So drenched in detail it ends up losing its main dramatic thread.
So drenched in detail it ends up losing its main dramatic thread, “If Not Us Who” attempts to unravel the messy, decade-long relationship between radical-left poster girl Gudrun Ensslin and writer Bernward Vesper. This feature debut by eminent documaker Andres Veiel (“Black Box BRD”) strains to distinguish itself in the shadow of two other major films about Red Army Faction figures, 2002’s “Baader” and 2008’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex.” Sadly, despite some impressive perfs, particularly from Lena Lauzemis as Ensslin, Veiel’s take lacks kick, or even the kitschy appeal of its forebears. Pic should do OK domestically but bomb offshore.
More of a supporting figure in Christopher Roth’s “Baader” and Uli Edel’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” Gudrun Ensslin (legit and TV thesp Lauzemis, who will be going places after this) only gradually comes to the fore here after a reel’s worth of action. At first, “If Not Us Who” (which, like James L. Brooks’ recent “How Do You Know,” seems to have annoyingly mislaid its titular punctuation) promises to cleave more closely to the story of Ensslin’s eventual partner. Bernward Vesper is first met as a child (Jonas Haemmerle), traumatized by his father, Will (Thomas Thieme), who shoots his cat when the animal kills a nest of nightingales.
Vesper Sr., it turns out (though no surprise for local auds), was one of Hitler’s favorite writers, and Bernward’s complex feelings toward his dad loom significantly throughout his life, leading him to eventually republish his father’s work and promote it in the far-right-wing press once he (now played by August Diehl) and Gudrun start their own publishing house. This, despite the fact that relatively soon after, both Bernward and Gudrun would embrace extreme leftist politics. The characters’ extreme political switchbacks, grounded in extensive research on the part of writer-helmer Veiel, certainly makes them interesting, although the screenplay struggles to complete the circle psychologically.
Plot follows Bernward and Gudrun through their early bohemian years, as they dabble in a menage a trois with another woman (Vicky Krieps), live openly in sin at a time when that was still illegal in Germany, and weather some stormy spells when Gudrun finds Bernward’s constant infidelity intolerable. Eventually, they have a child, Felix, whose birth coincides with the peak of his mother’s radicalization. Before long, she’s become lovers with Andreas Baader (Alexander Fehling), and the two are blowing up department stores and forming the Red Army Faction.
Unfortunately, the film feels like a bit of a Johann-come-lately compared not only with the aforementioned German pics but also, as a study of the mindset of ’70s Euro radicalism, Olivier Assayas’ magisterial “Carlos,” which admittedly had the luxury of 5 1/2 hours to explore its subject. In fact, with its dense political-debate scenes and baggy scope, “If Not Us Who” plays like a film that’s been brutally condensed from a much longer running time, which might explain why key like Ulrika Meinhof and Dieter Kunzelmann seem to flit through the action so quickly they’re barely identified.
Veiel tries to inject some sense of context through interludes in which archival footage (of the Berlin Wall and President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, napalm bombings and so on) plays out against pop songs from the period. (Some are actually cover versions, no doubt to get around exorbitant rights fees.) It’s a slightly clumsy device, reasonably effective the first time but less so the sixth or seventh.
Lauzemis’ perf reps pic’s most memorable element. Transforming from nervous coed to cold-eyed revolutionary, she commands every scene she’s in, ably projecting Ensslin’s intelligence, surprising vulnerability and carnal complexity. Diehl is consistently upstaged, although it doesn’t help that his character is so unsympathetic in the early stages, and saddled with bad wigs to boot.