Shoot to Kill: The Rise of the Freedom Fighter Film
” … the Baader Meinhof Gang became “caught up in the delusion that the society in which they lived was fascist and that the Federal Republic of Germany differed only slightly from the Third Reich. … The gang members were … fighting their own private war against what they dubbed the Auschwitz generation – that’s to say, the world of their parents. … [But] they claimed to be at the vanguard of the proletariat but they could never quite escape their bourgeois backgrounds. …”
[Video trailers are posted at the Independent site.]
30 May 2008
As the Baader Meinhof Gang, Carlos the Jackal, Farc freedom fighters and Che Guevara get the big screen treatment, Geoffrey Macnab reports on a new wave of films that aim to tell the terrorists’ side of the story
The Baader Meinhof Complex is one of a growing number of terrorist-themed features and documentaries currently being made.
“He wore Italian shoes and silk shirts and, as tight trousers were not in fashion at the time, he made his own. He wore no underpants, ‘to show off the arse and everything else,’ he said. He wore make-up, sometimes wore false eyelashes and often doused himself with perfume.”
No, this is not the description of an androgynous Seventies pop star or a rebellious young actor. It is how the author Stefan Aust describes the terrorist Andreas Baader, one of the most notorious figures in post-war German political history, in his book, The Baader Meinhof Group.
Baader’s story is shortly to be brought to the screen by the producers of Downfall, the German box-office hit about the last days of Adolf Hitler. Baader is being played by Moritz Bleibtreu, the charismatic young German star recently seen in Speed Racer. The Baader Meinhof Complex, as the film is called, is one of a growing number of terrorist-themed features and documentaries currently being made.
In Cannes last week, Steven Soderbergh unveiled his two-feature film, Che, starring Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara. On release in the UK at the moment is Barbet Schroeder’s documentary Terror’s Advocate, about lawyer Jacques Verges (who represented such figures as Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal). Schroeder has described his film as an account of the rise of “blind terrorism” – a story that starts with freedom fighters placing bombs in cafés by the sidewalk in Algeria and goes on to take in everything from Black September to the Stasi and Pol Pot.
Meanwhile, award-winning French director Olivier Assayas is shortly to start work on a film about Carlos the Jackal. Billed by its producer as an “an action film”, the story follows “the rise and fall of the world’s greatest international terrorist”.
The new wave of terrorism-themed movies isn’t just confined to Europe. In Colombia, the acclaimed director Victor Gaviria is about to start work on Black Blood – the Hour of the Traitors, a new feature about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, guerrilla group. The film is based on a true story about a young Farc leader betrayed by his own family. Gaviria has recruited former Farc members who have laid down their weapons to play the leading roles in his film. Gaviria acknowledges that there is added interest in Black Blood in Europe because of the plight of Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate who was kidnapped by the Farc six years ago and has been held hostage ever since.
Of course, the interest in terrorism-themed films is nothing new. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were many movies that pitted heroic cops, soldiers and politicians against villainous terrorists. Films such as Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal (1973) and John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (1977) set the template for one style of action-movie.
Meanwhile, film-makers who were contemporaries of the terrorists made personal and reflective films, for example Germany in Autumn (1978) or Margarethe Von Trotta’s The German Sisters (1981), exploring the background to the terrorism.
The difference about the new batch of films is that they don’t simply demonise the terrorists. They aren’t score-settling political tracts either. Instead, they aspire to be mainstream movies.
Jens Meurer, the German producer of Assayas’s forthcoming film about Carlos the Jackal, describes the project as cathartic. A teenager growing up in the 1970s, Meurer remembers vividly the hostage crisis after Carlos’ raid on the 1975 Opec Conference in Vienna and the hunt for the Baader Meinhof Group terrorists. Thirty years on, he suggests: “It’s a natural time to revisit not the heroes of our youth – I won’t call them that – but the great events of our youth. And it’s very pertinent today. Somebody like Carlos almost single-handedly invented international terrorism with the collaboration of the Red Army Faction [the Baader-Meinhof Gang] and with Palestinian terrorists. It [terrorism] has become a real industry today. It is quite fascinating to investigate – and it’s very charged territory.” As he points out, it’s not hard to trace a through-line from Carlos to Osama bin Laden.
