Saturday, 23 May 2009

Der Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

The director wanted chicks with guns...

The Summer of 1969 was the closest the West had to its own Cultural Revolution, with an entire generation of students in open revolt against the political establishment in France, Germany, and the United States. It was a time of peace-loving young hippies, but it was also a time of student revolutionaries who blew up commercial buildings, police and state installations. We call them terrorists today, but these groups had the tacit support of a wide section of their societies. Here, director Uli Edel tells the gripping story of the founders of the German Red Army Faction, depicting their radicalisation from middle class roots, activities as an urban guerilla group, eventual capture, trial and suicides.

All this is too big to be told in a 2.5 hour film. The pacing of the movie suffers from the director’s decision to tell the entire story, spanning over 10 years, multiple generations of the RAF, the changes in its ideology and tactics, and the clampdown by different arms of the not-entirely-innocent German state.

If there is too much to be told, the director compounds his mistake by telling it in a cacophony of Hollywood genres, all badly executed: the Michael Mann action film with Michael Mann camerawork, the documentary on the brutality of German post-war authoritarian leaders, the Bonnie and Clyde criminals on the run film, the procedural noir film with a government agency dedicated to the neutralisation of the terrorist forces and ending the radicalisation of society, the Sophie Scholl prisoner of conscience film, and also the terrorist hijack film.

When a director throws in everything and the kitchen sink to tell everything there is to tell, he loses the overall coherence and flow of his story. By abandoning his directorial duty to set clear boundaries for the story he wishes to tell, Edel ends up skimming the surface of things in an attempt to tell everything.

The Baader Meinhoff Complex could have easily been shortened by an hour, the storytelling tightened and more focused to a laser-like precision. We see the potential for a very German movie about the RAF as the unfortunate inheritors of a strong national tradition of principled and moral defiance of unjust rulers. The bloat also obscures a darkly humorous noir procedural about an Agency man trying to capture and thwart a group that has lost its way despite its high principles, while half-realising his own government has lost its moral authority and purity through the downright dirty actions of its politicians, judges, and police. Quentin Tarrantino himself might have directed an 80 minute dark comedy about the botched training, botched plans, botched leadership, and botched thinking of a wannabe-terrorist group.

If not for the historical importance of his subject and its enduring significance to our times, this bloated and undisciplined movie would certainly try the patience of most audiences.

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 21 May 2009

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