Movie review: 'The Baader Meinhof Complex'

This stark thriller dissects the motivations of urban terrorists.

Courtesy of Constantin Film Verleih GmbH
A scene from the film, 'The Baader Meinhof Complex.'

Most current movies about terrorists are ripped from today's headlines, but "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is ripped from yesterday's – which turns out to be not so far removed from now.

By any measure – political smarts, thrills, period re-creations – this is one of the best recent films of its kind, and a throwback, in some ways, to such incendiary political films as "Z" and "State of Siege" (both directed by Costa-Gavras). As in those movies, the present-tense immediacy of "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is stunningly revelatory.

Directed by Uli Edel and written by Bernd Eichinger (based on a nonfiction book by Stefan Aust), the film is a panoramic dissection of the notorious West German terrorist group that called itself the Red Army Faction and, in the 1970s, bombed a newspaper office, a police station, and several United States Army encampments. They killed some 30 people and were fiercely defended by the far left from which, until 1998, new branches of the faction evolved as terrorists were killed or died in prison.

The action is framed by the Vietnam War and the political assassinations in America, but the faction's agitations run the gamut. They're equal-opportunity terrorists. At one point, they decamp to Jordan, where they train haphazardly with their Pal­estinian counterparts. When the shah of Iran and his wife visit West Berlin, demonstrators rallied by the gang are clubbed by the police.

This violence fuels the faction's bedrock belief that to live in a police state is no different from living in the Nazi storm trooper era. Amid all the posturing and bloodshed perpetrated by these home-grown, mostly middle-class terrorists, one note of poignancy sounds: Whatever their depredations, these children of the Nazi era saw themselves as trying to rid their country of another Third Reich.

Andreas Baader (Mor­itz Bleibtreu) is seriously out of control. Like many ideologues, he is much more about power than about ideology. Despite his superficial obeisance to political/feminist liberation, he treats the women in the group as flunkies, and his wayward political ecumenicalism does not extend to the Middle East, whose denizens he calls, "Ali Babas." He is fond of saying, "Having sex and shooting are the same thing."

His counterpart is Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a columnist who, in the film's most powerful sequence, makes a fateful decision to join the gang. She sees an open window through which, if she jumps, her life will be forever changed. As she jumps, it's as if a death knell has sounded.

Ulrike is an archetypal example of how a zealot's political sympathies trump everything, even family. She seems unfazed by her decision to leave her young daughters behind as she goes about her mission. Throughout most of the movie, Ulrike operates in an insensate zone. She never seems fully in the moment. She has zapped most of the bourgeois from her bearing but she hasn't found a vibrant identity to replace it. In the process of finding herself, she loses herself.

There's a fine line to walk when making a film about outlaws: A few wrong moves and, presto, glamorization occurs. To its credit, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" almost entirely avoids this pitfall. It leaves us with a question that may be unanswerable: How does one extinguish terrorism when its causes are myriad? Grade: A- (Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.)

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