Like the name of the West German radical terrorist organization whose tale it tells, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is a fascinating hybrid of a film. Even though its purpose couldn't be more serious, its style could hardly be more pulp. Which is probably fitting for a group that started out with high-minded goals and ended up robbing banks and blowing people away.
Though few people in the U.S. remember its exploits in detail, the actions of the Red Army Faction, usually called the Baader Meinhof Gang after its two most prominent members, largely defined the history of Germany in the 1970s, and the group remains a subject of enormous interest in that country.
Imbued with the spirit of youthful rebellion that seized Europe in 1968 but also burdened by a particularly German fear that saw a revival of fascism latent in every government action, Baader Meinhof virulently opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam and believed it was, as one of its member says, "going to change the political situation or die trying."
But those expecting a thoughtful cinematic analysis in a film that was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar will be surprised. As written and produced by Bernd Eichinger (the somber "Downfall") and directed by Uli Edel (the excessive "Last Exit to Brooklyn"), "Baader Meinhof" is an exploitation film on a socially conscious subject, the equivalent of Steven Soderbergh's "Che" having a love child with "The Fast and the Furious."
What that means specifically is a combustible mixture of sex and violence, bullets and politics. The gang's numerous explosions, bank robberies and shootings are re-created in energetic detail, and the sexual freedom of the era is front and center as well. It's not by chance that the film begins on a nude beach or features a scene in which the group's naked sunbathing in the Jordanian desert affronts the sensibilities of prudish PLO guerrillas.
This kind of filmmaking is, obviously, easy to mock, but it has its points. "Baader Meinhof" does capture the sometimes delusional passion of the times, does provide a sense of how revolutionary it must have felt for thousands of students to euphorically chant "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh." And, for those who want it, more serious implications are occasionally allowed to peek out from under these glossy covers.
In this "Baader Meinhof" is helped by a strong cast of some of the best actors in Germany, who also in many cases resemble the people they are playing. Stars include Martina Gedeck of "The Lives of Others" as Ulrike Meinhof, Moritz Bleibtreu of "Run Lola Run" as Andreas Baader and Johanna Wokalek of "Aimee and Jaguar" as Baader's girlfriend and co-conspirator Gudrun Ensslin. And the veteran Bruno Ganz does excellent work as the gang's nemesis on the German federal police, Horst Herold.
It's Meinhof we meet on that nude beach, coping with a husband who has a wandering eye. She turns out to be a star left-of-center newspaper columnist and a talking head on political chat shows, a woman with two children and a conventional lifestyle who is also a genuinely committed radical thinker.
If Meinhof is level-headed and unpretentious, Baader is the opposite. A hot guy who has an equally hot partner in Ensslin, Baader is drenched in cigar smoke and arrogance, someone who demonstrates how fine the line can be between revolutionary political action and petulant thuggery.
What draws these disparate people together is as much the tenor of the times as anything else, the way the prospect of revolution acted on people like a drug. The actions of an especially obdurate German government also form part of the picture, setting a match to an already combustible mixture.
The key event in this scenario, beautifully photographed by top German cinematographer Rainer Klausmann, took place in Berlin in June 1967 during a state visit by the shah of Iran. In a brutal police riot, officers in civilian clothes savagely attack massed protesters and murder one of their number. (In a twist revealed earlier this year, too late for the film, the killer turns out to have been an undercover agent for the Stasi, the East German secret police.)
That murder, and the attempted assassination of political activist "Red Rudi" Dutschke, radicalized the members of what became the Baader Meinhof Gang. The film follows their exploits in some detail, shows us how the German police's Herold comes to both understand and combat them, and ends with 45 minutes devoted to the intricate consequences of their eventual imprisonment and trial.
Because it is more interested in presenting the period than passing overt judgment, you are free to take "The Baader Meinhof Complex" as seriously as you want to. And as documentaries such as Barbet Schroeder's exceptional "Terror's Advocate" remind us, yesterday's terrorism is without a doubt a precursor to what we have to deal with today.
'The Baader Meinhof Complex'
MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes
Playing: At the ArcLight in Hollywood and the Landmark in West Los Angeles