Wednesday, September 23, 2009

All the Cliches in One Place: The Baader-Meinhof Complex and the State's Wet Dream

Aust, Edel, and Eichinger have produced a cinematic moment that demolishes any of the romantic aura that may still surround these killers in some circles.
-neocon Jeffrey Herf

Only a movie like this can show young people how brutal and bloodthirsty the RAF's actions were at that time
-Jörg Schleyer
The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the 2008 film by Uli Edel written and produced by Bernd Eichinger, may be many things. From its trailers it certainly seemed exciting, and i expected great music. A bit of a disappointment on both counts, i'm afraid. On a technical level, the fragmentary, jumpy editing was a bit of a gamble - while it pays off at times (i.e. the May Offensive, and the Third Hunger Strike), it fails badly at others, i.e. during the final days of the German Autumn.

Like i said, the film may be many things. However, an honest portrayal of the Red Army Faction is most certainly is not. In fact, drawing heavily on the work of liberal journalist Stefan Aust, the film is a useful example of the various ways with which to lie with pictures.

The Red Army Faction, as readers of this blog should know, was one of the first communist urban guerilla organizations in Western Europe. Emerging from the New Left in West Berlin, it quickly found friendly bases in cities across the Federal Republic of Germany. While it's leading members - Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe and Holger Meins - were all captured after its 1972 "May Offensive" (a series of bombings against U.S. army bases, police headquarters, a judge and a right-wing newspaper chain), they enjoyed a close enough connection to their base that it was not long before new people had opted to join the underground, and new actions - now focussed on winning the prisoners' freedom - were afoot. (For a detailed history of the RAF, i suggest checking out the German Guerilla website.)

(In the film, Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, Raspe and Meins are played by Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek, Niels-Bruno Schmidt and Stipe Erceg, respectively.)

Throughout its existence, the RAF was the target of a carefully orchestrated and sophisticated counter-information campaign on the part of the state, a campaign that would soon be described by many on the left as "psychological warfare." Not only were all manner of baseless rumours spread - that the group was planning on contaminating Germany's lakes with nuclear waste, that they had stockpiled chemical weapons, that they intended to kidnap children from playgrounds - but at a certain point persons unkown actually began carrying out bomb attacks in train stations and claiming them on behalf of "the RAF", even though the group itself issued clear statements denying their involvement. Today, given what we know of the ties between secret services and the far-right in various NATO countries, it seems most likely that these "false-flag attacks" were in fact the work of the state, intent on discreiting the urban guerillas.

In other words, much like radicals on this side of the Atlantic, West German comrades had to content with "their" state's own version of COINTELPRO. (For more about this, see chapter 9 of Projectiles for the People now available online: Shadow-Boxing: Countering Psychological Warfare)

The most pernicious - and most marketable, now that the group is no more - of these various dirty tricks and media smears, were the public psychological profiling that all members of the RAF were subjected to. Newspaper articles invariably made these comrades seem crazy; lurid details and fabrications about their personal lives were insinuated into any discussion of the group, the government's initial report (the farcical Mainz Report) even suggesting that weird sex triangles were inciting members to squeal on each other to the cops!

Following the capture of the group's most well known founding members in 1972, this aspect of the psychological warfare campaign became even more important. The RAF was one of the only urban guerilla organizations to manage to not only survive the capture of its key members, but to engage the state on the prison terrain to its advantage. Through the strategic use of hunger strikes, the RAF prisoners called attention to the pioneering of various forms of "white torture" by West Germany, including isolation and sensory deprivation, which many of its members were subjected to. (Sadly, as this New Yorker article detailed earlier this year, isolation is now widespread in prisons around the world, especially in the united states.)

Given how the prisoners' strategy relied on collective action and solidarity behind bars, the West German state went into overdrive to discredit the RAF "leaders," painting them as monsters who somehow were able to coerce other prisoners into joining these hunger strikes.

