Movie Reflection for Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex

The movie Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (English: The Baader-Meinhof Complex) (Eichinger, 2008), is a docudrama portraying the Red Army Faction (RAF) organization from its beginnings in the events of 1967 to the suicides of the founding members in 1977. The Red Army Faction was a left-wing West German organization that used crime and violence to fight against imperialism and capitalism, including some terrorist tactics. Dubbed by the conservative media as the Baader-Meinhof gang, and by the liberal media as the Baader-Meinhof group (Hoffman, 2009), the original RAF enjoyed a degree of fame and romanticization.

The movie starts by leading into the June 2, 1968 incident where students protesting during an official visit by the Shah of Iran were attacked and beaten by police. One student, Benno Othesorg, was shot by police officer Kurras, and killed (Spiegel Staff, 2009). This segment portrays the police as needlessly brutal, in both the vicious police beatings, and the shooting of Benno Othesorg. In the movie, as in reality, public reaction to Othesorg’s death and Kurras’s later acquittal leads to further protests and a radicalization of the West German Left, particularly the student body. The later attempted murder of student leader Rudi Dutschke sparks further rioting, and the police respond with brutality again.

However, the movie does not continue to portray the police as brutal. After the 1967-1968 riots portrayed near the beginning of the movie, the police stop being portrayed as overly aggressive, and instead are portrayed as mild and sensible, and sometimes even naïve. Future Red Faction members Baader and Ensslin admit to fire-bombing department stores, and yet are released from police custody during an appeal process, leaving the country upon hearing that their appeal has been rejected. During the arrest of Hopper and the death of Petra, the police do not fire unless fired upon, preferring instead to use overwhelming force to force a surrender.

Furthermore, the police leaders are portrayed as cool-headed an sensible, and, in the case of Horst Herold, quite clever and hard-working. Horst, being the main face of the police effort against the RAF in the movie, is a particularly interesting character. He is soft-spoken and very decent, but also possesses a seemingly precocious understanding of the RAF and what caused them to exist. Even when outlining otherwise disturbing plans for national identity cards, checkpoints, and other freedom disrupting security measures, the Horst character comes across as very reasonable.

Perhaps part of Horst seeming reasonable is the portrayal of the original RAF. They are young, brash, and disrespectful. In Jordan, they are crudely disrespectful of the customs of their fedayeen hosts. In Germany they abuse the freedoms provided to them, which makes the security measures seem understandable.

According to a 2009 interview of Bernd Eichinger, there was also an intentional stylistic attempt to avoid audiences identifying with protagonists, but rather using “fascination” to compel viewers to watch the protagonists (Hoffman, 2009). In practice, this includes a lack of created suspense (as seen in Munich) (Spielberg, 2005), and a lack of time spent getting to know many of the characters. Few characters are introduced, and most only exist for the duration of their relevant actions (Hoffman, 2009). This distances viewers from the RAF, but does not stop the film from humanizing them as flawed, complex people.

The movie, taking place over the course of a decade, does a very interesting job of following the original RAF’s evolution as a militant organization, and the actions of the second generation of RAF. The vast majority of the movie follows the evolution of the RAF, with only a few scenes for their actual criminal activities. This allows the filmmakers to show how the RAF changed as time went on. They originated in the wake of social upheaval and the death of Benno Othesorg, with a relatively care-free attitude. They train with the Fedayeen, but it is only when the police start cracking down upon them that they become more serious and grim, as seen in their reactions to Petra’s death. The movie shows their regrets with regard to the hurt to civilians in the Springer corporation. Upon capture, they use hunger strikes to protest their (relatively posh) conditions, resulting in death of one of the captured RAF members, and outrage on the part of the public. This leads to more violence on the part of the second generation of the RAF, and, when the violence fails to free them, they react by committing suicide.

An interesting divide in the RAF is between the first generation, which, after bombing the Springer building, consciously turns away from harming the innocent working class, and attacks imperialist targets such as the US army base in Germany. Terrorism is using violence to provoke fear, to provoke change. In a democratic society, this is achieved by threatening the public, which have the power to create change. The actions of the original RAF do not seem to follow this formulate – instead they target their opposition directly, bombing US bases, police stations, etc. The exception is the Springer bombing, which they later regret. Does this make their attacks not terrorism, since they are directly attacking the structure they oppose? Barnett and Reynolds (2009) describe former Israeli Prime minister Menachem Begin as using the willingness to hurt civilians as the distinction between freedom-fighters and terrorists.

