Uli Edel’s film (2008) about the Baader-Meinhof group (not that they ever called themselves that – they were the Red Army Fraction or Faction, depending on how you want to translate Fraktion) is satisfyingly long (and was originally longer). I like a long film, and once happily sat through the Russian version of War and Peace, which clocked in at about six hours, as I remember. I like to be absorbed by the screen to the exclusion of all other things, and I also like films which deal with twentieth century history.
The problem with a film about violent radicals (or whatever you want to call them) is that it will in some way sanitise or glamourise them. Given that the cleanness of the screen is bound to do this a little, I thought Edel did exceptionally well. It wasn’t just a question of balance: indeed, I’m not sure we did see both sides of the argument. It’s that it offered no particular concessions to anyone, and did its best to explain what happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It’s difficult, Iwould say, for anyone British and my age – I’m just slightly too young, for once – to summon up the story accurately. It must have been harder for anyone twenty years or more younger than me. I started with only some vague and erroneous recollections, one of which was certainly that Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof were lovers, and planned their raids on German – then West German – authority in radical harmony. What the film makes clear is that Baader and Meinhof were not particularly close, and that Baader’s lover, Gudrun Ensslin, was to a certain degree the real brains of the outfit, and that Baader had a hothead instinct, and a slightly unlovely alpha-male aspect. Meinhof was a journalist who was drawn in to the company of Ensslin and Baader, and by the time of the trial of the group, for a variety of shootings and kidnappings, and Frantz Fanon-inspired revolutionary rhetoric, the pair had fallen out. What the film doesn’t seem to have a take on is the question of the suicides of Meinhof (during the trial) and later, Baader and Ensslin and others, while in jail. Meinhof was alleged to have shot himself in the back of the head. That doesn’t seem likely, does it? But the film stayed away from the conspiracy theorising which wrecks films like, for instance, Stone’s JFK. It also stayed at a slightly remote distance from Meinhof’s decision to put the group, more or less, above her relationship with her twin daughters.
Edel’s producer but (more importantly) screenwriter is Bernd Eichinger, who made such a good job of Downfall (its leading actor, Bruno Ganz, has a cameo here as a police investigator). Eichinger is the one who seems to lift this film out of the ordinary. He offers us a terse script, one which stays away from almost anything gratuitous, and which allows Edel to concentrate on astonishing re-creations, like the visit of the Shah of Persia, then seen as a very glamorous figure by the West, to Germany, and the demonstration against him in which a protestor was shot dead. Perhaps the best scene – again, a reminder of what I’d forgotten – showed the culture clash between the German revolutionaries and the nascent Palestinian Liberation Organisation. With Baader referring to the leading Palestinian as ‘Ali Baba’, you could see that the Red Army Faction was all over the shop when it came to seeing things in any kind of global perspective.
Clean, slightly neutral, shot as a kind of documentary, this had nearly all the virtues of Downfall, and was the sort of history lesson which encourages people to find out more. It will be interesting to see if anyone ever makes a comparably determined film about Arafat or even the IRA (only rubbish on that front so far). It was the most thorough film I’ve seen for quite a bit, and one which I want to watch again.