An explosive performance by Johanna Wokalek gives some relief to an otherwise long and humdrum series of characters, blow-’em-ups and prison locations in German terrorist drama “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” Director Uli Edel’s and scribe-producer Bernd Eichinger’s two-and-a-half-hour look at the tumultuous first decade of the notorious 1960s/’70s Red Army Faction packs in so much material that foreign auds especially won’t be able to see the terrorist group for the trees. Big-name German cast and well-known subject matter should attract some attention in Europe, but prospects for Germany’s foreign-language film Oscar submission look iffier elsewhere. Pic doesn’t yet have a U.S. distrib.
Eichinger also wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Edel and with advice from Stefan Aust, who wrote the eponymous standard work on which the film is based (he also appears as a secondary character in the film). Unlike Eichinger’s “Downfall,” which examined the last few days of Hitler, “Baader” tries to cram in a decade worth of characters and events, possibly in the hope that narrative density can substitute for complexity. Pic offers quite a complete picture of the times but almost no exploration of the whos and whys.
Opening sequences are the strongest, as Edel and Eichinger quickly sketch the domino effect that gave birth to the Red Army Faction (RAF). After protests during a 1967 state visit turn into riots in which police kill a student, and the 1968 assassination attempt on a popular left-wing spokesman (Sebastian Blomberg), several students of the post-Nazi generation decide it is time for radical response.
Plenty of action, verite camerawork and a driving musical score throw auds straight into the thick of things. Led by the couple Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Wokalek), the radicalized youngsters find their ideological voice in the slightly older journalist-intellectual Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck).
Pace slackens to introduce the trio, and though there is plenty of action still to come — multiple jailbreaks, kidnappings, assassinations and bombings — it never again reaches the heights of its first 20 minutes. Remaining two hours-plus show many of the group’s transgressions, while Germany’s top anti-crime fighter Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz) tries to both understand and outwit the terrorists.
At best, “Baader” can be seen as two separate narratives, one detailing the early period of the RAF, the other focusing on the prolonged trial that took place after the RAF founders were locked away and a second generation led — in the film — by Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl) and Peter-Juergen Boock (Vinzenz Kiefer) emerged. More often, however, the countless setpieces are so hurriedly treated that it feels as if there are at least a dozen stories fighting for attention.
For all but the three protags, character introductions and motivations are almost completely dispensed with. This suits the film’s semi-verite tone fine but will be confusing for auds unfamiliar with the subject.
There is no room for exploring the RAF’s ideology and the group’s inner workings beyond the obvious, and even Bleibtreu and Gedeck are mostly reduced to playing a cantankerous hothead and a finicky intellectual, respectively. The film’s biggest asset is Wokalek, whose Ensslin emerges as the most three-dimensional of the trio.
Pic feels more like a series of expensive historical re-enactments that could have spiced up a talking-head docu series (which also might have provided some much-needed insight). Historical accuracy in everything from production design to dialogue — many verbatim from historical records — only reinforces this impression.
Nifty casting and Waldemar Prokomski’s make-up also convincingly turns the thesps into look-alikes of the real RAF members. Thankfully, “Baader” does not force comparisons to today’s terrorism-obsessed world, though it’s clear from the pic that Al Qaeda didn’t invent the terrorist wheel — especially where it comes to media manipulation. Snippets of stock footage meant to contextualize the period only add to the running time.