Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Cast: Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek
Director: Uli Edel
Runtime: 150 min.
Country: Germany
Language: German with little parts of English, French and Swedish
Rating: **1/2
Genre: Drama, History

        The best way to describe the general structure of Der Baader Meinhof Komplex is to reminisce a newsreel. Another is to reminisce anything that is absolute unimaginative drivel. Or, an absolute snoozefest. The film is utterly pointless, and as it zips through history, even the most ardent lover of history might consider it worthwhile to scratch his head. The general idea while the script was being adapted from Stefan Aust’s book of the same name seems to be to summon every which event possible. As it turns out, it is a terrible decision for everything feels like a roll call of the milestones in the life of the Red Army Faction, and interested readers might consider indulging in a little play jotting down every little event presented on entry on the Baader-Meinhof (here), and then go on striking them off as the film religiously touches upon them one by one.
        Mind you, it doesn’t turn out to be insightful like one of them History Channel documentaries either. Not one bit. Rather, in the face of increasing disinterest for the lack of any character worth investing in, it turns out to be a lackadaisical treatment of the subject. Never have I seen such unimaginative skimming through an historical event as shattering and as significant as the Munich Olympics massacre. There’s no build-up, there’s no trajectory in the film. There’re only events rushing one after the other. How else would they follow each other considering the film aims to compress a decade and a half worth of history in 150 long minutes. And it doesn’t help the situation that one of those events also includes a sex scene that zips by so fast that you wonder why it made the final cut in the first place. The film was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category, over several films I believe were a million times worthier. But then, the awards have always been little more than a year-end party, and there are no two ways about that.
        That makes me wonder of the kind of audience the film has in mind. Viewers well versed in history would find nothing new to learn here. Much of the film might seem like a basic rundown. The characters, all of them, are mere placeholders with generic traits assigned to them so they might seem human. Well, since they talk and walk and smoke and shout, they somewhat do. But not too much, and certainly not enough to be referenced as characters. So I won’t be using the word no more.
        Now, I certainly do not belong to the school of thought that religiously upholds character building as an indispensable tenet of filmmaking (I would seek to invoke the Italian crime masterpiece Gomorra in my defense here), I do believe that they need to be given an arc when they are to share most of the screen for well over two hours. Andreas Baader, played by Mr. Bleibtreu, smokes and shouts and curses and passes random anarchist rhetoric. Gudrun Ensslin, played by Ms. Wokalek, seems like one of them typical high school mean bitches from one of those typical high school Hollywood churnouts, who almost invariably find a cake slammed in their faces at the end of the film. I could go on, and on, but I believe the point has been made, which is that most of these historical figures have no personality whatsoever. A moment as significant as Meinhof (Ms. Gedeck) deciding to leave her kids forever is given to us as news too. There is not one decent conversation between them, conversation that might hold these folks in a light of reality and humanity, and instead all they do is exchange rhetoric after rhetoric, or plot details after plot details. When Baader, hiding in Rome along with Gudrun and a couple of other associates, teases the Counselor – Can’t you speak normally, do you think the Interpol is after us? – you sincerely feel that the film might be turning over a new leaf. The film though smashes any such hopes by having Baader add on – because those jerks in Frankfurt rejected our appeal? The script seems to serve no other purpose than to deliver news as events hurriedly spin on and out.
        Now, there is a way to compress history into a feature length film, and it doesn’t run through events but through people. Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece Goodfellas, one of the greatest achievements in scriptwriting, shows us that and how. Filmmaking, for the most part, is storytelling, and especially that part which deals with showcasing history. A viewer needs to feel the passage of time. There needs to be a feel of the journey, so that we feel what we learn at the end of it. It is necessary to ascertain the kind of themes the film intends to deal with, the kind of ambiguities and contradictions it intends to highlight within a person or a set of persons, and then widen its area of introspection (a terrorist organization here). Throwing everything into a grinder and hurling at us the resultant mess, and then hoping that it might stick wouldn’t necessarily do the trick.
        Der Baader Meinhof Komplex does know some of its ambitions, in that it knows what and how the Stefan Aust book deals with the outfit and the kind of ambiguities it presents. The film portrays an unflinching image of the violence that the Red Army Faction reigned in, and often we feel that some of its members are clueless trigger-happy chimps. Characters come in and go out at random. In one scene we find a lad, who might be in his early twenties, sitting alone in his room and pointing a revolver at the television (ala Travis Bickle), which has a news item on anarchist Rudi Dutschke (Mr. Sebastien Blomberg). We wonder about him, but only to later learn in a separate scene that he is right wing extremist Josef Bachmann (Mr. Tom Schilling), and that he tries to assassinate Dutschke. There’s a little gunfight that ensues, and we longer see anything about him. My gripe isn’t about how the historical figure or his placeholder is dealt with. Rather I am clueless as to why he is in the final cut, and what does he represent. What does the film highlight during those moments? It also tries to present the romantic effect the faction had, the kind of effect that makes every revolutionary supposedly an example worth looking upto, and when it does that it feels no more than sentimental garbage. But then again, such elements need to be felt by us, and for that to happen a film ought to build it so that we invest ourselves into it. Otherwise, it remains mere rhetoric.
        The actions scenes it does well. There’s a certain immediacy to these scenes, scenes involving riots and arson and bombings and gunfight, and one feels the film makes it a point to get to these scenes. Somehow. They are staged well, and shot well. The fact of the matter is that Dar Baader Meinhof Komplex feels like a politically charged film, a film that is hell bent upon to make some points against the present state of international affairs. It probably isn’t even interested in people, and the human aspect of it all. Ideologies drive it. Germany supported American invasion of Vietnam providing military bases then. This time around, during the Iraq invasion it didn’t. Yet, the antagonist the film has in mind is the United States, which it probably feels is the dictator of the world. A totalitarian regime ruling the state that is the world. The first bombing of a superstore in the middle of the night is immediately succeeded by footage of large-scale American bombing of Vietnam, where the collateral damage is highlighted. Well, no harm in saying what you believe in, but only if you could make a cohesive argument. Dar Baader Meinhof Komplex doesn’t. It says a lot but it means nothing. Stefan Aust, having deep insider information, had superbly balanced his treatment of the whole Revolutionary aspect of the book. The film, as I said, tries to do that too, with its portrayal of violence to probably signify these were mad men with triggers in their hands. I respect that, but I seek arguments. One might even argue that the film is offering an objective viewpoint of events, facts as they were. But that kind of misguided comment wouldn’t cut much ice considering the silly way the principal characters, er, placeholders operate. I respect the film’s ambitions but I seek that rare film which actually speaks against this culture of Revolutionary worship, who I believe offer no more to the world through their silly ideologies than to enhance the sale of millions of T-shirts. And I want that film to have a human face, not a political one.

1 comment:

srikanth said...

Absolutely... I too felt that the film was a wasted opportunity... My opinion here