Citizenfour (2014)

This review originally appeared on Truthout. It is reposted here with permission from the author and the website. Review written and submitted by Dan Falcone.

Director: Laura Poitras


Citizenfour is about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s actions as well as the collective work of reporters, and whistleblowers Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, Jeremy Scahill and William Binney.

Laura Poitras produced My Country, My Country in 2006. In that film she explained life for Iraqis under American occupation. In 2010, she produced The Oath, which covered two Yemenis’ relation to Gitmo and the War on Terror. Poitras also produced The Program, which discusses the domestic surveillance enterprise in Bluffdale, Utah. As a result of this body of work, Poitras undergoes monitoring by the United States Government, and is harassed routinely by border patrol agents.

Laura Poitras is not shown in the film. She compares this to never seeing a writer in a book. For her, the work is about what is unfolding in front of her camera. She is the film’s narrator. Poitras obtained some 20 hours of Edward Snowden footage to make the film. The film is done in the style of “direct cinema,” originated by Jean Rouch. Citizenfour shows what happened, as it happened.

Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, skip to “Conclusion.”

Citizen Four’s Anonymous Emails to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald

In the film’s opening scene, Poitras’s voice can be heard as a car proceeds through a very dark tunnel showing only a light trail above. Citizen Four’s initial emails are read by Poitras to the audience. Poitras reads:

“Laura, at this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk … From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, … site you visit … subject line you type … is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. … In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. … I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public. … Thank you, and be careful. Citizen Four.”

The film's portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

The film’s portrayal of the transfer of important digital files

Snowden calls himself Citizen Four because he believes he is not the first person within the NSA to find the actions of the United States Government deplorable. He also insists that the story should not be about him but about his actions and the potential actions of others. Citizen Four contacts Poitras because he is aware of her involvement in reporting and film making, but most importantly, he knows how she is being victimized by the NSA’s far-reaching system at airports.

The film goes on to discuss Presidential Policy Directive 20, a 2012 strategy implemented by President Obama to broaden, enlarge and strengthen the existing Bush-era national security procedures.The film successfully reveals the erosion of judicial oversight when it comes to national security in the United States, especially in relation to matters where no national security is at stake. It suggests that the real goal of security is for the actions of power and privilege to be insulated from the public.

In a case involving Mark Stein and AT&T, a judge on close circuit television remarks to the attorney, “What role do Justices have, would you like us to just go away?”

Tech activist Jacob Appelbaum is seen at a conference describing the concept of “linkability.” Linkability is the concept of tracing citizens in order to know where they are at all times based on information and technology. To Appelbaum, this is very alarming.

Glenn Greenwald’s first Citizen Four-related story is on Verizon and is headlined worldwide. It is based on Citizen Four’s email:

“Publicly, we complain that things are going dark, but in fact, their accesses are improving. The truth is that the NSA in its history has never collected more than it does now. I know the location of most domestic interception points, and that the largest telecommunication companies in the US are betraying the trust of their customers, which I can prove.”

The Hong Kong Revelations

Greenwald and Poitras organize to meet with Citizen Four in the hotel lobby in Hong Kong. Snowden explains that he will be working on a Rubik’s cube. That is how they are to identify him:

“On timing, regarding meeting up in Hong Kong, the first rendezvous attempt will be at 10 A.M. local time on Monday. We will meet in the hallway outside of the restaurant in the Mira Hotel. I will be working on a Rubik’s cube so that you can identify me. Approach me and ask if I know the hours of the restaurant. I’ll respond by stating that I’m not sure and suggest you try the lounge instead. I’ll offer to show you where it is, and at that point we’re good. You simply need to follow naturally.”

In the hotel room in Hong Kong are Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. They discuss the content of some of Citizen Four’s documents and Snowden lets them know his name, and how the NSA was spinning out of control. Snowden felt that NSA policy construction was reaching a point where it could never be meaningfully opposed by citizens.