In short, the state was telling the people that the guerillas were a bunch of assholes. Really, should anyone be surprised that this is what the state would want people to believe???

In November 1975 the first RAF member died in prison. Holger Meins had been on hunger strike for six weeks; he was being force fed, but not given enough nutrients to keep him alive. The prison doctor could see he was dying, and so he... decided to go on vacation after asking for guarantees that he would not get in trouble! What's more, the Bonn Security Group - one of West Germany's secret intelligence organizations, which was pretty much in charge of how the prisoners were treated - ordered that Meins not be transferred to a hospital.

With Meins' death the psychological warfare campaign became instrumental. If you believed the newspapers, Meins was a weak personality type, bullied by group leader Andreas Baader, always sucking up to him. If you believed such a story, then you were confronted with the spectacle of a man starving himself to death just to win a bully's approval. Grotesque.

But most people did not believe the state's propaganda. Meins' death shocked the left, and many comrades decided then and there that they would join with the guerilla, that the time for talk was over.

Two years later, in 1976, another tragedy occurred that put the state's "hearts and minds" campaign front and center. Ulrike Meinhof, the RAF's leading intellectual, was found hanged dead in her prison cell. Just the day before, in court, she had accused the state of having a policy to kill off the revolutionary leadership.

Once again, the state pushed the line that Meinhof had been bullied by her fellow prisoners. Specifically that she had been about to leave the RAF, or to be kicked out, and that she just couldn't cope with this and so she did herself in.

This was widely disputed on the left. The prisoners issued documents Meinhof had been working on that showed her as committed as ever. And more than one observer asked why her autopsy was rushed, why her cell was not just emptied, but actually repainted, before her lawyers or family members could see it, and why her body was left in such a state after the first autopsy (i.e. missing organs), that a second autopsy was impossible.

An International Commission of progressive jurists and doctors was convened, and after several years it delivered its conclusion, suggesting that Ulrike Meinhof had been raped and murdered, and then hanged to make it look like a suicide.

Once again, the propaganda campaign was key: if you believed Meinhof was the victim of horrible bullying, that she was mentally ill, and that the RAF's support scene was populated by nothing but dupes or sociopaths, then you could safely assume that she had committed suicide. Everything else you could explain away as the work of unscrupulous terrorist symps. If on the other hand you rejected this characterization, you were left with a state murder.

And so on and so forth, culminating in the October 1977 "suicides" by the remaining RAF founders in Stammheim prison. The state's story is actually that Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were so machiavellian, so manipulative, that they not only killed themselves but purposefully tried to make their suicides look like murder in order to garner sympathy for their cause. Their suicide thus becoming their final attack on the state.

Questions about how they got guns inside their cells, why there was no powder burn on their hands, why the prison security cameras just happened to malfunction that night... all that is to be ignored. As is the fact that one prisoner survived the night with deep stab wounds, and to this day she insists she was attacked. (For more discussion of the Stammheim "suicides", see the German Guerilla website.)

The RAF continued on for twenty years after the night of the Stammheim deaths, but was eventually defeated. And as such, the psychological warfare campaign is now tweaked, becoming instead just part of capitalist history. An object lesson in the moral perils of revolution, and a declaration that there is nothing in the RAF's story that tomorrow's revs might wish to learn from. Key to this process is the suppression of any controversy or debate regarding the Stammheim deaths, and the whiting out of the movement context that the RAF emerged from and continued to draw upon throughout its existence.

The key text in this official history is the book that Eichinger/Udel production is based upon, Stefan Aust's Der Baader Meinhof Komplexe. A fascinating read, written in the same fragmentary jumpy style that the current film is shot in, Aust provided a wealth of information and details, as well as a narrative tying the RAF's various actions in the 1970s together. Not only was his book a "good read", but it "made sense".

That said, Aust has a particular position: he believes that the prisoners who died in prison committed suicide. While that's not unacceptable - for the record, i do not feel confident in my knowledge about what happened in Stammheim on those nights, so for me no position is beyond the pale - it should be noted that he also has a personal axe he has to grind.

