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The Lack of Complexity in Edel's "Baader-Meinhof Complex"

Recently I've been reading J. Smith and André Moncourt's The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History (Volume 1: Projectiles for the People), which is probably the best book on the RAF ever produced.  [You can purchase it here, at the excellent Kerspelebedeb site that puts out many great lefty books.]  Not only do the authors provide a leftist gloss and breakdown of the history surrounding the RAF, but the book is truly the promised "documentary history"––it contains communiques, pictures, debates, and a host of material never before available in one book and in english.  Since I used to be obsessed with the RAF, especially in my MA years of graduate school, I had been meaning to read this book since it was released.  As much as I understood that the RAF made serious strategic and tactical errors––as much as I now understand the focoist problem of their approach––I could not help but respect the conviction of their anti-imperialist politics, the willingness to die for revolution, the understanding of the seriousness of armed struggle, and the fact that, compared to their North American settler counterparts (that is, the Weather Underground), they were much more advanced.

Reading this book, however, reminded me of the recent film about the Red Army Faction, named after Stefan Aust's study of the organization: The Baader-Meinhof Complex.  Months ago, after watching Olivier Assayas' Carlos (which I complained about in a previous post), one of my close friends/comrades warned me about The Baader-Meinhof Complex, arguing that it was in the same vein as Carlos.  But since I'm a glutton for punishment, and cannot help watching movies about any leftist group or figure, I made the mistake of watching this dramatical action movie about the RAF––especially since it was the RAF, which had always held a special fascination for me.  And unlike the figure of "Carlos the Jackal", I have always found the Red Army Faction, regardless of their strategic faults, theoretically and politically principled.

Unfortunately, The Baader-Meinhof Complex turned out to be a film that was politically identical to Carlos.  Perhaps it was even worse, considering that Carlos was never, at least not in my opinion, as politically advanced as the cadres of the RAF, his anti-imperialism lacking significant theoretical depth.  But the film about the RAF uses the same strategies as the film about Carlos: the Red Army Faction militants are portrayed as psychotically in love with terrorism––lost in adventurism––and there is no significant explanation as to why they would be committed to this praxis in the first place.  Apparently the fact that the Red Army Faction produced numerous communiques and theoretical documents explaining the reasons for their existence, and arguing for these reasons in the context of the West German New Left, weren't even worth considering.  Well here is one of their reasons:
"Under the existing conditions of the Federal Republic and West Berlin, we doubt it will be possible to create a strategy to unify the working class or to create an organization that could simultaneously express and initiate the necessary unifying process.  We doubt that the unity of the socialist intelligentsia and the proletariat can be 'moded out of' the political programs or the declarations coming from the proletarian organizations.  The drops and streamlets based on the horrors have long been collected by the Springer Corporation, to which they then add new horrors. […] We believe that without a revolutionary initiative, without the practical revolutionary intervention of the vanguard, the socialist workers and intellectuals, and without concrete anti-imperialist struggle, there will be no unifying process.  Unity can only be created through the common struggle of the conscious section of the working class and the intellectuals, one which they do not stage-manage, but which they model, or else it will not happen at all. […] The paper output of these organizations shows their practice to be mainly a contest between intellectuals for the best Marx review before an imaginary jury, which couldn't possibly be the working class, as the language used excludes their participation.  They are more embarrassed when they are caught misquoting Marx than when they are caught lying in their practice.  Talking is their practice." (from The Urban Guerrilla Concept, RAF communique April 1971)
The conscious attempt to start an armed struggle in West Berlin, partially fuelled by an understanding that the people in authority were members of the Nazi generation but now backed by America, was also an attempt to grapple with the gap between revolutionary theory and practice.  The gangster mentality promoted by the film is lacking from every RAF document, from the very fact that they accepted death in Stammheim and refused to renounce their ideology.

