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Film review: The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 12 | May 2009


The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions.

— Karl Marx

DER BAADER-MEINHOF KOMPLEX (2008) dramatizes the violence that the Leftist group the Rote Armee Fraktion ("Red Army Faction" [RAF] aka the Baader-Meinhof) wreaked across West German cities in the 1970s. The film documents, or, rather, reenacts their streak of violence that started with petty vandalism against storefronts in Frankfurt but that soon escalated into more serious acts. In 1972, the RAF launched its notorious "May Offensive," which consisted of a series of lethal attacks on U.S. military installations in Frankfurt and Heidelberg; a car bomb outside the Bavarian Federal Police Headquarters in Munich; another explosion at the offices of the Springer Press in Hamburg, which injured a number of workers inside; as well as an assassination attempt on the federal judge presiding over a case in which RAF members were the defendants. Later, in 1975, the group laid siege to the German Consulate in Stockholm. Then, in 1977, the RAF, in a futile last bid to secure the release of their imprisoned comrades, kidnapped the head of the German Employers' Association and hijacked a Frankfurt-bound Lufthansa flight, in coordination with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. As such, the film asks its audience to consider what, beyond its spectacular or symbolic character, was politically salient about the violent swathe that the RAF hewed in its attempt to foment revolution. The movie also raises an intractable quandary for the Left: How efficacious is the use of violence?

The artist Gerhard Richter offered one answer to these vexations in a cycle of photo paintings 18. Oktober 1977 (1988)-the title refers to the date when the core RAF members committed suicide in a cultish final stand at Stammheim penitentiary in Stuttgart-which were in­tended as a meditation on our "impotence and helpless­ness" as modern capitalist subjects when faced with the inescapable dilemma "to work for revolution and fail."[1] For Richter, who had lived in communist East Berlin, the RAF represented an implausible utopianism. Their death thus marked their emancipation from "the illusion that unacceptable circumstances of life can be changed by this conventional expedient of violent struggle," from "ideology," and from the cycle of "deadly reality, inhuman reality; our rebellion; impotence; failure; death." For Richter, the Baader-Meinhof represented a synthesis of thought and action that is "futile" and outmoded.[2] Later, Richter gnomically remarked that the Left, in the late 1960s, failed to appreciate that the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" had already been realized under capitalism, albeit in a dystopic form.[3] Yet what Richter treated as the historical failures of the New Left, the film renders purely aesthetic. It is a shift that marks a wider amnesia on the Left, an amnesia that, then as now, allows the Rightist character of politically motivated violence to be mistaken for progressive anti-capitalism. The film thus naturalizes the shift toward militant action in the late 1960s that Richter lamented as an intolerable solution to the stark dilemma that confronted the German New Left: Either dissolve into Cold War liberalism or social-democratic anti-Communism, or else follow the more drastic alternative and model a hardened militancy on the example of Che or Mao.

Director Uli Edel reanimates the politically fraught era of the 1960s in three staccato sequences. In the first sequence, students are seen protesting in the streets, their ire directed at the Shah of Iran as a patsy of U.S. imperialism. On June 2, 1967, as the Shah attends a rendition of The Magic Flute at the Deutsch Oper Berlin, the demonstration outside collapses into chaos. An undercover officer shoots a student, Benno Ohnesorg, in the melee. Gundrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), another Freie Universität student, recoils at the scene. Thereafter, she is adamant that violent resistance is the answer when confronted by an ever more "fascist"-like state-"kill or be killed," in the words of the RAF's Amer­ican counterparts, the Weather Underground. In another scene, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) entertains visitors at a backyard party with selections from a column she is penning on the excesses of the Shah's wife, Farah Diba, for the radical magazine konkret. Her expressions nonetheless belie the ambivalence she harbors toward her own parochially middle-class life as a writer. Meanwhile, the opera incident occasions a debate on precisely this question, What role should "intellectuals" play in relation to the (student-led) Left of the 1960s? As an aside, this is the immediate historical context in which Jürgen Habermas characterized student activism on the New Left, with its emphasis on voluntarist action, as portending fascist tendencies. And, indeed, as the film unfolds, the yearning that Meinhof experiences as a call to action eventually slides into a pathologically untenable antinomy of thought versus action.

Film still, The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008)

Film still, The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008)