Aust - who appears several times in the first half of the movie, played by actor Volker Bruch - was close friends with Ulrike Meinhof before she went underground, and remained friends with her ex-husband Klaus Rainer Rohl after she somewhat theatrically divorced him (she and her friends trashed his villa as a "political action.") He clearly admired her, and felt that her descent into guerilla warfare was a tragic mistake, one for which he blames Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader, the group's founders, whom he consistently portrays as cruel bullies, if not psychopaths.

What's more, Aust was friends with Peter Homann, Meinhof's erstwhile roommate who had a serious falling out with the RAF during an early training trip in Jordan, and who later collaborated with Aust in kidnapping Meinhof's daughters from some Italian hippies she had stowed them away with. Aust and Homann claim to this day that the RAF was going to send the kids to be raised in a Palestinian orphanage, a claim disputed by Meinhof's biographer Jutta Ditfurth.

In other words, Aust is not a disinterested party. He knew these folks, he liked some of them and he disliked others, and as it so happens his personal feelings have been roughly congruent with the objectives of the state's propaganda campaign. Which helps to explain why his book became the standard reference regarding the guerilla even though it only covers the first seven years out of its 28 year history, and does not even try to explain the group's ideas or its relationship with the radical left - Aust's history is psychological history, nothing more nothing less, all the while leaving his own psychological motivations unspoken and unacknowledged.

If Aust's book is a useful, though problematic, source for information about the RAF, the Eichinger/Udel film is a sly and dishonest exercise in character assassination. This has something to do with the nature of film vs. the printed word perhaps. Aust takes his time, giving us forty chapters in over four hundred pages, taking sideways glances at individual members' childhood and student days, police operations, dirty tricks, and the overall political context. This jumpy non-linear style works very well in a book, where you can flip forwards and backwards to refresh your memory, and where things are explicitly explained, not just referred to.

In the Eichinger/Udel film most of Aust's mosaic is sublimated into news reports shown in the background, or the flash of a newspaper article. The film does not replicate the book, though it does reference it thoroughly - by this i mean that most chapters in the book get some kind of token representation in the film, but it may just be a five second scene (or even less!) which is incomprehensible unless you already know the story inside and out.

This selective representation gives the filmmakers wide latitude as to what to show and what to merely "reference" in a clin d'oeil. And this is used here to a purpose, sharpening the psychologial weapons the state crafted so long ago, making them now a part of "art". Gone is Aust's serious theory that the state knew the prisoners had guns and intended to use them to commit suicide (in essence, making itself their accomplice); there is no discussion here of prison authorities' attempt to force Meinhof to undergo neurosurgery, or the effects of sensory deprivation torture on Astrid Proll. These details - and oh so many more - are left out, ommitted, non-existent, and what we are left with is a nauseating look at terrorists as insane as they are inhumane.

Baader emerges, surprise surprise, as the biggest asshole you'll have ever met, and Ensslin and Brigitte Mohnhaupt (played by Nadja Uhl) both as almost archetypical bitches. While the women are remorseless and cold, Baader just begs the audience to punch him in the face, as we see him refering to women as cunts and whores, accusing men of being homos and cocksuckers, and calling the Palestinian commander of the camp the RAF received training at as "Ali Baba" and a "camel-jockey". (It is never explained how the group came to have such good relations with the Palestinian movement, given what we see of their behaviour in Aust's book and Eichinger/Udel's film. Or how it continued for so many years with a majority female membership, including in leadership positions, for that matter.) But most of the time Baader - who in the real world seems to have been almost uniformly respected and even loved by those who worked alongside him - simply alternates between screaming incoherently and laughing inappropriately.

