“When cruelty reaches a certain point, it’s no longer important who initiated it. It should only stop.”
Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst) is one of the most important political films to emerge from Germany in the wake of the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). This is a collaborative film made by 11 directors from New German Cinema, including Fassbinder and Schlondorff. The directors’ intent is to re-create the tense atmosphere in Germany during the autumn of 1977. At the time, members of the Red Army Faction (RAF) were serving life sentences in solitary confinement for murder in the high security prison, Stammheim. This was a period of extreme political unrest for West Germany. The founding organizers of the RAF were either locked up or dead, but the urban guerilla problem was not solved. It intensified–with the emergence of a much more violent ‘second generation’ RAF who subsequently conducted a wave of guerilla actions throughout Germany.
In September 1977, second generation Red Army Faction members, kidnapped industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer, former SS officer and now President of the Employers’ Federation. The kidnappers demanded the release of several prisoners–including the RAF members in Stammheim. While the West German government played for time, in October a plane was hijacked and flown to Mogadishu. The crew and the passengers were held hostage while the hijackers demanded a hostage exchange, including the release of jailed RAF members: Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan Carl Raspe. The hijacking failed. The day after the failed hijacking, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells, and their deaths were officially ruled suicides. Schleyer was also later found dead. This period in Germany’s history–autumn of 1977–is considered an extremely volatile time for the new German Republic.
Framed by funerals, Germany in Autumn is part documentary, part fiction, and while the film shows the fallout following the deaths of Schleyer and members of the RAF, it also shows how people deal with state and individual terrorism on all levels of life. The film begins with footage of the state funeral of Schleyer, and includes scenes from Rommel’s state funeral, the assassination of the King of Serbia, and the film ends with the triple funeral of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe. There is, of course, a strong, connective thread of violence that runs through the footage shown: Rommel committed suicide under duress but his death was officially announced as the result of a heart attack or the result of injuries. The King of Serbia, who was assassinated under the auspices of German Secret Service agents, was a victim of state terrorism. And then of course, this brings us to the deaths of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe, whose deaths were officially ruled suicides–a notion that Germany in Autumn treats as patently absurd. The film includes details of where and how the RAF members were buried, and horse-mounted police monitor the well-attended funeral with helicopters circling overhead. At one point, riot police enter the scene and start whacking mourners with batons.
Also included is a jail interview with Horst Mahler, co founder of the Red Army Faction. He refused to be included in the hostage exchange, and in his interview, Mahler presents strong condemnation for the kidnapping and murder of Schleyer, and this act he interprets to be evidence of the terrorists’ ultimate corruption by capitalism. He states, “a murderer departs from the moral value system. A revolutionary reinforces it.” Horst Mahler was already expelled from the Red Army Faction when he was arrested and sentenced to 14 years, so it’s not too surprising that he refused to be included in the prisoner for hostage exchange. I should add here that Mahler is (as of 12/07) alive and well but went off the deep end politically and now holds very right-wing views.
Other fictional sections of the film depict how German society is altered by the political situation in 1977. In one segment, for example, a film director attempts to release his version of Antigone for television–only to be told that the play depicts ‘terrorist women.’ Antigone, it seems, is too controversial and must be shelved until a time when acts of civil disobedience are not interpreted as condoning acts of terrorism. There’s a bitter amusement to this section of the film as the censors find Sophocles too controversial despite the painstaking efforts on the part of the director to include elaborate and lengthy disclaimers. And of course, the refusal to air Antigone is a sad reflection on how far German society has sunk.
Another chilling fictional section concerns a border guard on the hunt for stray members of the so-called Baader-Meinhoff gang. The border guard aches to fly an American plane full of Napalm, but instead his power is limited to harassing travelers and teasing them with the idea that they bear an uncanny resemblance to fugitive RAF members.
One of the RAF’s grievances was that German history very effectively glossed over the pasts of some of their affluent industrialists, and that as a result former Nazis still ran the country. This issue of the rewriting of history is alluded to early in the film through the deaths of the King of Serbia and the forced suicide of Rommel. But the film explores this at the individual level through another fictional section dealing with a history teacher in crisis who suddenly finds herself unable to teach history because she’s no longer sure what is true and what she should teach.
Director Fassbinder’s interpretation of the political and social climate of Germany in Autumn 1977 is a highly personal account. No doubt Fassbinder chose to present his section of the film this way as he knew many members of the RAF. Fassbinder is seen at home with his lover, actor Armin Meier, and they have vastly different opinions about the deaths of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe. Armin is ready to blow up the plane and the terrorists in Mogadishu with the reasoning: “if they don’t obey the law, the state doesn’t have to either.” Fassbinder, however, cannot accept the justification that government is free to use violent tactics when dealing with terrorists. Bitter arguments ensue between Fassbinder and Armin, and Fassbinder, who was notoriously difficult in his personal relationships in real life, is depicted here as being rather hard with Armin. With the debate raging around the argument that the state has the monopoly on the use of physical force, Armin argues that the imprisoned RAF members should be “shot or hanged.” Fassbinder asks his lover “who’s going to do that for you?” And Armin answers: “the state.” These positions and these arguments are, of course, representative of two sides of the debate. Armin argues the idea that it’s open season on the RAF as laws need not apply because the RAF are the ones who started with illegal actions in the first place. Fassbinder argues the other side–that the State does not have the right to kill anyone simply because they have the power to do so and are not answerable to any other entity.
Subsequently, when Fassbinder hears the news of the deaths of the jailed RAF members, he is devastated, and he most certainly does not swallow the official story that Baader, Ensslin and Raspe kept some sort of suicide pact. Calling a friend in Paris, he points out the absurdity of the state’s claims that Baader and Raspe shot themselves, while supposedly Ensslin hung herself.
To Fassbinder the idea that an international commission will investigate the deaths is absolutely ludicrous. Noting that Stammheim is the “most secure prison in the world. With a law to prevent contacts. Where nobody is allowed in cells, the cells are searched twice daily,” and yet despite all this, the world is supposed to believe that the RAF members had “real guns hidden” inside their cells inside the prison.
Fassbinder, who dominates a large portion of the film, engages his mother, Lilo Eder, in an argument about various forms of government. As someone who has survived through Nazi times, she acknowledges that in the current political climate, it’s better not to discuss the RAF in case one is identified as some sort of sympathizer. She believes that democracy does not exist for the masses, and preferring the oxymoronic notion of a benign authoritarian leader, she’s content to leave certain issues to be decided by a hierarchy. Thus, it’s seen, that like Armin, she’s quite comfortable with rendering power over to government because they supposedly make decisions for the ‘good’ of those who dwell under their laws.
Germany in Autumn is not for the casually curious. The film is truly excellent, and the directors made a phenomenal film that recreates a crucial time in Germany’s history. However, a little background information on the political situation is mandatory for this film–otherwise you risk being hopelessly lost in this wonderful, engrossing and eclectic film.