German History microscoped again
Rebellion or Iconic Resistance: German history microscoped again

Saw this film in Hamburg last weekend. Based on the book written by Stefan Aust (published in 1985), the screenplay is co-written by Aust and Bernd Eichinger. Eichinger, of course, is the influential producer behind Constantin Films and has been credited with power-housing much of German film production and ditribution in recent years. His previous credits demonstrate an eye on the international (Hollywood) market as well as the indigenous German one. Added to this, is the acting star power: Moritz Bleibtrau (Lola Rennt, Female Agents, Munich), Christine Gedeck (The Lives of Others, The Good Shepherd) and Bruno Ganz (Downfall, Wings of Desire).

The star value of these is relevant, since the subject matter is still mired in controversy.  Over the weekend, the German newspapers reported an attack on Aust’s house (with his wife and children home) throwing paint against the walls. Anecdotally, the cinema attendant told us the difficulties she had had, explaining the film’s content to a British tourist. Translating into English, should she refer to them as terrorists, as disaffected students, even as freedom fighters? Thirty years on, their status is still under discussion. That a major German film company, and stars with an international as well as national profile, were willing to portray these characters could be regarded as a significant weighing-in in the sympathy corner.

The film, from this particular British tourist’s point of view, is very episodic in its attempt to be fair to the history, covering a period from Meinhof still married and pre-radicalisation to their suicides. In between, it covers Rudi Dutschke (and the attempted assassination), Baader and Ennslin’s communal home for the insipient revolutionaries, deliberations of the pursuing police. It seems to want to be true to all these perspectives, as well as all the events.  For me, this was crystallised in a scene where Baader and Meins are arrested, famously, at a garage in residential Frankfurt.  Suddenly, in this scene, we switch perspectives again to that of a little girl living in a flat above who takes a photograph of the surrounded men. Even as an outsider, you realise the writers/director are recreating an iconic moment from German history – an iconic news picture from that era. However, the film risks losing a narrative centre by its attention to this fairness between all the different characters involved. However, the historical story’s needs outweigh the film’s role as fiction – and its structure moves away from a classical narrative.

This emphasises the difference in watching as a foreign audience compared to an indigenous one. As a German viewer, I would identify those moments from public history that resonate with my own private memory, because I was somehow there.  Bruno Ganz, as Horst Herold (Chief Commissioner of the Bundeskriminalamt) offers us an authoritative voice that ensures a return to equilibrium – his performance and dialogue as the policeman suggest that whilst many in government may be foolish, he recognises the reasons behind the actions and, therefore, the continuing risks. By this, the film seems to signal its wish not to challenge the hegemony – then or now.

The review in Screen International (3.10.08) identifies that the film is emotionally uninvolving, locating it in the numbers of characters and their character “there are too many of them and they are all creeps.”  It points up that the film serves, for today’s young, a look at “the birth of modern terrorism.” The film did make interesting, and I assume strategic, references to American Imperialism (in Vietnam) and the fight for oil – seeming to imply it wanted to make the politics at least a little resonant now. One German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (access through page) writes of a portrayal of “dieser Gefühlsterrorismus” – which literally translates as emotional terrorism.

With the film being the German entry for Foreign Language Oscar, one can’t help feeling the debates will continue, especially its credentials to be a film representing German culture at international awards. I can’t help mentioning Petzold’s Die Innere Sicherheit, for a representation of 1970s terrorism and its ultimate emotional toll; a film with the politics and the emotional centre, if not the historical accuracy.

For a useful timeline of the historical events, I found:

A word about the cinema, Streif’s, near the Binnen-Alster in Hamburg.  Refurbished inside, it’s a nostalgia trip for pre-multiplex film viewers, with even cushioned double seats in the premium rows (one euro extra) in blue velveteen.  Proper cinema experience for grown-ups.