The Baader Meinhof Complex: hippy terror

A new film captures the tragi-farcical fate of the radicals who rejected capitalism and the working class.

Rob Killick

Topics Culture

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A good film about Sixties radicalism is long overdue, and The Baader Meinhof Complex is a very good film. It both ‘gets’ the Sixities and works as a terrific action flick at the same time.

The Baader Meinhof Gang, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), was the German version of various left-wing urban guerrilla movements that operated across Europe in the Seventies and Eighties. Italy, for instance, had the Red Brigades and Britain had the Angry Brigade. Sixties radicalism inspired these movements, and The Baader Meinhof Complex gives a great insight into why that radicalism ultimately failed.

By the Sixties, the European working-class movement was politically completely dominated by the Social Democratic and Communist parties (including the Labour Party in Britain). When a generation of mainly student left-wing radicals rose up in the late Sixties, they were confronted with the fact that the working class was led by people who saw only a reformist road to social change. That is why working-class participation in the events of the Sixties was generally limited to action over wages and working hours, rather than involving any broad anti-capitalist action.

The response of the New Left, as it was known, to this problem was twofold. One side, consisting of groups like the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) adapted to the prevalent outlook of the working class and generally limited their political activities to supporting militant trade unionism. The second response was effectively to turn away from the European working class completely and look to faraway places, like Vietnam and Palestine, for a revolutionary lead. (Fortunately, over the next few years, some of us rejected both of these narrow responses in favour of more serious engagement with ideas and with working-class politics; spiked springs from this tradition.)

The leaders of the RAF, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, were part of that second problematic reaction. They saw themselves as part of an international movement of opposition to imperialism, but made no effort to build links with the working class in Germany, which they saw as in thrall to capitalist consumerist ideology. Insofar as they had a political theory it was partly inspired by the Situationists who believed that capitalism exercised such a total ideological dominance over the working class through control of the media and the education system that it could only be broken through by ‘spectacles’, events which blew a hole in the fabric of capitalist ideology.

The Situationists largely saw these spectacles as cultural events or riots, but the RAF adopted the theory to more deadly ends by blowing things up, and kidnapping and murdering prominent Germans. They killed over 30 people. Their reasoning was that acts of violence against the state would provoke state repression which would in turn shake the working class out of its political slumbers and create an anti-capitalist reaction.

The Baader Meinhof Complex demonstrates this total disconnection between the RAF and the German working class. In fact the only contact we are shown between the RAF and any workers is when a botched attempt to blow up the Springer Publishing House ends up wounding 17 of its employees.

The first half of the film shows the growing radicalisation of the German left in response to the war in Vietnam in particular and the emergence of the RAF. The violent scenes which dominate the first half, beginning with a demonstration against the Shah of Iran which gets viciously attacked by the police and culminates in the death of a student, are thrilling. Interspersed with these dramatic shots, we are shown how the key members of the RAF, all from middle-class backgrounds, come together. There’s Ulrike Meinhof, a reporter who begins to question the limits of radical journalism; Gudrun Ensslin, who reacts against the leftist pacifism of her parents; and Andreas Baader, a charismatic and reckless adventurer.

The hippy nature of the RAF’s leftism is brought out well. At one stage they all go off to the Lebanon to a terrorist training camp where they are told that men and women will be segregated. The RAF members can’t cope with this self-discipline and respond that ‘fucking and firing are the same thing’. The Palestinian guerrillas can’t handle the Westerners’ sexual liberation and when the German women insist on sunbathing naked in front of the terrorist trainees it proves to be too much for them.

The first half of The Baader Meinhof Complex is stylistically larger than life; it is even reminiscent of the slightly surreal tone of Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers. This part of the film captures the excitement and exhilaration of the 1960s. It encourages us to see through the banal politics of the RAF while at the same time thrilling us with the sexy nature of the violence, with provocative images of beautiful mini-skirted girls wielding AK-47s.

When the main RAF members get arrested, however, the film slows down and the mood changes. The slower pace of the second half reflects the film’s main theme: the slow grinding down by the state of the arrested RAF leaders and the implacable pursuit of those still on the outside by the German Secret Police, the wily head of which is convincingly played by Bruno Ganz.

The film conveys the state’s at first bewildered response to the RAF, and in particular its failure to understand why the RAF enjoyed such support among young middle-class people. We witness the internal discussions of how hard the state should crack down and whether repression would be counterproductive. We see how Ulrike Meinhof gradually cracks under the pressure of solitary confinement, and perhaps also from feelings of guilt and regret over what she has done, until eventually she takes her own life.

Astonishingly, looking back now, the final chapter of the film revolves around an attempt by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to free the leaders of the RAF. The PFLP hijacked an aeroplane and threatened to blow it up unless the leaders were released. It is when this attempt fails that Baader and Ensslin also take their own lives.

What can we learn from this whole episode? Mainly that you cannot build a movement for social change without serious political struggle. This lesson, gleaned from The Baader Meinhof Complex, is perhaps the most important one for today, at a time when many share the RAF’s contempt for the ‘stupid consumerist working class’.

Rob Killick is CEO of cScape.

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