Baader-Meinhof Complex, a New Film Based on True Events

09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ulrike Meinhof, a prominent left-wing journalist in '70s Germany found the revolutionary spirit of the Red Army Faction so appealing, she abandoned her children to join up with a counterculture much like the U. S. Weather Underground in its terrorist tactics. Andreas Baader was one of its leaders along with Gudrun Ensslin and other young people who protested the policies of their elders during this volatile period of the Vietnam War when Germany became America's accomplice.

The writer Stefan Aust's riveting Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. (Oxford) came out in the mid-'80's and now a film, directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn)--epic length, Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film--opens on Friday. All 150 minutes of it are mesmerizing thanks to the fine work of the German actors: Martina Gedeck as Ulrike, Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas and Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun, with Bruno Ganz as the Head of the German Police Force who brings them in.

A fast-paced action adventure that takes you from Meinhof's troubled marriage through the current events of the time, the police taking action against peaceful protesters through the group's bombings of key government buildings, bank robberies, their schooling in terrorism at an Al Fatah camp in Jordan, incarceration, solitary confinement, trial (dialogue verbatim from actual transcripts), and suicides. If you've been napping during this summer of economic woes, this film will wake you up.

What makes the coming of this film in the present moment so fascinating is that we have all but forgotten the intensity of that period, the fervor of politics, here protesting the Vietnam war, in Germany, resisting American imperialism supported by the contrite German establishment of the post-World War II era. An audience as interesting as this subject assembled for a private screening last week, hosted by The Atlantic: Dick Cavett, Bob Jamieson, Morley Safer, S. I. Newhouse, Lillian Ross, Susan Brownmiller, Alix Kates Shulman, Dick Wittenborn, Tova Feldshuh, Albert Maysles, Julie Taymor, among them. But oddly, Brooke Astor's son and his wife, embroiled in a much-publicized trial for tampering with his mother's will, sat in the third row. Fortunately those who stayed for the Q&A with author and Der Spiegel editor, Stefan Aust, interviewed by Boykin Curry, were more concerned with history than with the tribulations of the super rich and greedy, however juicy the scandal.

Audience responses to the film were favorable: Several felt that the film glamorized the revolutionaries who were essentially using acts of terror to make their points. While it was hard to stay neutral, the film made efforts to do so. Bernt Eichinger's screenplay, on which Aust consulted, is careful to illustrate the loss of revolutionary vision. Pointing out that terrorism is like a religion, Aust spoke about the dilution of ideals: The second generation wanted to get the first out of prison, but after the first generation committed suicide, what did they have to do? They lost their focus, momentum.

As we filed out of the theater, a Harvard student, an intern at the New York Observer stopped me to ask, Do you think this film is specific to Germany? My response was an immediate, No. I replied by recounting heady times in America: the tear gassing, and mace and weapons used against college students of that time, of how an American vice president declared war against the young, calling college students, draft evaders, "Effete snobs." These were the sentiments reflected in movies like "Easy Rider" and "Joe," that eventually led to the tragedy of Kent State, of an older generation so bewildered by the youth rebellion, they used violence as a knee-jerk response. The more radical factions of Students for a Democratic Society, the accidental blowing up of a townhouse used as a bomb factory on West 11 Street, were some of the manifestations of revolutionary zeal turned violent.

Everyone needs to see this movie to remember a time when feelings were more aroused by ideologies than buried by the long sleep of consumer culture. Wrong-headed, extreme in principles and procedures, terrorism can never be condoned, glorified, or presented as an option. How do you explain "The Baader Meinhof Complex?" As Aust said, "They were in love with a myth, the myth of revolution."