BBC News


Page last updated at 17:17 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Terror chic

Police examine car in which Hans Martin Schleyer's body was found, 1977
Investigating a Baader Meinhof kidnapping in 1977


When a movie dramatises the lives and times of an easy on the eye bunch such as Germany's Baader Meinhof gang, it does tend to glamorise the murder and kidnapping, says Clive James.

In the growing category of German movies shining light on the murky past, The Baader Meinhof Complex, a movie about the core group of the Red Army Faction that was infamously active in Germany for almost 30 years, is currently an international hit.

Cast, writer and director
The writer, producer, director and cast

Since I like to keep up even in my years of retirement, I suppose I'll have to see it, but I'm not looking forward to it. Part of my trepidation comes from the possibility that the film will be full of exciting action, that I'll get caught up with the characters, and that I'll start to find them attractive. The producers of the movie say that they were intent on avoiding chic glamour, but there are people who say that Elvis is still alive.

At my age I can easily recall what was happening in the 1970s, and I can assure anyone too young to remember that the Baader Meinhof bunch weren't attractive at all. Some of them were quite good looking, and the actors playing them in the movie are even better looking, which is already a worry.

Because even if the originals were easy on the eye, the attraction soon faded if you were getting the news of what they were up to, which mainly consisted of murdering law-abiding citizens to make a point.

The gangsters claimed to be rebelling against a repressive state. Too young to have had much direct experience of what a genuinely repressive Germany had been like, they thought that the Germany they were living in was authoritarian.

Andreas Baader, left, and Gudrun Ensslin joke during their trial in Frankfurt, 1968
On trial in Frankfurt, 1968

There was some evidence for that, and the evidence grew as the authorities panicked under pressure. But when the gang's founder members were finally arrested, the repressive state kept them alive to face trial. They were held in what was called maximum security, but anything they wanted was smuggled in, usually by their defence lawyers. When they wanted guns, those were smuggled in as well.

On the outside, Red Army Faction members still at large tried to spring their friends. The most prominent businessman they took hostage undoubtedly had a Nazi background. But in order to kidnap him they shot his driver, his bodyguard and two cops.

No doubt they thought the cops had it coming, being uniformed representatives of a repressive state, and as for the bodyguard, stopping a bullet was his job, was it not? But the driver was just driving the car. Perhaps he was driving it in a repressive manner. Anyway, all rescue attempts having failed, the prisoners committed suicide, two of them using the smuggled guns.

Once again, they had their pictures in the papers, and now, what with the movie coming out, they've got their pictures in the papers all over again, along with the pictures of the actors playing them. The actor playing the driver is only an extra, so I haven't seen that actor's picture in the papers yet.

Come to think of it, the original driver's picture wasn't very often featured in the papers either, even in Germany. He was only a driver. Let's forget him while we talk about more important people: Hitler, for example.

Heading for a fall

One of the previous German movies shining light on the murky past had the same director. It was Downfall, concerned with the last moments of Hitler's life. That one I did see as soon as it came out, and I admired it very much while hating every minute of it.

Clive James

When we move to Hollywood movies shining light on the murky past, we get the glamour principle operating at full steam

How, you might ask, were two such contrary reactions possible? Well, it was easy. On the one hand, the movie was wonderfully well made. On the other hand, it had a thumping lie right in the centre of it. When Hitler violently expressed his anti-Semitism, the good looking personal secretary was stunned, as if she had no idea.

The original girl was good looking but she couldn't have been stunned. The one thing that everybody in Germany could be sure of was that Hitler was a violent anti-Semite. He told them often enough. But he hadn't told them often enough for this girl to hear about it. When I first saw her beautiful eyes widening with shock I asked myself, are we meant to believe this? And then it struck me: we were meant to be her.

We were meant to believe that we, too, could have total horror going on all around us and not spot it until the roof fell in. To that extent, and it's almost the whole extent, Downfall is a dream world. It's a story without a context. It's been glamorised.

That might seem a paradoxical thing to say about a story which dares to feature Himmler's horrible haircut and people blowing their brains out all over the place, but it's true. When you take the historical context out of a story, what you are left with is glamour.

Little girl lost

When we move to Hollywood movies shining light on the murky past, we get the glamour principle operating at full steam. Stephen Spielberg's Munich was a case in point.

Wanted poster for 20 members of the gang
A West German policeman reading a Wanted poster for Baader Meinhof members

Spielberg had done his best with Schindler's List, but his best left some of us wondering just how useful a contribution it was, to make a movie about how some of the Jews had survived, when the real story was about all the Jews who hadn't. Spielberg tried to cover that aspect with his brilliant device of the little girl in the red dress. She was doomed, and we felt for her.

But what we were mainly left with was a story about how one kind man could make a difference. And the real story was about how it took whole armies to make a difference. But to tell that story, you have to give a history lesson, and in a movie there is never time.

