Thursday, May 30, 2013

Short Fuse: The Baader Meinhof Gang as Action Film

Originally appeared in the 9/18/09

"The Baader Meinhof Complex"

There are some things the German Red Army Faction -- the RAF, or Baader Meinhof Gang -- had in common with ultra-militant elements of the American New Left, as I knew and participated in it in the '60s and '70s. As presented in  German director's Uli Edel's, "The Baader Meinhof Complex", they smoked incessantly, as if Che had written: "Let me say, at the risk of being ridiculous, that the true task of a revolutionary is to assimilate tar and nicotine." Or Mao: "Revolution is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery, yet reeks hugely of cigarettes."

Baader Meinhof gang members curse a lot, as we did, though, at least in translation, they lack for colorful expressions, such as "Far Fucking Out!" which were springing out of all corners of the American counter-culture, political or not. These Germans settle for the routine expletive, "Scheiss!" Can a movement so dull in expletives be truly inventive -- except by being more murderous?

Also, though the Germans, as depicted in this film, argue a lot, they barely quote Marx, Engels, Lenin (let's skip Stalin) or Mao, much less Debray, Ho, Giap, Gramsci, or Marcuse. We, on the other hand, for a supposedly moronically anti-intellectual bunch of Americans, did refer often to such sources. We needed massive ideological backup for the lengths to which our opposition, as Americans being drafted to fight the War in Vietnam, was driving us.

The far fucking out Germans in this film, however, mostly just raise their voices and scream. They don't seem to have emerged from a student movement rich in argumentation, nor to have discovered, gradually, painfully, demonstration by demonstration, as we did, that talk didn't slow the bombing, agent oranging, or napalming of Vietnam, nor soften the impact on our skulls of police clubs. The RAF appears to have sprung fully formed out of the psychotic German mix of dogmatism and violence -- plus one key element that brought it all to boil: the hatred of their children toward the generation that had brought the Nazis to power. When Jerry Rubin said, "Kill everyone over thirty," it was at least arguably tongue in cheek. The RAF had no cheeks.

"The Baader Meinhof Complex," is not a film about how an initially idealistic, anti-war, mass movement can spawn and in the end be distorted and defined by whacked out terrorists, who thrive in the zone where psychosis and politics merge. Such a movie would be useful to have, though not so easy to make. Instead Edel has opted for an action flick, and, by the standards of that genre, has succeeded. The history of the day stands behind his portrayals of beatings, bombings, shootings, assassinations, suicides, and during relative lulls, mere slugfests.

It's worth noting, as a footnote to the film, that the three countries where true terrorist networks took hold during that era were Germany, Italy, and Japan. These were the Axis Powers of World War II. The American left came close to the same hideous extremes, but drew back in time.

Still, as I left the theater, I heard one guy singing, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Make of it what you will, we introduced ourselves, and shook hands.

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