5-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.TGVC.5-2.3 | Soltau PDF 


The con­flu­ence of art, pol­i­tics, and aes­thet­ics has a trou­bled and trou­bling his­to­ry, and the arti­cle reflects on that by exam­in­ing the aes­thet­ics of Uli Edel’s film Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex in terms of its use of icon­ic his­tor­i­cal and—in terms of film history—stereotypical images. The absence of con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive struc­tures in the film opens it up to meth­ods of under­stand­ing and cri­tique that use image and mon­tage as a means of analy­sis, rather than exam­in­ing a cogent (because absent) nar­ra­tive. By cat­a­logu­ing the use of dif­fer­ent genre con­ven­tions and icon­ic film images and tropes, the arti­cle points toward the devel­op­ment of a “terror(ism)” genre.

Les rela­tions entre art, poli­tique, et esthé­tique ont, his­torique­ment, tou­jours été trou­bles et con­tin­u­ent de résis­ter aux sché­mas inter­pré­tat­ifs. Cet arti­cle pro­pose de repenser ces rela­tions à tra­vers l'esthétique du film d'Ulli Edel: Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex, dont les images iconiques, représen­ta­tives d'une cer­taine péri­ode, et stéréo­typées en ter­mes d'histoire de la ciné­matogra­phie, per­me­t­tent de renou­vel­er ce débat. En l'absence de struc­ture nar­ra­tive con­ven­tion­nelle, le seul recourt inter­pré­tatif pos­si­ble repose sur une analyse visuelle et struc­turelle du film. On s’aperçoit que le cat­a­lo­gage des con­ven­tions et gen­res ciné­matographiques, des images iconiques et des tropes, tend vers le développe­ment d’un genre de la ter­reur et du “terror(isme)”.

Noah Soltau | The Uni­ver­si­ty of Ten­nessee, Knoxville

The Aesthetics of Violence and Power in Uli Edel’s Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Uli Edel’s 2008 film, Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex, is a mon­tage of file-footage, fic­tion, filmic tropes, and polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing. It pur­ports to tell the sto­ry of the actions the RAF took against the West Ger­man state with­out tak­ing a def­i­nite polit­i­cal, eth­i­cal, or moral posi­tion. The film instead adopts an aes­thet­ic posi­tion. Accord­ing to the film­mak­ers, it is a “shred­ded dra­ma,” with moments and images “ripped” out of their con­text and put into a sort of “mosa­ic,” con­nect­ed “in a dif­fer­ent way than a film where you iden­ti­fy with the main char­ac­ter: here we have many peo­ple, and no ones [sic] to iden­ti­fy with” (Dittgen 26). The film­mak­ers see the film as a “com­plex:” a con­stel­la­tion or col­lage, and not a tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive. The film opens itself to a wide range of crit­i­cal meth­ods because it lacks a tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive, and it encour­ages the view­er to focus on moments and images as a method of sto­ry-telling. This focus on spe­cif­ic images also allows crit­ics to con­struct genre con­ven­tions and the social aes­thet­ics of the “ter­ror­ist film.”

Con­stan­tin Film, the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny for Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex, sets up the action of the film in block­buster style with the fol­low­ing, “Ger­many in the 1970s: Mur­der­ous bomb attacks, the threat of ter­ror­ism and the fear of the ene­my inside are rock­ing the very foun­da­tions of the yet frag­ile Ger­man democ­ra­cy.” The “rad­i­cal­ized chil­dren of the Nazi gen­er­a­tion,” lead by Andreas Baad­er (Moritz Bleib­treu), Ulrike Mein­hof (Mar­ti­na Gedeck), and Gudrun Ensslin (Johan­na Wokalek), are fight­ing a vio­lent war against what they per­ceive as “the new face of fas­cism: Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism sup­port­ed by the Ger­man estab­lish­ment,” many of whom have a Nazi past. Their osten­si­ble aim is to forge a bet­ter and more humane soci­ety, but by employ­ing inhu­man means, they not only “spread ter­ror and blood­shed, they also lose their own human­i­ty.” Set­ting up a clas­sic thriller motif, the syn­op­sis con­tin­ues, as “the man who under­stands them is also their hunter:” the head of the Ger­man police force Horst Herold. And while he suc­ceeds in his relent­less pur­suit of the young ter­ror­ists, he knows he's “only deal­ing with the tip of the ice­berg.”[1] Already, then, the film is being framed both as a real, his­tor­i­cal con­flict between gen­er­a­tional Ger­man ide­olo­gies, and as action block­buster and crime caper. While the film’s dust jack­et syn­op­sis cer­tain­ly boils down the action and con­flict of the film, it reflects nei­ther the goals of the film­mak­ers nor the struc­ture of the film itself.

A key to expos­ing the aes­thet­ics of the film are through the ideas of the “con­stel­la­tion,” “mosa­ic,” and sto­ry-telling, which are all key con­cepts in the writ­ings of Wal­ter Ben­jamin. Ben­jamin wrote the fol­low­ing of the con­flu­ence of art and pol­i­tics in the ear­ly days of film: “The log­i­cal result of Fas­cism is the intro­duc­tion of aes­thet­ics into polit­i­cal life…. All efforts to ren­der pol­i­tics aes­thet­ic cul­mi­nate in one thing: war” (241).[2] He was con­cerned that film would be used as a tool of Fas­cist insti­tu­tions to incite and prop­a­gate war, and he saw Com­mu­nism as the anti­dote to this poi­son­ing of art: “This is the sit­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics which Fas­cism is ren­der­ing aes­thet­ic. Com­mu­nism responds by politi­ciz­ing art” (241).[3] Both Ben­jamin and Theodor W. Adorno argued that “cul­tur­al forms like films can pro­vide ‘dialec­ti­cal images’ that illu­mi­nate their social envi­ron­ments” (Kell­ner 16).

This ear­ly con­sid­er­a­tion of the con­flu­ence of art, pol­i­tics, and aes­thet­ics serve the dis­cus­sion of Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex and films like it, both fic­tion­al and “doc­u­men­tary.” These films aes­theti­cize polit­i­cal life. How­ev­er, they can also politi­cize art, if Uli Edel can be tak­en at his word. The con­flu­ence of these oppos­ing aes­thet­ic and polit­i­cal ten­den­cies in one film opens a cri­tique of film based on its aes­thet­ic choic­es, and also allows for dis­cus­sion of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a “terror(ism)” film genre. The devel­op­ment of a genre points to an aes­thet­ic code and a cul­tur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty that exist beyond the indi­vid­ual film mak­er or cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal con­text. Crit­ics can uncov­er these codes and sen­si­tiv­i­ties by exam­in­ing films about “ter­ror­ists” and look­ing at the qual­i­ties those films share with oth­er gen­res and the tools the film mak­ers use to tell the sto­ry. In this par­tic­u­lar case, the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of and rela­tion­ships between Andreas Baad­er, Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Mein­hof cre­ate rela­tion­ships to oth­er gen­res, and those gen­res in turn have an aes­thet­ic code and gram­mar that bears on this film. These rela­tion­ships, this social aes­thet­ic, could lead to the devel­op­ment of a new genre, or at least a height­ened aware­ness of the effects ter­ror­ism has on a cul­ture.

