On Sept. 27, the German department showed the feature film The Baader Meinhof Complex at 7 p.m. There were about a dozen students who arrived at Dewing 200 and gathered around a small projection screen to watch a depiction of the true story of the Red Army Faction, a militant far left organization founded in Germany in 1970 considered by many to be the debut of modern terrorism. As the three-hour movie unfolded, it was clear that the dominant themes and events — state repression, student protest, tension between generations — were still relevant to us today.
The film opens on a nudist beach in the late sixties. Serene, playful, a sign of the liberation of the post World War and post Nazi generation. However, the subsequent transition to the streets of West Berlin immediately plunges us into the complexity and passion of the world of politics at this time and place. It is June 2, 1967, and the Shah of Iran is set to attend an opera performance. Outraged students line the streets in protest of his regime. In response to perceived unrest, the police begin to crack down on the protesters with force, and in the violence a student is killed. This is the last straw for German radicals who hold the not so distant memory of Nazism fresh in their minds, and many feel compelled to engage in immediate political action.
Among those motivated to action and resistance were the journalist Ulrike Meinhof and radical leader Andreas Baader, both sympathetic to Maoism, Leninism and armed resistance against their state. The core group of Baader, Meinhof, and several other young radicals begin a campaign of urban guerilla warfare, characterised by bank robberies to fund their subsequent bombings and attacks on government buildings they perceived as pillars of a state leaning toward authoritarianism.
As the violent lives of these young men and women play out on screen, they come to represent not only political warfare, but also generational conflict in its most brutal form. This generation of students was raised by the generation of parents who lived through Nazism, and in some cases actively supported it. The story conveys the alienation felt by the younger and politically desperate men and women towards the older and more complacent makers of public policy. The destruction left behind by the RAF is contrasted in the film with footage of the destruction of innocents in Vietnam, drawing the audience out of ideological comfort to confront terrorism by both state and radical.
The tragic trajectory of these real-life characters’ lives are further exemplified by how detached their actions were from values that they espoused. While claiming solidarity with oppressed, their actions became predominantly motivated by lust for revenge and personal vendettas. Through the political complexity, this historical Animal Farm story highlights the self-destruction that comes from using terror as a weapon.