December 14, 2009

Mind: Belatedly Blown

About a year late (which is usually just about my speed) I finally got around to seeing that Baader-Meinhof Complex film (it's currently on netflix watch-instantly, which is how it came about that I finally got around to watching it.) The sad, horrifying, fascinating tale of the New Left in general, and the Red Army F[r]action in particular, has long been one of my weird obsessive interests. I'm no expert, but I've read as much about it as I have on any other subject; and it was quite a strange experience to see scenes and figures with which I've been so familiar depicted on the screen so vividly and with such skill.

It really is an amazing movie, a "docu-drama" in the form of an action thriller, beginning with the Benno Ohnesorg shooting on June 2nd, 1967, and ending, rather abruptly, with the shooting of Hanns-Martin Schleyer in October of 1977.

I'd heard complaints that the film unduly glamorized and exculpated the perpetrators but it certainly didn't strike me that way, much. Andreas Baader is depicted, accurately, as a slow-witted, thrill-seeking thug, for whom radical politics was little more than a self-aggrandizing pretext for criminal activity. Gudrun Ensslin comes off as a hip, vapid sociopath, who cows all in her path with a relentless, hectoring stream of canned revolutionary Marxist clichés, pausing only occasionally to address Baader fondly with a kittenish "baby…" Horst Mahler is every bit as sleazy, comic-preposterous, and morally bankrupt as the real guy must have been (and still, clearly, is.)

There is, it is true, a certain pathos about the film's portrayal of Ulrike Meinhof: she is the bourgeois intellectual who assuages her own guilt and feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity by allowing herself to be seduced by the glamor of radical chic, eventually joining the gang and devoting her once-lauded rhetorical talents to a warped, semi-coherent post hoc quasi-theoretical justification of a wicked and ultimately pointless project driven chiefly by the egotism and narcissism of a couple of deranged half-wits. I have no idea if this psychological portrait is accurate, but it is certainly effective cinematically. Empathy, whether deserved or not, gives way gradually under the weight of successive horrors, as the grand tragedy plays out, leaving her, in the end, utterly corrupted, a burnt-out cinder, empty and inscrutable even in her anguish and abandonment.

This sorry trajectory lends a grim irony to the depictions of public support, the courtroom chants, the fist "power" salutes, etc. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone viewing this film could come away with a positive impression of the participants or their project, though that failure could well be mine. (There's an account here of one instance where the film appears to have inspired a perverse diplay of solidarity rather than revulsion, if it is to be believed.)

A few puzzling omissions, given that such care was taken in re-constructing iconic scenes (the hooded Black September terrorist peeking out over the balcony in Munich, the bleached-blond, wounded Baader being dragged by the leather jacket sleeves after a shoot-out with an armored vehicle, etc.):

-- Jean-Paul Sartre's visit to Baader in Stammheim Prison during the hunger strike of 1974;

-- the Revolutionary Cells' hijacking of the Air France airliner and subsequent raid on Entebbe;

-- related to that, if there was any allusion to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism running through the RAF and the German New Left, I managed to miss it -- especially odd because the events of Munich 1972 are depicted, but not Ulrike Meinhof's communiqué endorsing them;

-- the RAF's support and funding by the East German Stasi isn't referenced at all.

Of course, you can't put everything in a two-hour movie. I do wonder how and why such decisions were made, though.

The movie is based on the similarly-named, and once rather hard to come by, book by Stefan Aust (an associate of Meinhof's from the pre-terrorist konkret days, played by Volker Bruch in the film) fortunately now re-printed in an English edition. Both the book and the movie are worth checking out if you're at all interested in that type of thing.

Posted by Dr. Frank at December 14, 2009 09:28 AM | TrackBack

Frank, I know you’re a philosophy guy, and your mention of Sartre raises an oft-pondered question. Now, I've rewritten this post a few times in an effort to try to pose this question to you in a coherent yet subtle and polite way, but, for whatever reason, I can't.

So here goes nothing:

Anyone who’s read your blog or heard the songs has at least a good guess as to what your take is on Foucault, Derrida, et al. Anyway, in your humble opinion, is there any value whatsoever in 20th century Continental philosophy, or is it all really just a bunch of fuzzy-thinking bullshit?

‘scuse the language.

Just wondering.

(Now, come to think of it, I remember that Tom Henderson walks away with a reasonably favorable take on Camus—or The Plague, at least.)

Posted by: Cpt. at December 15, 2009 01:28 AM

I'm not qualified to render judgment on it as philosophy. But the effect on American intellectual culture of the rhetorical habits and poses of that tradition during the time I attended university was to spark a celebration of obscurantism and unclear writing that I found profoundly irritating for that reason alone. It also seems to me that a great deal of the work of twentieth-century continental intellectuals was concerned with tending the flame of Marxism, and is perhaps of less interest or use to those for whom that flame has been extinguished. Camus, however, was a fine writer.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 15, 2009 09:05 PM

Thanks for recommending the movie. I'm not much of a history student so I had no knowledge of most of the events depicted, but I still enjoyed watching the film.

Posted by: Cheryl at December 21, 2009 05:17 AM
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