For-prof­it depic­tions of left-wing ter­ror­ism in a cap­i­tal­ist police-state have a mul­ti­tude of intrin­sic polit­i­cal prob­lems and sources, and there are ten­sions between total­i­tar­i­an impuls­es on both sides. Crit­ics may empha­size the polit­i­cal and aes­thet­ic mes­sages and tropes of the films as a method of cul­tur­al cri­tique, which reveals the hid­den sys­tem of signs and sig­ni­fiers through which we (as a cul­ture) rep­re­sent ter­ror, the state, polit­i­cal action, and rebel­lion. The social aes­thet­ic of the film tells us not only about the his­tor­i­cal events it depicts, but also about the cul­ture and polit­i­cal cli­mate in and for which the art­work was pro­duced. Accord­ing to Karin Bauer, this aes­thet­ic con­stel­la­tion is all the crit­ic and audi­ence can hope to grasp: “The RAF is not sim­ply a ter­ror­ist group found­ed in 1970 and dis­band­ed in 1998, but a con­tin­u­ing and con­tin­u­ous spec­ta­cle per­formed in the pub­lic sphere” (3).

The spec­ta­cle has diverse polit­i­cal and aes­thet­ic sources, and, to draw on Guy Debord’s con­cept of the hege­mon­ic spec­ta­cle, it is “a social rela­tion­ship between peo­ple that is medi­at­ed by images” (12). If that is true, then by exam­in­ing film, we can come to a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ships we have with one anoth­er, and with our social and polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. If film is a visu­al rela­tion­ship between peo­ple, or between groups of peo­ple, then those images can be rev­e­la­to­ry and deserve atten­tion beyond or despite their role as spec­ta­cle. Film, then, is not just enter­tain­ment, though many film crit­ics have argued that that is all Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex is.

Der Spiegel crit­i­cizes the film harsh­ly, say­ing it was “‘event cin­e­ma with­out impe­tus […] behind the action and the film's finesse hides a his­to­ry les­son that lacks a clear posi­tion’ (Sep­tem­ber 18, 2008)” (Ger­hardt 60). While this state­ment crit­i­cizes the clar­i­ty of the film, it also reveals the polit­i­cal and aes­thet­ic posi­tions the film­mak­ers devel­op through their work. The lack of an eth­i­cal or aes­thet­ic one-lin­er calls into ques­tion not only the actions of the ter­ror­ists, but those of their antag­o­nists, and the con­di­tions that fos­tered their extrem­ist vio­lence. It also allows the film’s audi­ences to devel­op their own posi­tions.

Wal­ter Ben­jamin could not and did not fore­see the way film would con­tin­ue to devel­op, and his bina­ry notion of film’s role in pol­i­tics and cul­ture demands recon­sid­er­a­tion. How­ev­er, his idea that a spec­ta­tor of mass media or enter­tain­ment can become an expert and a crit­ic capa­ble of nuanced insight has proven true, and is lib­er­at­ing to the audi­ence and pro­fes­sion­als in the field (Kell­ner 46). In order to decode and con­front the “terror(ism)” film, though, new­er and more nuanced the­o­ries of pol­i­tics, cul­ture, and mass media prove use­ful. By re-con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing some of the films icon­ic images, draw­ing par­al­lels across genre, and exam­in­ing the aes­thet­ic, social, and polit­i­cal mes­sages of those images and genre, the crit­ic and view­er can glean use­ful insight even from a film in which “detail over­whelmed any analy­sis: ‘For all the action, attacks and assas­si­na­tions, there is bare­ly any time to breathe, because all the slo­gans and ral­ly­ing cries that one knew from the era had to be tal­lied up, all the images recre­at­ed’ (Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung, Sep­tem­ber 24), indica­tive of a ‘deci­sion to show but not to inter­pret’ (Der Spiegel, Sep­tem­ber 18)” (Ger­hardt 60). Crit­i­cal con­structs allow the view­er to enter the film through spe­cif­ic images and tropes in the same way the film­mak­ers use them to tell a sto­ry, which reveal their larg­er cul­tur­al and social-aes­thet­ic func­tions, and reduce the visu­al clut­ter about which the film’s crit­ics so loud­ly com­plain.

The iden­ti­ty of the “terror(ism)” film lies both in its nar­ra­tive and in its par­tic­u­lar images, which often appear in oth­er gen­res as well: action movies, crime capers, and melo­dra­ma among them. When films from dif­fer­ent gen­res share imagery, they are—per definition—intertextual. This inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty in turn leads to a host of con­clu­sions that the view­er can draw about the film(s) under con­sid­er­a­tion. The film­mak­ers say the film is about ‘“what actu­al­ly hap­pened here, exact­ly,”’ and that, for the style of the film, “[a]uthenticity was key. The French call it ciné­ma-vérité”’ (Sklar 43). This claim falls apart imme­di­ate­ly, first and fore­most in the form of a script which is large­ly based on the epony­mous book writ­ten by Ste­fan Aust and the imag­i­na­tions of the writ­ers. Its sec­ond fail­ure comes in the form of the actors, who are some of Germany’s most beau­ti­ful and well known stars. As Sklar notes:

Per­for­mance isn't ‘truth,’ it’s inter­pre­ta­tion. Although all three [actors play­ing Baad­er, Ensslin, and Mein­hof] may have been cast because of a cer­tain resem­blance to the indi­vid­u­als they por­tray, and they're cer­tain­ly dressed and made up to height­en the sim­i­lar­i­ties, each is undoubt­ed­ly more phys­i­cal­ly attrac­tive than his or her orig­i­nal, and they prob­a­bly shape more coher­ent, if reduc­tive, char­ac­ter traits. (43)

This allows a sym­pa­thy toward and an under­stand­ing of the on-screen fig­ures that the his­tor­i­cal ones would like­ly not enjoy. The film is not about “what actu­al­ly hap­pened here, exact­ly.” It is about rep­re­sent­ing the past, and rep­re­sent­ing dif­fi­cult and fright­en­ing social rela­tion­ships. How the film does that, and the con­se­quences of its meth­ods, are vital to the social-aes­thet­ic role of film.

The key to crit­i­ciz­ing the film is the obser­va­tion that the audi­ence views rep­re­sen­ta­tion instead of his­to­ry and those rep­re­sen­ta­tions have an aes­thet­ic code that bears mean­ing. The film­mak­ers want to remain polit­i­cal­ly and moral­ly neu­tral, to “show” the events, and not com­ment upon them, but the mere exis­tence of the film and the order of scenes always-already pro­duce com­men­tary (Sklar 42). Crit­ics often argue, though, that even as the events were unfold­ing, rep­re­sen­ta­tion and nar­ra­tion con­stant­ly medi­at­ed truth, which con­tributed to both the myth and the mys­tery of the RAF. As Bauer puts it: “as a con­test­ed site of nego­ti­a­tion, there is, method­olog­i­cal­ly speak­ing, no RAF out­side of the myr­i­ad of myths and imagery of the ghast­ly spec­ta­cle that is con­tin­u­ous­ly per­formed” (3). The critic’s remain­ing task is to point out the polit­i­cal and social ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the con­tra­dic­tion that is Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex, which, in its most basic ele­ment, is a block­buster stu­dio movie made about ter­ror­ists try­ing to bring down the sys­tem which pro­duces just these sorts of films.

