Tag Archives: Red Army Faction

The State I Am In (2000)

“You can’t love someone and live in hiding.”

The State I Am In (Der Innere Sicherheit), a 2000 film from German director Christian Petzold is another title to add to the coterie of tales surrounding the Red Army Faction. Unfortunately, The Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) will probably go down in the re-written annals of history as the film to watch, and that will ultimately give the general public its ‘knowledge’ about this significant urban terrorist group. The Baader Meinhof Komplex is wildly entertaining in a Bonnie and Clyde sort of way, but it’s grating and its highly controversial presentation and preposterous ending is likely to be swallowed whole and undigested by its audience.

And this brings me back to The State I Am In. It’s a much quieter film and for the microscopic examination of its characters, it takes just a tiny slice of Red Army Faction history. It’s possible to watch the film and miss the Red Army Faction connection altogether as The State I Am In isn’t a thriller, full of shoot-’em up chase scenes. Instead The State I Am In follows fugitive members of the RAF who are discovering that as the years pass, their survival is becoming more and more difficult.

Clara (Barbara Auer) and Hans (Richy Muller) have been on the run for about 15 years. They lead a nomadic existence laced with paranoia. They have a child together named Jeanne (Julia Hummer)–a teenager who’s getting more than a bit fed up with her life. She has no friends, doesn’t attend school, and any strangers she strikes up a conversation with are immediately suspect. When the film begins, an edge of desperation has crept into their fugitive lives, and there’s the sense that they are collectively reaching the end of the line. Clara, Hans and Jeanne are in Portugal, but they’re hardly on holiday. Someone has arranged to meet them but he doesn’t show, and while Clara and Hans try to digest and interpret that information, they are robbed of the money they have left. This robbery heralds a chain of events that sets them loose on a trek back to Germany.

Red Army Faction member Bommi Baumann described living on the run in his excellent memoir How It All Began: A Personal Account of a West German Urban Guerilla, and he explains how fugitives need people living legitimate lives willing to offer support. As the state net closes around Clara, Hans, and Jeanne, this idea came to mind as I watched The State I Am In. The friends that Clara and Hans used to rely on have mostly moved on to the sort of bourgeois lives they fought against. Some of their old friends are still trustworthy–take Klaus (Gunther Maria Halmer) for example, whose fondness for Clara leads him to take chances.

Interestingly, the film’s focus is not on Clara and Hans but Jeanne. While her parents have chosen the path they’ve taken, Jeanne has no say whatsoever in her life. This was probably fine when she was 5, but now Jeanne has a mind of her own, and more than anything else she would like to be ‘normal’ and have friends. There’s one scene when Clara and Hans visit a now affluent old friend they intend to pressure for money, and once in the house, Jeanne, follows the sound of an attractive song upstairs where she discovers a young girl, Paulina (Katharina Schuttler) about her own age. Jeanne bums a cigarette and the two girls share a moment over the music. Meanwhile the visit downstairs is going badly, and Jeanne, who’s made a tentative new friend, is wrenched away and soon back fleeing for her life once again.

Things really go wrong however when Jeanne meets a young German man, Heinrich (Bilge Bingul), and her loyalties and desires are ripped apart. Heinrich was no doubt just a toddler when the Red Army Faction were active, and Heinrich, although in many ways underprivileged and disenfranchised connects with the image of Brian Wilson while he leads a simple, hard-working life. He’s attracted to Jeanne because he senses she’s so different. And he’s right, of course; he just has no idea how different.

The film’s very best scenes depict Jeanne’s interactions with her parents. Clara, who’s probably the hardest of the group, spends time educating Jeanne, but most of the education is pitched towards survival. There’s one great scene when Jeanne goes on a shoplifting spree and Clara’s rage is unleashed. Contrary to the typical parental stance, Clara’s rage is at the stupidity of Jeanne’s actions since her thefts could cause them to be caught.

Whereas The Baader Meinhof Komplex concentrates on the action while it tries to simplify, homogenize and recuperate (in the Situationist sense) the actions of its members, The State I Am In concentrates on the hellish life of the fugitive. While The Baader Meinhof Komplex shows the RAF sporting naked in the sun and communal naked bathing and fails to mention the political theory behind this MARXIST group, The State I Am In avoids specifying exactly what Clara and Hans’s past actions were and instead concentrates on showing the toll of living as a paranoid fugitive for 15 years. While Clara and Hans have accepted the yoke of their decisions, the film poses the question: do they have the right to inflict those moral choices on their daughter? And naturally this leads to the argument that revolutionaries have no business having children.

