The Baader-Meinhof Complex: 'It was fun. Then it turned into a nightmare'
Two films shine new light on Germany's home-grown terrorist groups.
Sheila Johnston reports
In 1966, Stefan Aust, then 20, landed a job as sub-editor on konkret,
a radical Left-wing Berlin magazine like so many at the time. But
konkret was unlike others in one particular: its editor-in-chief and
star columnist would later achieve world notoriety. She was Ulrike Meinhof.
Aust was in awe of this formidable woman, 12 years his senior. "She
was very clever, with an impressive voice and way of explaining her
viewpoint," he recalls. "At editorial conferences, no one dared
contradict her." Meinhof soon turned fighting words into action,
joining the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof gang which, over the
next decade, took Germany on a roller-coaster ride of carnage and emotion.
Andres Veiel joins the story in 1975. Aged 15 and living in
Stuttgart, he would take the tram each day to the end of the line,
Stammheim Prison. His mission: to report on the trial of Meinhof and
her fellow terrorists - Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl
Raspe - for his school newspaper.
The atmosphere was febrile. "There were extreme security checks - the
police kept records of everyone who went into the courtroom," Veiel
says. "We felt like we were all enemies of the state. There was a
strong sense of hysteria."
The public cheered and clapped as the accused taunted the judges:
more than a quarter of Germans under 30 sympathised with the Red Army
Faction at its zenith. Veiel, whose grandfather had been a general
and father a high-ranking officer on the Russian front, regarded the
gang as making up for Nazi sins. He felt a rush of "naive admiration
for these people who were prepared to put their lives on the line to
change the world". His school banned his newspaper. But he sold it
outside the gates anyway.
What turbulent, troubling times they were. And, as both Aust and
Veiel have discovered, the old wounds still gape open. Aust's
enormously detailed book about the gang, The Baader-Meinhof Complex,
has now inspired a movie of the same name. It begins in 1967 with a
demonstration that left an innocent student shot dead by police, and
ended in 1977 with the Mogadishu plane hijack and the suicide in
Stammheim of the gang's leading members.
"We thought the whole thing was history," Aust says. "So I was
surprised - shocked, actually - when, two days after the film opened
in Hamburg in September, my house was attacked with paint bombs and
bricks that landed near my children's beds."
He believes the Red Army Faction is no longer active (the police have
discounted its involvement in the raid). But passions continue to run
high. The widow of Jürgen Ponto, the banker murdered by the Red Army
Faction in 1977, returned her Federal Cross of Merit in protest at
the public funds invested in the movie. On the opposing side, the
ex-terrorist Christof Wackernagel said, "This film makes me sick."
And in a long diatribe for the newspaper Die Welt, Meinhof's
daughter, Bettina Röhl, scorned it as "hero worship" and Aust as the
"general secretary of the Red Army Faction".
For Aust, her words were poignant. In May 1970, Meinhof intended to
send the seven-year-old Bettina and her twin sister to a Palestinian
orphanage. It was Aust who rescued them. He believes Röhl's present
hostility towards him is her way of reclaiming control over her
The terrorists, Aust says, saw themselves as quasi-religious
crusaders. Gudrun Ensslin's own father, a Protestant pastor,
described her after her arrest as in a state of "holy
self-realisation". They took on the mantle of victims and,
ultimately, martyrs. "A political activist is rational," says Aust.
"The cause and effect are calculated: 'If I do A, the result will
possibly be B.' But did the Red Army Faction ever say what they
really wanted? That is a very great and, to me, terrifying similarity
to the Islamic terrorists of today. It wasn't as clear back then as it is now."
By the late Eighties, public support had crumbled. What started as a
high-minded, if extreme, struggle for change had plunged into
nihilistic ultra-violence. Bernd Eichinger, 59, the producer and
co-writer of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, was on the fringes of the
student protests of the Sixties.
