x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Movie stirs new debate on German guerrillas

A divisive debate over a feature film about the 1970s terrorist gang the Baader Meinhof has erupted in Germany.

A scene from the film 'The Baader Meinhof Complex' shows the German industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer being abducted.
A scene from the film 'The Baader Meinhof Complex' shows the German industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer being abducted.

BERLIN // A gory feature film about the 1970s terrorist campaign waged by West Germany's Baader Meinhof gang has reignited a divisive debate in Germany about whether the left-wing guerrillas were glamorous rebels or cold-blooded killers. The gang, which was allied with Palestinian militants and called itself the Red Army Faction (RAF), killed 34 people and injured scores more in bomb attacks and assassinations targeting top German civil servants and corporate executives as well as US military installations.

The makers of The Baader Meinhof Complex, which opened in Germany last week and is topping the cinema charts, said they want to destroy lingering myths about the group by showing its ruthless violence in all its bloody detail for the first time. But critics say the film has had the opposite effect and glamorises the terrorists who are portrayed as courageous desperadoes by Germany's best-known and most attractive actors. There has also been criticism of how the film hardly focuses on the victims and portrays police and judges as unlikeable caricatures.

The film has stirred such controversy because the story of the Baader Meinhof gang remains a historical minefield for Germany. To many, the RAF's struggle was a violent confrontation between the children of the Nazi-era generation and their parents. The 1968 student movement from which the terrorists emerged was protesting against a post-war establishment it saw infiltrated by people who had been in Adolf Hitler's party.

The guerrilla campaign and the draconian security measures imposed by authorities in the manhunt deepened divisions between the left and right and plunged West Germany into a crisis of confidence at a time when it was still a young democracy, just three decades after the Second World War. The RAF was bent on fighting "US imperialism" and overthrowing the West German elites. It was named after two of its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, the latter a prominent left-wing journalist who became radicalised.

"A film has destroyed the myth of the RAF," wrote news magazine Der Spiegel, whose former editor-in-chief Stefan Aust wrote the book on which the movie is based. The grisly scenes showing the terrorists firing dozens of bullets into the jerking bodies of their victims with submachine guns at point blank range had been missing from a historical debate that had focused too much on the ideological background of the group's actions, the magazine wrote.

"Only with this film has the debate about the RAF received sufficient foundation," Der Spiegel wrote. "It was always clear that this butchery happened, but it had been consigned to the realm of imagination and everyone had been allowed to simply factor it out." But conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine dismissed the film as "political pornography" made up of little more than a series of climactic acts of violence. Berlin daily Tagesspiegel was also critical, writing: "This is no serious attempt to interpret or analyse the era."

Berliner Zeitung wrote: "Andreas Baader has posthumously made it - he's become the hero of a real action film." The action-packed film, Germany's official entry for the 2009 foreign-language Oscar race, spans the period from 1967 to 1977. It is a chronological account of how the RAF was founded in the turmoil of the student demonstrations against the Vietnam War, trained in Jordan and went on to rob banks and lay bombs at US army bases and German justice offices.

Baader and Meinhof were arrested in 1972 after the biggest manhunt in German history, but a second RAF generation carried on the fight to enforce their release from prison. Armoured vehicles and police armed with submachine guns became a common sight on West German streets as every politician, senior civil servant and executive became a potential target. Actions included a 1975 attack on the German Embassy in Stockholm in which two hostages were killed, and the 1977 assassination of Siegfried Buback, Germany's then chief federal prosecutor, and his bodyguards in their car.

Meinhof had committed suicide in her cell in 1976 but the campaign to free Baader and other RAF members reached its bloody culmination in the autumn of 1977 with the kidnapping of the employer federation president Hanns-Martin Schleyer, whose four bodyguards were murdered in a hail of at least 119 bullets. Schleyer's kidnapping was followed by the hijacking by Palestinian militants of a Lufthansa passenger jet, but the West German government refused to give in to their demand to release the RAF prisoners.

German commandos stormed the jet and released the hostages, prompting Baader and two other inmates to commit suicide, and the film ends with the shooting of the kidnapped Schleyer. A third generation of RAF members went on killing industrialists and civil servants during the 1980s but the actions became more sporadic and the group formally announced it had disbanded in 1998. Schleyer's son Jörg praised the film after seeing it. "It shows the whole unrestrained brutality of the RAF without damaging the memory of the victims," he said.

But Michael Buback, the son of murdered prosecutor Siegfried Buback, was critical. "The Baader Meinhof people are extensively portrayed while those they attack remain vague and impersonal," he said. Bernd Eichinger, the producer, said he wanted to break new ground by focusing on the action rather than the ideology. "People define themselves by what they do. What's decisive is the fact that they do it, not why they do it," he said.

But several critics said the film retained an ambivalent stance towards the RAF in an attempt to maximise its popularity and its profits by appealing to both sides - those who see the RAF as murderous criminals and those who still regard them as urban guerrillas who waged a justified fight. The divisions persist to this day. The myth of the RAF has been enhanced by a "terrorist chic" fashion trend in recent years with young people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Prada Meinhof" or the RAF's submachine gun logo.

"The exploding bombs, the shots and the piercing cries of the victims must echo through cinemas for precisely this generation to hear," wrote the political magazine Cicero. By contrast, last year's release on parole of RAF militant Brigitte Mohnhaupt after 24 years in jail met with a storm of criticism from conservative politicians and the relatives of her victims. She had been serving five life sentences and never made a public statement of remorse, but a court ruled that she posed no further danger.

dcrossland@thenational.ae