Sunday, January 24, 2010

Film Review: The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

When does political violence turn into sheer criminality? This is the question at the center of the brilliant German film The Baader Meinhof Complex. Chronicling the history of the Red Army Faction, director Uli Edel creates a fast-paced political thriller that avoids cliche or moralizing. Edel keeps ideology to a minimum, making little attempt to explain the tangled mess of 60s revolutionary theory the German radicals spout. While modern-day radicals might cringe at this, in important ways it doesn't matter what ideology revolutionary movement espouse. Rather, in a post 9/11 world, the sheer ability of people, particularly the bourgeoisie of the world's richest nations, to turn to extremism is a riveting question.

My favorite scene in the film is when the RAF leaders go to Jordan to train in guerrilla tactics from Palestinian militants. It's a total disaster. While the Germans look up to the Middle Eastern radicals in similar ways that white radicals in the United States worshiped African-American revolutionaries, they also don't take their training very seriously. The Germans couldn't stand the gender segregation of Muslim societies while the Muslims were outraged at the nudity and open sexuality of the Germans. When accosted, Baader screams out, "Revolution and fucking are the same thing." I suppose in the minds of white 60s radicals this might have been true, but it also seems that maybe they weren't taking revolution seriously.

Of course, this isn't quite true. It's very hard to argue that the Red Army Faction didn't take their activities seriously. But it's also clear that revolution meant something very different to them than it did to the Vietnamese, Palestinians, Algerians, African-Americans, and other people of color whose revolution was heavily nationalistic. For them, revolution was the survival (or creation) of their imagined state. But for whites, revolution was less central to physical survival. Rather, their rebellion was much more cultural and spiritual. The RAF was disgusted by 50s conformity in much the same way as young people in France and the United States. Their radicalism was also tinged by the German state's forgetting of the Nazi past and the lingering fascism within their government. These were things worth rebelling against, but it also allowed for a sense of play that could not exist in South Africa or Laos. For these kids, fucking was part of the revolution, not because their parents didn't have sex, but because of the shame attached to it.

As we now know, free sex did not mean gender equality. The extreme misogyny of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements helped spawn the women's movement. To Edel's credit, he explores this side of the RAF as well, through the hyper-masculinity and sexism of Baader, a man known to fits of rage and the use of the most vulgar anti-woman epithets. Again, this gets to the brilliance of this film. Rather than engage in deification like the vastly inferior Che, promote the revolutionary movement itself like The Battle of Algiers, or romanticize the 60s like any number of films, Edel presents the RAF without judgment or moralizing. The action-movie oriented style of the film helps a lot because it doesn't allow time for pointless scenes laying everything out for the audience, allowing supposed "moral" voices to enter the dialogue, or other Hollywood tricks. I'm sure Edel disapproves of much of the RAF's history, but to the greatest extent possible, he produces a pseudo-documentary film tracing their history.

The RAF became infamous for their violence. What made them different from other leftist organizations of the time. In his wonderful book Bringing the War Home, Jeremy Varon notes that what made RAF hyper-violent and the American radicals known as the Weathermen less violent was nothing inherent in their nature, but the bomb-making explosion that killed a few Weathermen before they could launch their attacks. These extremist left groups romanticized violence and RAF radicals used it in spades.

But what were they using it for? One might argue that their early attacks had some semblance of social justice around them, though it's dubious. But after the 1st generation of RAF, including Baader and Meinhof, were jailed in the early 1970s, the group turned its energy to getting its members released. In the German Autumn of 1977, RAF members kidnapped a banker and demanded the prisoners release and then worked with Middle Eastern terrorist to hijack a plane. When the hijacking failed, 3 of the imprisoned RAF leaders died (probably by committing suicide, though this is disputed) and the banker was shot.

What good was any of this? At what point does revolutionary violence turn into pointless criminality? When the remnants of the Black Panthers and Weatherman robbed a Brinks armed truck in 1981, killing a guard, what were they trying to do? Particularly in 1981, when any claims to being the vanguard of a revolution were dubious at best. I've thought a lot about revolutionary violence over the years, trying to figure out what is appropriate and what is not. When does the Palestinian freedom movement turn to terrorism, or is that an appropriate tactic? Given the increased inability of the United States to govern itself and the slow collapse of the nation's political institutions, one wonders about the potential rise of political violence in the United States in coming years. Of course, violence has largely been rejected by the left, but certainly not by the right. What was the killing of George Tiller if not political terrorism? Or the killings of the Knoxville Unitarians by the lunatic who hated them for their pro-gay rights positions? How do progressives respond to this?

I don't have any answers to these questions, but a group viewing and discussion of The Baader Meinhof Complex would be a good place to start.