He remembers, "All in all, it was a lot of fun. Then suddenly the
whole thing turned into a nightmare. We were young, and so we blocked
it out of our memories. It came back to me when I started working on
the script and I felt very, very sad."
Veiel's documentary, Black Box BRD - which will be screened at the
German Film Festival in London later this month - charts the end of
this era through two discrete, yet profoundly connected lives. Alfred
Herrhausen, the chairman of Deutsche Bank, was killed in 1989 in a
bomb blast whose perpetrators were never identified. Four years
later, the third-generation terrorist Wolfgang Grams died in a
scuffle with police.
Both men were on the ropes, for Herrhausen, a maverick capitalist,
had alienated colleagues by pushing for the abolition of Third World
debt. "They are polar opposites, who at the same time, have something
in common," Veiel explains. "They fight for their ideals and become
more and more isolated. I found that fascinating"
He interviewed several hundred people; it took four years to persuade
some to talk. "No one wanted this film," he says. After it was
completed, he had to ward off injunctions.
The two films are polar opposites, too. Black Box BRD is a
contemplative, in-depth portrait of two individuals; The
Baader-Meinhof Complex is, in Eichinger's words, "a tough,
fast-moving, urgent, breathless piece of movie-making. We didn't want
to go into psychoanalysis." Which is the more appropriate?
Aust maintains: "If you want to make a film about terrorism, you have
to show what terrorism looks like."
By contrast, Veiel - now preparing a feature about the Red Army
Faction - argues, "We need to go deep into the terrorists'
motivation. I'm interested in the 'why'. I don't think an action
thriller gives us satisfying answers."
The Baader-Meinhof Complex opens next Friday; Stefan Aust's book was
published in paperback this week. Andres Veiel will introduce Black
Box BRD and his other work at the German Film Festival (Nov 28-Dec
4). For details, see: www.germanfilmfestival.co.uk
Unravelling Meinhof's own complex tragedy
Martina Gedeck's loss of a loved one offered inspiration for the role
of Ulrike Meinhof, says Evan Fanning
By Evan Fanning
Sunday November 09 2008
When Martina Gedeck was acting out the last dark days of Ulrike
Meinhof's life in The Baader Meinhof Complex she was forced, as many
actors are, to delve into her past to find the emotions required for
Meinhof's final days in the Stammheim prison. Meinhof's existence was
as sad as it was violent; a journalist turned revolutionary whose
role as figurehead of the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist group,
which tormented Germany between 1967 and 1977, forced her to abandon
her own children in pursuit of her ideals, and led her to take her
own life in the midst of the high-profile trial of her and her cohorts.
As Gedeck portrayed Meinhof during these times, she thought about the
loss she had suffered in her own life. In 1999, her long-term
partner, actor Ulrich Wildgruber, committed suicide. She and
Wildgruber had been together for nine years, but it was the despair
and helplessness after his death that she looked upon to portray
Meinhof in her final days of incarceration.
"Ulrike became separate from her own life," says Gedeck. "There's
nothing she could reach out to any more. That's what I referred to
because I thought a lot about the loss I had and why this person who
I loved had done this. You start to think about what happened, and
what goes away." Suicide has been a recurring theme in the movies of
47-year-old Gedeck. She is perhaps best-known for her role in the
Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, the tale of Stasi surveillance in
former East Germany. She played Christa-Maria who throws herself
underneath a truck.
She also starred in Atomised as Christiane, who throws herself from
the top of a tower block. Meinhof would make it a trilogy of suicide
victims, but Gedeck questions the perceived wisdom about the death of
a woman who is regraded with a certain fondness by some in Germany,
despite her crimes. "I'm not even sure Ulrike killed herself," Gedeck
protests. "There is no evidence for or against it, so we shouldn't
speculate about it."