The State I Am In will not be so widely watched a  film as the glitzy well-publicized Baader Meinhof Komplex extravaganza. And that’s a shame.

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Germany in Autumn (1978)

 “When cruelty reaches a certain point, it’s no longer important who initiated it. It should only stop.”

germany-in-autumnGermany 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.

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The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

 “Typically bourgeois novels.”

An introverted young German girl named Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) meets a man at a party. Unaware that he’s under police surveillance, she takes him home for the night. When the police raid her flat the next day, expecting to find Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow), they discover that he’s slipped away. Since Katharina is now their only lead, they begin to pressure her about Ludwig’s whereabouts.

katharinaThe Lost Honor of Katharina Blum examines exactly what happens to a young woman whose privacy is ripped away by an unscrupulous journalist Werner Totges (Dieter Laser) who’s in cahoots with the police. Following leads given by the police, Totges invades every aspect of Katharina’s life–harassing her dying mother, interviewing a disgruntled ex-husband, and basically feeding her private information to anyone who cares to buy a paper. Katharina–who was nick-named ‘the Nun’, becomes the target of threatening and suggestive phone calls. Even the titles of her books come under scrutiny.

The film tracks how one young girl whose life squarely fits the norm, inadvertently transgresses. Once she is no longer the norm, and she’s seen to be acquainted, connected or possibly sympathetic to a terrorist, she’s vulnerable to the various power levels placed in society–neighbours, former friends, newspaper readers–all become the jurors of her morality–until she as effectively isolated from society as Ludwig. The film raises some interesting questions about journalistic ethics, but in these days of tabloid sensationalism, the film’s shock effect is numbed. Instead, the outrage remains the tainting of the reputations of Katharina’s relatives and employers–nice people who just try to stand by her. In spite of the fact that the film is a bit dated, it’s still relevant today–especially in light of the recent allegations of illegal wiretaps and surveillance currently being conducted by the Bush administration. The film is based on the novel by Heinrich Boll–a journalist who wrote an article in Der Spiegel questioning whether a bank robbery was really the work of the Red Army Faction. Boll suffered the consequences of his stance. The novel and the film are the results of his experiences and a criticism of the tabloid sensationalism tactics of the Springer Press. DVD extras include an interview with directors Volker Schlondorff and Margaretha von Trotta, excerpts from a documentary by Heinrich Boll, and an interview with the cinematographer. In German with English subtitles.

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Legend of Rita (2000)

 “To my liberation from the class enemy!”

ritaRita Vogt (Bibiana Beglau) is one member of a West German urban guerilla group (obviously meant to be the RAF) who springs comrade, Andrea (Harald Schrott) from jail. Several people are shot during the jailbreak, and the group goes on the lam to Paris. While in Paris, Rita kills a policeman, and the guerillas are once again on the run–this time they slip into East Germany with the help of Stasi officer Erwin Hull (Martin Wuttke) who befriended Rita when she was recognized upon entering East Berlin before. Since the heat is on the group, Erwin makes an offer–the fugitives can accept a new life–with new identities in East Germany, or they can be flown out to Beirut. While everyone else elects Beirut, Rita decides to stay in East Germany.

Rita assumes a new identity in East Germany, and her adjustment to her environment is at the heart of The Legend of Rita from director Volker Schlondorff. The plot places Rita in some interesting situations. Her first job, for example, is in a factory where she befriends Tatjana (Nadja Uhl). Tatjana loathes East Germany, and would love to live in the West. She can’t understand why Rita (now living under an assumed name) would give up Western freedoms and chose to live under Communist rule. In the meantime, Rita’s former rebelliousness against the state has simply disappeared, and she’s become a drone–speaking the party line and accepting whatever she’s told to do. When Rita’s new identity is threatened, she has little choice but to move on–leaving Tatjana and their budding lesbian affair.

The film fails to fulfill its promise, however, on several layers. Rita becomes a pawn for the Stasi–every move she makes is watched, and every conversation she has is taped. The film could have chosen to tackle some fascinating complex arguments–Rita’s ideology, for example, and the challenge she faces in either rejecting her beliefs or sticking to them in the face of such nauseating, dreary and threatening Orwellian bureaucracy. The plot shows Rita as mindlessly accepting what she is told to do–she doesn’t question her freedoms, and by making Rita a drone, she is a far less interesting character. Instead, the film concentrates on Rita’s two love interests. If you are expecting to discover something about the Red Army Faction here, keep looking. This is not really a film about the RAF.