Pub­lic and crit­i­cal reac­tion to the film reveals much about the pow­er and longevi­ty of the his­tor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions, and by exten­sion, the pow­er of the con­tem­po­rary ones. Ewa Mazier­ka notes that, “The involve­ment of the tele­vi­sion and pop­u­lar press […] helped the group shape its iden­ti­ty as a vic­tim of the con­ser­v­a­tive press and state-run tele­vi­sion. Their actions inspired art and were them­selves akin to an artis­tic pro­duc­tion” (101–2). The manip­u­la­tion of media, images, and nar­ra­tive is not a twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry devel­op­ment in the RAF’s his­to­ry, but rather was an inte­gral part of build­ing their iden­ti­ty and myth as they gained pop­u­lar­i­ty and infamy. Already at their incep­tion, the media per­cep­tion of the group had stark polit­i­cal and social hues. Those same polit­i­cal attrib­ut­es can­not be absent in a re-telling of the RAF’s his­to­ry. Indeed, the film­mak­ers, by struc­tur­ing their film around moments and images, con­fuse the polit­i­cal land­scape entire­ly, giv­ing us glimpses of the “ter­ror­ists,” their lifestyle, and their per­sonas that encom­pass the polit­i­cal spec­trum.

As Nick James posits in his review of the film, “The Baad­er Mein­hof Com­plex simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mocks and ven­er­ates these fig­ures by turn­ing them into Bon­nie and Clyde-style ban­dits. The sexy brood­ing and pos­tur­ing with guns of some of Germany's most attrac­tive actors […] makes the life of the ter­ror­ist seem unfea­si­bly glam­orous, though it does make the sym­pa­thy of much of Ger­man youth towards their cause eas­i­er to under­stand” (5). How­ev­er, despite how the film glam­or­izes the ter­ror­ists and con­tributes to their myth at ear­ly points in the nar­ra­tive, the audi­ence lat­er sees a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of ter­ror and those who per­pe­trate it. Again, James points out that “the lat­ter parts of the film under­line the ter­ror­ists’ idio­cy or insan­i­ty. The Baad­er Mein­hof Com­plex there­fore takes us on that ‘jour­ney’ that script the­o­rists eulo­gize as the basis of all suc­cess­ful films, although […] many will get lost on the way because the film's ulti­mate view­point remains obscure, and it does not give us enough hard infor­ma­tion to allow us to make up our own minds” (5). James is cor­rect up to a point. What he fails to men­tion here, though he does pick it up else­where in his review, is that the audi­ence can make up its mind, but not in a 1980’s action film way, where every­thing is moral­ly and eth­i­cal­ly clear, and the good guys always win. Fur­ther­more, from the per­spec­tive of the film­mak­ers and recent schol­ar­ly work, the film’s social and polit­i­cal posi­tion is clear. In a nod to the post- 9/11 eth­i­cal and polit­i­cal land­scape, the film presents a “com­plex” of images with diverse moral and polit­i­cal con­texts and con­no­ta­tions, many with dis­tinct and con­flict­ing his­to­ries and dis­cours­es sur­round­ing them.

Rather than detract­ing from the aes­thet­ic val­ue and truth con­tent of the film, its moral, if not polit­i­cal, ambi­gu­i­ty does the film ser­vice. As author, his­to­ri­an, and Viet­nam War vet­er­an Tim O’Brien elo­quent­ly puts it:

A true war sto­ry is nev­er moral. It does not instruct, nor encour­age virtue, nor sug­gest mod­els of prop­er human behav­ior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a sto­ry seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war sto­ry you feel uplift­ed, or if you feel that some small bit of rec­ti­tude has been sal­vaged from the larg­er waste, then you have been made the vic­tim of a very old and ter­ri­ble lie. (68)

Now, all war films are not ter­ror­ism films, but all ter­ror­ism films are war films, in the sense that “ter­ror­ists” engage in asym­met­ri­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed war­fare with a State. War films also have an estab­lished gram­mar and iconog­ra­phy with which film­mak­ers can play and to which they can adhere. As Don­ald and Mac­Don­ald write, “in the social con­struc­tions of mas­culin­i­ty found in war films, stereo­types take on mean­ing beyond manip­u­la­tions of cin­e­mat­ic gram­mar: They describe the arche­types of appro­pri­ate mas­cu­line behav­ior for their view­ers” (42).

Genre dis­tinc­tions grow more flu­id as war films focus less on genre con­ven­tions and more on the auteur, or at least, star pow­er (Eber­wein 6). As a result, film­mak­ers tend to focus on moments and motifs instead of plot arcs or con­ven­tion. Some crit­ics, like Dana Polan, dis­ap­prove of the trend, say­ing that these type of films pro­duce “the glimps­ing of expe­ri­en­tial­i­ty itself, a pure immer­sion in tem­po­ral­i­ty, in a dura­tion that only vague­ly adds up to either mean­ing­ful­ness or any­thing resem­bling real­ism” (quot­ed in Eber­wein 6). This is an abstract and nor­ma­tive judg­ment which places the high­est aes­thet­ic val­ue on real­ism, and dis­re­gards both the immer­sive and alien­at­ing aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties that devel­op from a focus on par­tic­u­lar filmic moments or tropes. One con­tentious crit­i­cal point with Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex, if it is not a prob­lem out­right, is that the view­er sees only par­tic­u­lar moments, which means that, as a war film, it becomes a series of “non-cumu­la­tive explo­sions of vio­lence that lead nowhere and mean noth­ing” (Eber­wein 6). This seems con­gru­ent with what the film­mak­ers pur­port­ed to desire: a col­lec­tion of moments tied togeth­er with the sem­blance of his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy. The claim that the explo­sions of vio­lence “lead nowhere and mean noth­ing,” how­ev­er, rings polemic. Just because films do not fol­low con­ven­tion­al heroes who endure con­ven­tion­al tri­als of com­bat to reach cer­tain moral con­clu­sions do not deval­ue them as aes­thet­ic and cul­tur­al prod­ucts. The man­ly men of the bygone eras of war cin­e­ma have no place in a glob­al­ized or mul­ti-cul­tur­al con­text, and to tell con­ven­tion­al sto­ries of war is to lie to the audi­ence and per­pet­u­ate a sys­tem of signs and behav­ior that leads to con­flict in the first place.

