, it's a fascinating achievement.

The Baader Meinhof Group, as the gang was called in the press (they styled themselves the Red Army Faction, or RAF), was actually led by Gudren Ensslin (played here by Johanna Wokalek), a blonde parson's daughter turned steely-willed Marxist revolutionary, along with her highly charismatic boyfriend, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), a petty thief and intellectual primitive with a taste for fast cars (usually stolen) and guns, and a grand vision of himself as a Brandoesque action-movie hero. Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck, of the Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others") was popularly portrayed as the group's other leader, but was essentially a subsidiary propaganda minister — a famous left-wing journalist who found herself drawn into the group's violent orbit after being confronted with the hypocrisy of her revolutionary rhetoric in print when measured against her failure to join in armed action herself.

The picture takes us from Baader and Ensslin's first operation — an arson attack against two Frankfurt department stores — through all the subsequent bank robberies, kidnappings, shootings, bombings and gun battles, and the group's training in the Middle East with Palestinian terrorists (who didn't appreciate their casual attitude toward sex and nudity). In a spectacular section of the film, we see the capture of the RAF's top leaders in 1972, and their imprisonment in Stuttgart's specially-fortified Stammheim prison, where, during an uproarious trial (the dialogue in these scenes is taken from the trial transcripts), they were all found guilty of various murders and other depredations and sentenced to life in prison.

Ulrike Meinhof committed suicide in prison, and in 1977, the other RAF leaders followed suit. (The guns that were found in their cells had almost certainly been smuggled in to them by their lawyers, who were fellow radicals.) By this point, the group had developed a large national youth following, which formed a "second generation" RAF and carried on the group's murderous legacy for years. These homicidal successors didn't announce their disbanding until 1998.

Like similar political ideologues of the period — in the Weather Underground in this country, and the Japanese Red Army and the Italian Red Brigades — the Baader Meinhof Group forged early links with Arab terrorist organizations, and helped fashion a Western template for urban-guerilla action. Arising out of the worldwide antiwar protest movement of the late 1960s, the group had justifiable grievances: They were the children of the Nazi generation, appalled by what their parents had done during the Hitler period and outraged by the number of former Nazis who had insinuated themselves back into positions of social power after the Second World War. But the RAF, like the other national terror groups, operated under a fundamental delusion — that the proletariat they sought to lead into armed revolt actually had any interest at all in following them.

"Baader Meinhof" is the most expensive German-language movie ever made in that country (it cost $20-million), and the outlay is apparent in the film's production values (parts of it were shot in Rome and Morocco) and in the top-flight direction by Uli Edel, who masterfully orchestrated a cast that included more than 120 speaking parts and more than 6000 extras. The three lead actors are superb, especially Wokalek, who's both sultry and very scary, and Bleibtreu, who speaks the international language of movie-star magnetism.

The major force behind the picture, however, was producer Bernd Eichinger, who also wrote the script, based on a meticulously researched book by journalist Stefan Aust. Eichinger is a remarkable figure in the German film industry. He's drawn to quality projects (like the Oscar-nominated "Downfall"), but he also has an unerring instinct for popular blockbusters (he's the man behind the "Fantastic Four" and "Resident Evil" pictures). Here, packing his movie with a wealth of vivid history while the guns keep blazing and bombs keep going off, he's realized both ambitions, and scored a direct hit.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "World's Greatest Dad" and "Inglorious Basterds", both new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Baader Meinhof Complex."

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