Director Volker Schlondorff received a great deal of criticism from all sides for this film. At a press showing of the film, some booed and some applauded. There were those who thought his portrayal of the RAF was too ‘soft’ and others who thought he was too harsh. But the fact of the matter remains that Stasi files made public after the collapse of East Germany revealed that some members of the RAF were indeed given sanctuary by the GDR. In German with English subtitles.

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Filed under German, Political/social films, Volker Schlondorff

Knife in the Head (1978)

 “I am … Nobody.”

knifeThe German film Knife in the Head (Messer Im Kopf) from director Reinhard Hauff is one of a handful of films created to reflect and question society in post-Red Army Faction Germany. Knife in the Head is the story of a perfectly innocent German citizen who becomes caught up in the state machine when he’s erroneously identified as a terrorist. Deemed guilty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’s framed in order to justify police brutality.

The film concerns bio-geneticist Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) who’s separated from his wife Anna (Angela Winkler). When the film begins Hoffman tries to contact Anna, and when that doesn’t work, he drives over to one of her frequent haunts–a youth center on Jacobi Strasse. But just as Hoffman arrives, the police raid the building. Hoffman, anxious about Anna, ignores police orders to stay out of the building, and he runs inside. He’s ordered to stop. He turns, and he’s shot in the head. Barely alive, he’s taken to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Hoffman survives, but his survival brings a host of problems. Hoffman faces years of physical rehabilitation. Paralyzed on his right side, he’s also lost a great deal of his memory. He has to relearn speech and is incapable of the simplest acts of self-care; he even has to be taught how to feed himself. The official police version of events is that Hoffman stabbed a policeman who then shot him in self-defense. Meanwhile, the police, convinced that Hoffman is a terrorist, post a 24-hour watch in the hospital, and decide he’s “faking” his injuries. His estranged wife, Anna feels a moral obligation to Hoffman, yet she’s in another relationship with the confrontational Volker (Heinz Hoenig).

The media has a field day with the story, and at first it’s reported that Hoffman just has a few “knocks on the head,” while the policeman’s superficial stab wound is reported as near fatal. Soon the papers (a not-so-subtle criticism of the Springer Press) carry stories about “Berthold Hoffman’s Double Life,” and his reputation is utterly destroyed. A great deal of the film follows Hoffman’s painstakingly slow recovery in the hospital. Unable to defend himself–partly because at first he can’t speak, and partly because he suffers from memory loss–the police build a case against him and want to haul him off to a prison hospital. One huge problem with the official version of events is that there’s no knife to back up the story against Hoffman. And this is where the film’s title comes in–the knife–is a figment of the imagination, and it exists only in someone’s head.

Meanwhile, Volker, who’s a seasoned adversary of the state, reasons that if Hoffman is going to be questioned while he’s incapacitated, he should be groomed for this. He argues: “you want the pigs to make him learn their version, or what?” Anna disagrees, but it’s perhaps Hoffman’s lawyer who takes the more reasonable approach. In this critically sensitive time period for Hoffman, Volker, in trying to spread the word about Hoffman, ends up creating further problems for Hoffman (makes me think of Jeff Luers). All of Hoffman’s life–his work, his education count for nothing as far as the state is concerned, and even though there’s a perfectly rational explanation for why Hoffman was at the Youth Centre, he’s labeled a terrorist and no one outside of Hoffman’s immediate circle questions this version of events.

Anna and Volker visit Hoffman in hospital, and it’s an awkward situation at best–even though Volker states Hoffman is “just a political case.” Each visit to Hoffman is preceded by a search, and here’s the dialogue from one scene:

Volker (to policeman at desk who is calling in to report visitors): What does Big Brother say? Am I a good guy or a bad guy? Check my bank account while you’re at it.

Policeman: No money for 2 years. Your social life is a front. Want to know more?

Volker: Yes

Policeman: You’ve got a police record. Didn’t finish high school. Arrested for disturbing the peace. Three illegal demonstrations this year. Drug abuse too, etc etc.

Volker: So I’m a good guy. How come you and brother aren’t wireless yet?

Policeman: Soon enough. Thanks to you and your friends.

Perhaps the greatest travesty against Hoffman, however, is that after ruining his life, his career, and his health, the police simply ‘move on’ leaving him destroyed. Their attention is now focused on someone else. Hoffman, who’s been an innocent bystander, a victim, and scripted as a terrorist by the police, the media and society, finally takes his fate into his own hands and seeks answers. In German with subtitles.

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