Watching Che and the Baader Meinhof Complex

Among the frustrations that balance the many pleasures of having so many projects due in May is not being able to write about movies. This short post won’t really help alleviate that frustration, but…

The Baader Meinhof Complex provides a compelling, even exciting, view of the infamous German terrorist group, from the early days to the long, drawn-out forced march of the trial for some of the members. It’s a remarkably balanced and subtle treatment for a movie that often has the pacing of a thriller. The terrorists are, for the most part, portrayed in complex and interesting ways, but the authorities aren’t just jack-boot thugs, either. Perhaps the most surprising part of the movie comes during a trip to a training camp in Jordan, where the free love/naked bathing culture of the Germans comes up against more conservative values. The movie suggests that the members of Baader Meinhof were both deluded and clear-eyed, that they were grandiose idiots and yet had tapped into valid concerns about U.S. imperialism and inequalities both at home and abroad. In this context, the transformation of a journalist from using peaceful means to taking extreme measures is the most interesting part of the movie.

Related in theme and by time period, Che by Soderbergh is a tale of two movies about one person. The first is a clinical and precise look at Che in the context of the success of the Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. It manages to be both removed from the action and always in the thick of it. Soderbergh uses a kind of documentary style that’s deeply mesmerizing and largely free of editorializing.

But it’s the second film that fascinated me the most, as it’s a surreal fever dream of a movie that uses the same documentary-style clarity to totally different effect. Here the clarity of color and of composition support the story of a nightmare, as Che goes to Bolivia to try to foment revolution using the same methods as in Cuba. Except, Bolivia isn’t Cuba–the kindling for rebellion isn’t the same, the enemy isn’t the same. But Che is, as portrayed by Soderbergh, the same. If there’s editorializing in this second movie, it’s only in mercilessly showing Che’s inability to change or to acknowledge the impossibility of the task.

This second movie is an inexorable trap, becoming narrower and narrower, with fewer and fewer avenues of escape. And as the movie narrows, it opens up thematically so that by the end it is more akin to the work of Herzog. As Che’s battle-worn, starving men wander through mountain villages the searing blade of blue that is the sky, the horrifying beauty of everything around them, is captured by Soderbergh’s camera. When the end comes we are deep within a foreign country, one without borders.


  1. Cora says

    One my oddest teaching experiences was listening to my students discussing “Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex” after it had been shown on German TV. To these 14-year-old kids, who were toddlers when the RAF dissolved itself, the movie was basically an action film. None of them even had the slightest inkling that the events in the film actually happened (more or less, we still don’t know what really happened inside Stammheim prison) until I or in the case of one boy his father told them.

  2. Cora says

    I just wanted to add that it’s interesting how the US-trailer you posted differs from the German trailer. There is the inevitable reference to “The children of the Nazi generation” in the beginning, because apparently the rest of the world still can’t mention Germany without mentioning Nazis. There’s also a mistake in the beginning, when the words Germany 1967 (and why Germany and not West Germany?) are superimposed over the footage of the department store arson, which actually happened in 1968. Interestingly, the Palestinian training camp scenes were not in the German trailer at all, neither were the protesters shouting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”. But then probably both scenes have more relevance to American audiences than to German ones. Meanwhile, the extended sequence of the shooting of Hans Jürgen Ponto, which was in the German trailer and so infuriated the widow of Ponto that she returned a medal she or her husband had been awarded to the German president, is missing from the US trailer altogether. Otherwise, there are a lot more explosions in the US trailer. Finally, it’s also interesting that the US-trailer feels the need to show which one is Baader and which one is Meinhof (German audiences were expected to know). Meanwhile, the names of the actors are not mentioned, probably because no one in the US knows who they are.

  3. jeff vandermeer says

    Cora: Thanks for these great comments. I know I have seen three of the actors in other movies. They were very familiar to me.

  4. Cora says

    A lot of the actors are very well known in Germany. Bruno Ganz, who plays the prosecutor, also played Hitler in “Downfall”. Moritz Bleibtreu, who plays Andreas Baader, is a star in Germany and was in lots of high profile German films. The best known internationally is probably “Run, Lola, Run”. Martina Gedeck (Ulrike Meinhof) is another well known German actress and was in the Oscar-winning “The Life of Others”. She also had a small part in “The Good Shepherd”. Johanna Wokalek (Gudrun Ensslin) recently starred in “Pope Joan”.

  5. GlenH says

    On the subject of actor trivia the star of Four Minutes; Hannah Herzsprung, also has a small role ;).

  6. Thomas says

    Actually 1967 is right, it all started on June 2nd, 1967 with Benno Ohnesorg being killed by a police officer during protests against the Shah of Persia in West Berlin.

  7. Cora says

    1967 is indeed the right starting date, but the US-trailer superimposes the 1967 date over the department store arson scene, which took place a year later in 1968. As I said, a minor niggle.