Whole film festivals could be programmed on the decade of German political unrest from the riotous demonstrations of the late 1960s to the emergency measures of the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1977. From the beginning, film was inseparable from the movement. None more than Harun Farocki’s agitprop film from 1968, On Some Problems of the Anti-authoritarian and Antiimperialist Struggle in the Metropolitan Areas, Using West Berlin as Example, or Their Newspapers, which thematized the manipulative role of the Axel Springer newspaper concern. (Springer’s press was central to the ideological war of the 1960s. It was blamed for inciting an assassin to target Rudi Dutschke in April 1968, after its calls to ‘eliminate the trouble-makers’ and ‘stop the terror of the young Reds’.) Farocki’s film made parallels between military repression in Vietnam and ideological oppression in Germany. Bombs fall onto the Vietnamese, bundles of newspapers thud onto the streets of West Berlin.
A twin assault: violence against Vietnamese bodies, violence towards German minds. At the end of the film activists turn words into weapons, as cobblestones are wrapped in Springer’s newspapers in preparation for the street fighting. These were the days in which students occupied the film academy in Berlin, the red flag hoisted above the building, unofficially renamed, in homage to the 1920s’ political avant-garde, ‘The Dziga Vertov Academy’. Order restored, the occupiers, Farocki among them, were expelled from the film academy, but they continued to make films. Two from 1969, made by the Socialist Filmmakers Co-operative West Berlin, were titled Untitled or: Nixon Comes to Berlin and Instructions For Stripping a Policeman of His Helmet. Documentary was the chosen mode of accessing the data of social reality. Real demonstrations and debates found their way onto film. This was film as weapon, self-consciously using documentary in a Brechtian fashion, drawing on the resources of modern media with its barrage of techniques, such as montage, selection, distance and foregrounded manipulation or artifice – that which Brecht claimed needed to be obviously constructed in order to be radically truthful.
Objectivity and subjectivity, theory and practice were pressed together using violence and humour.
A decade later the movement had stopped moving so stridently forwards and film, beginning perhaps with the multi-authored film, Germany in Autumn (1978), half-turned from documentary and partisanship to fictionalization and an emphasis on the problems of subjectivity in relation to political action and demands.
The debates that ripped the Left asunder were played out in various scenarios. But overwhelmingly it is failure that resonates. Death – once a catalyst for action, as in the murder of first-time demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg by the police – becomes yet again a Meister from Germany. Germany in Autumn opens with the funeral of an RAF victim, industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer, and this is answered by the film’s closing funeral of RAF leaders Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan Carl Raspe. A grim balance is presented for contemplation. What went wrong? What might yet be salvaged? These questions demanded and provoked answers and more questions.
The film intermingled ‘objective’ documentary footage and ‘subjective’ fictionalizing. It was this latter mode that dominated in the rash of films that followed:
naturalistic reconstructions of plausible scenarios by von Trotta, Schlöndorff, Petzold and others explored the psychological interior of terroristic individuals and their relation to their intimates. It seemed to be a time for theory and analysis, not action.
Uli Edel’s new film, The Baader Meinhof Complex, mulches all this past and pumps out another blend of the components, flipping the subjectivism of the previous epoch into its opposite, objectivism, and eschewing theory for practice, in the unreflected sense. It, too, as is by now expected of the mini-genre, is a melange of fictionalization and documentary. Reconstructions of key scenes and re-imaginings of others meld with media and police documentary footage. Hand-held camera and natural lighting are met with Dolby digital and special effects. Identification vies with alienation, invented characters and scenarios with verbatim dialogue and accurate numbers of bullet shots. From all this, the film hopes to concoct something ruthlessly ‘objective’, with the emphasis on ruthless. On those grounds, as many have condemned it as praised it. Its two and a half hours compress a remorseless chain of
Germany this autumnThe Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel, 149 minutes, 2008.actions and reactions. It is the objectivity of ‘neutrality’ (many reviews use this word), of not taking a position, in order to say something (or nothing) equally to each and all. Hurtling along a historical trajectory, it never clearly banners its stance. To make that clear, or to make it possible for the viewer to take sides, the film would need to wrest a moment for contemplation among the incessant stream of actions.
This is the ‘objectivity’ of the impenetrable surface, along which the viewer glides, or rather bumps, hammered by the loud raps of the gunshots or the sudden blows of the policemen and terrorists, the Shah of Iran’s bodyguards or the Stammheim prison guards.
Eisenstein invented Kino-Fist, cinema as assault on the senses, in a sort of politically sensuous shake-up designed to jerk into being the new Soviet human.
Nowadays every Hollywood action film gives us a kicking, just for the thrill of the ride, but here, positioned constantly in the place where the blows hit (in turn, Jürgen Ponto or Benno Ohnesorg), we are shoved around within a historical-political context, battering on its facts, which we sense are significant, but the film cannot or will not allow us a moment to ponder, let alone propose and consider solutions. In line with this, it shuns psychological interiority or exploration of motivation. Baader appears as pure reactive energy – more a hateful embodiment of Benjamin’s ‘destructive character’ than a musing reader of critical theory’s curlicues – while Meinhof’s more fragile constitution is not self-doubt but self-destruction. Fucking and shooting are sibling actions and re-actions of the struggle.
Perhaps it is a relief that it is all action and so the endless talk and tortuous analysis generated by the German Left in those years is not reprised here yet again. (There is just one brief moment of debate in Stammheim, posed as dissent among the ranks, when the issue arises of who the legitimate targets of violence should be). The group simply bursts out of the generally heightened atmosphere onto the scene:
an act of sheer reaction to state-sanctioned violence. It appears to be the only game in town, and one dangerously close to becoming de rigueur, especially when headed by such pop stars as these. Is the courtroom scene where Ensslin and Baader provoke the judge by calling him a succession of rude epithets a premonition or an imitation of The Sex Pistols’ notorious appearance on The Today Programme with Bill Grundy, or just a product of something in the air? Only the slow-moving head of the Crime Squad, Horst Herold, asserts the need to question, interrupting the flow of the action to ask how we – they – might understand why terror happens, in order to stop it, and not just the current perpetrators, but the future ones too.
Analysis and understanding is not the film’s remit, nor was it the state’s in 1977, for action, in the form of absolute police lockdown in the ‘Hot Autumn’ is what Herold instigates. The consequence of that total mobilization of the police is the provocation of a next, harder generation. Stuck away in Stammheim (with their televisions, radios, books and successful requests for co-prisoners, ruling the roost), we witness the First Generation’s increasing despair as acts designed to free them fail and the tactics change – ‘innocent’ civilians become targets. It is as if they are sorcerers’ apprentices, unleashing something they cannot control.
Violence escalates in response to violence. The film ends abruptly on an act of exchange, another balancing act. Schleyer’s body is dumped, a worthless piece of meat, just like the suicided corpses of Meinhof, Ensslin,
Raspe and Baader. Everything was for nothing.