FILM SEPTEMBER 5, 2009
The Baader Meinhof Complex
From Germany comes a film about German terrorists. Fittingly stark and dynamic, it focuses on the Baader Meinhof group that flamed from about 1967 to 1977, and it offers its explanation of the group’s existence. The clergyman father of one of the terrorists says that these radical young people were angered because Germany had learned so little about justice and equity from the Nazi era: the country just went back to pre-Hitler greed and exploitation and its own varieties of injustice--slippages that provoked the action to which his daughter was dedicated.
This outrage in young people--at their country’s failure to learn sufficiently from the Nazi experience--explodes in violence. Political activity won’t suffice: politicking, they feel, is what the Establishment wants them to do. These young radicals opt for arrant attack. They rob banks for funds, purchase arms, kidnap bosses, commit arson, and--if they think it necessary--kill. They hijack a Lufthansa plane. To protest the Vietnam war, they bomb two U.S. army bases in Germany. They hope to frighten the powerful into change and to arouse their fellow Germans in general. (The film doesn’t mention the other prominent terrorist group at the time, the Red Brigade, composed of radical young Italians similarly outraged by their own country’s lack of progress after fascism.)
The Baader Meinhof Complex was based on a book by Stefan Aust, who knew Ulrike Meinhof and some others in the group. The producer-adapter, Bernd Eichinger, and the director, Uli Edel (who also worked on the script), were in film school together in Munich during the early 1970s and were immersed in the thick, menacing atmosphere of the terrorist days. They say that they have long wanted to treat the subject, and after two quite different films, they felt the moment had come. It has come for their viewers, too. Their film is like an express-train ride through its subject, except that the view from the window is always disconcertingly sharp.
At least one memorable film has already been made about these terrorists. Margarethe von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane (1981), though it did not use the names Baader and Meinhof, evokes the mood of their era. A young woman who is staunchly liberal--feminist, pro-abortion, and so on--has a terrorist sister with whom she has a conflicted relationship. In time, for personal reasons, the liberal sister is drawn out of the periphery toward the activist center.
The Edel-Eichinger film plunges right into that center. In the Berlin of 1967, Meinhof, a left-wing journalist, becomes closely acquainted with two activists, Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin. Even before she meets them, Meinhof is seething with anger at the society around her. (A prime cause: when students protest the fawning Berlin welcome of the tyrannical Shah of Iran, the police kill a protester.) Meinhof, though married and a mother, decides to join the terrorists. Her husband is sympathetic to her ideas but thinks he must take the children away. She concedes.
Meinhof and Baader and Ensslin, with a considerable number of others, form what the press calls the Baader Meinhof Group, possibly because Meinhof writes most of the propaganda. The group calls itself the Red Army Faction. Some of its members even go to Jordan for training in weaponry and tactics by Arab militants. They then embark on a program of violence that roils Germany and beleaguers the police. The film details many of the violent acts explicitly, and it all begins to seem too much until we recognize what the point is.
Mimesis. Edel and Eichinger want to reproduce in the experience of their film the same contradiction that the RAF created in life--a contradiction between our presumed agreement about what these terrorists loathe and our shock at what they do about it. To create this contrast, the producer and director have brought us closer to these characters, in their selves and interplay, than the media could possibly have done; and to keep the contradiction firm, they have also had to emphasize the other component--the rank violence.
The Kalashnikovs keep that violence stunning. The colors of the characters come from the cast. In fact, Martina Gedeck as Meinhof, Moritz Bleibtreu as Baader, and Johanna Wokalek as Ensslin are so fiercely intelligent and sure that they strengthen both sides of the contradiction. Bruno Ganz, in the script’s most taking role, gives weighty, thoughtful presence to Horst Herold, the head of the Federal Criminal Investigation Agency, who keeps trying to read the RAF’s mind.