Later, when Ensslin is introduced to the volatile Andreas Baader at a hashish-fueled gathering of young Leftists, the new couple resolves to answer the call to arms sounded in a satirical leaflet prodding symbolic attacks on consumerism. Kommune I, the same Situ­ationist group that hatches "the pudding assassination" of Hubert Humphrey, takes its macabre inspiration to incite arson from news reports about a departmentstore inferno in Brussels that killed over three hundred people. A small, literal-minded group with the Ensslin-Baader pairing at its head sets off explosives at various high-street stores in Frankfurt am Main in April 1968. All of them are promptly arrested. At their trial, we see Ensslin, speaking also on behalf of the other arson­ists, remark that the attacks were intended to shake the commonplace "indifference" to the war in Vietnam. Her ex-boyfriend, Berward Vesper, then defends their actions in an article which argues that, in prosecuting these property crimes, commodities take on humanoid traits, while those killed in Vietnam are turned into mere statistics.[4] In the pages of konkret, Meinhof similarly contrives to exculpate the property crimes insofar as they interrupt the ceaseless "logic of accumulation" shielded by a legal system based on private property. Still, as Meinhof concedes, "this type of arson does not revolutionize consumerism," but, instead, "actually maintains the system," since the destruction of such socially created wealth "contradicts the anti-capitalist intention." Like the socialist theorist André Gorz, Mein­hof tries to argue that capitalism creates "microcosms" of ersatz satisfaction such that individuals "forget the conditions under which they are forced to work." But, she also notes that "setting department stores on fire doesn't raise their awareness about these [unsatisfied] needs [of the collective] either."[5] All of this occurs before Meinhof abandons dialectics in favor of actionism; that is, all this transpires before she ends up joining the Baader-Ensslin gang.

The various narrative threads in the film are braided together in a scene framed as the International Vietnam Kongress that was held in Berlin in 1968. Rudi Dutschke, who leads both the Außerparlamentarische Opposition ("Extra-parliamentary Opposition" or ApO) and the Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentbund ("Socialist German Student Federation" or SDS), delivers a spirited address on Third World "liberation." He expresses solidarity with the "wretched of the earth" in their role as anti-imperialist revolutionaries. His chants of "Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh!" crescendo over the lecture hall. The film then skips over the other speakers (Tariq Ali, Dale Allen Smith of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Com­mittee, and Ernest Mandel), who presumably repeated other shibboleths of the New Left, but the three main characters now all appear on screen, fated to cross one another. From the conference, the scene quickly shifts to the brutal assassination attempt on Dutschke, who is shot three times, once in the skull. The attack on Dutschke emboldens Meinhof to write "From Protest to Resistance," in which she weaves the Vietnam Kongress in with the riotous demonstrations outside the tabloid publisher the Springer Press that had run the adver­tisement: "Stop Dutschke Now!" For the Left, a further radicalization in a militant direction seemed all but cer­tain. The newly formed RAF was only one of a panoply of hardened sects such as the Bewegung 2. Juni. ("2 June Movement"); the Schwarze Ratten ("Black Rats" aka Tu­pamaros West Berlin); and the Sozialistisches Patienten­kollektiv ("Socialist Patients' Collective"), which had its own Timothy Leary-type figure in Dr. Wolfgang Huber.

The RAF articulated its discontents in a manifesto titled Das Konzept Stadtguerilla ("The Urban Guerilla Concept" [1971]), complete with its new trademark of resistance emblazoned on the title page: a Soviet star under an Uzi-like Heckler & Koch MP5.[6] This manifesto voiced as dogma what the film is picking up on at an aesthetic level in the scenes in which Baader berates Meinhof as a feckless intellectual or when Ensslin de­scribes everyone but the Baader-Meinhof as an "authori­tarian personality," to take but two salient examples. In these scenes the film shows the RAF's anti-intellectualism coupled with the group's own unreflective authoritarianism. As the group's chief theoretical statement, the manifesto nevertheless merits a closer look than the film itself can provide. Given the "demoralization of internationalism" under the Old Left in the 1930s, as well as the lack of "revolutionary discipline" in the New Left, the Baader-Meinhof declares its intention to contribute to a "reconstruct[ed] Marxist-Leninism in an international context," with the RAF as the new metropolitan vanguard. The manifesto then tacks between, on the one hand, identifying with the Old Left as the acme of the "primacy of praxis," while, on the other hand, preserv­ing a central conceit of the New Left, which is that "the [theoretical] cul-de-sac of the Old Left could be avoided [in the future]," a cul-de-sac filled with the possibility of "resignation, provincializing isolationism, reformism, a Pop-Front strategy, and integration." Thus, instead of problematizing the interrelation of theory and practice in its own determinate context, the RAF sets about putting their "concrete answers to concrete inquiries" into ac­tion, as if the retardation of objective historical condi­tions were irrelevant to the critical tasks of the Left-the sublation of capital and alienated labor. This Denkverbot ("thought-taboo") explains why the manifesto chides those intellectuals who insist on pointing out aporias in the student-led New Left. Those who are questioning "the theoretical level of anti-capitalist critique achieved by the students," remarks the manifesto, are involved in "a trivial competition over whose interpretation of Marx is better." It should be noted that the manifesto's own patronizingly ironic conclusion is that theoretical debate excludes workers with its "complicated jargon."

Thus, even as the RAF admits its "Konzept" is "not based on an optimistic calculation of the prevailing cir­cumstances"-since "capitalism has not lost the ability to repress or integrate its own self-generated contra­dictions"-the manifesto nevertheless exclaims that "despite the weakness of the revolutionary" the aim is to effect revolution "Here and Now!" Yet their assertion that, "we are neither Blanquists nor are we anarchists" makes sense only when one realizes that the RAF, in fact, aims to spark a revolution through its prefigurative politics-that is, via an authoritarian attempt to stand outside capitalism by purging themselves of all of its symptomologies. The manifesto therefore counsels RAF recruits to shirk off the labels/accusations of "anti-Sem­itism/ criminals/ low-lives/ murderers/ arsonists" as "all the shit... applied to [besmirch] revolutionaries." Still, in its vehement denial of these epithets, the manifesto represses these very tendencies within the RAF, tenden­cies that the film displays.