Dis­cus­sions of the role of men and the sol­dier aside, the gram­mar and icons of the (white male) war­rior and his ways are use­ful in exam­in­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Andreas Baad­er, and there­by Euro­pean ter­ror­ism, in the film. The first image that demands atten­tion is that of Baad­er train­ing at the ter­ror­ist camp in Jor­dan, where he dis­obeys his orders and, from the hip, emp­ties the mag­a­zine of his icon­ic AK-47 into the prac­tice tar­gets (fig. 1).

Fig. 1

The image is a pow­er­ful one, because, on the one hand, it reveals much about Bleibtreu’s char­ac­ter, and on the oth­er, it fits into the places film­mak­ers have made for action heroes in our aes­thet­ic semi­otics. As Ayers writes: “With­in film schol­ar­ship it has often been tak­en for grant­ed that con­tem­po­rary Hol­ly­wood action films are ‘dumb movies for dumb peo­ple’ (Tasker, 1993, 5), viewed as inher­ent­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, super­fi­cial­ly spec­tac­u­lar, and nar­ra­tive­ly sim­plis­tic” (41). The film under­mines this notion and com­pli­cates the audience’s rela­tion­ship to the image by plac­ing the left­ist anti-hero into a semi­otic slot assumed to be reserved for right-wing, con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­can mod­els of machis­mo and mas­culin­i­ty.

Baad­er dis­plays a well-estab­lished dis­re­gard for rules and author­i­ty, both in tra­di­tion­al terms (the set­ting of the scene is a Fatah train­ing camp), but also in more sub­tle ways: he dis­obeys his ter­ror­ist instruc­tors, does not speak to them except to curse and com­plain in Ger­man (because he does not speak Eng­lish), and is gen­er­al­ly lazy and unco­op­er­a­tive, which indi­cates his lack of dis­ci­pline, and dis­plays the myopia, impa­tience, and intem­per­ance that allowed him to become the rev­o­lu­tion­ary he was, but also led to his cap­ture and death. His non-con­formist image and atti­tude make him sexy, infa­mous, and dan­ger­ous at home, but in the com­pa­ny of war-fight­ers, and “real” rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, Baad­er appears impetu­ous and imma­ture. The con­trast of the (rel­a­tive­ly) priv­i­leged West-Ger­man hedo­nist with his hard-core Islamist hosts high­lights all of the traits that make Baad­er a “bad” ter­ror­ist and allow for view­er cathar­sis at his sub­se­quent cap­ture and death, which crit­ics find lam­en­ta­ble.

Con­verse­ly, in terms of the iconog­ra­phy of (espe­cial­ly) Viet­nam- and Cold War-themed Rea­gan-era action cin­e­ma, Baad­er ful­fills the roles and strikes the icon­ic pos­es of the action-hero. Dis­obey­ing orders and fir­ing auto­mat­ic weapons from the hip are hall­marks of the hard-body empire built by Sylvester Stal­lone and Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger, among oth­ers.  Media Arts pro­fes­sor Hele­na Van­hala con­tends that “the era can be ana­lyzed well through the [series of Ram­bo films]. All three films por­tray the hard-bod­ied white Viet­nam vet­er­an, John Ram­bo, played by Sylvester Stal­lone [….] Stal­lone and the decade’s oth­er mas­cu­line hero, Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger, stood ‘for a type of nation­al character—heroic, aggres­sive, and deter­mined’ as well as for the coun­try” (qtd. in Eber­wein 112) (fig. 2).

Fig. 2

When Baad­er goes to the wilder­ness to find aid and com­fort on his mis­sion to defeat the Evil Empire of the West Ger­man state, he reminds audi­ences of John Ram­bo in Ram­bo III, when he trav­els to Afghanistan to aid the free­dom-fight­ing-heroes-cum-ter­ror­ists, the mujahidin. In fact, that film’s ded­i­ca­tion is to “the gal­lant peo­ple of Afghanistan.” That Baader’s and Rambo’s polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies and the cul­tures they rep­re­sent are dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed do not enter into the image. The image is not overt­ly dialec­ti­cal­ly political—or better—it always already con­tains both ide­olo­gies.

Stal­lone and Schwarzenegger’s char­ac­ters embody every­thing Baad­er and his group fight against, and yet, at his most mas­cu­line and vio­lent moment, Baad­er pre­cise­ly resem­bles the fig­ures he vehe­ment­ly oppos­es (fig. 2 and fig. 3).

Fig. 3

Baader’s image, then, is polit­i­cal­ly prob­lem­at­ic, which is pre­cise­ly the stand­point the film claims to take and the film­mak­ers claim to want to show. Not only is the image trou­ble­some because of its left-and-right wing con­tra­dic­tion (which is a com­ment on extrem­ism in gen­er­al), but it has a prob­lem­at­ic his­tor­i­cal dimen­sion as well. The film par­tic­i­pates in a wide­spread “ten­den­cy to reduce a move­ment to a few trade­marked rep­re­sen­ta­tives or icon­ic lead­ers,” and in doing so suc­cumbs to the melo­dra­ma of indi­vid­ual emo­tion­al lives, not polit­i­cal “move­ments” or social state­ments (Reth­mann 47).

Nick James con­tin­ues this cri­tique and posits that the film, rather than being com­plex, is polit­i­cal­ly apa­thet­ic, con­fused, and lazy: “films like The Baad­er Mein­hof Com­plex can can­cel out their pol­i­tics, allow­ing the apa­thet­ic parts of our­selves to say, ah, so that's life's rich tapes­try, where­as a more provoca­tive­ly slant­ed film prompts the desire in us to find out more” (5). James assumes that the audi­ence is inter­est­ed in more than mere enter­tain­ment and tit­il­la­tion. If his assump­tion is cor­rect, though, and if the film were con­cerned with more than images of Baad­er wield­ing an auto­mat­ic rifle and the sexy pos­ing of the film’s female ingénues, many of these images would be polit­i­cal­ly or cul­tur­al­ly prob­lem­at­ic with­in their con­text. Out of con­text, though, they are polit­i­cal­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant regard­less of the film­mak­ers’ intent. The film “cancel[s] out [its] pol­i­tics” because it offers com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives and iconog­ra­phy with­out com­men­tary. It is pre­cise­ly a crit­i­cal posi­tion that makes a film polit­i­cal, or social­ly impor­tant. The film­mak­ers have left any mean­ing and impor­tance their film could have to the crit­ics. James gives a pos­si­ble expla­na­tion for this: “It could be, how­ev­er, that the vaguer vari­ety of polit­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion is one symp­tom of the decline of the auteur. To get films made and dis­trib­uted now requires the inter­fer­ence by and col­lab­o­ra­tion of a great many peo­ple” (5).