Munich was so short of time that there was almost nothing left in the plot except secret agent derring-do and John Woo-style gunfight face-offs.

The tip-off scene was the conference in which the Israeli leaders planned their retaliation against the terrorists who had killed the athletes in Munich. That conference should have been the key scene, as it was in real life. There were plusses and minuses to be debated, dilemmas that took in the whole of modern history. The scene went for nothing, to make room for more action.

Surface lustre

I was only kidding a couple of weeks ago when I said that the action in action movies should be replaced by reasoned discussion, but in Munich, the movie would actually have been more exciting if the underlying issues had been explained. They weren't, because movies have their own logic: the logic of glamour.

Carlos the Jackal
Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka the Jackal

Glamour nearly always shapes the movies and it took over completely when Carlos got famous. His real name was Ilich Ramirez Sanchez but he called himself Carlos as a code-name.

It was already a bad sign when the press agreed to call him Carlos too, and an even worse sign when they started calling him Carlos the Jackal, apparently on the grounds that a copy of Frederick Forsyth's novel The Jackal had been found among his kit. But perhaps it would have been less catchy to call him Carlos the Casually Lethal Reader of Second-rate Fiction.

The original Carlos was a psychopath whose idea of a political gesture was to roll a grenade into a crowded Paris cafe. But he believed himself to be a glamorous figure. The press went along with it and the movies went mad with it.

Movies with a charmingly ruthless central figure based on Carlos proliferated. There might have been something to the idea that he was charming, if you can be charmed by a puff adder with a nice smile. One of his French defence lawyers was, and she married him while he was in gaol.

He's still in gaol but I prefer to speak of him in the past tense. I hope he never gets out. Why do I hope that? Because I could have been in the cafe, and so could you. No, of course we weren't. But we should be able to imagine it. We should be able to imagine being the unglamorous figure, the one that gets blown away. But the movies will always try to make us imagine we're the glamorous figure, the one in the close-up.

History lesson

Defending themselves with passion in the middle of a shouting match that has split German opinion in a big way, the makers of the Baader Meinhof epic are keen to point out that they have shot their action sequences from the viewpoint of the victims. They probably have.

Karl-Heinz Dellwo at a book reading
Former gang member Karl-Heinz Dellwo reads from his book

I'm sure it's an accomplished movie, and I'll be sure to see it before I judge it. The trailer looks to me like a cross-section through a pile of tripe, but judging things unseen is a habit that needs to be resisted.

I'll see it, because I want to find out what the movies are doing, not because I need the history lesson. If you already know something about the history behind its nominal subject, you can judge a movie against its context.

But the thought that people might be learning about history from the movies is enough to drain the brain. It's already bad enough when it takes the release of a new movie for the press to get interested again in the events it purports to treat. But at least the media has the resources to recall the events in some measure of their complexity. For the moviegoers, unless they are reading all the newspapers and magazines at once, the movie might replace the event.

Almost always it will replace the event with a glamorous fiction, because there just isn't room in the frame for the people who don't matter. I'm sure that when the businessman gets kidnapped I'll see the driver getting shot, but I doubt if we'll hear anything else about him.

Yet he's the one we should think about as one of us. The one who doesn't matter. I know it would be a different movie if it was all about him. In fact it wouldn't a movie at all, because it would just be the story of an ordinary life, which finished at that moment.

I'll be keen to look at the cast list at the end, and see if he's been given a name, or just called Driver. His name, incidentally, was Heinz Marcisz. I'm not certain how it's pronounced. I've never heard it said. And now, let's talk about Mumbai.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I saw The Baader-Meinhof Complex yesterday. Whilst the terrorists were young and glamorous (you can't change facts), the presentation was factual and I think few people could have had sympathy with them by the end. Heinz Marcisz was not named, but other victims were shown as people, not just representatives of "the military-industrial complex". The ideals of the group were portrayed as being meaningless sloganising. I don't think the film showed the group as attractive. It was an excellent contribution to European cinema and a timely reminder of the dangers of absolute political certainty which almost inevitably leads to extremism.
Kay Sanders, Huddersfield, UK

Except that Schindler's List is not the only movie about Jews in WWII, nor is Munich the only movie about the Munich massacre, nor is Downfall the only movie about Hitler (and by the way, that secretary's diary is published and available to read, if Mr James wants to know how she could be so deluded). I doubt this will be the only movie about Baader Meinhof, nor should it be. These are stories that all needed to be told, because people forget or never knew that these things happened, and if you don't like the way they tell it, watch a different movie. Or would Mr James prefer the Baader Meinhof gang, all the atrocities they did, and the driver they killed to be forgotten by everyone in 20 years?
Nona, London

It IS possible to make films about history that add to our understanding of it. I will see this film with interest but I would like to recommend an amazing film about the Baader-Meinhoff gang that I saw about 30 years ago and have never forgotten: The German Sisters by Margaretta von Trotta. It's given me a lot of food for thought and inspired me to find out more - like a lot of historical films do.
Julien, London, UK