The Baader Meinhof Complex -- written and produced by Bernd Eichinger
-- charts the evolution of a group led by Meinhof and radical
left-wing extremist Andreas Baader, from its formation in the
aftermath of the police shooting of student protester, Benno
Ohnesorg, through to their role as hardened terrorists hell-bent on
murder, kidnap and hijackings.
The tale of the RAF is described as Germany's biggest post-war
tragedy, and its relatively big-budget film adaptation (the movie
cost $20m) is causing controversy in Germany, where it is seen as an
attempt to glamorise what is still regarded as an open wound.
Gedeck's portrayal of Meinhof is remarkable, managing to find a
balance between the emotional and personal journey she undergoes,
while never flinching from the reality of the atrocities she commits.
Gedeck undertook intensive research to get the character right. She
read all Meinhof's articles, studied the tapes of her trial in
Stammheim and watched films of her. But she didn't attempt to meet
any of her surviving relatives or friends. "I didn't want to have the
relationship they had with her. I didn't want to take what they feel
and think of her, because I actually don't believe what they say and
feel. I didn't want them to talk to me. I wanted her to talk to me."
So how does Gedeck think Meinhof managed to go from being a
journalist writing articles of protest to taking up arms in a bid to
stop what she interpreted as a threat from a resurgent fascist state?
She feels the starting point was a documentary Meinhof made aiming to
improve conditions of children in an orphanage. The film didn't have
the desired effect, so Meinhof set about other ways of changing
society. "She felt it was her duty to sacrifice herself, even if she
might die. She said, 'We do the resistance that our parents didn't do
with the Third Reich. We stand there and we fight with weapons, and
if there has to be death there will be death'. That's why a lot of
people still like her. You will hardly find people who talk badly
about her. Even in our film it was always Baader, Ensslin and Ulrika.
It was always Ulrika."
Ultimately, it was the feeling of powerlessness which resonated most
with Gedeck. She is in a relationship with the Swedish director
Markus Imboden, but due to her own tragic past, she can still
identify with the change which she believes occurred in Meinhof, too.
"All this helplessness, especially in the last third of the film, is
something I admire about her. You know that it's in vain; that you
cannot do anything but you keep on fighting.
"She thought, 'I can change. If I just try hard enough I will
achieve; it will work'. Losing children or your love for life or your
strength to live is something that you realise can happen, and that
is something that you didn't know before. That's what I referred to
for the last third of the film."
Gedeck's own memories of the days when the RAF terrorised Germany are sketchy.
She was six when they began their campaign. "As a child, I saw these
posters with their pictures and the reward money and I was afraid. I
thought, 'These are the most horrible people.' That's what I was
told. I remember I thought that there's this huge prison and there's
only one person in it. I thought this person must be so horrible."
'The Baader Meinhof Complex' is in cinemas from next Friday
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Monday, 10 Nov 2008
by Lewis Bazley
Directed by Uli Edel, out November 14th, starring Martina Gedeck,
Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz, Simon Licht, running
time 150 mins.
In a nutshell...
Gruelling, relevant, thought-provoking thriller.
What's it all about?
Germany in the 1970s: Murderous bomb attacks, the threat of terrorism
and the fear of the enemy inside are rocking the very foundations of
the still fragile German democracy. The radicalised children of the
Nazi generation led by Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ulrike
Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) are
fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of
fascism: American imperialism supported by the German establishment,
many of whom have a Nazi past. Their aim is to create a more human
society but by employing inhuman means they not only spread terror
and bloodshed, they also lose their own humanity. The man who
understands them is also their hunter: the head of the German police
force Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz). And while he succeeds in his
relentless pursuit of the young terrorists, he knows he's only
dealing with the tip of the iceberg.
Who's in it?
Martina Gedeck (Meinhof) is best known for her acclaimed turns in the
Oscar-winning The Lives of Others as well as Robert De Niro's The
Good Shepherd while Moritz Bleibtreu (Baader) starred in German
features Run Lola Run and The Experiment, as well as Paul Schrader's
The Walker and Steven Spielberg's Munich.