This tru­ism cov­ers up the real prob­lem at the cen­ter of the film: it takes no posi­tion, except an aes­thet­ic one of jux­ta­po­si­tion and col­lage. Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex is not an action film from the Rea­gan era. Its pay­ing audi­ence is in large part a group of peo­ple sick of war, death, and ter­ror­ism in their own lives, but eager for a look at “life’s rich tapes­try.” The polit­i­cal action films com­ing out of Hol­ly­wood in the 80s showed how, as Van­hala points out: “The one-man war machine restores pride in Amer­i­can mil­i­tary forces as well as the pow­er of the white male in Amer­i­can soci­ety by his denial of women and sex­u­al­i­ty” (112­–13). This sort of film does not weave a rich tapes­try through the warp and woof of its nar­ra­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It is a point­ed, even one-dimen­sion­al, polit­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive state­ment. Baad­er, unlike America’s mil­i­tary heroes Stal­lone and Schwarzeneg­ger, denies nei­ther women nor sex­u­al­i­ty and active­ly oppos­es Amer­i­can mil­i­tary forces. His char­ac­ter also does not make a def­i­nite polit­i­cal state­ment in terms of his actions, as Ram­bo and Matrix do in Ram­bo and Com­man­do (Van­hala 112, 115) (figs. 2 and 3). Instead, the film tells a lovers’ tale.

Baad­er and Gudrun Ensslin form an out­law dynam­ic duo of sorts, a West-Ger­man-ter­ror­ist Bon­nie and Clyde. If they make a coher­ent polit­i­cal state­ment, as their 1980’s action-hero coun­ter­parts do, it comes from Ensslin, and it is this: “Fuck­ing and shoot­ing, they are the same.” Ensslin is on screen for sex and vio­lence, for sul­try pos­ing, tit­il­lat­ing innu­en­do, and, like Baad­er, is a site for the film­mak­ers to con­fuse and inhib­it clear polit­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions. Though most film crit­ics and gen­der the­o­rists will imme­di­ate­ly adopt a Freudi­an or Lacan­ian method of inter­pre­ta­tion for the role of strong or vio­lent (and sex­u­al) women in film, Ensslin is not a gener­ic femme fatale, though her blonde locks and smol­der­ing stare (not to men­tion her unabashed­ly naked body) may remind audi­ences of Sharon Stone’s Cather­ine Tram­mel in Basic Instinct (Caputi 329) (fig. 4 and fig. 5).

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

In fact, one could argue that very basic instincts dri­ve the film’s lead­ing pair: lust, wrath, and sloth among them. Indeed, Car­ol Hanisch—with whom the his­tor­i­cal Ensslin and Mein­hof may have been famil­iar, and with whom the film-mak­ers cer­tain­ly seem to be—said that “the per­son­al is polit­i­cal,” as Ensslin’s filmic actions apt­ly demon­strate (Hanisch 5).

Ensslin dis­plays all the hall­marks of a text­book left­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary: she leaves her infant child with her Spießer part­ner, renounces her devout­ly reli­gious and (pre­sum­ably) erst­while-fas­cist par­ents, bathes with strange youths in a Haus­be­set­zer-style com­mune while she reads polit­i­cal the­o­ry and talks to and kiss­es her lover, and engages in acts of ter­ror (or rev­o­lu­tion) against the state (fig. 6).

Fig. 6

In the first half of the film, she seems to have thrown off entire­ly the yoke of the West­ern woman, and become some sort of left­ist, hedo­nist Ama­zon, inter­est­ed only in the free­dom and lib­er­ty of her fel­low oppressed Ger­mans. This is a fine car­i­ca­ture and would be appro­pri­ate for any num­ber of oth­er films.

Ensslin’s strengths, the attrib­ut­es which make her both rev­o­lu­tion­ar­i­ly viable and attrac­tive to the audi­ence, are those of the clas­sic femme fatale. Ensslin, the strong woman, is inevitably pun­ished and killed, effec­tive­ly exor­cised from the patri­ar­chal police state, but her fig­ure (both phys­i­cal­ly and nar­ra­tive­ly) remains with the view­er (Tasker 140). Ensslin is active, not a sta­t­ic sym­bol, she is “intel­li­gent and pow­er­ful, if destruc­tive­ly so, and derive[s] pow­er, not weak­ness, from [her] sex­u­al­i­ty” (Tasker 140). This sex­u­al­i­ty man­i­fests itself on screen both as nudi­ty (for polit­i­cal and sex­u­al pur­pos­es) and as per­sua­sive, even seduc­tive, pow­er over Baad­er and Mein­hof.  Ensslin uses sex as a tool, a weapon, and as a sim­ple plea­sure.

Despite her super­fi­cial­ly strong sex­u­al and polit­i­cal posi­tion, in the same scene where Baad­er exhibits his Ram­bo-esque pre­ten­tions and con­tra­dic­tions, Ensslin reveals oth­er aspects of her char­ac­ter, which do not fit the gener­ic mold of the femme fatale. She is a poor excuse for a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. She can’t even hold her weapon cor­rect­ly on the fir­ing range. For all of her talk and sexy pos­tur­ing, she’s a mid­dle-class Klein­burg­er wear­ing too much eye make­up, play­ing sol­dier in the desert with her boyfriend (fig. 7).

Fig. 7

The soap-opera qual­i­ty of Baad­er and Ensslin’s rela­tion­ship is car­ried over in the film’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Ulrike Mein­hof and her rela­tion­ship to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary lovers. In the fig­ure of Mein­hof, the cri­tique of the film’s sim­plic­i­ty and inco­her­ence becomes most obvi­ous. “[W]hile per­haps we'll nev­er know what drove the bril­liant jour­nal­ist Ulrike Mein­hof into the rad­i­cal under­ground, she was undoubt­ed­ly much more than the meek lit­tle lamb that we're giv­en here, gap­ing with fear and fas­ci­na­tion at the macho exploits of the RAF” (Nicode­mus 59). The melo­dra­ma of their inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships dis­tracts the audi­ence from the real psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal trau­ma the three are expe­ri­enc­ing and inflict­ing on their fel­low Ger­mans:

Con­ven­tion­al­ly, the psy­chic and social process­es at work in the melo­dra­mat­ic imag­i­na­tion per­pet­u­ate the patri­ar­chal order and leave the view­er with the sense that tra­di­tion­al fam­i­ly and gen­der roles are intact. In order to secure the imag­i­na­tion of sta­ble soci­etal and fam­i­ly rela­tions, melo­dra­ma indulges in strong emo­tion­al­ism, moral polar­iza­tion, and overt schema­ti­za­tion. Yet, at the same time as melo­dra­ma ren­ders com­plex psy­chic and social rela­tions into eas­i­ly iden­ti­fi­able codes that pro­duce spe­cif­ic emo­tion­al effects in the spec­ta­tor, it also reveals what is repressed in this process. (Pinkert 120)

Edel rep­re­sents Mein­hof as the impres­sion­able child, open to Baad­er and Ensslin’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­ent­ing, or the ador­ing fan fol­low­ing blind­ly after her mur­der­ous rock stars. This char­ac­ter­i­za­tion describes a con­fined space in which the his­tor­i­cal Mein­hof can con­front the audi­ence, and her filmic rela­tion­ship to both Baad­er and Ensslin leaves both women look­ing weak and men­tal­ly unbal­anced, which ulti­mate­ly robs them of their dis­turb­ing qual­i­ties and allows the audi­ence to accept their actions as the result of per­son­al weak­ness, rather than polit­i­cal state­ment. The melo­dra­ma in the film allows for their redemp­tion, where, arguably, there should be none. Anke Pinkert argues that, in this kind of melo­dra­ma, “women are ulti­mate­ly per­ceived as the locus of respon­si­bil­i­ty and blame” (130). The audi­ence can blame Mein­hof for her turn to the rad­i­cal left, and they can blame Ensslin for orches­trat­ing both Meinhof’s inclu­sion in the group and her even­tu­al men­tal and polit­i­cal col­lapse. Ulti­mate­ly, the film­mak­ers show that the char­ac­ters’ per­son­al rela­tion­ships are respon­si­ble for their acts of ter­ror, not their rad­i­cal polit­i­cal con­vic­tions.

