It may not have been exactly the best film released here in 2009 (it was close), but Uli Edel’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex” stoked my hot box like nothing else I saw last year, and it’s a movie about terrorists. A movie that heroizes terrorists. A 2.5-hour missile barrage of protest action, rock ‘n roll cool and decisive, dream-come-true street combat, Edel’s film is a valentine to every imp of political ire we hold in our bellies, just as the Baader Meinhof Group itself became messiahs to young Europeans in the ’70s who were fed up with bureaucrats and CEOs staging bloodshed in Vietnam, Iran and elsewhere and getting away scot-free with pockets bulging. Who could blame them?
Today, of course, we’re on the other end, having tasted wholesale unconventional warfare ourselves in recent memory, and therefore quite naturally finding ourselves opposed, viscerally, to the very idea that terrorism, or civilian insurrectionism, is a common and inevitable political reality, and sometimes a righteous one. (Like it or not, the American Revolution — and the Boston Tea Party! — falls into this file, as do the Algerian freedom fighters, Che Guevara, the Sandinistas, the Tamil Tigers, the IRA, the current Iraqi insurrectionists and so on. Moral, immoral, necessary, manifestly evil; the ethical lines vary by situation — the CIA has committed scores of documented terrorist acts, ostensibly on our behalf.)
The Baader Meinhof cabal arose organically out of the ’60s, in a Germany still hyper-wary of Nazi-ish power moves and fascist power. It’s a story we’ve forgotten, but Edel brings it home, opening in 1967 primarily with a raucous, thousands-strong street protest against the visiting Shah of Iran (who certainly warranted it), and the bats-to-heads oppression it received, all televised, as the police left behind the corpse of an unarmed activist and gave the motivation to radicals like journalist-mom Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and hot-wired activist Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) to coalesce into an active revolutionary group and begin a campaign of assassinations and arson that very quickly steamrolled beyond their control.
Edel is all about the facts, but his movie is also intoxicatingly exciting — there’s the vivid cant of ’60s-Godard political imperativeness ramped up by authentic news footage (all of it infuriating), and peppered frequently by terrorist assault sequences that are as sudden and confrontational and electric as mid-career Scorsese. Which would all be only hunky-dory, if the film itself, by devoting the time and attention to understand the Group’s reasoning and passion, didn’t also make a zestily convincing case for their justification, and for the outrage we should all feel when rich white men serve their own interests at the cost of human casualties from the Bay of Pigs to Laos to San Salvador to Gitmo.
Sure, we root for the crooks in heist movies, just by nature of the genre’s structure, and “The Baader Meinhof Complex” naturally inherits some of that outlaw largesse. But with its gorgeous, liberated young gun-toters offering up undying resistance to a corrupt society, and making their commitment concrete in terms of bullets and bombs, Edel’s movie has the addictive glamour of an anthem. And it’s pure-hearted, down to the wire — Edel never stoops to a formula move, such as having Bleibtreu’s manic Baader “go too far,” to illustrate the inhumanity of the campaign. Faith is kept with history, and ethically, history sides with the revolutionaries, whether they win or lose.
Naturally, the Group didn’t win, whatever that might’ve meant, but they caused trouble for years, in unstoppable successive generations, and their story is the tale of all idealistic lost causes. We still live in the world they were fighting against, after all. I’ll be honest: movies that rhapsodize on uncompromised youthful rebellion, large or small, from “Wild Boys of the Road” and “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Days of Being Wild,” “A Brighter Summer Day” and “I’m Gonna Explode,” make my heart burn with love. “The Baader Meinhof Complex” sings that song with real political conviction, and at the very least, the questions it poses about resistance and power cannot be dismissed with sound bites about “evil doers.”