This view is not shared by the second generation of the RAF. They are willing to hurt uninvolved civilians for their goals, as seen during the hostage situations in the German embassy and via proxy) on the Lufthansa flight. However, their goals are not to terrorize all civilians with the risk of being taken hostage, but rather to use the hostages as bargaining tools to release the original RAF members. Again, does this make their attacks not terrorism, as they are not trying to spread terror?

They also are in contact with Palestinian organizations, and voice their support of what are more obviously terrorist attacks. While absent in the film, in reaction to the “Munich Massacre” Meinhof describes the killing of Jews as an anti-fascist act (Siegel, 2009). While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the main reason behind the RAF’s actions, the organization does list it among other grievances. On the other hand, unlike other terrorist actions, they (original RAF) do not give demands that, if followed, will stop future attacks. Is using violence to advertise a cause terrorism, or is it only terrorism when the violence is conditional? Is there a difference between retributive violence (“We bomb you because you did X”) and preventative violence (“We’re serious, and we’ll bomb you more if you don’t do Y”)?

Are the actions of the early RAF terrorist acts? Perhaps more important than finding a yes-or-no answer is to recognize that violence takes many multiple forms, possesses many different attributes, and requires many different responses. Sometimes defining violence can serve to confuse the issue, which thwarts the purpose of definitions.

The role of the press in the movie is several-fold. First, there is the conservative Springer news organization, which spouts vitriol at the political left, and received the blame for the near-assassination of student leader Rudi Dutschke in the form of rioting, and later a RAF attack. There is also the leftist Kronket magazine, in which Meinhof publishes her political views (Hoffman 2009). The impact of the press is felt several ways in the events depicted by the film – reactions against the Springer newspapers and the incitement of Kronket in the beginning are part of why the RAF formed. Later in the movie, the media serves as a conduit for the RAF to spread its statements after attacks, and to reach out to the people by gathering media attention through hunger strikes, suicide, etc. Yet while the movie portrays the actions of the RAF and their effect on popular perceptions, the role of the press in fostering that connection is not addressed in the movie.

While the RAF dissolved before the resurgence of interest in terrorism following the September 11th attacks, some lessons can still be applicable to the current day. The RAF drew inspiration from Marxist movements, which are no longer in vogue today, but the disaffected left was catalyzed into violence not just by philosophical views, but also the events of the day: the death of Benno Othesorg and the attempted murder of Rudi Dutschke are the most prominent of these, but the Vietnam war and other events also contributed. In a modern day analogue, perhaps it is not the teaching of radical Islam that creates terror, but rather those teaching combined with experiencing the wrongdoings of the west first-hand. Radical Islam is an ideology, and is no more right or wrong than communism. Perhaps instead of trying to eliminate the ideology, we should focus on ending the conditions that make violent aspects of radical Islam the relevant aspects of radical Islam.

Of course, terrorism is already here, and preventing the next generation from choosing terrorist actions is important but not a complete solution – after all, there are decades between now and when the current generation of terrorists grows old and dies. How did the German police successfully stop the original RAF? There wasn’t some trick, or some fancy technique, but rather a large amount of police effort and some help from the local population. Perhaps stepping up conventional techniques is an effective solution – an unglamorous suggestion, but there can be a difference between interesting solutions and effective solutions.

Works Cited:

Barnett, B. and Amy R. (2009). Terrorism and the Press: An uneasy relationship. New York: Peter Lang Publishing

Eichinger, B. (Producer), & Edel, U (Director). (2008). Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex [Motion Picture]. Germany: Constantin Film.

Huffman, R. (2009). Interview: Bernd Eichinger, writer and producer of the Baader-Meinhof Complex. Retrieved from http://www.baader-meinhof.com/essays/BerndInterview.html

Huffman, R (2009). Baader-Meinhof Gang. Retrieved from http://www.baader-meinhof.com/resources/terms/BMGang.html

Huffman, R. (2009). 1968. Retrieved from http://www.baader-meinhof.com/timeline/1968.html

Spielberg, S. (Producer and Director). (2005). Munich [Motion Picture]. USA: Dreamworks.

Siegel, F. (2009). The Romance of Evil. City Journal, 20(2). Retrieved from http://www.city-journal.org/2009/bc0918fs.html

Spiegel Staff (2009, May 28). The Truth about the Gunshot that Changed Germany. Der Spiegel. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,627342,00.html