The Baader Meinhof Complex ★★★½

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Bonus film #32 in my March Around The World | 2017 Challenge (Germany)
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This film from German writer-director Uli Edel was based upon Stefan Aust's 1985 non-fiction best-seller of the same name. Telling the story of a West German far-left militant group known as the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction or RAF) from 1967 to 1977, it was nominated for prizes in the Best Foreign Language Film categories of the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

The opening scene shows a nude beach, where 39-year-old German journalist and author Klaus-Rainer Röhl (Hans Werner Meyer) is vacationing with his wife Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and their adolescent twin daughters, Regine and Bettina. Röhl is the publisher of konkret, Germany's most influential magazine on the political left. Ulrike was formerly his editor-in-chief and a member of the banned Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The big news at this time was the visit of Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his third wife Princess Farah Diba to West Berlin. To "welcome" them, Ulrike wrote a scathing open letter for publication in konkret, denouncing the Shah for hypocrisy and his regime for its barbaric treatment of Iranian citizens. Flyers of the letter are distributed widely among Berlin students and blue-collar workers.

On June 2, 1967, when the royal couple arrives at the Deutsche Oper to attend a performance, both pro- and anti-Shah demonstrators are on hand to greet them. But the two factions soon get into a fight, forcing the police to take action, clubbing protesters indiscriminately. At one point, a gun goes off. Unarmed protester Benno Ohnesorg (Martin Glade) is fatally shot, infuriating German leftists, including Ulrike, who goes on TV to denounce the West German government as a fascist police state.

Even as angry students begin planning retaliation, Ulrike catches her husband banging some young woman, so she takes the kids and moves out. She quickly finds a home among Vietnam War protesters, living with Peter Homann (Jan Josef Liefers). But her friend, the prominent activist Rudi Dutschke (Sebastian Blomberg), becomes the target of an assassination attempt and nearly dies, which serves to even further radicalize leftists like Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), who orchestrated the fire bombing of a department store in Frankfurt am Main.

While covering the Ensslin-Baader trial, Ulrike has an epiphany. Words won't be enough to bring about change; actions are needed. And when the trial goes bad and their appeal is rejected, the convicted arsonists first run off to Italy, vowing never to spend another day behind bars, before returning to Berlin and moving in with Ulrike and Homann. All that holds her back from joining them is her daughters. She doesn't want to severe ties with them. But when Baader gets arrested and must be rescued, Ulrike finds herself an accomplice to murder and has to arrange to have her children hide in Sicily.

By now it's 1970 and the core of the RAF has formed - Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and their lawyer-turned-activist Horst Mahler (Simon Licht). They are joined by an eager brigade of recruits, such as Petra Schelm (Alexandra Maria Lara), Holger Meins (Stipe Erceg), Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), Peter-Jurgen Boock (Vinzenz Kiefer), Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt) and Astrid Proll (Katharina Wackernagel).

The group trains to be "Urban Guerrillas" using Soviet weapons at a pro-Palestinian Fatah camp in Jordan. Homann quits and secretly arranges with Ulrike's former colleague, Stefan Aust (Volker Bruch), to return her children to their father. When the group returns to Germany, they officially call themselves the RAF and Ulrike authors their manifesto. They then set about robbing banks (so-called "expropriation") to finance their activities, soon leading to the bombing of police stations and United States Military bases, assassinations, kidnappings and shoot-outs with police.

The German government, of course, has branded them as a terrorist organization and, in 1972, a manhunt is initiated that kills or captures almost all of the RAF principal members, including the core four. While held in solitary confinement at the newly constructed high security Stammheim Prison in the north of Stuttgart, they organize a hunger strike and Meins dies of self-induced starvation in November 1974.

Six month later, younger RAF occupy the West German embassy in Stockholm, demanding freedom for their imprisoned comrades, but it ends badly. Siegfried Hausner (Christian Blümel) is badly wounded and dies in a German prison hospital. So the trial begins, more circus than the pursuit of justice. The solidarity between the core four begins to waver. Then, in May 1976, depressed Ulrike allegedly hangs herself in her prison cell.

Following her release in the spring of 1977, Mohnhaupt takes over command of RAF operations outside. She gets revenge for the deaths of Meins and Ulrike by arranging the assassination of West Germany's Attorney General, Siegfried Buback (Alexander Held). This became the prologue to a a nationwide crisis referred to as the "German Autumn," which included the killing in Oberursel of Jürgen Ponto (Hubert Mulzer), head of Dresdner Bank, and the kidnapping in Cologne of Hanns Martin Schleyer (Bernd Stegemann), president of the German employers' association. Then, there's the October hijacking of a Lufthansa commercial flight, that ends in failure.

As a final act of defiance, Baader, Ensslin and Mahler take their own lives, rather than let the system determine their fate. Shortly thereafter, Mohnhaupt has her hostage, Schleyer, executed. It's an awfully long film that tries to pack in every aspect of the decade that made the RAF such a disruptive force in German's socio-political world, and it works quite well recreating the story. Wokalek and Bleibtreu give especially stirring performances. By all means see this if you have the time and opportunity.

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