Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Over the weekend I watched the dramatization of the events surrounding the 1960s terrorist group the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group) in the film The Baader Meinhof Complex. I had some vague impression that they had perhaps set off some bombs in Germany in the 1960s, but I had no idea of the extent of their activities. While their many atrocities were shown during the film, their motivations, goals and backgrounds were all left out. Since the film is German, I assume the director thought that the audience would be familiar with the events in the film. For someone who didn't grow up in that era or that country, it was all somewhat confusing.

The story starts with some student protests at universities in Germany in the late 1960s. Like most students at the time, they were upset with the events taking place in Viet Nam. Ulrike Meinhof was a journalist, somewhat older than the other members of the group. She was also married and had two children. She starts off as a somewhat fringe follower of the group, but makes a snap decision to go with the fleeing members after they break a prisoner out of jail. After that, she is part of the group.

It was difficult to follow who all the members of the group were, apart from the 3 main characters: Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. There were always plenty of other people milling about, but none of them really stood out. What was never explained was why the group came to be known as the Baader Meinhof Group. Andreas Baader was extremely hostile and contemptuous toward everyone, but especially toward Ulrike Meinhof. It seems strange that their names are linked forevermore in that way. It's also difficult to understand how Meinhof became such a fanatical follower of the group that she was willing to have her children sent to a Palestinian orphanage and to never see them again.

The members of the group were forever spouting off about wanting to help oppressed people and ending imperialism. How they planned to do that through robbing banks and bombing department stores was never explained. They seemed to have no means of support (the bank robbing took place pretty far into the course of events), yet they were forever flying off to be trained in terrorism methods in places like Jordan. The "terrorists" came across as terribly rude, shallow and unaware. The German girls delighted in sunbathing in the nude in full view of their Arab hosts in Jordan. Baader thinks it's hilarious to pick pockets of innocent pedestrians, but he goes ballistic when someone steals his car. And so on.

The group eventually becomes involved in more and more extreme activities. In addition to their bombing and bank raiding activities, they were also implicated in the murders of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a plane hijacking, murders, assassinations, and so on. What was really strange was that much of the German public at the time apparently supported the group and their anarchistic activities. When the main members of the group are captured and put on trial, their every utterance is met with cheers from the courtroom spectators. And I didn't get the impression that all the spectators were their fellow Red Army Faction members, either. There has been some speculation that the public support for the group stemmed from leftover feelings of guilt and mistrust for authority in the aftermath of World War II. Whatever the cause, it was very strange.

The trial sequences were also unusual. There never seemed to be any lawyers present or speaking for either the prosecution or the defendants. The courtroom scenes basically showed one of the four defendants railing about how their rights were being ignored and how the trial was a farce. The defendants also engaged in the very adult pursuit of calling the judges rude names. It might have been easier to feel sorry for the poor prisoners if it didn't seem as if they were receiving extremely favorable treatment in jail. They all had very nice and large cells, complete with color TVs, bookcases, typewriters and other amenities. They were all allowed to meet, apparently for most of the day together, and seemed to have adjacent cells (the men and the women all together on the same floor).

I could just never get what it was all about. Not why the group embarked on its murderous, destructive mission, nor what their defence was during the trials, nor what rights of their were supposedly being violated. None of it made any sense. The film seemed to end rather abruptly with the deaths (suicides?) of the four main characters. While they were in jail, the outside members of the group were committing more atrocities. Whatever happened to them? Nothing is mentioned. It's as if the group stopped with the leaders' deaths, but this was clearly not the case.

I enjoyed the film for showing the events surrounding the group, even if I don't really understand what was going on. Still, it's an interesting snapshot of a point in history that I'm too young to remember.

Final Verdict for The Baader Meinhof Complex: Two Gherkins, for being a vivid, if somewhat confusing, depiction of a turbulent time in German history


Travel With Lulu said...

Your Gherkin rating is very clever ;)


Lisanne624 said...

Thanks for your comment Laura! I was in London when the Gherkin was under construction, and fell in love with it when I saw the little, triangle-shaped windows poking out. So cute, although they're probably glued shut now . . .

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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