The Baader Meinhof Complex is an unrelenting portrait of the West German terrorist group which both polarized and preyed upon German society in the 1970s. All 150 minutes are riveting; director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn and Downfall) stays as true to actual events as possible while developing a suspenseful narrative with multifaceted characters.
The film begins with Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), the mother of twin daughters and a radical writer, in the comfortable and chic world of late sixties West Germany. But she begins to challenge her easy existence when student protests turn violent and an innocent bystander is killed by the brutal police force. Galvanized by these events, Meinhof’s life takes a radical turn. Before long, she teams up with the charismatic and militant Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), and they go on to found the communist-inspired Red Army Faction, RAF, committed to armed resistance against the German state, which they deemed both fascist and compromised by capitalism’s corrupting influence.
The film’s emphasis on fact over fantasy is its great strength. Director Edel rigorously recounts the chronology of the RAF’s early years, including training camps in Jordan, bomb operations throughout Germany, bank robberies, arms trading, and their final months in prison. Edel does not spend much time speculating about the interior motivations of the individuals involved; rather, he paints a broad picture of social unrest combined with misguided idealism that results in the deaths of more than 30 people.
One could claim that the film idealizes these characters. The handsome movie stars portraying Baader and Meinhof are surely pleasant to look at and the fast paced music of the 1970s adds a rock-star mystique. As viewers, we’re accustomed to empathizing with the main characters of fiction films, and Meinhof is easy to identify with. Her early life is a norm with which we’re all familiar, and her disillusionment is also easy to relate to as family relationships are tested and the political powers seem intolerable and corrupt.
Though her desire to break free from the contradictions of her life is worthy, Meinhof becomes impossible to figure out after her leap into violence, after which it becomes difficult to engage with her; while Baader and his young comrades revel in their outlaw lifestyle, the cause has a price in Meinhof’s life – the relationship to her children. Her trials and demise do not elicit sympathy – instead one marvels at how a bright and otherwise normal individual could become so possessed with propaganda and hatred.
The Baader Meinhof Complex may not be entertaining – in the conventional sense of escapism and distraction – but it is a film worth grappling with. Each person’s motivation for conversion to extremism is inexplicable and nuanced, but even more challenging is our tendency to glamorize the renegade outsider. The RAF lived on long after the deaths of Baader and Meinhof, inspiring future generations to terrorist tactics, because of the mystique surrounding their subversive ways. People admired their willingness to risk everything for what they believed in. While most people would never condone their methods, it seemed their sentiments resonated with many. This film doesn’t provide answers for the powerlessness so many people feel in the face of overshadowing and oppressive governments or cultures corrupted by industries that favor profits over human rights, but it does show the limits and ultimate failure of violent political extremism.