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Baader Meinhof Complex ignites history 

Explosions and bullet wounds punctuate the fast-paced history lesson

Explosions and bullet wounds punctuate The Baader Meinhof Complex's history lesson. Germany’s Oscar-nominated docudrama breathlessly depicts the impassioned leadership and terrorist acts of the eponymous gang of urban guerillas, also known as the Red Army Faction, or RAF. Director Uli Edel’s two-and-a-half hour epic moves at such a rapid pace that individuals and their stories can become a blur. The Baader Meinhof Complex features thrilling re-enactments of terrorist activities and an intriguing perspective on the life of an "anti-imperialist" extremist group.

The plot's strongest throughline recounts the radicalization of leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), who turns from wife, mother and middle-class pundit to an accomplice and mouthpiece of a band of thieving fugitives. Alpha-male arsonist Andreas Baader (Run Lola Run’s Moritz Bleibtreu) exudes Brando-esque charisma despite his thuggish behavior. Meinhof, like the audience, focuses on Baader’s girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), whose raw sexuality goes a long way to sell her anti-establishment beliefs. In one scene, Gudrun welcomes a young recruit to the group by inviting him to share her bathtub. Gudrun’s example inspires Meinhof to take action beyond words, but their friendship frays during a prison stint in the film’s second half.

Gudrun and her cohorts strike a sharp contrast to the Muslim jihadists that command attention in today’s global War on Terror, particularly when RAF leadership visits a Jordanian PLO camp for training and sanctuary. Baader scoffs at Islamic segregation of men and women, and the young Germans revel in nude sunbathing on a roof. While contemporary terrorists’ suicide attacks often target civilians, the radical RAF claimed to avoid targeting workers — except, of course, for all the times they did. The film makes the events exciting enough to feed the RAF’s self-image as a band of radical Robin Hoods, but ensures that the violence is too horrific to glamorize them. Meanwhile, Bruno Ganz (immortalized as Hitler in Downfall) plays a high-ranking gangbuster who argues for the need to understand the roots of terrorism.

In a sense, neither Baader, Meinhof nor Ensslin serves as the film’s protagonist as much as the movement itself. Edel conveys the notion that the politically motivated violence of the 1960s and 1970s amounted to a grisly form of cause and effect. Early on, the film depicts German police brutality during a protest of the shah of Iran, and those acts of violence inspire others. By the time the RAF leaders are languishing in prison, “the second and third generation” of terrorists are committing kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations. The film implies that the rush of events has its own momentum beyond the control of any one person. This approach tends to flatten out the film’s many, many supporting characters, and it’s a shame The Baader Meinhof Complex doesn’t spend more time exploring the psychology of the group's numerous women. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see a docudrama that doesn’t oversimplify history. The word “complex” in the title isn’t an idle threat.

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