The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Kate Devlin

2008 Germany (English subtitles available)
Directed by Uli Edel

“The Baader Meinhof Complex” is based on a bestselling 1985 novel of the same name by Stefan Aust. The film covers the early period of the German revolutionary organization, the Rote Armee Fraktion, which was active from 1970 to 1998. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009.
While the group preferred to be called the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction) it was often referred to in the media as the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof Gang or Baader-Meinhof.
The film opens with the origin of the RAF within the West Berlin and broader German leftist and anti-imperialist movements. Though out the 1960s large numbers of German young people became alienated by US imperialism in the Vietnam War and elsewhere and by authoritarian elements remaining in German society. Although the Federal Republic of Germany was a bourgeois democracy and had been “de-nazified”, much of post-WWII German society remained deeply authoritarian. Many former Nazis held elective or appointed positions in government and much of the legal system was dominated by Nazi era holdovers and deeply conservative legal philosophies. In 1966 Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi, became German chancellor, a fact which outraged many leftists. There was also severe repression against the left, with the German Communist Party being banned in 1956 and known radicals banned from government jobs in 1972. The social democratic SPD was seen as complicit with a pro-NATO, pro-imperialist rightist regime. In addition to this many young people were upset about their parent’s or grandparent’s lack of resistance to the Nazis. Along with the political stagnation of the bourgeois parties and the seeming inability to break from Cold War politics, dissatisfaction with conservative West German society fueled the creation of a large leftist mileu in the 1960s and 1970s.

In June of 1967 the Shah of Iran visited Berlin. The film vividly portrays an incident in which the West Berlin police deliberately allow Savak, the Iranian security of the time, infamous for torture of dissidents and killing Iranians outside Iran, to brutally beat a crowd of protesters. In the melee which followed a protester, Benno Ohneburg was shot and killed without provocation by a West Berlin police officer, Karl Heinz Kurras. Kurras was later acquitted of the murder (after German unification it was revealed that Kurras was an East German double agent).These specific incidents outraged and radicalized many people.

This led to the formation of what became the RAF. The film follows Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and others, active in the Berlin leftist scene, planting a bomb in a Frankfurt department store to publicize their protest against the harassment and killing of leftists. Ensslin and Baader are quickly arrested and put on trial. Ulrike Meinhof, a young left wing journalist, attends the trial and interviews Ensslin and Baader. She sympathizes with them and quickly comes to admire their dedication and how they’ve given meaning to their lives.
Baader and Esselin are released on bail and after setting up a semi-communal household, attract a network of sympathetic young people.

Shortly after this, egged on by a hysterical anti-leftist campaign by the right wing Axel Springer media group (roughly analogous to Fox News today in the US) a young right wing extremist shoots Rudi Dutschke, an activist and student spokesman popular within the German left. Dutschke suffered head wounds from which he later died in 1979 in London. The rightist media campaign resulting in the shooting of Dutschke enrages Berlin’s leftists. Springer newspapers are destroyed and delivery trucks are sabotaged by groups of leftists. In retaliation for the shooting Baader and Ensslin plant a bomb in the Springer press room. This was meant to destroy property but not injure people. Unfortunately the Springer switchboard operator refuses to take Ensselin’s called in bomb threat seriously and several people are killed.

Baader is arrested at a traffic stop. Ulrike Meinhof, using her credentials as a journalist, visits him in prison and with the help of sympathizers helps Baader and Ensslin escape. The RAF nucleus, which consists of Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and now Peter Horman, spend a brief time in Rome. Their lawyer, Horst Mahler, tries to convince them to return to Germany and begin guerrilla warfare. At an outdoor Rome cafe Baader begins shouting ethnic slurs against Italians.

Instead of Germany the core members go to Jordan to undergo military training with a radical Palestinian faction. The German’s cultural insensitivity and lack of discipline alienates them from their Palestinian hosts. Baader especially begins to act increasingly sexist and culturally chauvinist and becomes something of a bully.
Peter Horman is the first to leave Jordan, with the covert assistance of the Palestinians, after falling out with the rest of his group and receiving death threats from Baader.