The arch of Meinhof’s char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, from dis­con­tent­ed mid­dle-class fam­i­ly woman to social­ly-con­scious reporter to wild-eyed rev­o­lu­tion­ary, would ide­al­ly stir the audi­ences’ emo­tions and sense of social con­science. Ryan Gilbey argues that there is a moment in the film where that social con­science could have been acti­vat­ed: “There is a haunt­ing image of Ulrike’s daugh­ters star­ing out to sea after she has aban­doned them—this, remem­ber, was an unen­light­ened era when women were forced to choose between moth­er­hood and a career in inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism” (43). His some­what caus­tic remark is evi­dence of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the way Edel treats Mein­hof as a site of ide­o­log­i­cal, moral, and polit­i­cal con­flict. Gilbey con­tin­ues, say­ing: “If the pic­ture had explored even briefly how Ulrike could excise her chil­dren from her life as neat­ly as snip­ping them out of a fam­i­ly por­trait, an invalu­able gain could have been made in our com­pre­hen­sion. But faced with the choice between truth and fic­tion, Edel has tak­en John Ford’s advice and print­ed the leg­end” (43). Mein­hof, then, is fun­da­men­tal­ly gut­ted of ide­o­log­i­cal, polit­i­cal, and moral strength. She is a leg­end in mul­ti­ple ways: a good sto­ry, an unre­al­iz­able and unrec­og­niz­able mod­el, only real on paper.

She, more than Ensslin and Baad­er, is ini­tial­ly an under­stand­able char­ac­ter, if not a sym­pa­thet­ic one. “The point is not to win audi­ence sym­pa­thy, but under­stand­ing. At a key moment, Ulrike Mein­hof, until then a sym­pa­thet­ic jour­nal­ist, flees through an open win­dow after mem­bers of the Red Army Fac­tion. The cam­era stays fixed on the win­dow, through which they've all passed the point of no return. From then, tak­ing up arms, they're under­ground, los­ing touch with the social­ist and stu­dent move­ments, more and more iso­lat­ed, fight­ing a pri­vate war” (Lewis 34). Meinhof’s devel­op­ment into an extrem­ist alien­ates the audi­ence, and her depres­sive bouts and weak­ness in front of Ensslin under­mine her polit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal for­ti­tude. “The film suf­fers for being un-able to decide what kind of ambi­gu­i­ty they want to portray—weak moral con­dem­na­tion com­bined with an admis­sion of terror’s spec­tac­u­lar allure is the over­rid­ing effect of The Baad­er Mein­hof Com­plex” (Pow­er 30).

This sen­ti­ment is echoed in oth­er cri­tiques of the film. Mein­hof embod­ies the wide-spread cul­tur­al fas­ci­na­tion with and hor­ror at the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of ter­ror­ism: Gary Indi­ana notes that Gedeck plays Mein­hof “with a mix­ture of astute curios­i­ty, will­ful delu­sion, and self-abne­ga­tion,” and this com­bi­na­tion leads her, seem­ing­ly inex­orably, into the ranks of the RAF (73). As Indi­ana con­tin­ues, Mein­hof could have “feigned hor­ror at the whole busi­ness [of Baader’s escape] […]. Instead, while tru­ly hor­ri­fied by the vio­lence, she, too, makes the leap out the win­dow: The leg­end of the ‘Baad­er-Mein­hof Gang’ orig­i­nates in this leap” (73). This leap of faith, as it were, this blind accep­tance of Baad­er and Ensslin’s plans and charis­ma in the film, con­tributes to a dynam­ic in the “Baad­er-Mein­hof Gang” that leaves Mein­hof out as a third wheel. Indeed, it “has been not­ed else­where that the group ought to have been called the Baad­er-Ensslin Group, since Mein­hof was, from the out­set, rou­tine­ly dis­missed as a ‘bour­geois cunt’ and den­i­grat­ed for the com­fort­able life she had lived before going under­ground” (Indi­ana 73). Her role as mere fig­ure­head or hang­er-on, and the ten­sion that that bred between her and Ensslin, is a dri­ving force behind the per­son­al dra­ma that devel­ops between them through the course of the film.

The repeat­ed dis­missal of Meinhof’s val­ue and virtue pre­fig­ures the pow­er- and love-tri­an­gle rem­i­nis­cent of day-time tele­vi­sion pro­grams, which fig­ures into the emo­tion­al­ly sooth­ing role of melo­dra­ma. Mein­hof becomes Ensslin’s mir­ror: the qui­et, elo­quent, and polit­i­cal­ly astute brunette, affect­ed by her con­science, foiled by the bold, brash, ultra-vio­lent blonde, whose goal is seem­ing­ly to “break all ten Com­mand­ments” (Indi­ana 74). The pow­er strug­gle between the two women, the pet­ty squab­bling and tor­ment Ensslin inflicts on Mein­hof, espe­cial­ly after their cap­ture, replaces the strong and well-argued polit­i­cal and moral posi­tions the his­tor­i­cal Mein­hof held in the court­room. The per­son­al replaces the polit­i­cal in Edel’s film, but in spite of that, the tri­umvi­rate of dys­func­tion­al and per­haps psy­chot­ic per­son­al­i­ties still pro­vides use­ful infor­ma­tion about pre­vail­ing atti­tudes toward ter­ror and its rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Baad­er needs and respects Mein­hof for her polit­i­cal mind and as the group’s media mouth piece (Grawe 174.) In their “war” against the State, she is the RAF’s diplo­mat. Her iso­la­tion, men­tal col­lapse, and even­tu­al sui­cide serve as synec­doche for the group. How­ev­er, where­as Baad­er and Ensslin are hor­ri­fy­ing, alien in their hubris and vio­lence, Meinhof’s fall is under­stand­able, and because of that, the audi­ence is able to expe­ri­ence some sort of cathar­sis. Cathar­sis might be a sta­ple of Aris­totelian tragedy, but the ques­tion is whether it is appro­pri­ate in the con­text of the rela­tion­ship between a cul­ture and its ter­ror­ists (Grawe 176.) The over­whelm­ing crit­i­cal response is “No.” As Indi­ana puts it, the film strikes “many view­ers as fun­da­men­tal­ly skewed, in attempt­ing to ‘bal­ance’ the hubris­tic excess­es of increas­ing­ly deranged ide­al­ists with the pre­dictably exces­sive reac­tions of a mod­ern state. ‘The six against six mil­lion,’ as Hein­rich Böll dubbed the RAF, accom­plished noth­ing pos­i­tive and left noth­ing behind except a still-fes­ter­ing his­tor­i­cal wound” (74).

