Bloody Errands

‘THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX' & ‘THE ENGLISH SURGEON'

Some films that don't create a particularly rich experience for the viewer nonetheless raise provocative issues and questions. The Baader Meinhof Complex follows the rise and fall of a notorious 1970s terrorist group that waged a decade of violence against German government and business interests. Calling itself the Red Army Faction (RAF), the group came to be known by the names of two leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, both of whom were eventually arrested and died in prison under murky circumstances, achieving a dark martyrdom and insinuating themselves into the popular imagination as the German Bonnie and Clyde.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is based on a book by Stefan Aust, long-time editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel; and though director Uli Edel gives it the propulsive feel of an action flick, the film is essentially a news chronicle, whisking us through a whirlwind tour of headlines and news clips. This illustrated-weekly approach works at the cost of inner drama; screenwriter Bernd Eichinger does little to draw us into these characters' interiors or to explore their tragic potential. Then again, perhaps they didn't have any; and such tabloid sensationalism may simply acknowledge that revolutions typically are led by violent psychopaths, not introspective philosophers acting in full awareness of violence's tragic potential.

Meinhof herself possessed at least a glimmer of such awareness. Born into an accomplished family (her father was an art historian), she married the publisher of a left-leaning political journal to which she herself contributed. At the film's outset we see her still in early-sixties dutiful hausfrau mode: romping at the beach with husband and kids, throwing parties at night, drinking and dancing. Her critique of social inequity and government power is launched from within the comfy confines of upper-class German life, prosperous and perfectly bürgerlich. With the Mercedes parked in the drive, Meinhof (played by the highly sympathetic Martina Gedeck, known to American audiences from The Lives of Others) is content to remain a commentator and not to act.

What tips her over is rage at America's involvement in Vietnam and police brutality in the German streets. When left-leaning students protest the visiting Shah of Iran, the Polizei move in, arms raised and truncheons swinging. We witness the shooting of a protestor, Benno Ohnesorg, a defining event—Germany's Kent State—that outraged the middle class, galvanized students, and provided an opening for violent reaction. Meinhof joins the fringes of a militant Communist group led by Baader, a charismatic petty criminal, and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin. Frustrated by the limits of social protest, and feeling the influence of Baader and Ensslin's acid contempt for liberal intellectuals, Meinhof edges toward action. “Protest is when I say ‘This does not please me,'” she writes. “Resistance is when I ensure that what does not please me occurs no more.” Soon, she becomes an active collaborator, helping spring Baader from prison in a plot that leaves a guard critically wounded.

The Baader Meinhof Complex reminds us how much more tactical success the violent left enjoyed in Germany than in this country: not just a few bank jobs and bungled bombings, but kidnappings and executions, assaults on police stations and corporate headquarters and magazine offices. It also gained far more traction on popular sympathies. Polls showed one out of every four Germans sympathizing with the RAF; in one TV news clip, several man-in-the-street citizens, asked if they would consider hiding a member of the RAF, respond affirmatively. For Americans this is startling—as if Midwesterners in 1972 had expressed support for the Symbionese Liberation Army.

What caused such widespread sympathy among Germans? It's a fascinating question—perhaps the fascinating question—and I wish the filmmakers had spent more time addressing it. One brief scene portrays a journalist interviewing Ensslin's parents, a sober pastor and his dour wife. We've previously seen them being castigated by their daughter for their reactionary politics; but now, asked about her involvement in a department-store firebombing, the two solemnly approve the act, describing it as “a holy self-realization.” Whoa. That someone like Baader would embrace political violence is hardly surprising; but that his girlfriend's upright, uptight parents would find a vocabulary of moral approval for it is fascinating, and hints at a profoundly German brand of cold-blooded political romanticism.

If there is a point of view to this film, it centers on an indictment of this romanticism, and of the radical political style and temperament that fall out from it. In one scene we observe the student firebrand leader, Rudi Dutschke, leading a chant of Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh! as a raucous crowd raises a thousand fists. “Whenever I see Germans raising their arms like that, I get worried,” a friend of mine said later, and surely this is the point. Contempt for liberal proceduralism, a commitment to violence, a humorless and ultimately merciless elevation of abstractions over the particularity of individual humans: the radical Left in this film becomes the doppelgänger of its enemy, condemning Nazism even as it mimics its authoritarian ferocity. Particularly fascinating are courtroom scenes of the RAF trial, conducted before a heckling mob that jeers raucously as the defendants scream crude insults—“Old pig! Fascist asshole!”—at the judge. It is shocking to see a West German state unwilling or unable to rouse itself in its own defense, as if paralyzed by a reluctance to conform to the left's caricature of it.

Amid its busy news montages, The Baader Meinhof Complex manages to catch something of the perilous and angry Zeitgeist of the early 1970s. It was a time of raw wounds, and nowhere more so than in Germany, where actual, historical fascism poisoned the atmosphere, and armed children conducted a violent drama of rage against the fathers.

Geoffrey Smith's documentary The English Surgeon captures a very different violence, one undertaken not to kill, but to heal. Smith studies a British neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, who for fifteen years has been traveling to the Ukraine on a pro bono mission to improve neurosurgical care amid a desperately underfunded health-care system. The country revealed here is a forbiddingly dreary place, a panorama of mud, frozen rivers, and Soviet-style housing blocks. Marsh's task is even drearier. People line up in the hospital hallway, carrying x-rays and scans. Too often, Marsh must inform them that there's nothing to do but wait for death—knowing that if this were London, he'd be dealing out life instead.

The film centers on his treatment of a young man, Marian, whose epileptic seizures betray the presence of a large brain tumor. The surgery is done under local anesthesia, and it is eerie to watch Marsh and a Ukrainian colleague converse with Marian even as, on the other side of the canopy, they rummage through his cranium. The procedure proves a success; yet The English Surgeon is haunted, and Marsh himself quietly tormented, by failure. We learn of his attempt, several years back, to cure a little girl, Tanya, who was suffering from a benign but colossal tumor. The risky surgery failed, leaving the girl even more incapacitated; she died a year later. Now, as we watch Marsh excavating the tumor from Marian's cranium, a voice-over narrative expresses his astonishment that mind and brain are one, that such elusive human traits as consciousness in fact reside in the tissues he is carefully cutting. Marsh finds this perspective hard to believe yet impossible to reject, and we understand that his bloody errands in the stuff of our selves have not led him toward a conception of the soul, but rather into a baffled materialism. Yet what to make of his own actions and motivations? How is it that mere tissue can engender guilt and mercy, love and hope and obligation?

The final scenes follow Marsh to an emotional reunion with Tanya's family in their impoverished rural village. Visiting the snowy graveyard where the girl is buried, standing alone before her headstone, the surgeon finds himself imagining his own death, and wonders whether he will see the faces of Tanya and of her mother. How moving it is to watch this dedicated materialist discover the essence of spirituality and the meaning of a life, of his life. “What are we if we don't try to help others?” the surgeon muses. “We're nothing, nothing at all.”

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.