Sprawling but shallow, intellectually satisfying but emotionally barren, Uli Edel's Baader Meinhof Complex confronts domestic terrorism from the perpetrator's POV while dispassionately chronicling a volatile and important piece of Germany's recent history. It's a riveting political thriller that capitalizes on its pulp sensibilities to deliver visceral kicks but, unfortunately, never digs into its subjects with depth.
On a technical level, you can't help but be impressed by this 150-minute examination of the Baader Meinhof Gang — otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), a left-wing terrorist group that enacted vicious acts of violence in service of a muddled ideology. Fragmented but fascinating, it charts an entire decade of robberies, murders, kidnappings and bombings that started with legitimate student protests but quickly spun out of control, as its sociopathic leaders gained power.
Left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), psychopath Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his extremist girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) hold center stage, as Edel attempts to rope in Bernd Eichinger's (Downfall) hopelessly complex story. And the director does surprisingly well juggling its numerous players and ever-escalating acts of brutality. Unfortunately, the film suffers from little narrative or emotional perspective. The real-life characters are so relentlessly awful, and their actions so terrible, that it becomes difficult to spend time with them. On some level Edel seems to recognize the story's lack of analysis or depth, so he keeps things moving at such a frantic clip that there's simply no time to reflect. Each violent act is staged with a furious sense of immediacy.
For the first half-hour, Baader sets you up to believe that you'll be following the moral and ethical erosion of middle-class Ulrike Meinhof, as her depression gives way to existential anarchy. But as her sullenness deepens, her already internal character becomes less interesting, so we're left with the amoral but charismatic Baader and Ensslin, whose Teutonic Manson family of misguided, anti-establishment youth becomes obsessed with revolution, death and destruction.
As a view of noble protest gone horribly awry, and the cannibalistic futility of violence, Edel's film is sobering, alienating and, undeniably, absorbing. But, much like its subjects, it gets so caught up in its own sturm und drang that it forgets a meaningful point.
Opens Friday, Sept. 18, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.