The group returns to Germany and embarks on a campaign of guerrilla warfare. A series of bank robberies begins. An RAF member , Petra Schelm, is killed at a roadblock and an escalating war between the RAF and West German police and security ensues.

Baader and a companion are arrested after a shootout with police and Gudrun Ensslin is reported by a store clerk who sees her gun while she is changing clothes at a department store.

The leading members, Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and now Jean-Carl Raspe, are put on trial. Embarrassing the authorities, the RAF had a wide degree of sympathy from radical youth and even the general public. In a memorable scene after Baader and the other RAF members insult and public humiliate the judge the courtroom audience erupts in wild cheers.

After an initially highly repressive prison regime at the Stammheim Prison, the now imprisoned RAF go on a hunger strike. Siegfried Hausner , one of the RAF prisoners, dies in an incident which sympathizers believe could have been prevented. This elicits public outrage and sympathy for the surviving prisoners. The authorities relent and allow the prisoners to meet and socialize.

Meanwhile a second generation RAF continues the war outside the prison. The German embassy in Sweden is briefly taken over in a botched attempt to take hostages. An RAF member is brought back to Germany and dies in what is regarded as medical murder. Meanwhile Ulrike Meinhof, experiencing severe depression and after apparently having a falling out with the other RAF prisoners, is found hung in her prison cell.

Not believing official report of Meinhof’s suicide and in retaliation for her death, the second generation RAF escalates their campaign. A federal prosecutor is killed, a bank president is killed in a botched kidnap attempt and a major industrialist, Hans-Meyer Schleyer, a former SS officer, is taken hostage to force the release of the RAF prisoners.

Amid increasing tension, the Baader ,Ensslin, Raspe, and Irmgard Moller are convinced that the prison authorities will soon kill them. In an interesting scene Ensslin tells unbelieving visiting Protestant clergymen that she doesn’t have long to live.

When the RAF together with radical Palestinians, hijacks Lufthansa flight 181 (an action which Baader strongly opposes) leading to an epic airplane hostage crisis, the RAF prisoners believe their deaths are inevitable.

Shortly thereafter Ensslin is found hung in her cell and Baader and Raspe are found shot in their beds. Irmgard Moller attempted suicide by stabbing herself three times in the chest.

Overall the Baader-Meinhof Complex is a vivid psychological portrayal. The film does not fully convey the political atmosphere creating the feeling of alienation which led to German youth radicalization. It does a good job of showing the various incidents, the killing of Benno Ohnesburg, the shooting of Rudi Dutschke, and other events and the escalating tension connected with the RAF war against the German state. The film explores more the psychological drama of the protagonists in action, rather then what led up them to pursue their course of action.

The actual RAF continued into a “third generation” up to 1998 when a “cease fire” communique was released by “third generation” members declaring that the “project is over”. Though out its existence the RAF is credited with killing 34 people.

The alienation and radicalization of the RAF and their mileu are understandable but the tactics were wrong. Most Marxists would say that terrorist campaigns conducted by groups like the RAF are useless and counter-productive. Terrorism kills innocent people, provides an excuse for state repression, can divide the working class, and is incapable of accomplishing change in society. The Marxist method relies on education and mobilization of the working class as a class. The RAF , especially its founding members came from an intellectual middle class milieu. Unfortunately they came of age when the once vibrant historic German left had long since been crushed and been dissipated. They lacked contemporary models of struggle. Their activism was divorced from the working class, whom most Marxists would see as important to orient towards.

In a 1977 interview the German-American Marxist Paul Mattick, in discussing the role of violence in revolutionary socialism and obliquely referring to the RAF , said,
“For revolutionaries it is psychologically quite difficult, if not impossible, to raise their voices against the futile application of “revolutionary justice” by terroristic groups and individuals. Even Marx, who despised all forms nihilistic actions, could not help being elated by the terroristic feats of the Russian “Peoples’ Will” As a matter of fact, the counter-terror of revolutionary groups cannot be prevented by mere recognition of its futility. Their perpetrators are not moved by the conviction that their actions will lead directly to social change, but by their inability to accept the unchallenged, the perpetual terror of the bourgeoisie unchallenged. And once engaged in illegal terror, the legal terror forces them to continue their activities until the bitter end. This type of people is itself product of the class-ridden society and a response to its increasing brutalization. There is no sense in forming a consensus with the bourgeoisie and condemning their activities from proletarian point of view. It is enough to recognize their futility and to look for more effective ways to overcome the ever-present capitalist terror by the class actions of the proletariat.”

