- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

It’s two decades after the end of World War II, and West Germany is in turmoil. As elsewhere, charges of American imperialism are a flashpoint for student protests: Between the Vietnam War, America’s support for the Shah of Iran and the burgeoning communist movement in South and Central America, middle-class West German youths have found much cause to be agitated.

“The Baader Meinhof Complex” is the story of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a group that did more than merely agitate. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the RAF set off bombs in department stores and military bases and organized airplane hijackings and the kidnapping of prominent Germans, killing dozens of people along the way.

Concerned with the formation of the RAF — sometimes referred to as the Baader-Meinhof Gang — “The Baader Meinhof Complex” is a taut and involving thriller that is at its strongest when it focuses on the ideological evolution of Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck).

As the film opens, Ulrike is an idealistic left-wing journalist and mother of two, content with penning screeds against the shah and attending the speeches of Che-quoting communist radicals like Rudi Dutschke (Sebastian Blomberg). Slowly, she is pulled into the orbit of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), a couple prone to violence who have tired of the “all talk, no action” mind-set.

After Andreas is captured by the police, Ulrike works with Gudrun to effect his escape. In the process, a bystander is killed. What follows is Ulrike’s descent into the more feverish parts of the global anti-imperialist movement as she flees the country: The trio (and several other Germans) escape to a terrorist training camp in Jordan before returning to Germany to commit bank robberies and blow up U.S. Army bases. The gang eventually is captured by German police.

At one point in her journey, Ulrike is forced to choose between her cause and her family. In a frightening glimpse into the mind of a revolutionary, her twin girls lose out; she’d rather send them to a Palestinian orphanage and give up the chance of ever seeing them again than abandon her cause.

Miss Gedeck’s performance is arguably the best female screen performance last year: The transformation she undergoes — from a working mother to a committed revolutionary to a gaunt prisoner struggling against the psychological effects of solitary confinement — is impressive enough in its own right. But she also comes across as a real person, someone struggling with the moral complexities of her violent actions.

Her insightful portrayal is rare in “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” If the rest of the actors aren’t glorifying the terrorist RAF, they’re coming pretty close: Both Mr. Bleibtreu and Miss Wokalek imbue their characters with a fiery charisma that is difficult not to admire. They are young and beautiful and full of passion, idealists of the first order who represent the sexual and political revolutions that so defined the era.

This is the second time Mr. Bleibtreu has played a West German terrorist named Andreas. The first came in “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s 2005 epic about the Israeli effort to kill the perpetrators of the 1972 Olympic terrorist attack that left 11 Israeli athletes dead.

“Munich” is a world-weary, morally relativistic exhalation, a sigh that warns against the dangers of escalation and the cycle of violence that terrorism and counterterrorism inevitably create. There is no such hand-wringing in “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” The actions of the RAF — especially its first generation, embodied by Andreas and Gudrun — are consistently excused and explained, if not explicitly celebrated. Cops are swine; soldiers are vermin; capitalists are parasites; the ends justify the means, even when the means are horrific.

How does one beat an enemy with no moral compunction against doing violence because they think their victims are less than human?

★★★

TITLE: “The Baader Meinhof Complex”

RATING: R (strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Uli Edel

RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thebaadermeinhofcomplex.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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