Baader Meinhof Complex, The (2008): Germany’s Nominee for Foreign Language Oscar

(Der Baader Meinhof Komplex)

German Nominee for Best Foreign Language Oscar


By Dante A. Ciampaglia


Director Uli Edel and writer Bernd Eichinger push our tolerance for allegorical movies to the breaking point in their technically accomplished but overlong and emotionally arrested film “Der Baader Meinhof Komplex,” this year’s Germany’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.


Edel and Eichinger meticulously recreate late 1960s and 1970s Germany in the film, while revisit the years during which the Baader Meinhof Group, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), terrorized West Germany.  An ultra-left wing militant group. The RAF sprung out of the global protests that characterized much of 1968. The group was led by Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a journalist before giving up her life for the revolution, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek).


Like their comrades in the U.S., France, Mexico, and elsewhere, the RAF raged against American imperialism, the threat of the police state, and the authority apparatus, which they viewed as corrupt and decadent.  But unlike the students in the U.S., for example, the RAF was really committed to the idea of fighting a revolution. They abandoned their children, robbed banks, shot people, planted bombs in heavily-populated buildings, kidnapped state leaders, and trained in Jordan with militants fighting Israel. The Weather Underground had nothing on the RAF.


Every event in “Der Baader Meinhof Komplex” is played out in fine detail, either through recreating the moments directly or using contemporary news footage. There isn’t a murder, move in prison, or piece of operational minutiae that is left unexplored.  Edel and Eichinger had even recreated world events that had impact on the RAF, such as the assassination of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972. (That event was the subject of meticulous recreation in Spielberg’s 2005 film “Munich.”)


The end result is a well-crafted period drama that plays more like a spy thriller than a history lesson. In moments like the brazen kidnapping of an important government leader and the coordinated robbery of three banks, Edel gives the movie a commendable vitality.


But Edel as a co-writer may be his own worst enemy. He and Eichinger sap the directorial vigor out of “Der Baader Meinhof Komplex” by making the movie totally unapproachable emotionally. Viewers can’t latch onto any of the characters as worthy of identification or empathy. The members of the RAF are depicted as awful, cold-blooded people who blame society for their crimes, while the government is an ineffectual albatross struggling to contain this new threat to its existence called “terrorism.”  When we hear Urlike Meinhoff or Andreas Baader complaining about the police state or the “pig” cops or what they see as resurgent fascism in their country, we don’t say, “Yeah, you ARE oppressed! I hope those people in the government get what they deserve.” Instead, we think, “You deserved harsher punishment.”


It doesn’t help that Edel and Eichinger take a dim view of their anti-heroes. They don’t celebrate the actions of the RAF by any stretch. Instead, they present them matter-of-factly, through television reports and their own recreations. In the absence of any sort of editorializing, the actions of the RAF stand on their own merits and demonstrate how repugnant these “revolutionaries” were.  Edel and Eichinger never come right out and reject the RAF, nor do they openly accept them. Rather, they leave it up to the individual viewer to either condone or condemn the group and its acts.


That said, Edel and Eichinger browbeat the audience throughout the film about terrorism and how American imperialism was the direct cause of terror and bloodshed in places far removed from the battlefield. They’re clearly miffed about that whole Iraq War and occupation of the Middle East.


Unfortunately, there isn’t much intellectual thinking (or originality) in comparing the general scheme of world events in the late 1960s and early 1970s with what is happening today.  But that doesn’t stop Edel and Eichinger from devoting screen time to it through political meetings, student demonstrations, and TV reports.  Their determination to draw parallels between 1968 and 2008 becomes oppressive and also tests the viewer’s patience.


However, it’s the narrative repercussions that harm “Der Baader Meinhof Komplex” the most. Edel and Eichinger are already showing viewers characters that are unlikable and unworthy of emotional attachment.  And though the leaders of the RAF are interesting people, and the group they created is an important one, they are never fleshed out because the filmmakers are more concerned with proselytizing. They also fail to realize that their movie would benefit from a deeper investigation of the RAF and the drama of its moment in time.


Reprehensible as it might have been, the RAF deserves a big screen treatment; there have been TV movies on the group.  It’s an organization that existed during a dramatic period of the 20th century, and a legitimate, substantive exploration would be well worth watching. Unfortunately, “Der Baader Meinhof Komplex” isn’t that movie.  While technically proficient, it’s hard to ignore the deep cracks in the film’s narrative foundation.




Directed by Uli Edel




Starring Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Niels-Bruno Schmidt