Before a school exam, do you remember how teachers would impress on you the importance of answering the specific question that was set?
In other words, don't just splurge everything you know about a subject – show the examiners that you can discriminate, and that you can construct an argument. I'm not sure what questions the makers of The Baader Meinhof Complex were addressing, but these might have been among them: how far was Germany's recent Nazi past to blame for the rise of the Red Army Faction? How did a small group of radical left-wing students of the 1960s turn into one of the most feared terrorist units of the 1970s? What was the nature of the disputes that eventually split apart the RAF, and what resonance does their legacy have today? Any one of these questions might have been a useful co-ordinate by which to plot a narrative, and it is perfectly likely that in the course of writing the screenplay Bernd Eichinger (who wrote and produced the great Downfall) considered all of them.
But it turns out he hasn't answered any of them. His approach has simply been to cram everything he knows about the Baader Meinhof years into a running time of two and a half hours. It is really the most unhelpful and unenlightening film on the subject you could possibly imagine. Perhaps film-makers are too easily seduced by the era itself, when the whole of Western society was teetering on the edge of collapse. Almost every bit of "spirit of 1968" news footage is featured at some point – the Paris riots, Black Power salutes, street demos, and, most pertinently, the bombing of Vietnam – and soundtracked by suitably apocalyptic tunes such as Deep Purple's "Child In Time". It's a bit like watching an extended episode of The Rock'n'Roll Years.
Students in Berlin get their own taste of state oppression when police attack demonstrators during a state visit by the Shah of Iran, but what actually lights the revolutionary fuse is American involvement in Vietnam.
In protest, a group of activists led by Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) firebomb a department store in Frankfurt; they are arrested and imprisoned. Meanwhile a noted left-wing journalist, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), becomes interested in this incendiary group, and in May 1970 helps to spring them from prison. This incident, allegedly, marked the birth of the RAF, at which point the film might be expected to focus upon the two characters who give the film its name. Even if we aren't primed to be sympathetic, we would at least like to know a little about their temperaments and motivations. But the film hasn't the nerve to pause, to take a breath and consider; it just keeps barrelling through the gang's early activities, a bank robbery here, an assassination there, bullets flying everywhere.
Gedeck, terrific as the doomed actress in The Lives of Others, is a blank as Meinhof. Initially she seems torn between being a mother and a revolutionary, vowing not to go anywhere without her two young daughters. Later, however, she forfeits care of them apparently without a murmur. She is vaguely set up as the cool-headed theorist of the gang, but the quoted samples of her writing ("The man in uniform is a pig, not a human being") make one wonder how she ever got a job as a journalist. As Baader, Bleibtrau is even less charismatic, a bumptious hothead who seems to champion every revolution but the sexual one (he frequently calls women by the "c" word). When the RAF go to a military training camp run by the PLO in Jordan, Baader is not only seen to be an arrogant jerk, he's also a casual racist. This seems an intriguing contradiction in someone renowned for his radical principles, but the film ignores it, as it ignores every aspect of the gang's psychology.
What it proudly claims to do is feature several of the original locations, such as the Deutsche Oper in Berlin for the 1967 Shah demo, and the courtroom at Stammheim Prison for the gang's trial. But we don't want a facsimile – we want a story, with a shape, or a theme, or even just an angle. The film-makers assume far too much of their audience: when Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof are put in prison, the gang's cause is taken up by various disciples, who maim and kill with even greater ferocity than their leaders. Yet we barely know the names of these gun-toting desperados, let alone what political ardour drives them to such appalling violence. Again, the film seems more concerned with replicating exactly the number of bullets fired at this or that ambush. Police reports have been studied so that "realism" has been served. But Eichinger's script has nothing to say as to why we should care.
In fact, it becomes even murkier as their imprisonment drags on. Meinhof, on being arrested, breaks down and weeps – from remorse? from exasperation? Who knows? Angles of potential interest keep rearing up, like the tenacious and thoughtful pursuit of the gang by German police chief Herold (Bruno Ganz). At one point he discusses dealing with terrorism as an extension of war, a moment of theoretical insight which you hope the film will develop. It doesn't, of course.
The last quarter examines the implosion of the group inside prison, as Meinhof complains that her courtroom statements have been changed by her comrades. The precise form of this betrayal is, like everything else, obscure. The failed hijacking of a Lufthansa plane by Palestinian terrorists is cast as the Baader-Meinhof Götterdämmerung, though one feels much more sympathy for the fate of the kidnapped industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer. A final outrage: over the closing credits The Baader Meinhof Complex chooses to play Dylan's "Blowin' in The Wind", as if to decry a waste of lives and a loss of innocence. Why that song, you wonder – why not "I Shot The Sheriff", or even "Psycho Killer"?