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A Zeal For Change, Raging Out Of Control

Underground Baader-Meinhof meeting in 'The Baader Meinhof Complex' i

Peter-Jurgen Boock (Vinzenz Kiefer) was a weapons builder and getaway driver for the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The terrorist group killed dozens across West Germany and beyond beginning in the early 1970s. Constantin Film Verleih GmbH hide caption

toggle caption Constantin Film Verleih GmbH
Underground Baader-Meinhof meeting in 'The Baader Meinhof Complex'

Peter-Jurgen Boock (Vinzenz Kiefer) was a weapons builder and getaway driver for the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The terrorist group killed dozens across West Germany and beyond beginning in the early 1970s.

Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

The Baader Meinhof Complex

  • Director: Uli Edel
  • Genre: Docudrama
  • Running Time: 150 minutes

Rated R: Violence, full nudity, sexuality, profanity

With: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alexandra Maria Lara, Karoline Herfurth and Bruno Ganz

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Youthful idealism turns to indiscriminate fury in The Baader Meinhof Complex, a movie that will divide audiences — and not just along political lines.

True, left-leaning viewers are more likely to sympathize with Germany's Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. But there's another likely split: between people seeing their first movie about the group and those who have followed German cinema's obsession with Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin.

The latest film on the subject — and one of the five nominees for 2009's foreign-film Oscar — director Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex powerfully evokes the 1960s and '70s, when radical youths scourged the U.S., Europe and Japan. But as its protagonists' goals become less coherent, the movie itself likewise loses focus.

German directors have produced a dozen or more movies about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, including documentaries, fictions and docudramas that — like Udel's — follow the facts as closely as possible. Each film recounts pieces of the same story, which begins in 1967 with, oddly, the Shah of Iran. The dictator's visit to Germany sparks street protests and an open letter from journalist Meinhof (The Lives of Others' Martina Gedeck). The demonstrators are fiercely repressed, and one is shot by a plainclothes policeman. The official brutality prompts fears that West Germany is returning to Nazi-style totalitarianism.

Martina Gedeck and Moritz Bleibtreu in 'The Baader Meinhof Complex' i

Leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) abandoned a middle-class life — and her family — when she joined Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) in a crusade against what they saw as creeping authoritarianism and American imperialism. Constantin Film Verleih GmbH hide caption

toggle caption Constantin Film Verleih GmbH
Martina Gedeck and Moritz Bleibtreu in 'The Baader Meinhof Complex'

Leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) abandoned a middle-class life — and her family — when she joined Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) in a crusade against what they saw as creeping authoritarianism and American imperialism.

Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

Political ferment coincides with personal turmoil: Meinhof leaves her adulterous husband, taking their two young daughters. Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) flees the home of her father, a conservative Lutheran pastor. And Baader (Run Lola Run's Moritz Bleibtreu) is arrested for placing bombs in department stores, designed to detonate after-hours as a rebuke to consumer capitalism. (Also, it seems, because he just likes to mess things up.)

The Baader-Meinhof connection is made when the journalist schedules an interview with the bomber that's actually the pretext for a prison break. Meinhof then joins Baader's band in Jordan to "train" with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The German radicals like to fire machine guns and sunbathe in the nude, to the astonishment of their Muslim hosts.

It's Ensslin who is Baader's true partner; his lover and his equal in ideological severity. Meinhof has growing doubts about the group, but can't simply return to her old life. As the bombings, kidnappings and bank robberies mount, police investigator Horst Herold methodically tracks Baader and his cohorts. (Herold is played by Bruno Ganz, a star of the 1970s New German Cinema that was part of the same youth culture that yielded the RAF.)

A Baader-Meinhof attack on a German government official in 'The Baader Meinhof Complex.' i

Styling themselves an "urban guerrilla" outfit, the RAF attacked government officials, business leaders and U.S. military installations. Constantin Film Verleih GmbH hide caption

toggle caption Constantin Film Verleih GmbH
A Baader-Meinhof attack on a German government official in 'The Baader Meinhof Complex.'

Styling themselves an "urban guerrilla" outfit, the RAF attacked government officials, business leaders and U.S. military installations.

Constantin Film Verleih GmbH

While 2002's Baader ended with its title character's death in a fictional shootout, The Baader Meinhof Complex spends its overlong final section observing the RAF members on trial and in prison. Their solidarity is tested, as is the viewer's patience. When the inmates die — officially suicides, but perhaps murder victims — the movie doesn't attempt a definitive judgment.

Bernd (Downfall) Eichinger's script includes some interesting details, mostly derived from a book by reporter Stefan Aust, a friend of Meinhof's. The movie reveals, for example, how Aust rescued Meinhof's daughters from an unpleasant, if politically correct, fate. Yet such minutiae will appeal principally to those who've seen previous films about the RAF.

For first timers, The Baader Meinhof Complex offers both too much and too little. Using newsreel footage and Anglo-American rock, the movie conjures up the heady feel of the late '60s, when revolution and adolescent ebullience seemed interchangeable. But it doesn't begin to explain how Baader and his cohorts came to act just as violently as the regimes they condemned.

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