Books: A Point of View: Glamourising terror |
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Glamourising terror : on The Baader Meinhof Complex

(S04E05, broadcast 28th and 30th November 2008)

"Terror chic"

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 thirty years, is currently making an international hit. 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. 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.

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. 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 glamorized. 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.

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

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.

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 jail.

He’s still in jail 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.

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. 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, though, 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 press 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 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 be 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 Marcicz. I think that’s how it’s pronounced. I’ve never heard it said. And now, let’s talk about Mumbai.


A few days later I saw the movie and it was even worse than I had expected. The driver vanished from the screen as soon as he was killed, but that was no surprise. All the terrorists were beautiful young people but that was no surprise either. What was truly astonishing was the poverty of the film’s historical imagination. It made Downfall look profound. The special squad of policemen assigned to track down the terrorists featured an extra-special grand old man (played by none other than Bruno Ganz, fresh from his role as Hitler) to provide gravitas, guidance and wisdom. The wisdom was apparently designed to sound wise to anyone who knew nothing at all about modern history. The penalty for knowing anything was to sit there open-mouthed as the grand old man opined that the terrorists would be less active if the Middle East crisis could be solved. Such a view, already wrong now even though widely accepted, is simply incongruous when projected decades into the past, when scarcely anyone proposed it. To hear it turning up as a piece of received wisdom in the movie was to fear that the world had been taken over by high-school students, and not very bright ones at that. Thus the essential point — that the Red Army Faction, like the Brigati Rossi in Italy, needed nothing more to drive them crazy than to have been brought up in a free country — was allowed to vanish by default. Whether it was the director who had no sense of history, or whether, possessing that sense, he had prudently decided that his audience didn’t, was a nice question. Keen to put him in the best light, I prefer to believe that he is a confident ignoramus of the type that currently sets the tone for the progressive intelligentsia throughout the West. To say that he perpetrates his distortions knowingly would be to accuse him of iniquity.

Still, it was an exciting movie. Whether exciting movies about politics do much good for those who have no other source of political knowledge is a larger question. One tries to be optimistic and believe that seeing a movie might count as making a start, no matter how empty the movie is. I knew very little about post-war politics in Poland when I first saw Ashes and Diamonds, or about Algeria when I first saw The Battle of Algiers. But subsequently, when I read up on their subjects, I found that both movies had been reasonably true to the complex facts. No young person who reads up on the background of The Baader Meinhof Complex is going to reach a similar conclusion. In that regard, there has been a precipitous decline over the last half-century, with the movies becoming more brainless as their resources increase. The best we can hope for is that the low point has already been reached. It’s hard to think of anything emptier than the way the Albert Speer character, in Downfall, just stood around in his leather overcoat looking deeply concerned. Nowhere to go but up. Or so I thought, until, in late 2010, an epic movie about Carlos was announced, with a running time longer than Parsifal. I saw the short version, took due note of the hero’s infinite supply of cigarettes and beautiful young women, and briefly wondered why I had never gone in for terrorism myself. One trusts that this was not the desired effect.