The Baader Meinhof Complex
Directed by Uli Edel
2008, German with English subtitles, Rated R

I’ve seen strange things at demonstrations.

Some of these protests had half a million people, mostly just regular Americans voicing their opinion, but there was another element as well, among a much, much smaller group. These were the people carrying signs with the word “Bush,” where the letter “s” was replaced by a swastika. Others of the same ilk included odd grouplets that set up tables along the margins, literally and metaphorically. They sold books and newspapers describing how everything, even the leaders of the protests themselves, were evil tools in some capitalist/fascist/imperialist/Zionist system. I was lucky enough to avoid a particularly horrifying example, but not enough so that I missed the photographs: a group of men who used some sort of saline solution to inflate their scrotums to the size of soccer balls. Somehow, filling their reproductive organs with salt water was to be taken as a protest against the war. (It seemed more like they were protesting sanity.)

At every political gathering, it seems, there are those who decide to go off in some strange direction, people who decide that something more “radical” needs to be done. These little are the true believers, seeing themselves above the foolish masses of people.

I never understood the psychology of this. I still don’t, but I did gain an inkling, thanks to Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, released August 21, but still in the process of opening in cities across the country.

Meinhof tells the story of the Baader Meinhof gang, the notorious Red Army Faction, a group of left-wing terrorists in the old West Germany. Far from romanticizing them, as several previous German productions have, the film casts an even-handed gaze over contemporaneous society and the political cult itself.

The film opens with a state visit by the Shah of Iran and his wife to the Federal Republic. On one side of the street are men dressed in suits – the Shah’s supporters. On the other side, those protesting the dictator are behind a line of police. After the Shah and his entourage pass, the strange suited men cross the street and attack the anti-Shah crowd. Far from lending a helping hand, the police trap the protestors, eventually joining in with the Shah’s friends. The rest of the story is well known: during the melee, West German officer Karl-Heinz Kurras (incidentally, the world found out in May that he was a double-agent, but there was no way for the filmmakers to have known this), shoots and kills a student demonstrator, a picture is snapped, and a protest movement is invigorated across Germany.

Out of that milieu arises the Red Army Faction, led by the academic Ulrike Meinhof and young thug Andreas Baader. The film chronicles the rise and eventual fall of the group, and delves into the underpinnings of their psychotic tendencies. The question of how an academic, who has a nice house and is often interviewed on respectable talk television, links up with a violent young “revolutionary” and begin a series of terrorist acts is explored realistically and in detail.

In its condemnation of left terrorism, though, Complex isn’t conservative. If anything, the West German regime is portrayed as abusive and the overall movement heroic, if somewhat naïve, with state support for the tyrannical Shah just one example of the former, and the large indoor demonstration against the Vietnam War one of the latter.

The terrorist group comes to fetishize the Palestinian and Vietnamese armed struggles, somehow thinking that they can or should take place in West Germany. They start off by blowing up a department store and end with the failed highjacking of an airliner and an eventual group suicide. The film indicts the political cult, not through glorifying a bankrupt regime or by smearing the Baader Meinhof group; instead it simply presents the facts, the group indicting itself through its actions.

The psychology, not the history, is what’s most interesting. The growing isolation of the group (though the film does allow that a large number of young people in West Germany did have some romanticized notion of them), mixed with a set of volatile personalities and idealized notions of armed struggle move the protagonists further and further along into a group psychosis, in which they begin to believe that they “operate between the state and the masses,” to quote a character’s quote from Mao. Seeing themselves as Messianic, they are able to justify all that they do as a response to the “enemy” – which they increasingly see in everything.

While there has luckily been no American version of the Red Army Faction, some more minor version of their psychosis does seem to be prevalent in those small leftist groups that were active in the above-mentioned demonstrations. They have the same grand self-delusions as did Baader and Meinhof, and the same self-imposed isolation from society. Luckily for us, these groups sell books, and the more extreme ones are content to inflate their testicles, not blow someone else’s off. And fortunately (for the left’s image, at least), this insanity is now more prevalent on the fringe right, though the rightists seem to be more inclined toward violence. (Witness the “patriots” walking around with huge guns in front of town hall meetings in Arizona and New Hampshire.)

Though the film is full of in-depth character study, it would be wrong to classify The Baader Meinhof Complex (the title itself implying a psychological disorder) as something other than an action film. It keeps the pace of any Hollywood blockbuster, while at the same time delivering much deeper insight. With Edel doing a fine job behind the camera, all the actors (of which there are several hundred with speaking parts) hand in excellent performances, Nearly flawless, Complex is a film worth seeing on a number of levels: Sheer entertainment value is only one.

Also, it gives you a glimpse into the mind of the man with the soccer-ball sized scrotum you may find yourself standing next to at some upcoming demonstration.