Johanna Wokalek (Ensslin) is one of the leading lights of German
theatre, while Bruno Ganz (Herold) has won international praise for
his performances in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, Wim
Wenders' Wings of Desire and Bernd Eichinger's Downfall.
Other cast members include The Edukators' Stipe Erceg and Control
actress Alexandra Maria Lara.
Writer and producer Bernd Eichinger produced the likes of Last Exit
to Brooklyn, The Neverending Story, Downfall and Perfume: The Story
of a Murderer, as well as the Fantastic Four and Resident Evil films.
Director Uli Edel, meanwhile, broke through when collaborating with
Eichenger on 1989's Last Exit to Brooklyn and has won multiple Golden
Globes and Emmys for his television dramas.
As an example...
"We learned that talk without action is wrong." - Gudrun
"If you throw one stone, it's a punishable offence. If 1,000 stones
are thrown, it's political action." - Ulrike
"Baby, this is getting out of hand." - Gudrun
Likelihood of a trip to the Oscars
It's already been put forward as Germany's nominee for the best
foreign film Oscar and only Palme d'Or winner The Class stands in its way.
What the others say
"Big on explosions, shoot-outs and slogan-filled dialogue but sadly
lacking in human drama and moral conviction, there's rarely a dull
moment, but at the same time, it's far too splintered, episodic and
sprawling truly to grip." - David Jenkins, Time Out
"An explosive performance by Johanna Wokalek gives some relief to an
otherwise long and humdrum series of characters, blow-'em-ups and
prison locations." - Boyd van Hoeij, Variety
"Only a movie like this can show young people how brutal and
bloodthirsty the RAF's actions were at that time." - Jorg Schleyer,
son of the assassinated manager and then president of the
Confederation of German Employers' Associations, Hanns Martin Schleyer
So is it any good?
From the 1967 shooting of student Benno Ohnesorg to the 1977
Mogadishu hijack and assassination of industrialist Hanns Martin
Schleyer, the actions of the Red Army Faction (RAF) loomed large over
an revolutionary, blood-drenched decade, with a fight against a
supposed police state creating a very real one and
'extra-parliamentary resistance' transformed into militant and
In condensing ten years of history into a single film, the production
duo of Eichinger and Edel have used a technique the former refers to
as "fetzendramaturgie" or "shredded dramaturgy", which uses a series
of 'puzzle pieces' rather than a linear narrative. On the one hand,
it's the perfect form with which to illustrate the spiralling spread
of terrorism, and Edel manages to keep a Michael Mann-esque tautness
to the episodic nature of increasingly monstrous events. On the other
hand, it makes the title a misnomer - this is not a study of Baader
and his transformation for gang leader to cult figurehead, nor
Meinhof's growth from a newspaper columnist and mother to a
Kalashnikov-branding political warrior.
Instead, it's a film that raises more questions than it answers. For
the younger viewer, there's the suffocating revelation that the
spirited student protests of the RAF's beginnings were the very seeds
of violent terrorism; for the older, it's an eye-opening look at a
fight for justice with initial good intentions destroyed by bloodshed
and murder. The set-pieces are undeniably hair-raising and an
unsettling dread seems lurking around every corner, while the central
trio of Gedeck, Bleibtreu and Wokalek give charismatic and intense
performances as three characters who altered the course of history
and Ganz is as imperious as you'd expect as the thwarted
counter-terrorism chief (though his iconic Hitler performance in
Downfall is hard to shake from your memory).
But with the RAF's real political might having developed during
Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin's incarceration, and a new breed of
recruits inspired to terrifying extremes, the sense that the film
could last for several more hours is a wearying revelation for the
reviewer, especially after two hours of violence and impassioned speeches.
Though its focus is too broad, Eichinger and Edel's piece is still a
masterful recreation of ten years of terror under one of the most
influential groups in world history - whose sometime public support
still remains breathtaking.