With this in mind, it is use­ful to return to the film­mak­ers’ goals: to show and not inter­pret, to show what “actu­al­ly hap­pened here, exact­ly.” The ques­tion that lingers in any deal­ing with the RAF is that of objec­tiv­i­ty, or of objec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The his­tor­i­cal and crit­i­cal con­sen­sus is that objec­tiv­i­ty is impos­si­ble. The log­i­cal recourse is then to choose a per­spec­tive. Edel’s per­spec­tive, the con­text in which his film occurs, is with­in this group (Grawe 176.) The film is fun­da­men­tal­ly skewed; it has to be. From Meinhof’s per­spec­tive, every­thing, includ­ing the mem­bers of her own group, is against her. It would make sense, then, that the hubris­tic excess­es of her cohorts and the state’s reac­tions would be com­men­su­rate. By that same token, Baad­er and Ensslin are the vehi­cles for that “hubris­tic excess.” In rep­re­sent­ing the ter­ror­ists from with­in their con­text, Edel does bal­ance the con­cerns of the ter­ror­ists with those of the ter­ror­ized. Edel can­not show this kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal dra­ma with­out Mein­hof. Ensslin and Baad­er by them­selves are too extreme, too for­eign. Mein­hof acts as an emo­tion­al bridge between the RAF and the audi­ence; she is a con­duit through which the RAF can begin to be rein­te­grat­ed into the Ger­man past, although in her case, that rein­te­gra­tion appears to take place in patri­ar­chal, con­ser­v­a­tive terms. This demar­cat­ed sym­pa­thy is most obvi­ous when the audi­ence notices “Meinhof’s silence and slight­ly pained expres­sion when she agrees to Ensslin’s pro­pos­al that her twin daugh­ters be brought up as Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ists, nev­er to be seen again […]. [The image] can­not but affect the view­ers” (Grawe 176).

There are obvi­ous con­tra­dic­tions and flaws in the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Baad­er, Ensslin, and Mein­hof, but they can be argued away, as many crit­ics have, as inep­ti­tude or incon­sis­ten­cy on the part of the film­mak­ers. How­ev­er, the pic­ture they paint of the whole group lends more sup­port to a con­sis­tent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the RAF than incom­pe­tence on the part of Edel and his cohorts. Naked, pasty, the­o­ry-read­ing West­ern­ers in the mid­dle of desert, “train­ing” with hard­ened war­riors com­plete­ly alien to their way of life is a para­dox, a con­tra­dic­tion, beyond what the film­mak­ers could accom­plish unin­ten­tion­al­ly. In fact, with­in this con­tra­dic­tion lies an impor­tant aes­thet­ic and social state­ment: the naked, fem­i­nine form can over­come the pow­er of mil­i­taris­tic, fanat­ic patri­archies. This image fits snug­ly into the dis­course sur­round­ing women and war, where the orig­i­nal and most pow­er­ful expres­sions of vio­lence, of pow­er over life and death, were fem­i­nine ones (Caputi 253).

The West­ern women are alien to the camp and the way of life it rep­re­sents, and, if what Ensslin says is true, and fuck­ing (and by proxy a focus on the body and sex­u­al­i­ty) is like shoot­ing, then the Ger­man women are win­ning the war of rep­re­sen­ta­tion (fig. 8).

Fig. 8

The female war­rior, and even more so the sui­cide bomber, is the most uncan­ny fig­ure of the action genre (see Black Hawk Down, From Paris with Love, or The King­dom, among oth­ers, for exam­ples of this.) The image of the naked rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies is designed not only to stir the Islamist ter­ror­ists, but to dis­rupt the audience’s notions of fem­i­nin­i­ty and the role of vio­lence in the West­ern world.

This image of the women of the RAF is impor­tant for two rea­sons: con­tex­tu­al­ly, it sit­u­ates the film his­tor­i­cal­ly, because the film­mak­ers metic­u­lous­ly recre­at­ed the mise-en-scéne from his­tor­i­cal pho­to­graph­ic evi­dence, which gives their fic­tions his­tor­i­cal verisimil­i­tude (Hope-Jones 34). Out of con­text, how­ev­er, the image pro­vides a pow­er­ful com­men­tary on how cul­ture aes­theti­cizes and politi­cizes the female form, and shows how film, espe­cial­ly a “terror(ism)” film, can con­front an audi­ence with its own ide­o­log­i­cal fail­ings and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal blind spots. The con­tex­tu­al impor­tance of the image is lim­it­ed and under­mined by the film’s oth­er method­olog­i­cal and struc­tur­al fail­ings, but the film­mak­ers’ reliance on his­tor­i­cal imagery pro­vides the audi­ence with com­men­tary on the roles of women and vio­lence in a post-9/11 soci­ety (Hope-Jones 34). Crit­ics argue that, despite its sub­ject mat­ter, Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex is a post-9/11 film (James 5). Despite the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the imagery, the film devel­ops an aes­thet­ics that direct­ly engages the vio­lence (both phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al) with which its audi­ence is reg­u­lar­ly and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly con­front­ed. This scene ques­tions the per­pe­tra­tors and vic­tims of sys­tem­at­ic and ide­o­log­i­cal vio­lence, and this vio­lence is an inte­gral com­po­nent in the rise and ever-increas­ing inten­si­ty of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism, in par­tic­u­lar. The “ter­ror­ists” (that is, the mem­bers of the Fatah) in this scene are ter­ror­ized, “coerced by vio­lence, fear, threats, etc.,” as much by the brash naked­ness of the Ger­man rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies as those same rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies ter­ror­ized their fel­low cit­i­zens.

The images force the audi­ence to regard bod­ies, and sys­tems of pow­er rela­tion­ships, from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. This is one of film’s impor­tant social func­tions, and the “ter­ror­ist film,” along with film noir, hor­ror, sci­ence fic­tion, and even action cin­e­ma, has a crit­i­cal role to play in the way film­mak­ers and audi­ences engage with the shift­ing aes­thet­ic and eth­i­cal land­scape of the ear­ly twen­ty-first Cen­tu­ry.

The final ele­ment of the film, and that which under­mines, or at min­i­mum makes iron­ic, the pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal or social mes­sage the film could con­tain, is the melo­dra­mat­ic, mid­dle class, Bon­nie-and-Clyde sto­ry that over­whelms the inde­pen­dent rev­o­lu­tion­ary sto­ries of the two lovers (fig. 9).

