Journalist Ulrike Meinhof: From Theory to Practice

Veteran Swedish journalist Steve Sem-Sandberg takes issue with Uli Edel's film The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany 2008)
based on Stefan Aust's novel. He believes there is insufficient background provided for how Ulrike Meinhof turned from political analysis to political activism and violence.
Sem-Sandberg's study of Meinhof - Theres (1996) discusses in depth how Ulrike Meinhof was working on a screenplay about young women in the
Eichenhof correctional institution called Bambule, a film that was silenced when Meinhof became identified as a member of the 1970's terrorist group RAF - Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction). Bambule is briefly mentioned in Edel's film. Sem-Sandberg argues that for Meinhof this institution where women were repressed and silenced at an early age was a microcosm of the new Germany, a politically repressive machinery built out of the wreckage of Nazi Germany, transformed into a modern police state which violated civil liberties. Meinhof not only had an intellectual understanding of the fascist nature of Germany, claims Sem-Sandberg, she had witnessed it first hand at Eichenhof and in the gender hierachy of society. Bambule allowed her to engage in political action and stop writing for the cultural political journal konkret where her estranged husband Klaus Rainer Röhl served as editor. It is not easy to understand how Ulrike Meinhof became one of the most wanted criminals in modern German history but Sem-Sandberg claims its out there waiting to be re-discovered.

The Baader Meinhof Complex suggests the genesis of Meinhof's activism came from the public attention she garnished covering the pompous state visit of the Shah of Iran and his wife on June 2 1967, representing a country of vast illiteracy and poverty (the film's introduction). Though Iran was far away from Eichenhof, she witnessed the protests of young Germans against this visit who were beaten and shot. Here it is implied that Meinhof is only a step away from acting on her ideals.
Two years later Meinhof is interviewed (above), a single mother of two young girls. She discusses oppression in the home where women are caregivers who serve their husbands and children. She is aware that a major source of conflict for women is how to combine their political life with a personal life. She also stressed how important it was to maintain a power balance at home - something she had a hard time experiencing in her marriage
. On a small scale beginning in the home, she provides an astute and insightful analysis on the politics of repression based on personal experience as a young woman.

In The Baader Meinhof Complex,
Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) has a privileged position as a journalist, a position that she uses to later help free Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) from prison in 1970. She has him transfered to a building with minimum security under the pretext of conducting an interview. The rescue plan includes having young women from Eichenhof gain access to the building and later let Gudrun Esslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Holger Meins (Stip Erceg) into the building. When the situation becomes violent and guards are shot, Ulrike Meinhof decides to escape through the window with the rest of the group - a pivotal move into a world of armed violence and political analysis and the beginning of the Baader Meinhof group. Sem-Sandberg claims that this event is shown without context and trivialized in Edel's film just as Bambule.

The violent story of the Baader Meinhof group weighs heavily in the film. Through a montage of historical footage and re-enacted events such as the shooting of civilians in Vietnam, Uli Edel shows the power imbalance and oppression in society that creates terrorism. Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the head of the Bundeskriminalamt (German bureau of investigation) tries to piece together why young people are becoming terrorists in Germany, naïvely intellectualizing the violence - a phenomena that Meinhof had spent years studying before becoming an activist. It is Herold who lights up like a Christmas tree when he connects the protests over US military imperialism in Vietnam, the generous supply o f US weapons to Israel, and the search for oil in the Middle East - to the bombings and gun power of the RAF. As military police he knows that terrorism is a reflection of power imbalance and his strategy is to make it larger and crank up the volume full blast to squash any resistance, thereby creating an über police state with tacit support of the German population. In response Ulrike Meinhof quotes Mao who states that a clear line of distinction is created when the enemy tries to squelch the truth by blacklisting the protest(ers). When she is incarcerated and isolated at Köln-Ossendorf she is aware of the effect this has on the psyche. When she later interacts with Gudrun Esslin at Stammheim to get their case prepared for trial they turn on each other. But although Esslin was considered the leader of the RAF it is actually Meinhof's analysis of repressive political systems that sets them apart from senseless young hooligans, and which motivates their cause and conviction. Esslin no longer can make sense of Meinhof's analyses that have served the RAP before their incarceration. She insists that RAF take full responsibility for their actions - and that a rescue mission be set into operation to get them out.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is Germany's contribution to the Best Foreign Language film category for this year's Academy Awards. It is a riveting chronicle of events from June 2 1976 to several bank robberies and bombings and the incarceration of several members of the RAF. Events leading up to the trial of astonishing legal impropriety and the presumed execution of Meinhof, Esslin and Baader reveals a bungling intelligence apparatus gone haywire that just wants to make it go away, anyway. There has been a distinct glamourization of violence and sexuality up until this point. The Baader Meinhof Complex is after all aimed at young people who weren't born at the time, and older people who were young at the time. At Stammheim it stops. Gone are the devil may care rides on the freeway at top speed, the spirit of collective action and the intoxicating suspense and high of several planned attacks that consume the film almost until the end. Yet the incarceration of the RAF leaders encouraged more young people to continue their cause. The execution of members of the Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972 is linked to the RAF, further evidence of the proverb that if you cut off the head of a dragon more will grow in its place. Bob Dylan's song at the end that "the answer is blowing in the wind" describes how little Germany understood its youth and their rebellion. The Baader Meinhof Complex articulates the mind and muscle behind political violence and it resonates deeply for those trying to make sense of terrorism today.


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