This film does not adequately convey the political background leading to the RAF but it does a very good job of showing the organization itself. It is definitely worth seeing although it should be supplemented with further reading on this era and subject.


Che (2008)

Kate Devlin
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Benicio Del Toro as Che

Map of Cuba from the opening

This film covers the career of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. This film is not directed in a standard chronological style but , in the words of Wikipedia, “an oblique series of interspersed moments along the overall timeline”. The film is somewhat impressionistic and although anyone can enjoy this film as a “revolutionary action film” it does require at least some knowledge of the life of Che Guevara and the events of the Cuban Revolution to fully understand what is going on.

The film has its origins in a screenplay written by the film maker Terence Malik about Che’s attempt to start a revolution in Bolivia. Due to financing problem’s Mali’s proposed film fell though and Soderbergh agreed to take over the project. In taking on the making of a film about Che Soderbergh felt that it was important to provide the context of the Cuban Revolution and the events leading up to Che’s eventual departure from Cuba. Steven Soderbergh has been known as a film maker with leftist sympathies but he has not been regarded as a leftist or highly political film maker. He has been more commonly known as the director films such as the Ocean’s Eleven remake and Erin Brokovich although he has also directed more unconventional films such as Sex, Lies, and Videotapes. According a review in to Rajesh Ginraajan’s blog “Scorp Says So” the film could be seen as a complex collaboration between Malik, the actor Dell Toro (who was heavily influenced by Jon Lee Anderson’s 1997 Che biography “Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life” but who is said to have read “every possible book on Che”), Soderbergh, and the screenwriter Peter Buchman, who has had a longtime interest in historical biography.

The film is four and a half hours long. It is deeply engrossing, even without an extensive knowledge of the historic subject, and is definitely worth the the greater investment of time.

Che has two parts. The first part, “The Argentine”, covers Fidel and Che’s early friendship and the events of the Cuban Revolution. We see Che and Fidel meeting at in Mexico City in 1955 and their discussions within the international Latin American leftist mileu. Che joins the July 26th Movement to liberate Cuba and we see him aboard the Gramna in his guerilla invasion of Cuba in 1956.

There is an extended section with Che fighting and in the jungle region of the Sierra Maestra Mountains.  He has periodic meetings with Fidel Castro and there seems to be increasing tension between the two men. This isn’t made apparent in the film but this was the period when their was increasing tension between the middle class oriented July 26th movement and allied movements, which merely wanted to overthrow Batista, and Che and other radicals who saw the need for a deeper anti-capitalist and nationalist revolution. Che is shown as a very able and well liked commander but a somewhat harsh disciplinarian. There is a scene where he personally execution executes a guerilla army guide who admits to betraying the guerilla’s position for a large financial reward. Che is also shown as a voracious reader, devouring texts on history and political theory. He teaches literature and history to his troops and works to raise their cultural level.

Che instructing fighters

Later in the first half of the film as the Cuban rebels enter the cities there are dramatic but very realistic scenes of Che and a female friend fighting urban guerilla warfare in  the Battle of Santa Clara.

A leading commanders of Batista’s army, turns against Batista offers to surrender his army to the rebels in return for allowing his army to remain intact. This offer is turned down by the rebels.

The second part of the film is “The Guerilla”. The film technique of the second half is much different than that of the first. The music score is different and the film ratio is much smaller, leading to a more tense, “claustrophobic” feeling. The second part  covers Che’s role in early revolutionary Cuba and subsequent career as a revolutionary outside of Cuba. Che  holds trials of the most hated and repressive members of the former Batista regime. Che becomes one of leaders of Cuba’s economic transition from capitalism to socialism and is appointed director of the Bank of Cuba. Amid greatly escalating tensions between Cuba and the US Che looks forward to meeting the visiting Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev but this is nixed by Castro. Che appears to become increasingly frustrated at his role in Cuba although the background to this is not explored in the film.

