Monday, November 17, 2008

When the fireworks hit you, in Mogadishu

It's quite amusing reading reviews of Uli Edel's The Baader-Meinhof Complex, where the writers invariably worry about whether or not the group's 'activities' are glamourised. After actually seeing the film, the answer seems so blindingly self-evident that it's amazing it's ever considered an open question: of course it does. Not only does it open with outright terrifying scenes of police brutality as if to remind us who shot first, it also depicts cheering crowds egging on Ensslin, Baader and co at their farcical Stammheim trial, every heist is shot like a steroidal Peckinpah, and that's before we even come to the thoroughly Bechdel-passing depiction of miniskirted middle class Teutonic ladies waving Kalashnikovs around. This is overwhelmingly the story of the Red Army Faction as rock stars, and in that it is a film that would have far more appeal to halfwitted sub-Jim Morrison cocksman Andreas Baader than it can speak about the Shakespearian tragedy of Ulrike Meinhof, intellectual and mother turned deluded, if utterly eloquent bomber. 

Political sophistication falls by the wayside, as the meticulous details of clothes, books and cars outweigh the geopolitical questions: why are they in Jordan? Who is Hanns Martin Schleyer? It also marks another incredibly technically accomplished and politically and morally all-over-the-place triumph for the new New German Cinema, after Hitler worrying about having to poison his dog (Downfall), bet-hedging Ostalgie (Goodbye Lenin - and I was successfully emotionally manipulated by that one, I can tell you) an insufferable but beautifully shot tale of intellectuals saving the world from totalitarianism (The Lives of Others), and more sexy middle class revolutionaries, this time contemporary and non-violent (The Edukators). All are fascinating for being popular, populist non-Hollywood films that nonetheless are rampant with Hollywood tropes, from sentimentality to many, many big explosions. It's an odd phenomenon, which can't quite be dismissed or hailed as yet.

The film is so overwhelmingly on the side of the terrorists that one almost wonders if we'll see copycat kidnappings of bankers in its wake, completing the spectacle's feedback loop. Certainly this seems to worry RCP Trot-Thatcherite Kirk Leech, who indulges in an interesting bit of Godwinning with Hitler replaced by Baader, listing a series of apparently commonplace anticapitalist views and proclaiming to our immediate shock and contrition that these views were shared by the Red Army Fraction. Obviously this won't wash, but is an interesting strategy that we may see more of in the future. So much of the RAF's descent into madness was due to the frustration that, as the German proletariat tolerated or ignored US imperialism, specifically the Vietnam war, a paramilitary group had to kickstart revolution - a political absurdity, but interesting in that it just doesn't apply anymore. While the population 'protected' from the Soviet Union turned a blind eye to atrocities, we've seen 2 million in the streets, recognising as fact an imperialism that was once earnestly disputed or wilfully ignored. Having said that, a bomb in Westfield or Bluewater might perhaps have much the same appeal to the malcontent as did the warehouses of the Wirtschaftswunder. More interesting by some way is the discussion of 'the Brain of Ulrike Meinhof' as exemplar of militant dysphoria in Dominic Fox's forthcoming Cold World.


Blogger David Gerard said...

All I could think of was what the Disney version would be like.

7:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

all i could think of was bruce la bruce.

10:25 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

not only did they give him back his legs, but they removed his lisp!

12:11 am  
Blogger David Gerard said...

Oh - I went into Westfield at lunchtime. It's a fair approximation of Hell on earth, with fluorescent lighting. You could bomb it, but I'm not sure how you'd tell anything had happened.

12:17 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

not only did they give him back his legs, but they removed his lisp!


12:25 am  
Blogger Murphy said...

apparently Herr Baader was prone to sibilant s's

1:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's an odd phenomenon, which can't quite be dismissed or hailed as yet."

With regards to this film, and also the recent Die Welle, one can detect a certain anxiety with left wing concepts (in Die Welle the teacher's speech at the end sounds like something even a mild anti-globalist, or indeed Oskar Lafontaine, would say) which is probably a reaction to the rise of the Left party and related processes currently occuring in German society.

The message is: your concerns are understandable but beware extremity! - the security chief in BM who is the obvious mouthpiece of an enlightened, reasonable liberalism is a wholly fictitious insertion that glosses over how authoritarian the BRD actually was. It's the myth of enlightened europe dealing with 'irrational' terrorism reasonably (with present day resonances very much intended), that was never actually the case.

I'd disagree about the film presenting them positively - it constantly tries to undermine them through moments like Baader's anger at the theft of his car (oh the hypocrisy!) which are supposed to be subtle but in fact are rather clumsy attempts not to present them as cool rock stars so much as Spinal Tap.

It utterly fails to actually present their politics (indeed, it doesn't even specify who their targets are - which is a massive omission in the case of Schleyer). The moments where the film succeeds are where the actual group and its words shine through the big smudgy filter of liberal anxiety: we catch glimpses at best.

It also does a significant disservice to Ensslin and particularly Baader: that he was flawed is undeniable, but the comparison she made was to Captain Ahab (Moby Dick was a reference point for them, with the state/levianthan being their object of pursuit) whereas what we see is a petulant child manipulated by his lady macbeth girlfriend.

But perhaps worst of all, it repeats without ambiguity the official version of their deaths at Stammheim - the smuggled weapons, magic radio system and all - despite Aust's book being much more circumspect on this point

No mention of Irmgard Möller surviving, or insisting it was murder.

But then it makes for a better case against 'extremism' if its Ensslin that drives Meinhof to suicide through bitching (and those scenes were all improvised apparently) rather than the state executing her; same for the group suicide. That way the whole thing can just be written off as a dangerous 'cult' (a term as useful in closing down analysis as 'conspiracy theory'*).

(*So useful that I must declare here I am not a 'Truther', kennedy assasination person etc.)

1:59 am  
Blogger Murphy said...

it seemed to me that the 'murder' question was left as open as the evidence itself, i.e. significantly weighted in the one direction...

2:19 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Those are all very good points (the Left-Party-as-underlying-anxiety is especially so, though I think out of my list Goodbye Lenin and the Edukators are both leftist in their occasionally clumsy and sentimental way - but certainly the egregious Lives of Others fits the description, haven't seen Die Welle).

My point really was not that the film makes a coherent case for the RAF - it doesn't do anything coherently - but that it fits so absolutely perfectly the 'Televisionaries' idea of Ensslin and Baader as Bonnie and Clyde, and bar the jibes at Baader's (well attested) stupidity it doesn't do that at all critically, with everything subordinated to the action. The security-guy subplot certainly attempts to be the concerned liberal conscience of the film, but nobody watching is thinking of that. They're watching a dumb high-energy action film, and want to see the police get blown up again. I don't think what Edel has done is at all intentional, but I really think the 'sexy revolutionaries' element overrides practically everything else. But maybe I'm particularly susceptible there...

Also, you're of course totally right on the authoritarianism of the BRD, which why the lack of mention of who Schleyer actually was is very galling (if the film is taken as a historical account, which I certainly wouldn't). Not only did the BRD set up a huge security apparatus to tackle 100 or so youths, indulge in the clubbing and shooting demonstrators and so forth, their higher echelons were absolutely full of Nazis, from Kiesinger to the SS officer Schleyer. Here there's an interesting parallel which occurred to me, and a more intelligent film might make, with Willy Brandt - himself branded a 'terrorist' by the German state at one point.

2:27 am  
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