But The Baader-Meinhof Complex is not interested in honestly depicting the political perspective of its subjects.  As I argued in my review of Carlos, this is yet another film designed to mock and denigrate anti-imperialist politics: revolution is treated as kitsch, the revolutionaries are turned into raving cliches, and we are supposed to equate leftwing "terrorism" with the terrorism of today.  It's all the same in the end, motivations be damned, because capitalism is the sacred end of history and any attempt to violently fight its logic can only be perverse and insane.  This is yet another counter-revolutionary film that is designed to mock, belittle, and render silly revolutionary politics.  Thus it is no wonder that the RAF cadres are depicted as lunatics, as participants in some 1970s fad, rather than committed revolutionaries; you would have to be insane to fight capitalism––indeed, the members of the RAF often argued (especially when its ranks were filled with members of the Socialist Patients Collective) this point.

Gudrun Ensslin, one of the RAF leaders, also argued that they were not another fad, as the movie makes it seem, and she and others proved that they did not think of themselves as a juvenile fashion movement by dying without renouncing their principles.  The first generation of RAF leaders were murdered in Stammheim and filmmaker Uli Edel desecrates their graves with his asinine film.  And though they left numerous communiques that explained their actions, and that demonstrated they were not just crazed adventurists, it is easier to depict them as lunatics then to accept that maybe there were good reasons, whatever the flaw in their strategy, behind their existence.

Of course, Edel has to descend into the realm of fantasy in order to depict his subjects as the lunatic "revolutionary" gangsters that he––following the rightwing view of the RAF––imagines them to be.  So aside from refusing to interrogate their ideology, he invents implausible scenarios of which there is no substantial historical evidence, such as a scene where Andreas Baader is shooting at road signs on the highway, or when Baader dares a journalist to steal a purse to break from her "petty bourgeois" mentality.  And yet the RAF never celebrated lumpen-politics: the bank robberies were performed to fund their political work, and they were always quite clear about this point.  They also proved it in practice when they used the money stolen from banks to fund their armed struggle.

Then there is Edel's depiction of Ulrike Meinhof, a complex character that he transforms into a flat and depthless cliche––insulting for both political and aesthetic reasons.  Why would Ulrike Meinhof, for example, leave her job and her family to join an armed underground movement?  The film simply depicts her as an hysterical woman, which is quite odd considering that Meinhof was a renowned leftwing thinker and journalist before she joined the RAF who embraced the concept of the urban guerrilla for very concrete and thoughtful reasons.

Here is Meinhof, right before she makes the decision to go underground, talking about the problems of the bourgeois family and the patriarchal requirements for its existence:

This is not the deranged hysterical-harpy cliche depicted in Edel's film, but a thoughtful and theoretically aware radical.  In fact, the RAF was composed of a lot of female cadre––many in positions of leadership––which set it apart from many of the masculinist and extremely sexist left organizations of the time.  (At one point, 60% of the RAF cadres sought by the police were women, leading some critics of the German police to refer to their counter-insurgency operations as a "witch hunt.")  It is hard to imagine why these women, who were intelligent and committed, would join an organization that, according to Edel's film, was nothing more than a macho gang.  Although the film does depict the significance of womens' involvement in the organization, their motivation for joining is treated as a joke: they want to be like men, and there is more than one scene where a female cadre "out-mans" a male cadre.

Although I think that failed revolutionary movements should be criticized, I am much more enraged by Edel's film than Assayas' Carlos.  The RAF, regardless of its faults, was a committed and principled revolutionary organization that continued, well after its first leaders died in prison, to fight for revolution until it disbanded in the 1990s.  As Herbert Marcuse (whose One-Dimensional Man influenced the RAF) wrote in Counter-revolution and Revolt:
"Where the Establishment proclaims its professional killers as heroes, and its rebelling victims as criminals, it is hard to save the idea of heroism for the other side.  The desperate act, doomed to failure, may for a brief moment tear the veil of justice and expose the faces of brutal suppression; it may arouse the conscience of neutrals; it may reveal hidden cruelties and lies."


  1. Isn't the real problem a theoretical difference between RAF's guevarism (and the wrong theory of "Fuoco") and other maoists groups (as italians Red Brigades of Prima Linea, which was real mass organizations)?
    Excellent article by the way, as usual =)

  2. Yes... I kind of indicated this by mentioning, briefly, the problems of their theoretical praxis (mentioned as their strategy/tactics), and I agree that the Red Brigades did a much better job at establishing base areas and building real connections with the masses.