An early highpoint in this second section of the film is Che’s famous “Address to The Tricontinental” speech in 1966 before the UN in New York. This speech blasts Western and US imperialism,and the internal oppression and hypocracy of the US, to the wild applause of many delegates. This is the speech where Che publicly explained his “focii” theory of revolution for the first time and predicted “one, two, many Vietnams” to oppose imperialism. This scene is interspersed with interviews Che gave, including the one where he famously said, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love.”

Around this time Che became increasingly critical of both what he saw the Soviet Union and the “Eastern Bloc’s failure to aid and solidarize with Third World struggles and increasingly upset about the bureaucratization of the Cuban Revolution. This is strongly hinted at in the film but does not seem to be fully explored. In a 1966 speech in Algeria Che called for Third world solidarity and criticized the Soviet Union. In critizing Cuba’s major ally, and growing bureaucratic tendencies within the Cuban Revolution, Che’s position was in Cuba was made untenable and  some Marxist historians today feel Che reached a political point point where his departure from Cuba was almost inevitable.

In 1966 Che leaves Cuba. There is a moving but again very realistic farewell scene with his second wife. Che and some assistants are able to expertly disguise Che as his father, whom with makeup he strongly resembled.

Che spends some time in Congo. After the assassination of that country’s leftist leader, Patrice Lumumba the country had fallen into civil war and anarchy. Che and one hundred men come to fight with Laurent-Desire Kabila, the leader of the ousted Lumumbuist forces.. Che is quickly disgusted by Kabila,  whom he sees as “not the man of the hour” and a person more concerned with drinking and sex instead of revolutionary warfare  and whose forces lack  any  discipline and are pervaded with  corruption. Che briefly returns to Cuba in secret.

Che and other J26M revolutionaries

Che next goes to Bolivia. His Bolivian period covers much of the second part of the film. He leads a small group of mostly Cuban revolutionaries, hoping to spark a peasant uprising. His movement gets little support from the largely apathetic peasantry. There is some support from a peasant family and others when Che and his band are able to proof they “are for real”. They provide medical care for family’s sick daughter and provide some hope of the possibility of a better future. Oppression, intimidation, and tradition mistrust of outsiders inhibit any significant collaboration among the Bolivian peasantry however. There is a scene where an attempt at urban guerilla warfare in a medium sized of indigenous people fails because of the lack of support from the local population. There is another interesting scene in Cuba where Fidel Castro is worried over the amount of aid  the Bolivian Communists are ready to provide his friend.

The film follows the inevitable grinding down of Che’s guerrilla movement. There is an interesting scene where the French journalist Regis Debray, then a leftist hero and friend of Che and a participant in Che’s attempt to foster a Bolivian revolution, and other sympathetic foreigners, take their leave and return home. Che, an asthmatic, loses his asthma medication and is increasingly handicapped by severe asthma attacks. There are vivid scenes where the CIA laison officer Felix Rodriguez is literally telling his Bolivian army allies how to contain Che’s revolution and how to capture him.

The guerilla army is split in two. One group, with the German-Argentine revolutionary Tamara Bunke, “Tania” is pursued into a trap by Bolivian Army pursuers.

After a shootout, Che himself is captured. He expects to be killed right away. Instead hos Bolivian captors chain him to a wall and brutally interrogate him. Despite this continues to try to discuss Bolivia’s political situation and seems to be attempting to gain the friendship of one of his guards.

Finally Che is shot by a guard Mario Teran,who appears to be a brutal sociopath. He appears to have won the opportunity to kill Che after picking strawsand is promised an extra alcohol ration in return.

This film is quite memorable and is well recommended. While it can better be enjoyed with a knowledge and understanding of the historical contexts of the periods in Che’s life, the film can also elicit such an interest. Almost every scene in the film can be a starting point for  much discussion and debate among those interested in alternative’s to capitalism today. Where Che’s tactics correct for their situation? What is the nature of the Cuban Revolution and where is it going? This film provides the important role of acting as a springboard for people today looking for alternatives to savage neo-liberal austerity.
The realistic film style, a welcome antidote to most current Hollywood productions, creates a feeling of credibility. Che Guevara is shown as fully human and his goals and motives are understandable. The role of the CIA in tracking and killing Che elicits outrage. His killing, by  (interestingly) creates a feeling of “open ended closure”, telling us, in effect, that Che’s life in definitively over but his overall project, the goal of liberating humanity, is now up to us, a new generation.