Snowden reveals in the film that he was born in North Carolina and he goes by Ed. He comes from a military family in the section known as Elizabeth City in Pasquotank County. He then moved to Fort Meade, Maryland because his father worked near Washington DC. To this day, in DC, taxi drivers have stories about how they used to drive Snowden around the DMV area in the early 2000s. They comment that he looked the exact same way, and they collectively agree that Snowden was decent to drivers and tipped well to union members specifically.

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

The famous Honk Kong interview with Snowden

Snowden added that some people involved in security state surveillance are extremely bright while also describing some as completely mediocre. In other words, the tools and capability for people to watch everyone were no longer specialized; there was a generic function and incredible possibilities for anybody to be watched at any time, routinely within the NSA. There is an expectation to be under the NSA gaze.

Snowden additionally commented on how at NSA you could log-on and watch a drone strike from any desk. The expectation was that all things were to be watched. Furthermore, he informed the reporters in his hotel room that all of the information coming in to be investigated was entering in real time.It was not being stored to be investigated at a later date.

Snowden then describes to the reporters GCHQ and its program called Tempora. GCHQ is The Government Communications Headquarters in Britain. This intelligence gathering facility supplies signals intelligence to the British military and government. He describes the meaning of a “full take” enterprise. This is a full sweeping collecting of data without any discrimination. Snowden is alarmed that there is collusion with a foreign government to network domestic watching. In other words, Snowden reveals that what happens in the GCHQ is illegal in the United States but the UK, according to one of Snowden’s emails, “let us query it all day long.”

Snowden it seems has so much knowledge of NSA capability that to the average citizen his concerns may appear to border on paranoia. In the hotel Snowden, explained to the reporters that the phone needed to be unplugged since there are devices inside phone receivers even when hung up. He knows this because he has been a part of efforts to make them. Snowden also has a ritual in the hotel room – he would always cover his head when typing in his password. This is someone fully aware of the consequences, and he knew the inevitability of having “a target on his back.”

Snowden lets the reporters know that at NSA, 1 billion telephones and internet sites could be watched simultaneously and that the Department of Defense has 20 sites set up working to equal 20 billion people being watched at once.

The Tempora story is reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian without mention of Edward Snowden. The reaction to the leaks was fast and furious. Here, the as-it-happened-style of the film is at its best. Snowden is seen in the film watching the story break before he is known to the world. Greenwald was a guest on CNN as he discussed the danger of neglecting court orders to conduct indiscriminate and sweeping collections of people’s personal data. He talked about how perilous it is for the government to eliminate the warrant requirement.

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

Journalists of the Hong Kong interview

After Greenwald appeared on CNN, Snowden received a call in his hotel room that the NSA Human Resources director had shown up at his house. They just entered and broke in. No one knew where Snowden was, since he routinely disappeared for work for various projects and trips. Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s partner, explained that the rent checks were not being wired through properly and that the street where Snowden lived was lined with construction vehicles. This may have propelled him to go public sooner since it provided a crystal clear example that his identification was soon to come. Greenwald urges him to consider coming out and Snowden agrees. He does emphasize however, his worry that the story will become about him instead of an issue of public concern.

The Aftermath of Snowden Coming Out as the Leaker and Whistleblower

On June 10, 2013, Snowden had agreed to go public by allowing Greenwald to expose his identity. Snowden explained how he was an infrastructure analyst for the NSA with top secret classified information. When the story broke that Snowden was the leaker, his name and image were suddenly visible worldwide and the film illustrates the impact on Snowden of becoming an icon instantaneously. Producer Laura Poitras asked if he was okay. Seconds later, the phone rings and Snowden answers – it is the Wall Street Journal which had tracked him down in the hotel in Hong Kong just moments after the story broke. This is one of the more fascinating scenes in this cinema verité.

Moments after that call, other calls start to pour in and Snowden is in need of a Hong Kong human rights attorney to get him out of the hotel safely. In Poitras’s room he discusses with the human rights attorney asylum options and extradition for political speech. The Hong Kong attorney sets Snowden up with Robert Tibbo, another human rights lawyer. Snowden is subsequently charged with three felonies back home. They discuss taking Snowden to Iceland or Venezuela. He winds up in Moscow, Russia and is permitted to stay for one year.

