The Baader Meinhof Complex

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Director: Uli Edel; Release date: 14 November

This film opens with an innocent man being murdered by vicious thugs - the killing of student Benno Ohnesorg by West Berlin police for having the temerity to demonstrate against the Shah of Iran. We then see newsreel footage from Vietnam and the attempted murder of student leader Rudi Dutschke by a right wing fanatic incited by the gutter press.

The film tells the story of the Baader Meinhof group, whose campaign of bank robberies, assassinations and kidnappings shook West Germany in the early 1970s. It is based on a serious and well documented book by Stefan Aust, and shows how the group's actions were the direct product of the violence of the West German state and its US allies. It gives absolutely no comfort to those moralists who whine about individual terrorism but are unmoved by state terror. Baader Meinhof were responsible for the deaths of some 47 people (not all of whom could be called "innocent"). One stray bomb in Vietnam (or Afghanistan) has more victims.

But if the film refuses to demonise Baader Meinhof, it also makes no attempt to glamorise them. Andreas Baader appears as a deeply unattractive figure; when his comrades ask legitimate questions about strategy, he simply shouts them down. He crows that "fucking and shooting are the same". The film descends to comedy when he travels to Jordan for military training and then turns on his tutors, yelling, "We're urban guerrillas; we don't have fucking deserts." That he returned alive is testimony to the tolerance of his Palestinian hosts. Yet in the final trial scenes he shows courage and dignity in the face of his judges.

Ulrike Meinhof is quite different. A talented journalist, she was provoked to join the group by sneers that she could do nothing but write. She produced the most lucid and persuasive statements in justification of the group's actions, denouncing the role of the West German press and attacking the very foundations of class society. But she often appears scared and bewildered, an intelligent person who realises the group is going nowhere, but knows it is too late to turn back.

What the film never tells us, because Baader Meinhof never knew, is what they hoped to achieve. Baader promises to "change the political situation", but when asked how, replies, "We'll just do it." As we see, the West German state was far too strong for a small bunch of guerrillas. It is true they enjoyed a degree of public sympathy, but there was no sign of this turning into any sort of collective action - or of any effort by Baader Meinhof to win mass support. Che Guevara was an inspiration - but Batista's regime in Cuba in 1959 was corrupt and vulnerable, abandoned by its US patrons. West Germany in the 1970s was a different proposition.

The film is well constructed. Not a minute of its two and a half hours is wasted. Violence is depicted graphically, but without any wallowing in gore. The force feeding of Baader during a hunger strike is shockingly gruesome, and the demonstration scenes, filmed with hand-held cameras, give a real sense of what it's like to be in a punch-up. It's not The Battle of Algiers, but it's well worth seeing and discussing.