Arrests and trials eventually come about. The trial of Baader and Meinhof and many of their friends goes on for almost two years, beginning in 1975. During the proceedings, Baader and his friends in the gallery do their irreverent best to mock the legal formalities. Meinhof is more grave. Incensed at the way in which this trial, to her, symbolizes and sustains all that she has fought against, she bursts into fury. The judge orders her to be taken out. Not long after, she hangs herself in her cell.
Others of the RAF, also imprisoned, also commit suicide. In subsequent years some commentators have contended that the RAF people were murdered by the police, but their companions believe that they were suicides--people who had come to the end of their road. Baader and Ensslin, too, virtually promise suicide, promises that were later kept. Actually, the RAF continued its violence until the 1990s, but the film conveys the sense that, with the trial and these suicides, an era ended--an era that was, in its ideological genesis, a Nazi-caused phenomenon.
The picture itself ends abruptly. Its sudden finish confirms the Edel-Eichinger intent to mimic its subject by attacking convention--in their case, cinematic convention. Chiefly and potently, however, The Baader Meinhof Complex dramatizes an answer to a question that is asked of the Ganz character toward the close. “Why do people join the Red Army Faction?” an aide asks him. His reply is simple. “A myth,” he says. That myth, we can infer, is the possible perfectibility of the world. Edel’s swift, stabbing, intense film presents young radicals inebriated with that myth, who keep trying to progress toward perfection with increasingly desperate cruelties.
Still Walking is a Japanese film about the annual one-day meeting of a middle-class family. It is also a definition of the difference between soap opera and domestic drama. A soap opera wants to involve us in household happenings. But this Japanese film makes clear very early that what is said and done is only the means of getting to what it is
really about. The characters are vivid enough, but the story isn’t much: we are meant to concentrate--and do so willingly--on the lives that are being led.
We are in and around the home of a retired doctor, Kyohei, near Yokohama, with a view of the sea. Toshiko, his wife, is busily preparing food with her daughter. (The first shot is of a huge radish being peeled.) En route we meet the eldest living son, Ryota, who is bringing his new wife and her son (from a previous marriage) to meet his parents.
Kyohei, the old doctor, is gruff and cool, now and always. We assume that he is angry at age for forcing him into retirement, which is true but incomplete. He still resents--the right word--the fact that his eldest son, Junpei, was drowned fifteen years earlier while rescuing a child. This family meeting is their annual remembrance of Junpei’s sacrifice. He was his father’s favorite, and was to have become a doctor; Ryota, his successor (so to speak), is an art restorer currently unemployed.
The day and the dinner proceed more or less as expected, with hugs and small spats and laughter and languor. The one unusual element is the presence of an overweight and dull young man who is always invited to these occasions. He was the small boy for whom Junpei gave his life fifteen years earlier, and his presence--taciturnly--abrades the old doctor further. After this guest leaves, the family tries to resolve not to invite him to the next annual meeting but suspect that they will do it anyway.
The day includes a visit to Junpei’s grave, with flowers. Later there is some fuss about who is going to sleep where in the pleasant but relatively small house. The next day the family breaks up once more into its subgroups. Each group, when alone, notes that this get-together is so close to New Year’s Day that they don’t need to gather again for the holiday.
A postlude caps the film and confirms its being. A few years have passed. Ryota and wife, who were urged by his mother to have a child, visit the cemetery with her son and the small daughter that they now have, to honor the graves of the doctor and his wife, both of whom died a few years after the gathering we attended. Then the camera ascends to show us the sea, the harbor, ships.
That view seems a deliberate reference to the last shot of Ozu’s masterwork, Tokyo Story. In its lesser but authentic way, this new film is exploring the same subject: time. Passage through every finite day toward infinity. Still Walking is not as much a story, a drama, as merely a day spent with this family’s doings--a moving reminder that we who are watching it are 114 minutes further along in the stuff of life when it is finished. Respectfully, the writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda offers us his film as a companion’s gentle embrace.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.