A rather interesting clip is when the international lawyer meets to discuss the three felony charges under the Espionage Act, a US domestic law from WWI to eliminate in-country spies. WWI propaganda under Woodrow Wilson had similar forms of political repression with “big lies” while stifling and challenging dissent. Snowden was being placed in this WWI context. He was not however, a spy, but a whistleblower.

Snowden begins to pack his things and organize his stuff. On his bed is copy of Cory Doctorow’s, Homeland. This is a quite apropos novel since it includes two afterword essays by computer security researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, and the late computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Near the end of the film, we learn that the FBI and the UK teamed up to find Snowden and that the UK Government ordered Guardian investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill to destroy all of his devices with content provided by Snowden. Apparently, the United States still has greater freedom of the press than the UK.

We also see the White House calling for Snowden to surrender and claim his due process rights before a court. President Obama does not think Snowden was a patriot; he thinks there was a “law-abiding” way for him to express concerns and dissent in “orderly” fashion.

We also see footage of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda being detained after a flight from Berlin to Heathrow. This was a clear jab at intimidation and reminder that national security is now gratuitous, far-reaching, intimidating to individual people and internationally orchestrated. It provides evidence of the NSA and GCHQ working in cahoots.

We are shown the “Dagger Complex” in Germany, a United States military base that tells of our collusion with Chancellor Merkel and our interest in running drone programs through Germany as cover. Additionally, reporter Jeremy Scahill is shown following up and investigating reports from a second anonymous whistle-blower. William Binney is also featured at the end of the film. The bookending of Binney is important for the film’s thesis. Snowden was not a disconnected isolated character. He wasn’t alone in wanting to come forward.

At the end of the film, Greenwald is in a hotel room with Snowden in Moscow. At this point, Greenwald must have believed Snowden’s fear that every conversation could be recorded. So Greenwald writes down names and facts in between generic phrases, like something from Mad Libs. He places everything on paper to show Snowden in the hotel room. In Moscow, Greenwald reveals to Snowden that the work of Jeremy Scahill (via another whistleblower) shows that the US was working with other nations and governments to collect data and use drone weaponry. For instance, drone strikes that were done through Germany were traced up to POTUS. Snowden was stunned to learn it. Then Greenwald reveals that “Citizen Five’s” (if you will) whistleblowing has helped the public to learn that POTUS has 1.2 million specific citizens on a watch list. Again, Snowden gasps.


Historian Lawrence Davidson has written of Edward Snowden:

“. . .Edward Snowden decided to release massive amounts of secret government data in order ‘to make their fellow citizens aware of what their government is doing in the dark.’ However, what the historical record suggests is that, under most circumstances, only a minority of the general population will care. Thus, in the case of the United States, the effectiveness of whistleblowers may be more successfully tested in the law courts wherein meaningful judgment can be rendered on the behavior of the other branches of government, than in the court of public opinion. However, this judicial arena is also problematic because it depends on the changing mix of politics and ideology of those sitting in judgment rather than any consistent adherence to principles.  In 1971 judicial judgment went for Ellsberg. In 2013, men like Manning and Snowden [and Assange] probably do not have a snowball’s chance in hell.”

This astute observation is troubling yet reality-based. Snowden’s actions don’t seem to be admired by a majority of citizens and President Obama certainly knows this. Perhaps the film can help to relay more information to people and become more than just a political thriller. I think the film tried to emphasize the need for people to care about this issue. The results are yet to be seen. For Snowden and Greenwald and everyone else involved with this film, they had to act.

Snowden knew he had to act, gambled on his activism picking up speed, and needed to reveal classified information to make his statement. We know this because William Binney and Poitras, and a host of other reporters, producers, academics and activists, are continually marginalized and harassed at gun point.

In Rolling Stone, Greenwald had a traditional Voltaire-styled perspective on speech, “To me, it’s a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it … not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate.”