It is easy to see, too, why Bernd Eichinger’s Constantin Film, Germany’s most powerful film production company, should want to tell the story of the Baader Meinhof Gang. As chronicled by Stefan Aust, this is a riproaring (if often sinister and even tragic) yarn, complete with unexplained deaths, conspiracy theories, suicide and sexual intrigue. The producers will have noted the extraordinary success of The Lives of Others (2007). If a lengthy, complex and lowish budget feature focusing on the inner workings of the East German secret police can make $75m, The Baader Meinhof Complex begins to look like a box-office winner.
“Normally we are prevented from becoming extreme in the terrorist sense – by relatively intact social and economical systems, by the fact that the police are responsible for establishing law and order and no one wants to go to prison,” Aust reflected in an interview last summer with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. As he pointed out, the members of the Baader Meinhof Gang became “caught up in the delusion that the society in which they lived was fascist and that the Federal Republic of Germany differed only slightly from the Third Reich. They plunged themselves into a situation that allowed them to fabricate a state of emergency.” In other words, they waged their own private war against their state.
If you forget the politics, the death and the bloodshed, the Baader-Meinhof story reads like a student’s wish-fulfilment fantasy. The gang members were charismatic, highly intelligent rebels, fighting their own private war against what they dubbed the Auschwitz generation – that’s to say, the world of their parents. They had a knack for phrase-making. Gudrun Ensslin, the pastor’s daughter who became one of the key members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, called post-war consumer society “the raspberry Reich.”
In Aust’s book, a contemporary likens Baader to Marlon Brando. Baader is said to have been a keen fan of cult American literature – of authors like Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac. There is an obvious temptation to romanticise his story – to lapse into terrorist chic. It will be intriguing to see just what angle the new film takes and whether it provokes the same controversy as Downfall (attacked by some for being overly sympathetic to Hitler).
As Meurer points out, there was a strong element of absurdity to the Baader Meinhof story. Despite their Utopianism, Baader and his gang invariably preferred to steal Porsches rather than Volkswagen Beetles, and the men did the driving, not the women.
“I grew up in 1977, what they called German Autumn, when there was a nationwide hunt for the Baader Meinhof terrorists. They had kidnapped [industrialist] Hanns-Martin Schleyer and they had killed lots of people. There were these ‘wanted’ posters everywhere… [but] even as a teenager, I felt it quite hard to take them seriously,” Meurer recalls. They claimed to be at the vanguard of the proletariat but they could never quite escape their bourgeois backgrounds.
The screenplay for Carlos the Jackal (which is yet to be cast) is based on court transcripts and the testimony of eye witnesses. It will be very violent – but only because it reveals the reality of the times. “Olivier Assayas’s approach is to tackle this very bluntly. It is not action as entertainment. It is action as a relevant testimony of our times,” says Meurer.
What will younger audiences make of the story? Meurer concedes that there are elements of Carlos that are strangely alluring. “He was such an enigma and he was also for a while so successful at what he was doing… his demise, when he became a bit more of a bloated man, hanging out at fashionable swimming pools bringing in a lot of prostitutes, is less tempting. But all of it is going to be an absolute eye-opener to younger audiences in terms of what went on in Europe in the 1970s.”
Gaviria insists that his film about the Farc won’t idealise the guerrilla movement. He describes his film as being “like a Western”, but says that it will reflect “the reality of what is going on [in Colombia] now.”
Gaviria plans to shoot in the Colombian jungle. (“But obviously we don’t want to be too close to the Farc.”) Unlike The Baader Meinhof Complex or Carlos the Jackal, his film isn’t set in the 1970s but looks at events that are still going on. “Why am I interested in the Farc? It’s the major reality of my country other than drugs,” he replies. “I want to investigate the process that turns these people into bandits who are going around creating almost a genocide.”
It remains to be seen whether the new wave of terrorist-themed films will come to constitute a mini-genre in their own right. At least, though, there is growing evidence that film-makers are moving away from mindless action movies. These are films that are setting out not only to entertain audiences but to provoke them, to make them uncomfortable – and to jog their memories, too.
‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex‘ will be released in the UK in November