The Baader-Meinhof Complex: The True Story of the Red Army Faction, a fast-paced docudrama about the famous West German terrorist group that emerged from the 1960s, is now in theaters. Based on the similarly titled book by the West German author Stephen Aust, who knew some of the key players personally, the movie, ably directed by Uli Edel, stars some of the leading lights of German film. It’s an utterly engrossing real-life policier that nonetheless suffers from a conceptual blemish that distorts its impact.
The Baader-Meinhof gang was named after Andreas Baader, its charismatic Brando-like leader, and Ulrike Meinhof, its scribe. For Americans who know little about it, the group can be best compared with a far better organized, far more consequential version of the Weathermen—with touches of the Manson Family, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Symbionese Liberation Army thrown in. In Baader-Meinhof, youth culture and Communism were for a moment brought into a working partnership.
Through the Cold War years of 1970 through 1977 (the so-called “German Autumn”), Baader-Meinhof played a central role in West Germany’s political psyche. The gang used daring escapes, bank robberies, bombings of American bases, and kidnappings to capture the country’s political imagination. Its escapades, which repeatedly caught West German officials flatfooted, allowed it to portray itself as a band of freedom fighters and the authorities as neo-Nazis.
Despite murdering 34 people, Baader-Meinhof garnered a degree of support from about one-quarter of the West German population. Accepted if not always admired by guilt-ridden liberals, who saw its panache as a countercultural critique of West Germany’s boring bourgeois life and its association with the American war in Vietnam, Baader-Meinhof carefully cultivated an outlaw image. It wholesaled the ideal of authenticity—of acting out one’s impulses, even when murderous—in order to break through the fascism of convention, just as its heroes abroad, such as Che Guevara, broke through the iron wall of America imperialism. Drawing on its New Left counterparts in the United States, it borrowed such phrases as “burn baby burn,” “right on,” and “off the pigs.”
The film opens with a brilliant piece of camerawork depicting what was supposedly the gang’s founding moment: the government’s brutal suppression of demonstrators protesting a 1969 visit by the Shah of Iran. In the course of violence unprecedented since the end of World War II, a young student demonstrator named Benno Ohnesorg was shot and killed. He became the first martyr of the new revolutionary cause. The public shock fed the mythology already being pushed in East Germany that the West German government, whose political class included many former German soldiers, was merely a veiled extension of the Nazis. “The moment you see your own country as the continuation of a fascist state, you give yourself permission to do almost anything against it,” explains Aust in an interview.
But what begins as an apologia for romantic rebels “criminalized” by a repressive society slowly shifts into a depiction of Baader-Meinhof’s thuggery and sadism. The group’s leaders, the children of academics, pastors, and professionals, thrilled at being transgressive. Baader, a sometime petty criminal with a Charles Manson–like ability to attract women, enjoyed reading Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics. He insisted that “fucking is the same thing as shooting,” and he did plenty of both. In one Bonnie-and-Clydesque scene, Baader drives along with some young runaways, having a ball shooting at random out the car’s windows. When Ulrike Meinhof, a talented journalist, argues with Baader about tactics, he mocks her as a “fucking cunt” and leaves her cowering.
Aust’s film has been criticized in Germany and Israel for making terrorist thuggery too glamorous. But in order to capture Baader-Meinhof accurately, the film needs to convey its appeal at the time. From mental patients to left-wing ideologues, from rebellious teens to sexually frustrated professionals, the gang’s members captivated many Germans with derring-do and self-conscious theatricality. At the American premiere of the film in New York, Aust was asked by a member of the largely left-wing audience if Baader-Meinhof hadn’t been “criminalized by the state.” He responded coolly, “They were treated as criminals because they committed criminal acts.”
Where the film falls down has to do with the name that the gang gave itself: the Red Army Faction (RAF). With the Soviet army camped nearby, notes writer Paul Berman, the RAF saw itself as an extension of the Soviet cause, which during the 1970s seemed far from hopeless. The RAF even received funds and logistical support from the East German secret police, the Stasi. As the historian Jeffrey Herf puts it, the gang’s exploits thus constitute “an episode in the history of Communism”; through it, the USSR got an enormous return on its investment in the German New Left. But the role of the Stasi barely surfaces in Aust’s film. Since the movie’s completion, moreover, historians working in the East German archives have discovered that the cop who killed Ohnesorg at the protest was working for the Stasi. And as Aust told me himself with some excitement, the two photographers who captured Ohnesorg’s last moments also had links to the Stasi.
The Stasi was also the crucial intermediary between the RAF and Palestinian terrorists and between older forms of anti-Semitism and its newer incarnation as anti-Zionism. The film touches only in passing on the anti-Semitism of parts of the New Left. But RAF members were pathbreakers here as well. In the wake of the Palestinian massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, notes Herf, Meinhof became the first public figure in post-Holocaust Germany to describe the murder of Jews as an anti-fascist act.
When I spoke with Aust, who still sees himself as a man of the Left, I asked him if he had read the German left-wing author Mattias Kuntzel’s book on the close ties between the Nazis and both the Muslim Brotherhood and the founder of the Palestinian movement, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. He had not. When I suggested that the book might have given him a crucial perspective on the RAF, about whom he’s been writing for over 30 years, he replied, “Possibly.”
His reply led me to wonder what the film might have been like had Aust acknowledged, say, the links between the RAF and Francois Genoud, the neo-Nazi executor of Goebbels’s will who was dubbed “Sheik Francois” by some of the Palestinian terror leaders he worked with. Similarly, a film so deeply concerned with accusations of resurgent Nazism might have noted that Horst Mahler, one of the central players in the RAF, began on the neo-Nazi Right, joined the RAF, and since his release from prison has again become a full-fledged neo-Nazi.
Aust’s book on the RAF, first published in 1985, has gone through three revisions as new information became available. His movie deserves viewing, but it also merits, or perhaps even demands, a similar updating.