Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Can you say 'Oscar bait'?

All right, no, that's an overly cynical take on what is a very handsomely mounted and well acted (but isn't that to be expected?) enterprise. At least it's not about children losing their toys in politically contentious regions or a dying old man finding meaning through the love of a child or one of the other child-related tropes that non-US films routinely have to trot out to get critical attention. It is, however, a disappointingly superficial examination of what is ultimately a very relevant (and AMPAS-y) subject - the motivation behind social/political dissension and the line between that and terrorism.

Part of the problem is that the film is a bit too ambitious, trying to cover the entire decade that the Red Army Faction (the movie's subject) spends front and center in German history. Too many events and characters are crammed into the runtime with too little time spent on building a context for the events or fleshed out motivations for the characters. The performances go a long way, making the broadly sketched characters watchable at the very least. Special mention should be made of Johanna Wokalek's energetic portrayal of Gudrun Ensslin. She does, admittedly, have the most material to work with. The other two principals - Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof - are boiled down to a hedonistic adrenaline junkie and a manic depressive intellectual, respectively. The acting remains solid throughout, though, with Bruno Ganz as one of those outwardly senile, inwardly astute policemen and Moritz Bleibtreu playing yet another hipsterish rebel-with-or-without-a-cause effortlessly. It feels like an extension of his role in Munich.

Speaking of Munich, director Uli Edel seems to have watched it several times, taking copious notes. He employs Spielberg's method of enclosing what could be a dialogue-heavy historical docudrama within a thriller framework to hook the audience and keep them involved. It works for about half the film, with frequent well-choreographed action sequences keeping things moving as the RAF roll out their campaign of assassinations, bombings, arson and - later - go on the run from police and military. Even the look of the films is similar; plenty of steely blues and grey tones, verite camerawork, globe-hopping and what looks to be meticulous research as far as production design/costumes/set dressing goes. The films even share the disturbing tendency of showing close-ups of people getting shot right in the face and the resulting cheek/teeth/jaw trauma and bloody sputum. You don't see that very often. Most filmmakers stick with head-shots.

However, just like Spielberg, Edel doesn't quite manage to keep things going till the end. The last hour of the film could use a good editor as it sags unbearably through multiple scenes where the three protagonists fight amongst themselves and rail ineffectually at The Man. The depiction of the seven month trial is especially tedious when it should actually be the heart of the film.

Having said that (apologies to Larry and Jerry), the film is not entirely bereft of ideas. There's a lot going on here. We see how Meinhof's initially journalistic and peaceful approach to social change gets hijacked by Baader's militant approach. This is coupled with the sequences that seem to indicate that Baader is in this as much for the fast cars, hot girlfriend and frequent opportunities to kick someone in the spleen as he is for social reform in the Fatherland. On the other hand, the 'fascist' police chief is not the remorseless demon that Baader would make him out to be as he tries to understand why the group would do what they do. Admirably, the film does seem to refrain from taking sides too explicitly. There are many grays between the poles represented by the RAF and the 'let-the-Nazis-get-away-with-it' generation but they are only played with in the film. The rest is kept going with good acting, some nice shootouts and taut direction. It could, however, been that much better.

Still, there are NO children. Except one that happily took a lot of pictures of people getting shot.

My IMDB Rating of the movie - 7/10

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