In an ironic afterward the man who killed Che, Mario Teran, was treated fore a disease causing blindness by Cuban doctors in 2007, forty years later.

La Commune (2000)

La Commune

Peter Watkins

Review by Kate Devlin

Karl Marx regarded the Paris Commune (March-May 1871) as one of the two most important events of the 19th century. (the other one being the US Civil War). The French working class, long suffering under exploitation and oppression, had been in the vanguard of the French revolutions of 1789, 1793, 1830, and 1848. While these revolutions, by transferring power from the landed aristocracy to various factions of the bourgeoisie class paved the way for the development of industrial capitalism, the working class had been cheated out of any meaningful gains. The Jacobins of the first revolutionary period enacted the Le Chapelier law, outlawing workers organizing to better their conditions. The Revolution of 1848 was started by the Parisian working class. This revolution however was subverted by the industrial and financial elites. Worker’s organizations such as cooperative workshops were bloodily suppressed and thousands of working class activists were deported. The resulting bourgeoisie republic was highly unstable. Power struggles between factions of the bourgeoisie, as well as ruling classes continued fears of the lower middle classes and the urban working class, led to the 20 year rule of the corrupt comic opera regime of Louis Bonaparte, a process Marx described in the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”.

Go to fullsize image

Louis Napoleon led France into the disastrous Franco-Prussian War in 1870. France long had a huge gap between rich and poor. The working class of Paris had suffered under appalling living conditions. Fearful of unrest, the ruling class of France severely limited democratic municipal government in Paris. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and the siege of Paris the working class experienced famine, massive unemployment, and bombardment from the Prussians. Discontent was rife.

For self defense the people of Paris were organized into 260 largely self governing National Guard battalions. Adolphe Thiers, the head of the provisional government which had taken power after the ignominious flight of  Louis Napoleon, grew fearful of the Parisian worker’s unrest. Thiers sent elements of the army to seize the National Guard cannon. These were fought back by women from the working class Montmatre district.This triggered the event known as the Paris Commune. Many soldiers refused to fire on the people and joined the rebellion. Workers began seizing government office buildings and several widely hated generals and officials were seized. The Thiers government, in a panic, relocated to Versailles, about 20 miles from Paris. In Paris the city was reorganized along socialistic lines, giving workers control over their lives. There were enormous gains for women’s rights, education, and social protection. There were  moves towards worker control of industries and business.

La Commune

La Commune by the Canadian director Peter Watkins, is a “living history” recreation of this event. The events of the Paris Commune are not presented so much as past history but as part of a process which is still continuing in our own time .The entire film was staged in an abandoned factory outside Paris., The film is documentary style, with filming and interviews done by imaginary television crews, first for “Commune TV”, and then as the Commune faces defeat, by a pro-Versaillais TV station. The actors are non-professional and many are North African immigrants. Actors, sometimes breaking out of character, or as the characters they are portraying, discuss issues of class conflict, poverty, and oppression in our own time. In one scene a woman breaks out of character to discuss how burnt out she is by her job and that her work on the film makes her want to break from watching passive entertainment on TV and reread “State and Revolution” by Lenin. In another scene an actor begins discussing how he feels NGOs can be effective in fighting poverty in the Third World. A debate on this and similar issues ensues with his fellow “Communards”.

La Commune is 5 hours 45 minutes long. Its one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen and is certainly worth investing the time watching it.

The Commune was brutally suppressed, with between  30,000 and 50,000 people killed, including tens of thousands of workers who were summarily executed. Over 7,000 Communards were deported, mostly to remote French colonies in the South Pacific.

The Commune was the first case in modern history of the working class taking power and attempting to create a more humane society. Peter Watkins on his website said that one of his motivations for making the film was that the Paris Commune is severely marginalized in the French educational system. Its legacy, seldom discussed in today’s corporate media, has been an inspiration to the workers movement ever since. Watkin’s film is an excellent tribute to and recreation of this heroic event.