    But if this was the RAF's failing, then it was also a larger failing of the entire Guevarist inspired anti-imperialist left (including Guevera), not because they were psychotic kids "in love with terror", as the movie (and a very specific rightist discourse) makes them out to be.

    So as for the reason why they failed, yes the problem you indicated was the real problem. But this article was more interested in how committed revolutionaries are being depicted in certain films.

  3. What is your opinion on the more "traditional" MLM position which deems these types of western "urban guerrillas" as armed revisionists?

  4. I hated this movie too, as much as i am "fond of" the RAF. Lenin told that the counter-revolutionaries spilt venom on revolutionaries when alive, then attempted to transform them into bland icons while dead. In the movie, they are not bland, but narcissical and superficial, just looking for fun and excitement. When they are in the Bekaa with the PFLP, it's the worse in this regard.

    I think it is always good to look at the social life and class position of those who produce ideology in today's world. The way the movie directors live for instance. Considering this, one may undestand the background of it all : first and foremost those people have never experienced exploitation and genuine revolt and rage, second : we are not in the sixties or seventies, the intelligenstia has changed. These people don't read revolutionary theory, they are quite unaware of what imperialism is.
    Their "philosophy" reduces itself to petty psychologism, their two feet in what C. Lasch called "culture of narcissism".

    Thank you for this article comrade!

  5. Mosfeld: I wouldn't even say that's a "traditional" MLM perspective - it sounds more like a "maoist-third worldist", rather than MLM, position. Generally the MLM position is that their politics (like, for example, Che Guevera) were laudable but their revolutionary praxis was flawed (they should have engaged in PPW rather than focoism that lacked a mass-line). So generally I would say that people who denounce them as "armed revisionists" are bizarre revolutionary purists who would probably also denounce Luxemburg, Guevara, and other revolutionaries who led failed uprisings. I think we should be critical of their failures but, to paraphrase Lenin [and the comment after yours is referencing this as well], eagles sometimes fly lower than hens but they still remain eagles.

    liberationirlande: Yeah, the depiction of them as narcissistic is annoying. I do know that they were problematic in Jordan but that it was not as crazy as the movie made it seem (attributing racism to Baader, for example), and they self-criticized for that later––which would explain why the PFLP would be willing to support them at later dates.

    Your second comment about class position is clearly important... but this should be confined with the context of understanding the RAF in Germany: there is a discourse that the movie is reproducing, and it is the acceptable and "official" discourse about the RAF in Germany (not the radical left discourse)––which is why the film heavily pushed the suicide (rather than execution) narrative of Stammheim.

  6. (sorry for my English mistakes)
    Thank you for this "enlightment"! i didn't know the RAF experienced problems with their palestinians comrades in Lebanon.

    Yes, the "hen and the eagle", in my opinion it sums up exactly the MLM view of Luxembourg-Guevara-RAF, etc... (apart from armchair dogmatists, of course!)

    But importantly, in Latin America, MLM groups have had bitter experience of foquism, so their views are really harsher on this issue. In Peru, the MRTA are seen more or less as fascist by the PCP.
    For them,the whole cuban concept of latin american unity directed against yankee imperialism is flawed, representing only the amalgamation of impotent national bourgeoisies.

  7. It's interesting what you say about the Latin American MLM groups... but most of them would still have seen Guevara as a revolutionary, wouldn't they? Most Latin American leftists I know, even those of MLM persuasion, still talk about Bolivia's betrayal of Guevara. I can see, though, why anyone now pushing a focoist theory of revolution would be treated with suspicion. [I also think the PCP's attitude towards the MRTA is pretty messed up.]

  8. I don't think that any of the major MLM Parties denounce Che Guevara completely, only his focoism theory.

    I don't really know much about the RAF. I think they probably had some good ideas up their sleeves but I find their military strategy very problematic.

    good readings:
    AWTW - The False Path of the West European "Urban Guerrilla" (Issue #4, 1985)
    PCP - Latin America: People's War (available on the People's War Archive)
    RCP,USA - Guevara, Debray, and Armed Revisionism (available on Banned Thought)

  9. Yeah, that's what I was saying above...

  10. rejection of Ché by some trend of "mlm" can be explained by the rejection of armed struggle itself


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