A possible defense for President Obama is that he inherited a dog’s dinner from the Bush Administration in the way of American Foreign Policy. A recent argument by Aaron David Miller, an elite liberal propagandist, follows this trajectory. He was left to maintain or heighten all provisions and engaged in a dangerous, perhaps unlawful, search for Osama bin Laden on sovereign Pakistani soil. President Obama pledged to take boots off the ground and vowed to only apply “smart power” to conflict zones and flashpoints. He tried, and has succeeded, in making high tech protection a populist positon accepted by the mainstream electorate. This is not a compliment.

Some detractors of Snowden maintain there is an unsettling racialized component within this story. It is argued that since some President Obama antagonists are white, and not all applied the same level of work when Bush was President for eight years, their work is illegitimate or at least suspect. This to me is false. Snowden had Bush disenchantment and there is no question that Greenwald (How Would a Patriot Act?) and Poitras did as well.

President Obama doubled down on Bush’s surveillance policies and enhanced them dramatically in forming his strange interdependent political platform. The President relentlessly tries to suppress the image at home that his foreign policy is disliked by the world. This effort is the main reason for the surveillance and hence the whistleblowing. I will defend President Obama from the lily white Tea-Party and GOP at large, but that should be everyone’s limit.

In accord with Snowden skepticism, I have read Sean Wilentz’s disturbing tales of Snowden in the New Republic. He states that Snowden:

“. . . became furious about Obama’s domestic policies on a variety of fronts . . . he was offended by the . . . [new president’s] ban on assault weapons. [Snowden remarked,] ‘. . . I’m goddamned glad for the second amendment,’ Snowden wrote, in another chat. ‘Me and all my lunatic, gun-toting NRA compatriots would be on the steps of Congress before the C-SPAN feed finished.’ Snowden also condemned Obama’s economic policies as . . . a . . . scheme “to devalue the currency absolutely as fast as theoretically possible.” (He favored Ron Paul’s call for the United States to return to the gold standard.) In another chat-room exchange, Snowden debated the merits of Social Security.”

Wilentz writes that, “Snowden’s disgruntlement with Obama, in other words, was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive policies.” And just recently in reaction to the film, The New Republic continued its anti-Snowden barrage. We learn that this cannot be pure whistleblowing since Glenn Greenwald has had “conservative” views on immigration and even litigated in protection of white supremacist clients. The New Republic sees Snowden et al as makeshift progressives who haven’t earned their progressive stripes. Maybe there is a point here: Snowden’s own previous history of political activism was disproportionate to the act of leaking the essence of the NSA’s secrets. Even this is irrelevant though, in my view.

I tend to reject the defense of the President on the grounds of comparing him to Bush domestically. Even as the ACA and the ARRA are important signature President Obama achievements, the spying and reactionary positions on civil liberties are just far too extreme. The film conveys this well and that is what makes this movie excellent. Snowden states, “If all ends well, perhaps the demonstration that our methods work will embolden more to come forward.” So far he is correct and the film is quite popular. Snowden hoped that the work he did was just a tiny part in what would lead to the Internet Hydra Principle, where the erasure of one would only ensure that three more would pop up.

Lastly, allow me to reiterate that Snowden should not be judged personally. It is possible he had unsavory political views, but people do change and evolve.  He is a young man. For those that consider Snowden correct in principle but illegal in practice, again consider that William Binney’s legal assertions and complaints were met with harassment and punishment.

Snowden and Greenwald have a unique political versatility. It seems at one point or another they have occupied and navigated the multiple realms of progressivism, libertarianism, and the moderate areas in between.

Ultimately, my final word is that Citizenfour was extremely well done. While it seems to irk liberals (aka non-progressives) that Snowden and Greenwald may be apolitical and amoral opportunists, I simply judge them by the merit of their conclusions, which are , in my view, heroic.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Dan Falcone has a master’s degree in Modern American History from LaSalle University in Philadelphia and currently teaches secondary education. He has interviewed Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Richard Falk, William Blum, Medea Benjamin and Lawrence Davidson. He resides in Washington, DC.


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.

The Edukators (2004)

The following review was written by Kate Devlin

Director: Hans Weingarnter

The title in German has been translated both as “The Fat Years Are Over”, a phrase from the German Luther bible, and “Your Days of Plenty Are Numbered”. The film stars  Daniel Bruhl as Jan, Stipe Erugen as Peter, and Julia Jentsch as Jule.