More than this, though, film shows its power as a medium in how a knowing look, a raised eyebrow, a quick grimace, can convey more than pages of innuendo. We read these "subtle" signals as more powerful than explicit communication, precisely because, being physiological, not requiring conscious thought, such expressions are normally far more honest. And so, perversely, we have a film in which Meinhof always looks like she's about to cry, Baader always looks like a self-satisfied frat boy, Ensslin always looks like she's holding something back. Repeated consistently for over two hours, these physical tells paint a disturbing picture of instability, confused motives, stubbornly wrong choices.

And of course the suicides. For in the film, there is no doubt, there is no cause to wonder, alternate theories do not exist: the prisoners all committed suicide, it's an open and shut case. How do we know? Well, Brigitte Mohnhaupt tells us so: this guerilla leader speaks in the film (as she never has in real life), telling us that the prisoners all wanted to commit suicide if the guerilla could not win their freedom, and even arranging to smuggle in guns for them to do this with.

"And Ulrike?" asks a stunned Susanne Albrecht (played by Hannah Herzsprung). "Her too," Mohnhaupt tells her. And, more importantly, tells us.

As of today, Brigitte Mohnhaupt (who was released from prison in 2007) has made no such statement publicly. Irmgard Moller, who survived that night in Stammheim with serious stab wound, still claims there was no such suicide pact. So where does this film - which claims to be "historically accurate" - get this from?

If you read Aust's book, you can see that there are two sources for this story. The first, Monika Helbing, was a RAF member who left the organization, and cooperated with police, becoming a snitch following her arrest in 1990, in exchange for a lenient sentence. Certainly, she had reason to want to go along with the state's story.

The second, and more important, source for this story is Peter-Jurgen Boock. This is Peter, played by a cute Vinzenz Kiefer, almost a point-of-view character in the second half of the film, whose knowing looks let us know that he can see it all going to shit. A sympathetic character, we never see him hurt anyone, though we do see him beaten black and blue by prison guards in a very early scene.

In real life, Boock is known as the "talkshow terrorist". He is the most famous, and disreputable, RAF member to cross over to the state. Back in the day, when Boock first met with Baader and Ensslin, he was smitten with them and wanted to join the RAF. They refused however, in part because they were worried about his drug habit.

Once they were in prison, though, Boock joined with the new wave of RAF guerillas. He claimed to have cleaned up, but also claimed that he had developed intestinal cancer, and needed painkillers. Believing this story, for years various RAF members were tricked into taking greater and greater risks to acquire painkillers and other drugs for him.

Boock’s ruse came to an end in 1978, when he and three other RAF members were arrested in Zagreb. The Yugoslav government tried to trade the four to the FRG, in exchange for a number of Croatian fascists the West German government had in custody. When this attempted exchange came to naught, the four were released, but not before Boock had had to submit to a medical examination whereby it was revealed that he was in fact a perfectly healthy drug addict.

Faced with the horrible revelation that they had been used (several members had gotten themselves arrested trying to score for him), the RAF guerillas set about arranging a safe haven for him in East Germany. Amazingly, when Boock refused to go into exile, insisting that he wished to continue in the RAF, the guerillas allowed themselves to be talked into believing him. And yet, it was not long after he returned to the west with them that he was trying once again to score—the guerillas now decided he must be exiled and refused to give him any say in the matter. Seeing the writing on the wall, Boock fled, arranging to turn himself in and to say whatever the state wanted him to, in exchange for preferential treatment in prison and an eventual pardon. (In 1988 several RAF prisoners - many of whom had had Boock testify against them in court - issued a statement outlining Boock's sorry history. It is available here.)

These are Aust's sources "proving" the suicides in Stammheim. Udel and Eichenger take this and gratuitiously tack on Meinhof to the deal, and there we have it: it's history now, i saw it in a movie, they killed themselves.

And so is hegemony maintained.

As i said at the beginning of this review, a dishonest film.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. This review is a real service to the left in exposing the true agenda of the film. I can't tell you how many lefties I have heard wanking off about how exciting this film is.