Prominent shorts helmer Jean-Gabriel Périot makes a welcome transition to feature-length documentaries with “A German Youth,” a thought-provoking look at the Baader-Meinhof group and the political debates of the era. While the people and events are hardly cinema newcomers, this entirely found-footage work takes a different tack, situating the clique and the Red Army Faction within postwar German debates: How was democracy understood in a nation recovering from fascism? Périot’s superb editing, long one of the hallmarks of his award-winning shorts, is much in evidence, and while the direct, post-1970s consequences are left out, intelligent audiences can’t fail to make parallels with today. Fests should take note.
Périot has always probed society’s wounds, questioning events — Hiroshima, the G8 summits, even coming out — by forcing viewers to confront common perceptions, sources of information, and the ways official reports are designed to prop up the powers that be. In “A German Youth,” he refuses to romanticize the actions of the Red Army Faction (RAF) yet similarly offers no condemnation, demanding that auds consider the political and social atmosphere of the period, which in turn leads to uncomfortable realizations about where we are now.
A montage of footage from the Third Reich and the immediate postwar era shifts into TV debates from the 1960s about democracy, in which a young, articulate Ulrike Meinhof, then a student of pedagogical studies, reasonably insists on the moral necessity of protest. Périot brings in people who’ll become key players in the RAF, including guerrilla filmmaker Holger Meins, lawyer Horst Mahler (founder of the Socialist Barristers Assn.), Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.
At this stage, there’s a playful edge to the group, notwithstanding a seriousness of purpose that becomes increasingly focused — starting with protests during the 1967 visit of the shah of Iran, when German police assisted, rather than repelled, the violent behavior of the Pahlavi partisans. Right-wing media giant Axel Springer claimed that demonstrators started the violence, but in an early example of actuality footage used to counter official accounts, the activists proved Springer’s lies and police complicity.
Government prevarication, along with police repression, further radicalized part of a generation influenced by Marxist-Maoist rhetoric and infuriated by entrenched inequality. Périot’s well-illustrated argument convincingly concludes that the subsequent years of violence, perpetrated by people whose largely bourgeois backgrounds seemed anomalous to acts of terrorism, isn’t so surprising given the clash between a rigid government with a hesitant understanding of democracy and a radicalized youth spurred by extremist ideology.
Once the ’70s were in full swing, Europe grew accustomed to terrorist acts from the far left. As fear of ISIS attacks grip the continent today, how many people recall the ever-present concern about airplane hijackings (Périot includes the 1977 Lufthansa 181 incident), let alone the havoc wrought by the Red Brigades in Italy and the IRA? Though “A German Youth” doesn’t ask the question directly, auds should wonder why our brains have repressed those unsettled times.
Another avenue Périot doesn’t explicitly pursue is the yin and yang of far-right and far-left fanaticism. The leap from Nazi doctrine encouraging mass slaughter to extreme Marxism shrugging its shoulders at murder isn’t really such a distance, so Meinhof’s transformation from cogent organizer into violent extremist isn’t that unfathomable. Had Périot moved things to today, he could have included Mahler’s shift from Maoist to fascist and Holocaust denier.
In the end, what did the RAF accomplish? Capitalism is ever more imbalanced, inequality is firmly entrenched, and Axel Springer remains one of the biggest media players in the business. The ’68 generation is in power, yet the only difference is that we’ve lost the belief in progressivism. Toward the end, Périot includes a clip from “Germany in Autumn,” with Rainer Werner Fassbinder lashing out at so-called democrats who only care for laws during good times; whether far left or far right, little has changed.
Utilizing news footage, TV programs, crude activist films and the like, Périot (always his own editor) builds his arguments almost invisibly, guiding the viewer while trusting his audience to use their heads. How refreshing to have a director refuse black-and-white conclusions, knowing that formulating questions is the best way to probe the past and its ramifications.