Fig. 9

Their star-crossed love sto­ry dis­tracts, and the crit­ics argue detracts, from the polit­i­cal and social mean­ing and con­flict inher­ent in both domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. It is final­ly this love sto­ry, absent from the clas­sic action block­busters of the 80s, which crip­ples the polit­i­cal thrust of the film. The com­plex of sex, vio­lence, myth and filmic con­ven­tion are just that: a con­stel­la­tion of volatile ele­ments that build an inter­est­ing film. The film’s focus on the emo­tion­al lives of the main fig­ures detracts from the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures’ main focus: pol­i­tics and vio­lence. It is in this aspect that Edel’s claim to cin­e­ma ver­ité rings most hol­low, and the film proves itself decid­ed­ly un-polit­i­cal (Sklar 43). Though the his­tor­i­cal Ensslin was cer­tain­ly devot­ed to Baad­er, it was her com­mit­ment to the over­throw of the (in her view) fas­cist and oppres­sive West-Ger­man gov­ern­ment, and not the excite­ment of a life of crime and adven­ture with her lover, that drove her polit­i­cal and rev­o­lu­tion­ary actions.

The film poster, in par­tic­u­lar the one for the U.S. mar­ket, tells the sto­ry of the film, sets up the audi­ences’ expec­ta­tions, before they even enter the cin­e­ma (fig. 10).

Fig. 10

The film, as adver­tised, is not about Baad­er and Mein­hof, not about vio­lence and pol­i­tics and social jus­tice. It is rather a crim­i­nal love sto­ry, a roman­tic escapade in peri­od cloth­ing. The film pro­vides an escape, just as Bon­nie and Clyde did. In the words of Faye Dun­away, “[Bon­nie] want­ed to get out of wher­ev­er she was [….] But with Bon­nie there was real trag­ic irony. She got out only to see that she was head­ing nowhere and the end was death [….] She knew the only way to get what she want­ed was through her own sheer force of will. She was dri­ven by her own desire. […. She did] what­ev­er it takes. She want­ed to be some­thing spe­cial, some­thing out of the ordi­nary” (Dun­away 131). The trag­ic irony of Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex is that it sub­sumes its strong rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Ensslin as either femme fatale or action hero under her role as a lover. The film’s luke­warm expres­sion of her pow­er and inde­pen­dence do lit­tle to break Ensslin out of the mold of a sup­port­ing char­ac­ter, or a car­i­ca­ture of fem­i­nin­i­ty (Grant 82).

The romance inher­ent in Baad­er and Ensslin’s rela­tion­ship is their head­long rush toward self-destruc­tion. In their haste to destroy every­thing the gen­er­a­tion before them held dear, includ­ing social con­ven­tions and cul­tur­al tra­di­tions, they effec­tive­ly removed them­selves from the pub­lic sphere. By alien­at­ing them­selves, the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures doomed them­selves to feck­less­ness. The film­mak­ers attempt to make their fig­ures sym­pa­thet­ic, and there­by under­mine their social impact. The romance undoes the pos­i­tive social and aes­thet­ic work of the film, it “can­cels out its pol­i­tics” as James claims, though not com­plete­ly, and not in the sim­plis­tic terms in which he couch­es it. The film still exam­ines some of the caus­es, symp­toms, and con­se­quences of extrem­ism, which most “ter­ror­ist” films—or rather, films about terrorists—fail to do. How­ev­er, romance and the excite­ment of dan­ger hold such cen­tral posi­tions in the film, that the his­tor­i­cal, “true” depic­tions of peo­ple and events becomes spec­tac­u­lar, not polit­i­cal.

Despite its nar­ra­tive fail­ings, Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex con­tributes sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the pos­si­ble devel­op­ment of a ter­ror­ist film genre and its iconog­ra­phy and syn­tax. Like the action and hor­ror gen­res before it, or the style of film noir, the ter­ror­ist film can help medi­ate trau­mat­ic social events, and give the audi­ence a vocab­u­lary of images with which to engage their cir­cum­stances (Grant 26). The social aes­thet­ics the film helps to fos­ter, tak­en out of con­text, allow the audi­ence to eval­u­ate con­tem­po­rary gen­der rela­tion­ships and sex­u­al pol­i­tics, as well as ques­tion the role that ide­ol­o­gy plays in every­day life. It is this last point that is the most impor­tant. The ter­ror­ist film genre is still nascent, and as such, there are no canon­i­cal ter­ror­ist films, or at least, no films that can pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive gram­mar for the genre. Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex is there­fore not a genre film. From a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive, it is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly good film. It is, how­ev­er, a com­plex of images that invite crit­i­cal atten­tion and are clear­ly meant to be read inter­tex­tu­al­ly. Just as the noir films of the post-war peri­od, many of which were B movies, devel­oped a style or aes­thet­ic that even­tu­al­ly gained wide accep­tance as a genre, films about and influ­enced by ter­ror will devel­op an aes­thet­ic and a visu­al semi­otics that will allow audi­ences to engage in dif­fer­ent ways with their social cir­cum­stances (Grant 26, 29). The images of the hap­less hero-ter­ror­ist and his sul­try-but-doomed lover allow the audi­ence to iden­ti­fy with the ter­ror­ist, the “oth­er,” because they play with well estab­lished con­ven­tions of filmic gram­mar. The audi­ence iden­ti­fies with them enough to break down their dialec­tic per­spec­tives on “us” ver­sus “them,” but the film also allows audi­ences to main­tain enough intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al dis­tance that the audi­ence still expe­ri­ences cathar­sis when the ter­ror­ists are rit­u­al­ly purged from the screen, and there­by from the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry and con­scious­ness. This re-nego­ti­a­tion of social bina­ries is an impor­tant aspect of the Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex, and per­haps a future genre of terror(ism) films. The exam­i­na­tion of these com­pli­cat­ed polit­i­cal and aes­thet­ic top­ics will have to be tak­en up in future research by a broad spec­trum of schol­ars.

Works Cited

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

Fig­ure 2: Ram­bo: First Blood Part II. Dir. George Cos­matos. Tri-Star Pic­tures, 1985.

Fig­ure 3: Com­man­do. Dir. Mark Lester. Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry Fox, 1985.

Fig­ure 4: Basic Instinct. Dir. Paul Ver­ho­even. Le Canal +, 1992. Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

Fig­ure 5: Basic Instinct 2. Dir. Michael Caton-Jones. Metro-Gold­wyn-May­er, 2006. Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

Fig­ure 6: Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

Fig­ure 7: Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

Fig­ure 8: Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

Fig­ure 9: Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

Fig­ure 10: Der Baad­er Mein­hof Kom­plex. Dir. Uli Edel. Con­stan­tin Film Pro­duc­tion GmbH, 2008.

End Notes

[1] Plot sum­ma­ry for “The Baad­er Mein­hof Com­plex,” from its offi­cial IMDb page.

[2] “Der Faschis­mus läuft fol­gerecht auf eine Ästhetisierung des poli­tis­chen Lebens hin­aus. […] Alle Bemühun­gen um die Ästhetisierung der Poli­tik gipfeln in einem Punkt. Dieser eine Punkt ist der Krieg” (384).

[3] “So ste­ht es um die Ästhetisierung der Poli­tik, welche der Faschis­mus betreibt. Der Kom­mu­nis­mus antwortet ihm mit der Poli­tisierung der Kun­st“ (384).


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