By Ron Holloway | November 8, 2008
More than a dozen German productions (film, TV, stage) have been made about the Baader-Meinhof RAF phenomenon long before Uli Edel filmed Stefan Aust’s bestseller on Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008), the official German entry for this year’s foreign-laguage Oscar. Producer Bernd Eichinger, who also wrote the screenplay, has insisted that his and Edel’s fast-moving, action-packed, bang-bang chronicle of RAF terrorist activities of 1960s and 1970s is an accurate and factual screen interpretation of Aust’s minutely documented The Baader Meinhof Complex. To assure audience acceptance for the fiction-documentary, however, some top names in the current German cinema portfolio were assigned key roles: Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas Baader, Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof, Johanna Wokolek as Gudrun Ensslin, and so forth all the way down the list. But given that even the most informed viewer would have trouble collating the historical events with the real-life personalities, one wonders how foreign audiences – particularly the American public and Academy members – will fare when the film is released abroad. Many critics, too, are questioning how an isolated German Oscar Nomination Committe could reach its decision before the film was even released.
At present, of far great import and interest for cineastes is the number of RAF films, plus related stage productions, that have already covered the same terrorist terrain. Klaus Lemke’s telefeature Brandstifter (Arsonists) (1969) offered a stylized account of the 1968 assault by Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin on the Frankfurt department store. In April of 1974, British director Pip Simmons staged his political pamphlet Das erste Baader-Meinhof Stück (The First Baader-Meinhof Play) in the Kammerspiele of Schauspielhaus Bochum, just two years before Ulrike Meinhof’s suicide in a Stuttgart-Stammheim prison. Volker Schloendorff adapted Heinrich Böll’s novel Die verlorene Ehre von Katharina Blum (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) (1975), starring Angela Winkler, to the screen, a plea to understand why a segment of the population sympathized with the complex issues raised by the RAF. Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn) (1978), codirected by Alexander Kluge, Volker Schloendorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Edgar Reitz, chronicled the events surrounding the death and burial in 1977 of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe. Fassbinder’s independently produced Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation) (1979) scored as a black comedy about the third spinoff of the RAF movement. Margarethe von Trotta’s Die bleierne Zeit (The German Sisters) (1981) was awarded the Golden Lion at Venice for her story of different paths taken by the sisters Christiane and Gudrun Ensslin, played by Jutta Lampe and Barbara Sukowa. Reinhard Hauuf’s Stammheim (1986), an account of the RAF trial at the Stuttgart prison, was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlinale.
Outside Germany, Swiss director Markus Imhoof’s Die Reise (The Journey) (1986) chartered the relationship between Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin in a screen adaptation of Vesper’s autobiographical novel. On TV, Heinrich Breloer’s Todesspiel (Death Game) (1997), a two-part docu-drama, covered the kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer and the Mogadishu incident that led to the collective suicide of RAF members in Stammheim. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was only a matter of time before Volker Schloendorff’s Die Stille nach dem Schuss (Rita’s Legends) (2000) would recount the undercover life of RAF fugitive Inge Vieth in the German Democratic Republic. Arguably the best of the RAF feature films, Christian Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In) (2000), voted the FIPRESCI Award of the Year, offered a fictional version of RAF fugitives on the run.
On the documentary side, Gerd Conradt’s Starbuck Holger Meins (2001) portrayed the life and times of RAF’s Holger Meins, a former student and colleague of Conradt’s at the Berlin Film Academy. Andres Veiel’s multi-awarded documentary Black Box BRD (2001), awarded the first KINO Film of the Year, explored with sensitivity the deaths of banker Alfred Herrhausen and RAF terrorist Wolfgang Grams. Last but not least, Christopher Roth’s experimental polit-drama Baader (2002), with Frank Giering as Andreas Baader and Laura Tonke as Gudrun Ensslin, was awarded the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlinale. Thus, Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, upon release this autumn, had both a film history and a moral legacy to reckon with – to say nothing of a highly critical echo in the press and charges by relatives of slain RAF victims that the film has reinvented the truth for commercial box-office gain. A Pandora’s Box has been opened.
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