The Baader Meinhof Complex (Vitagraph Films), directed by Uli Edel, dramatizes the events of the West German domestic terrorist group that called itself the Red Army Faction. Beginning in the late '60s and continuing for more than a decade, the RAF, a ragtag group organized by three middle-class members of the first post-WWII generation, staged bank robberies, political kidnappings, bombings, and hijackings—killing 47 people in the process. Their story has been told before on film, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder ( The Third Generation) and Volker Schlöndorff ( The Legend of Rita). But Edel's clear-eyed and exhaustively researched account is unique in its refusal to either romanticize or villainize the terrorists. It's a study in the seductive appeal, and inevitable failure, of the attempt to bomb one's way to a better world.
Edel's film is based on a nonfiction book by Stefan Aust and scripted by Aust and Bernd Eichinger, who also wrote Downfall (2004), a tensely claustrophobic drama about Hitler's last days in the bunker. Like Downfall, this film is a grim chronicle of political and personal entropy. The RAF, which began as a radical offshoot of the Vietnam protest movement, started with a burst of ideological energy and tactical success (and even some measure of public support) before burning out in internal squabbles, horrific acts of bloodshed, and eventual imprisonment and suicide.
The film begins in 1967, as students protesting the Shah of Iran's state visit are beaten by the shah's supporters and the German police (in a street-riot scene that's impressively staged and edited). A young left-wing journalist, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), publishes a column supporting the students and as she continues to cover the movement, she becomes more and more radicalized, eventually agreeing to give shelter to a terrorist cell led by Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek). Baader is a charming sociopath, a thug who regards revolutionary action as an excuse to blow shit up. Ensslin, on the other hand, is a true believer, quoting Mao's Little Red Book and railing at her pious bourgeois parents.
At the center of the story is Meinhof, a married woman who abandons her twin daughters to go underground with the group after participating in a successful attempt to break Baader out of prison. Martina Gedeck, whom American audiences may recognize from the 2007 film The Lives of Others, plays Meinhof as an ambivalent and tormented liberal who's seduced by the notion of armed struggle even as she realizes the group is using her as a kind of unpaid propagandist. Later, when Meinhof, in solitary confinement, begins to succumb to paranoia and guilt-induced depression, Gedeck's very good performance becomes a great one.
Periodically, the film cuts from the squalid hideouts where the terrorists fabricate their jerry-rigged bombs to the wood-paneled offices of the head of the German police force, Horst Herold (the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who also played Hitler in Downfall) *. Far from declaring a "war on terror," Herold seeks to stamp out the RAF by understanding their motives. The scenes in which he insists to his outraged fellow officers that executing the terrorists will only create martyrs for the movement are as close as the movie comes to commenting on contemporary global terrorism.
One of the movie's few lighthearted sequences takes place at a Palestinian training camp in Jordan, where the urban-guerrilla group attempted a course in desert warfare until their lack of military discipline and fondness for nude coed sunbathing got them kicked out. Without hammering home the point too crudely, The Baader Meinhof Complex gets across how the sexual revolution both enabled the political one and failed to keep pace with it. Several of the RAF's key figures, including Ensslin and Meinhof, were female, but when Meinhof calls him on his "let's-torch-everything" strategy, Baader falls back on the oldest misogynist rhetoric, railing about "these cunts" who "just want to scream at men."
Once Meinhof, Baader, and Ensslin are jailed and the second generation of RAF terrorists takes over, the movie loses much of its momentum. The second wave is led almost wholly by characters we've never been introduced to. At times, The Baader Meinhof Complex proceeds with the plodding meticulousness of a TV miniseries: No underground meeting or incendiary pamphlet is allowed to go undocumented. But this starkly unromantic epic ultimately benefits from its 150-minute running time, immersing the audience in the RAF's journey from shared passion to collective madness as their movement runs its full, sad, bloody course.
Correction, Aug. 24, 2009: This review originally stated that Bruno Ganz was German. He is Swiss. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)