I hate to be glib, but they were cool. Even as they went murdering tens of people and threatening hundreds, all for some violent declaration of a sordid dream, they looked cool. I guess it is a fetish, like my and hats, and akin to those who get a hard on from SS insignia. There’s no defence, but they did look cool. Evil can look cool. This merely demonstrates the imbecilic nature of cool. (Oddly the T-shirt is labelled ‘Brigade Rossi’, when you’ve seen one nihilistic youth death cult, you’ve seen them all)
Watching Der Baader-Meinhof complex, you get the cool. The whole thing is shot like Frankenheimer directing High Noon in flappy coats. There is a (German?) crispness to the shots, the sets, the costume that makes it feels like a classic 70s political thriller. This is cleverly counter-posed. The action is unsparingly brutal, not as with Michael Bay’s explosion addiction, but with a raw exclamation. The chaos, the debris, the blood are imposed on the clean cut sets, the blank hopper like scenes. Given the nature of the RAF’s ‘propaganda of the act’, it is a powerful insight.
The cool is not allowed to stand, indeed the plot, the script, the acting and the direction, consciously crush the cool. Cool is made to look flimsy, meaningless and empty. The motive of the bloodshed, whilst placed within its time with Vietnam, a constant culture of protest and an at times violent counter movement, is stripped down during the film to the bare psychology of angry nihilism, of charisma, of cults, of personal bitching and self-abasement. By the time the core group is in prison at Stammheim, they are a bickering group, desperately demanding the 2nd generation of RAF free them by some coup de main, picking gaping holes in each others ‘commitment’.
Beyond the periodic brutality of the Guards, they unknowingly find themselves in the torturous cul-de-sac their actions lead them. Baader comes across as a shamanistic bully, a blow hard who knew how to burn things down, losing any semblance of control or thought. Meinhof ceases to be a forthright radical journalist and loving mother and devolves into a will-less vessel of the group think, engaged in endless self-flagellation. Ensslin similarly descends from a cock sure beauty and righteous ideologue into a paranoid and exhausted carrion bird, pecking at the others. The genius of the film is that there is no sympathy or heavy handed condemnation. Rather the stripping away of the cool, matched by a series of cameos by Bruno Ganz as the leading anti-Terrorism chief in almost a narrating role, is merely demonstrated. Horst Mahler, now a leading member of the fascist NDP and an imprisoned Holocaust denier, is shown as an opportunist Lawyer on the make, playing with terrorism.
If the film has a motive to understand, it does so, not for the terrorists, but for the wider ‘soft’ infrastructure of the RAF. What of the thousands of helpers and helpers of helpers and, at points, the millions of Germans who did have sympathy with the group? It ask what did they see; in those famous faces, in the pictures of bodies on the ground, the television footage of embassies under siege, that made them feel anything other than revulsion. It lays out that mythology, of the romantic rebel, the man (or woman) of drama action, and then demonstrates its fallacy, its dilettante morality.
That T-shirt lies in the back of my drawer, unworn for years, unaired except for pottering about the house when the wash is on. A reminder that what cool is.
The Revolutionary Cells or RZ would similarly make a suitable subject for such a well made treatment. Their ultra ‘Anti-Zionism’ and Entebbe needs a little light shed
A wee BBC documentary on the RAF for youse. Misses out on a few recent facts, such as Stasi involvement, but still good for the squirming Mahler and others