Friday 19 December 2008

Ideology and revolution

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008), directed by Uli Edel

Ideology is dead, these days. At least on the left, just look at all the newspapers which have swung to the centre around the world and the former Trotskyists who are now running New Labour here in the UK. To listen to these politicians, one could easily imagine that the only ideological struggle that remains in the 21st Century is that of anti-terrorism. What ideology is today is far removed from the rich potential it once signified. Our very use of the word, at least in the media, is realigned with more nationalistic definitions – one which is not pinned to a common mood or world-view but to a particular country or group of people. Such a definition lies behind the distinction made today between the differing viewpoints of a government and the people ‘of the same country’. In Greece this is called, at least by the BBC, government versus anarchists; whilst governments that face ‘heterogeneous’ trouble-makers deal with terrorists.

The RAF, die Rote Armee Fraktion (the Red Army Faction), was a left-wing group engaged in an armed struggle in West Germany from 1968 to 1998. Its formation came at a time when internationally there were many youth-protest movements. West Germany had been cleaved politically from East Germany at the end of the Second World War with the division of Germany into Russian and Allied zones. It was here, in the West, that the youth reacted against the conservatives: politicians (including former Nazi politicians with positions as high up as the Chancellor) whose anti-radical legislation, such as banning Germans with extreme political views from holding public-sector jobs, was matched by the equally anti-radical views of Axel Springer and other media chiefs.

The actions of the RAF can be understood in terms of post-war German history. The Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden, an awarding body for German cinema, rated The Baader Meinhof Complex as historically ‘highly valuable’, and made the somewhat curious statement that this is ‘German history as a big movie production’ – which seems a step away from saying that German history is a big movie production. Has Germany now reached a level of national catharsis where they can make films from any period of its recent history?

Even following the release of Der Untergang [Downfall] (2004) about Hitler’s last days, this is not really the question that The Baader Meinhof Complex poses or tries to answer. Let us return instead to what we called the modern definition of terrorism. Just as American blockbusters have switched their enemies to more Arabic or Persian-looking actors, is this film not a fond look at anarchists who, as grass-root terror-doers from an earlier, more naïve age, appear a homely comfort in these days of terror? Whatever the motivation, be it authenticity or glamour, there is certainly a desire to recreate the era, with 1968 news clips, period music and clothes. The authenticity is created through both non-discursive and discursive means, through colour and words, through film images that are made to look like the ones shot at the time, through quoted trial transcripts and manifesto tag line’s like Ulrike Meinhof’s (Martina Gedeck, Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others] (2006)): ‘If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offence. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire – that is political action!’.

Such a quotation suggests not only a political motive for the film but makes inevitable the non-discursive realisation of such words – cars, people, buildings are destroyed on a large scale – an indication that the level of violence is being truthfully portrayed. The film therefore goes beyond the nostalgia for the 1970s, but also the yearning for political idealism and alternativism which were, unlike today, compatible with the hip clothes of the youth of the day. So, is this a stylisation of idealism? Voices have complained that the film glamorises violence and the RAF, but you should not be too quick to claim an over-glamorisation of post-68 politics in this film. Now that terrorism is considered as an outside threat, this is the perfect time to make an anarcho-historical film. And why miss the opportunity to add a little glamour? Since the RAF had the reputation of being cool rebels and dressed the part, it may not be a question of adding anything at all. If the filmmakers had really wanted to make a monument to the RAF, would they not have chosen to make more out of the suicides of Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt) that took place in a high-security prison-wing built especially for the RAF in 1977? Unanswered questions are not examined but past activism is realised, in faded 1970s colours, on the cinema screens for modern audiences.

The RAF was one of the most famous of several left-wing resistance / terrorist groups. They were both loudly loathed and praised, and any glamour of the film should not be seen as a reflection of a collective pardoning of or rose-tinted gaze on the 1970s. Even today, publications such as the Daily Telegraph, not known for impartiality, choose to call the RAF ‘an outgrowth of the intolerant Left-wing culture which, like a virulent cancer, took hold of some German universities in the 1960s ’ (1). The Telegraph is not alone. The film’s portrayal of the state’s violently strong response to terror has obvious resonances in the current period, when police powers against the threat of terrorism are being increased to untold measures. It suffices to write here that a film with cultural sponsorship from the German government showing that the solution to terrorism is to strengthen a state to police-state levels should at least be questioned.

And yet there are also accusations that the film is ‘terror-porn’: there seems to be something for everyone – for people who hold pro or anti-RAF positions or for those who are indifferent. However, this is not propaganda; the pro and anti-RAF ideologies are both too weak. If there really is a ‘Baader Meinhof complex’, the subtleties of repressed emotions and impulses do not seem to be strong enough to result in public response, outside the half-hearted bi-partisan media outcry. There isn’t someone like Barthes to carry out a semiological dissection on this film, yet he isn’t even needed as any ideology in the film is too ready to become non-ideology.

Is this not a reflection of modern society, void of strong political feelings, or one that at least lets the media choose what warrants a mass response? Although there may be something wrong with ideology or our political drive, the film is cinematically indifferent to philosophical or political questions. Of course the issue remains whether these questions are posed at all, but this is not a reason not to go and see a beautiful realisation of 1970s images which recreate political passions with a cast in authentic clothes and who partake in sunbathing.

As a footnote, the RAF is back in the news for another reason this month. Christian Klar, of the second RAF generation, is due to be released in January, having been incarcerated since 1982. And the theatre director of the Berliner Ensemble, Claus Peymann, who has a left-wing past and once raised money with a production in Stuttgart for a denture for the terrorist Gudrun Ensslin, has organised a two-year internship for Klar at the BE. The BE was originally the Brecht Ensemble and is an important theatre in Berlin.

(1) The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust – review, Michael Burleigh,, 7 December 2008.

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