Cabin where the hostage is held

This film concerns three young leftist activists living in contemporary Berlin. The character’s lives are introduced in the opening scenes showing them to be active in anti-corporate protests. For example, one scene shows activists at an anti-sweatshop protest, disrupting a shop selling high priced sneakers made by sweatshop labor.

Jule is financially “up against it,” working in a low paid job as a waitress, serving meals to wealthy customers who are often arrogant and abusive towards her. One evening at work, after an evening of abuse from both customers and her boss, Jule takes a break and chats with a male co-worker, who himself as been previously reprimanded by the boss. Unfortunately for Jule and her co-worker, this happens to be a busy time for the restaurant. When the boss sees his employees doing what he regards as “goofing off” he flies into a rage and fires both of them.

She is soon after evicted from her apartment for paying her rent late. And although this is set in Berlin in 2004, Jule’s situation is easy for contemporary young people in the US to identify with and reflects the predicament of many young people in the US; saddled with un-payable student loans and stuck in low level, dead end service sector jobs famous for abusive working conditions.

While Jule and Jan are painting, they develop a friendship. Soon after Jule ends up accompanying him in his and Peter’s van. Jan tells Julia what he and her boyfriend really do at night. Instead of posting advertising signs around Berlin they are the “Edukators”, anarchists who have gained publicity by breaking into wealthy people’s houses, rearranging furniture, and putting up signs saying, “You have too much money.” Jan explains this as their form of activism. They educate the wealthy ruling class in the dangers of having too much money and educate radicalizing youth and the working class to struggle against capitalism. Jan explains that he feels that an anti-capitalist revolution will occur in the near future.

They then break into the house of someone Jule indebted to. Jule is amazed at the lavishness of Harding’s home, a vast contrast to her and her friends squalid surroundings .She appears emotionally mixed, in this scene and though out the movie. She hates the rich, the stranglehold they have on society and the denial of opportunities to those not in the ruling class. At the same time she is adamant in her pacifist beliefs of strict non-violence and in not stealing property from Harding’s house. Jan is not as strict in these beliefs and there is a debate between the two.

A few days after the break in of Harding’s house Julia realizes she has left her cell phone there. She tells Jan. Together they plan another break in to retrieve it. It takes them quite some time to find the phone. Shortly after the phone is located Harding unexpectedly arrives home. He is seen talking on his phone to his wife explaining the details of why he ended his vacation early. Through a frantic reaction of how to act, they decide to kidnap Harding.

Most of the remainder of the film takes place at the cabin located in the Austrian Tyrol. At first Jan, Jule and Peter are hostile and mistrustful towards Harding. They are also unsure of what to do next. They seriously discuss “going for broke,” carrying out an attack on a TV tower as an anti-capitalist gesture. They have discussions about capitalism with Harding. The three young people see the capitalist system as being inherently exploitive and based on greed. Harding seems to believe in a meritocratic system in which success is the result of hard work and having creative ideas. Jule mentions how sweatshop workers in the Third World are left out of this “meritocracy” “What about their good ideas?” she asks.

The anti-capitalist points  raised by the three young  people are interesting but somewhat maddening from a more Marxist perspective. Their anti-capitalism seems to be based on moral grounds and they do not appear to have a theory of the underlying workings of capitalism or what an alternative to it may be like. The film of course was made four years before the current economic crisis and reflects a milieu which did not fully understand Marxist or other leftist economic critiques. The attitude and earnestness of the three is to be admired however.

During an early discussion Jule mentions the fact that the debt she incurred though her accident ruined her life. Harding tells the three, to the effect that, “you should have told me, we could have worked out something.” Harding’s wealth and seeming obliviousness to the situation of those less privileged and lack of social consciousness do not make him sound convincing though.

