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THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX, (rated MA+, with English subtitles).

Forty years ago, on 4 July 1969, I participated in an anti-Vietnam protest.

As we marched south down Melbourne's Swanston Street, activists filtered back through our ranks and told us to sit down on the road at Flinders St. Such an action effectively blocked the city's busiest intersection right at the evening peak hour, just as workers were trying to get home.

As the instigators knew, this left the police with no option but to move us, an outcome which could then be spun as unprovoked violence against passive protesters. It had the additional advantages of providing opportunities for covert anti-police violence in the ensuing chaos, and of getting a few of the genuinely peaceful marchers radicalised as result of their being manhandled by police in the unavoidable clearing operation.

The fact that the incident would exasperate and alienate the otherwise revered "workers" was ignored in the interest of existential revolutionary self-indulgence. Ever since that and similar experiences from that era, I have treated the standard media characterisations of demonstrations as "police riots" with the profoundest scepticism.

The Baader Meinhof Complex begins with a protest against the Shah of Iran's visit in June 1967 to West Germany, and the alleged violence perpetrated against the demonstrators. (There is no exculpating the undoubtedly unpleasant Shah, but why have the usually judgmental and moralistic Left ignored his far more unpleasant Islamo-fascist successors as the dictators of Iran?)

The 1967 shooting of an unarmed student demonstrator was portrayed by the Left as proof of the fascist character of the West German government, and the incident's exploitation was a major precipitatory factor in the subsequent radical violence. However, archival research has just revealed that the policeman who carried out the shooting, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was a Stasi agent of the East German Communist regime. *

The other early scene of the film shows wealthy burghers enjoying themselves while the soundtrack, with exquisite artistic subtlety, plays Lord, Won't You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz?

These two themes--first, the Left's egregiously selective moral indignation which enables it to embrace allies such as repressive, antisemitic Islamists, and, second, contempt for bourgeois liberal democracy--dominate the next tedious hour or so.

The film's makers glamorise the Baader Meinhof Gang (properly called the Red Army Faction, or RAF, with its logo a sub-machine-gun superimposed on a red star) and its politics in three ways.

For a start, they emphasise its Sixties youth culture of fast cars, pre-AIDS casual sex, and rock music--heavily underscored, for fear we might miss the point, by The Who's My Generation ("Hope I die before I get old") playing in the background. What's more, these attractive and hirsute young people get to empty their guns' magazines into middle-aged conservatives with short back-and-sides haircuts, in sequences reminiscent of Bonny and Clyde. This isn't just radical chic, it is radical chic porn.

(Just in case the audience hasn't yet twigged, despite all the sledgehammer hints, to the neo-Nazi evil and decadence of anyone who lived through World War II, at one point the film has grey-haired government officials dining--no, seriously, this is true--on lobster soup.)

Next, the film's makers allow neo-Stalinists such as Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, and Mao--history's worst mass murderer--to be presented heroically and uncritically.

In one heavy-handed piece of imagery, a police desk receptionist closes a Venetian blind behind which his fellow-officers are beating up Andreas Baader for murdering a number of their colleagues. The gesture is meant to symbolise a culture of cover-ups by the German authorities, but inadvertently stands for the film's failure to shed light on the mindless worship of Communist dictatorships.

If a Nazi mindset persisted in Germany, as the film's makers sympathetically allow the characters to assert, it was exhibited pre-eminently next door, in the quasi-totalitarian, Stasi-dominated German Democratic Republic. However, the film contains no reference to the Stalinist and neo-Stalinist East German regime which, as the post-1989 release of records reveals, helped finance the Red Army Faction. Nor does the film raise the curious question of for how long young Western radicals of the era would have been allowed to pursue their sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll way of life under the repressive, puritanical regimes of their idolised societies such as Mao's China, Hoxha's Albania and Kim Il-sung's North Korea.

The film has been described as balanced by some reviewers, but it is difficult to see why. A lack of any sense of proportion on the part of the film, or the figures it portrays, is encapsulated in a sequence showing anti-Western demonstrators chanting "Hiroshima [not Nanking], Dresden [not Auschwitz] and Vietnam [not Tibet, the Cultural Revolution, the Gulag, or the Great Terror]".

The film's makers throw an occasional sop to reality: the male gang-members' sexism, for example, and the equally arrogant racism and insensitivity shown by the women who sunbathe naked in front of male Jordanian fellow-terrorists. In an apt illustration of Paul Johnson's dictum that an intellectual is a person for whom ideas are more important than people, the gang members are also dismissive and contemptuous toward parent-child relationships.

The most Teutonically ponderous attempt at grudgingly conceding the gang's double standards is a scene in which Baader persuades a trendy lawyer to display his freedom from bourgeois hang-ups by stealing a woman's handbag, then a moment later loses his temper when some youths steal his car.

In a transparent attempt at tearing our heartstrings, the film ends with the protagonists' imprisonment, trial and suicides. The message, in a belt-and-braces policy of overkill (pun intended), is both implied and overt: these people ultimately triumphed over the system by choosing the time and circumstances of their deaths.

There are at least three problems with this propagandist strategy.

First, the conditions of their incarceration and the openness of their trials are unimaginably superior to anything endured by prisoners of the regimes they admired, such as Mao's China or Castro's Cuba.

Second, it is impossible to look at the figure (projected on the screen like a saint from an icon) who chose to starve himself to death, without thinking of the tens of millions of men, women and children who were involuntarily starved to death in Stalin's Ukraine famine, or Mao's Great Leap Forward (and later, in the Nineties, in Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's North Korea).

Third, the romantic and individualistic portrayal of taking one's own life is distinctly un-Marxist, and is historically reminiscent instead of the bourgeois sentimentality poured out over the young poet Chatterton, or Goethe's fictional Young Werther.

As far as literary precedents are concerned, it is difficult to go past the suicide of the child-molester Stavrogin in Dostoevsky's The Possessed (or The Devils, or Demons). Dostoevsky was inspired to write the story of young psychopaths who are prepared to ignore any amount of collateral damage for the sake of "the Revolution", or "the People", by the Baader-Meinhof gang's political ancestor, the archetypical terrorist Sergei Nechayev.

* Michael C. Moynihan, "The shot heard round the world", Weekly Standard (Washington DC), Vol. 14, Issue 36, 8 June 2009.

Reviewed by Bill James

Bill James is a Melbourne writer.
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Author:James, Bill
Publication:National Observer - Australia and World Affairs
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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