For serious students of art, Uli Edel's film The Baader Meinhof Complex unspools as an exegesis of Gerhard Richter's promethean series “Baader Meinhof (October 18, 1977).” How could it be otherwise? Both works of art bludgeon the viewer into numbness with the unrelenting nihilism of human destruction, what Hobbes called "the war of all against all."
The Baader Meinhof Complex, partially sponsored by the German government, is the recipient of many award nominations, yet is just now having its U.S. debut. The film is unrelenting in the rat-a-tat-tat of Red Army Faction gore and the clanking and thunking of the police and jail battalions that subdued them in their own blood and the blood of others. For Americans unfamiliar with the ten-year-long RAF reign of terror, the film will seem like a merger of the Manson Family with assorted Mideast terror cells.
The tension in the film lies between the sex appeal of its three principals, especially the winsome intellectual Ulrike Meinhof, whose every reaction to the contingencies of outlaw survival leads her deeper into hell, and the relentless response of the West German state, which grants them curious pockets of freedom within the dead zones of their twisted fates. Balletic killings become the cinematic underpinning of the space where the gang comes alive, Stammheim prison, where the violent, sexist fool Andreas Baader is allowed to plot, protest, write manifestoes, scream in court and enjoy the philosophical favors of his true-believer girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, and the agonized Meinhof, whom Baader first brands a traitor and then propagandizes as a martyr after her suicide.
It is the prison and the deaths of the RAF principals which Richter, of course, elegizes in his celebrated series, and one finds oneself viewing this long, deadening film through Richter's special lens, focusing on the bookshelves in the cell, noting the absence of an image of the hung Ulrike in the film and perversely cherishing the bloody bodies of October 18, while dismissing the gory corpses of their victims. The brutal lesson of both film and canvas is that sensitivity and desensitization are twinned by the manufactured artifice which gives esthetic pleasure. To experience what is real in art is no real experience at all: in a pacific sense, artists are the ultimate killers.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).