The rearranged furniture

The three anarchists and Harding very gradually warm up towards each other.  One time they begin talking after a joint is past around. Harding tells the three that he had once had similar beliefs as they do. It turns out he had been in the leadership of the German SDS (Socialist German Student Union), a 60s/70s organization somewhat more radical than the US group of the same acronym, and had been personal friends with Rudi Dutschke and other well-known activists of the German New Left. The four of them discuss leftist lore and the history of the German New Left. While the attitude of the three towards Harding is still wary, they loosen up towards him after this.

Harding describes how he gradually changed his leftist philosophy. He says “when you first buy a new car, you feel guilty. Then you find you gradually make other changes.” He describes a process of gradually fist accommodating to and then embracing capitalism as a way of life. Musing while he and Jan are chopping wood and doing outdoor tasks, Harding appears to rethink his life, saying he is sick of the corporate world and longs for a simpler life in the countryside.

Harding makes a deal to not call the police if he is released, and the activists agree. The concluding scenes show Julia, Jan, and Peter sleeping together in a large bed. Anti-terrorist police are shown clammering up the stairs. It appears that, predictably from a Marxist view that “conditions produce consciousness” that Harding, back in his comfortable home, has gone back on his promise. The film ends with an interesting twist.

Overall this is an excellent film. The conditions facing many of today’s youth, especially those in their 20s though out much of the developed world are movingly shown. The film also shows the differences and continuities between the struggles of the original New Left 60s/70s generation and those of radicalized youth today. The film reflects an anarchist viewpoint which relies more on individual anti-capitalist activism and education as methods of struggle. Most Marxists would favor activism based on helping workers increase their level of class that is moving people through struggle, of an understanding that their interests are different from that of the ruling class and those who own capital.

According to Wikipedia in 2009 a statue was stolen from convicted swindler Bernie Madoff was returned with a note that read “Bernie the Swindler, Lesson: Return stolen property to rightful owners”. It was signed “the Educators”.

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

Director: Margarethe von Trotta

(Original German title: Die Geduld der Rosa Luxemburg)

The Uprising

The film Rosa Luxemburg deals with an important period of German history.  While the film is about Luxemburg herself, the important points of the film are really about the developments in German Social Democracy and Socialism at that time, although these were important themes for and were a major part of Rosa Luxemburg’s own life.

At least that is the backdrop of the film.  Much like the film Reds, the historical characters are the focus.  The mood is also an important part of the film: the optimism shared by many characters that quickly fades to pessimism and confusion as the organizations like the Social Democratic Party begin to support Germany’s entry into WWI.

The film’s focus did have it’s shortcomings, however.  The two periods focused on the most in the film are firstly, Luxemburg’s involvement in socialist politics leading up to WWI and secondly her time in jail during the war itself.  The Spartacus League was not a focus of the group, even though it was an important group in the history of the German Left.  The Spartacist Uprising did play an important part towards the end, but it seemed a bit rushed in the context of the film that focused much on Luxemburg’s personal life.

It is quite interesting to see important historical figures fighting personal battles in the film.  For example even at dinner events, Luxemburg polemicizes against who she sees as “reformist leaders” who are not attached to the working class masses.  While some of these scenes seem a bit forced, watching it with politics in mind can be quite helpful.  Then again, films like this are usually watched by folks who are already somewhat interested in either in the particular kind of history being dealt with or in Left wing politics and theory.

Besides the over focus on certain parts of Luxemburg’s personal life (it was a biographical film after all), it was refreshing to view a film that contained polemics by revolutionaries against those who were turning away from that kind of politics at the time.  The split between Marxism and Social Democracy was an important moment for the European Left and particularly in Germany, where the SPD played a significant role in the promotion of Marxism and the working class movement itself.

While the film only deals with a small part of the German Revolution, and important and overlooked event in working class history, it is still an important contribution and deals with a famous historical figure of the Left.

The Legend of Rita (2000)

Director: Volker Schlöndorff

The Legend of Rita is a film about a West German “terrorist” group who eventually ends up in the Eastern German Democratic Republic.  The group, which is based off of real historical groups like the Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Cells, goes through a series of failures in West Germany and is in crisis until Rita meets up with the Stasi while in transit to West Berlin.