While it is true that the actors are generally fairly attractive, the characters they play are highly unpleasant. At the end I was left with an impression of the gang members as being selfish, egotistical, and quite stupid. From this point of view I think the movie has succeeded in portraying them as physically attractive but morally repugnant. So, far from seeming glamorous they seemed merely evil.
Kerry, Edinburgh

Why write this now, O Droll One? Why not wait until you've seen the film, when you'll be talking about something you know about, rather than just being a rent-a-rant? As it happens, the reviews I've seen make it clear the film doesn't glamorise the RAF. Films should be made about the RAF, the same as films have been made about, say, the "years of lead" (anni di piombo) in Italy, because these groups had a profound impact on their societies, and were produced by them, and as such were a symptom of serious underlying malaises (in the case of Germany, the refusal of the war generation to own up to its role in Nazism and the continuation of Nazis in power in finance and government). Such films need to be realistic portrayals of these groups, not diatribes which obliterate historical truth with moralism.
Fred R, Nottingham

"Spielberg tried to cover that aspect with his brilliant device of the little girl in the red dress." Audrey Hepburn in an article stated during the war she witnessed Jews being marched off. Something that she had fixated in her memory was a little girl in a bright red coat. All the rest was in black and white. I wonder of Steven Spielberg got his "brilliant device" from Audrey Hepburn and did not credit her with the memory.
Frances Black, Vancouver, Canada

Clive's error here is thinking the whole world is populated by smug professional intellectuals like him. I've seen The Baader-Meinhof Complex and think it's a valuable contribution to opening up a previously ignored part of history that has plenty to teach us about the psychology of terrorists - valuable lessons for today's society. Or perhaps we should all just go and watch glorified travel brochures like Australia.
Lee, London

Well said, Clive - totally agree. I lived in West Germany throughout the 1960s and remember the gang very well. I am going to see the film too, but sharing your reservations, which - sadly - seem to apply to all movie recreations of dramatic moments from history.
Geoffey, Rome, Italy

Excellent points, Clive. I also see that somebody has added glamorous pictures to make your web article more visually appealing. Did you object to this or did you accept that in order to find an audience it is necessary to stimulate the visual senses as well? In a capitalist, consumer-driven media there will always have to be compromises in the struggle to win an audience.
Anthony Ward, Bristol, UK

Brilliant, well written and well said. And the media are doing it again with their "iconic" picture of one of the twisted Mumbai murderers. The killers deserve no spotlight, no fame, and no mention, we need to think and reflect on the innocent dead.
John Knight, Beverley, UK

I do not agree with your assessment of Munich. The scene you refer to, as in the retaliation to the Munich Massacre, was one of the longest scenes in the film. The film also is keen to portray the heroes, villans and victims as human beings. But you are right; films romanticise war, extremism and violence in a way they shouldn't. And I agree with you, that the driver could just have easily been you, me, or the man sitting opposite me on the bus ride to work. Thought provoking!
Warus Richards, Birmingham, UK

This brings to mind the henchman in the first Austin Powers movie who is killed and we see his family preparing to celebrate his birthday. Pointing out in a parody the concept of even minor characters having a role in life outside the body count to drive the plot is amusing, because it relates to fictional characters. Failing to recognise the life outside the body count for real people is another matter entirely, and far from funny - well done Clive for reminding us.
Saul, Winchester

Dear Clive, I've loved your stuff for many years. But I think you missed the point in your commentary on Downfall. I don't think there was a big lie at the centre of the film, nor do I think it glamorised events. It's very difficult to see any glamour in the sordid spectacle of a mother poisoning her children before she and her husband shoot themselves because they know the game is up. And they know exactly what game it is that's up. Germans knew what was going on. When auctions were held of the possessions of their Jewish fellow citizens sent off to the extermination camps, they were hugely popular. Where did the happy purchasers imagine the previous owners had gone, or what was to be their fate? Of course, they knew. And I don't think Downfall tried to hide of glamorise that. Rather, it showed how twisted a society it had become, able to behave until the very end as if there wasn't a hideously deformed elephant in every room - but at the end owning up. They killed themselves because they all knew exactly what they would be held to account for. Not very glamorous, methinks.
Morley Williams, Cromwell, New Zealand

Walt Disney taught us long ago that there is a gap between historical enlightenment and hysterical entertainment. But thanks Clive, t is a timely reminder.
Brian Cole, Hastings

Clive goes too far in branding Frederick Forsyth as an author of second-rate fiction.
Norman Vose, Riberac, France

Spot on, Clive. I wonder how many people were killed with the money raised for the IRA as a direct result of Hollywood movies portraying them as heroic freedom fighters rather than cold-blooded murderers who randomly killed kids with bombs left in dustbins?
Peter, Nottingham

Print Sponsor



Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast

Podcast Help

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific