Eichinger’s last film, Downfall, showed Hitler as ruthless – but idealistic. It took flak for humanizing a monster but it made fascism very real, and its emergence believable, a thing of this world, rather than some maniacal ahistorical virus. His latest film, similarly, without posturing, humanizes a ruthless and idealistic political movement.
The point of view is objective, narrowed almost exclusively to the experience of the Baader Meinhof leadership. We follow how their ideas shift as the student movement, radicalized by the Vietnam War and the US Civil Rights movement, encounters the hardline authoritarianism of the West German state. The point is not to win audience sympathy, but understanding. At a key moment, Ulrike Meinhof, until then a sympathetic journalist, flees through an open window after members of the Red Army Faction. The camera stays fixed on the window, through which they’ve all passed the point of no return. From then, taking up arms, they’re underground, losing touch with the socialist and student movements, more and more isolated, fighting a private war.
It’s a stirring film, from the first graphic action scenes, showing police attacking demonstrators, and it never flags, never seems staged. Johanna Wokalek is a brilliantly earnest and scary Gudrun Ensslin, and Bruno Ganz’s appearance is a nice homage to the great German cinema of the 1970s.