The group goes through a disastrous jail break while trying to free their “leader” of sorts, and as a result, finds themselves in a difficult position.  They travel to the GDR where the Stasi help them get settled in in Paris.  After Rita has a deadly encounter with a police officer, they are again placed in limbo.

Rita on her way to work in the GDR

The Stasi officer gives them all an offer: to live in the GDR as average working class citizens.  The reaction by these revolutionaries says as much about the state of the Left at that point in history as it does about their characters.  Most of them seem to outright reject the idea.  They want to carry on the struggle in the West or go to a place where the Cold War has “gone hot.”  They almost view their entry into the working class in a “Socialist State” as punishment for their failures, which considering their clear Marxist orientation, shows a significant short-coming in their analysis of struggle.  The philosopher Slajov Zizek often says that the Left is constantly comfortable with its status resisting oppression and fighting it instead of offering a vision for an alternate world.  This comes out quite clearly for this group, except for Rita.

From this point on, the film revolves around Rita’s new life in the East.  The Stasi officer, while prepping her for her new life, says something along the lines of “We’re for the people, that’s why they’re against them” in response to a question Rita has.  It’s interesting to see this ideological phrase here, as the Stasi are not portrayed in a negative light throughout the film nor is East Germany.

The first shot we see of an East German worker is that of Tatjana who looks worn out and depressed.  It seems that this was a very intentional first glimpse into the life of the East German working class.  What follows is a scene of Tatjana’s coworkers picking on and making fun of Tatjana.  For Rita, who has been a Leftist revolutionary, she seems confused by this and asks them why they pick on her, and doesn’t seem satisfied with the answer (which is essentially just a continuation of picking on Tatjana).

Rita and Tatjana develop a close personal relationship that is compromised when Rita discovers that East German television is broadcasting news from the West about her fugitive status, and is identified by one of her co-workers.  Rita is then required to once again relocate and take on the identity of an East German who is not from the West (as opposed to her first fake identity).  She ends up as a day care worker, and develops a relationship with a man who she ends up almost getting married to (there’s some interesting dialogue that exposes the man’s view of gender roles that are quite conservative given the nature of the East German state and it’s more balanced gender relations than that of it’s Western counterpart).  By chance, she runs into one of her former comrades who now has a child.  Rita congratulates her and tells her that she’s glad to see her happy, when her friend responds with “what gave you that idea?”  Their farewell scene is bitter sweet, with the upset friend riding away on the bus with the East German anthem playing ironically in the background: as a sort of display of the awkward position of Rita, and East Germany at that point in general.

First Factory where Rita works in the GDR

As the story progresses, the Stasi officer meets with Rita telling her that “people are waking up” to the realities of the State and the Wall soon comes down.  Rita from this point has a harder and harder time evading the authorities.  She is having lunch with fellow workers when they read the paper and discover that the friend she had run into in an earlier scene was caught by the authorities, she defends the actions of the group, claiming that “they never did anything to hurt this country!”  Her co-workers just claim that terrorists are terrorists and shouldn’t be in their country.  The workers then go on to say how they’re excited to get Levis.  Rita breaks into a mini-speech about how East Germany was a revolutionary experiment, and how it went wrong along the way but was something worth defending.  She is promptly ignored by her co-workers (thus being essentially dismissed as an idealist).  Her speech in a way represents the innocence of even the most rigid of the “Actually Existing Socialist” states, and how, even in their significant and real shortcomings, the alternatives that would eventually come to those states would provide devastation to the populations (for example East Germany now has significant unemployment, few social programs, etc.)

The film uses Rita to represent the socialist ideal in a way.  The bleakness and rigidity of East Germany is not ignored, but it is not a film that is a vulgar anti-Communist film like most about such subjects.  It is considered to be a part of the Ostalgie phenomenon, where East Germany have a certain nostalgia for the former East.  That’s not to say that they wish the Stasi were back, monitoring their lives, but they recognize how their lives were indeed better under even a rigid socialist state.  This film does an excellent job at capturing the mood of East Germany: while “the game was up” for the ruling party in the East, there was still something redeemable about the idea of a workers state enough to where a film like this could be made so many years later and portray the East in a “not-so-bad” light.