Film still, reenactment of International Vietnam Kongress, The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Film still, reenactment of International Vietnam Kongress, The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Screenwriter Bernd Eichinger, who wrote the ac­claimed film Downfall (2004) on the denouement of the Third Reich, depicts the RAF as a group susceptible to the virulent strain of anti-Semitism that afflicted much of the European New Left. That is, in spite of the RAF's disavowal of any connection with Nazism, the film il­lustrates the fact that the group conflated attacks on Jews with concrete anti-capitalist action. Even before the RAF was formed, the so-called "Black Rats" had tried to sabotage a Jewish Community Center in West Berlin in 1969 on the night that services were to be held to commemorate Kristallnacht. Dieter Kunzelmaan, who helped found Kommune I, had remarked that the German Left must overcome its "Judenkanx" ("Jewish Complex"). "Palestine is for West Germany," wrote Kun­zelmaan from Amman, "what Vietnam is for America."[7] And, in this vein, we witness the gang undertake a spree of bank heists in its frenetic bid to weaken the "system" as well as the mythical hold of "the Jews." The cam­era then follows the gang on a stint to a PLO/al-Fatah campsite in Jordan where they seek to steel themselves for urban warfare, albeit in velvet britches in Baader's case. The movie captures snippets of the absurd scenes in the desert, none more so than when the would-be German fidayeen sunbathe in the nude, much to the annoyance of their Islamist commandant, in response to whose remonstrations Baader retorts-I am paraphras­ing-that "the sexual revolution is inseparable from anti-imperialist struggle!" On a more gravely serious note, Ensslin, herself a mother-turned-militant, urges Meinhof to relinquish custody of her twin daughters to a Palestinian orphanage. Meinhof agrees but the scheme is ultimately thwarted. Yet their facilitator at the camp, Abu Hassan, reappears later as the mastermind behind the "Black September" attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Imprisoned after a frantic stint on the run in 1972, Meinhof rifles off a "communiqué" praising Black September's deeds, which she describes as a step toward "the material annihilation of material rule" and "the destruction of the myth of the all-powerful system."[8] To this she adds: "Israel cries crocodile tears. It used its athletes as the Nazis used the Jews-as fuel to be burned for the imperialist policy of extermination."[9] Meinhof's shrill cadence reflects the hardened attitude that thereafter marks the RAF. (For what it is worth, Horst Mahler (Simon Licht), a central RAF member who acted as defense counsel at the arson trial in Frankfurt, is now a neo-Nazi.) From 1971 onwards the RAF waged what the Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll referred to as "the war of six against sixty million," while the violence that the film underscores ultimately ratchets to a climax with the "May Offensive" of 1972.

If the film's virtue is its unsentimental representation, which neither moralistically criticizes nor apologeti­cally condones the violence it portrays, its weakness is that the RAF remains merely symptomatic of histori­cal circumstances left unanalyzed in the film. The film remains fixated on the RAF's violence itself since, in the absence of an analysis of the retardation of the objec­tive conditions for social revolution in the 1960s, there can be no analysis of the ways in which this affected the New Left subjectively. It is ironic to recall, there­fore, that the RAF cited the Frankfurt School studies of the "authoritarian personality" in its manifesto, since the Frankfurt School's conception of the "authoritarian personality" refers precisely to a character structure tied to a weakened ego psychology and a compensatory narcissism which leaves it susceptible to reactionary politics. The film thus naturalizes the history of the New Left in such a way that it reproduces the condition that Freud describes as the narcissistic disorder of melan­cholia, when a fixation on the past occludes our ability to confront present reality or envision our future. However, on another level, the film suggests that, in the present and in the absence of the actual working through of the history of the Left, all we can do is endlessly reenact the pathological scenes of the past. To the extent that the film puts forth this suggestion, it pushes against its own limits and the limits of our condition of political helplessness. It is this sense of the contemporaneity of the New Left; its sense that the Left today is not so different from the Left of the 1960s and 1970s as some wish to imagine; its sense that the actors of today simply act out in color the black-and-white footage of the past; its sense, in other words, of the regression that marks what passes as the Left today-this, above all, is the achieve­ment of Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex. |P

[1]. Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1960-1993 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 194.

[2]. Ibid., 178.

[3]. Ibid., 221.

[4]. Jeremy Voron, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Under­ground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 202.

[5]. Ulrike Marie Meinhof, Everybody Talks About the Weath­er-We Don't : The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof, translated by Karin Bauer (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008), 244-246.

[6]. A number of RAF "communiqués" can be found at http://la­ Some rough English transla­tions are also available online at

[7]. Jeffery Herf. "Ideology and Terror in Germany," Telos 144 (Fall 2008): 23.

[8]. Stefan Aust. The Baader Meinhof Complex (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 182.

[9]. Meinhof cited in Herf, "Ideology and Terror," 28.