On New Year’s Day this year I removed all the bookmarks from my Firefox bookmarks bar. When I mentioned to a couple friends that my resolution was to lay off the political blogs, I got variations on the same response: Yeah, that’s a pretty popular resolution right now. My resolution hasn’t worked out all that well; instead of clicking links I simply type andrewsullivan.com into my browser window to maintain my daily outrage level. I worry that I’m addicted to incredulity, that for some twisted reason I need to seek out the tawdriest filth erupting from the mouths of the Limbaughs and Becks and Palins of the world in order to define myself in opposition. It’s stuff like this to which I gravitate.
It’s under this early Obama-era malaise that I watched Uli Edel’s excellent The Baader Meinhof Complex, a German nominee for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar last year. The film introduced me to a historical moment I knew nothing about, the urban guerilla warfare that erupted in Germany at the end of the ’60s and into the early and mid ’70s, instigated by a liberal group called the Red Army Faction. Elsewhere on therumpus Stephen Elliott gushed about the film and asked why films like this aren’t made in America. I suppose the short answer would be because America doesn’t produce people like the subject of this film: idealistic students willing to take up arms against institutions they believe to be fascistic.
The film follows a band of sexy anarcho-communists as they react against police violence amid protests against a visit to West Germany by the Shah of Iran, on to department store bombings, kidnappings both successful and botched, training sessions among PLO types in the Middle East, and years of insanity-inducing incarceration and court proceedings that go nowhere fast. Dipping into Wikipedia today I learned that the impetus for the rise of this millitant leftist organization was a German society still largely run by ex-Nazis. When the German baby boom generation came of age and noticed that members of the Third Reich were still largely running the show, and what’s more were sympathetic to a United States that was sprinkling napalm on Vietnam, they called bullshit on the whole enterprise. And a few of them expressed their outrage with machine guns.
The problem with machines guns is that they tend to not be too articulate. Whether by design or not, I found the RAF’s arguments difficult to suss out. A lot of it sounded like good old dorm room pontificating to me. What they actually wanted wasn’t presented all that well in the film; whether they managed to articulate themselves better in real life is a question for a historian, not an amateur film blogger.
It’s an exciting film, and it’s easy to get off on its violence, and to draw comparisons to The Battle of Algiers and Munich, et al. The RAF comes across as something of a free love cult whose members are demolitions experts, wearing cool-looking jackets (when they’re wearing anything at all) and sporting excellent eyewear. So if this film existed entirely in the realm of fantasy, if the RAF had never existed, it would belong on the same plane as Inglourious Basterds. Instead, by evoking a troubling period in which 34 actual people died, it finds itself in the company of another great recent work of German cinema, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck ‘s Eastern Germany spy thriller The Lives of Others.
Curiously, I watched The Baader Meinhof Complex a week or so after watching Rustin Thompson’s documentary 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle, which chronicles the five days in 1999 when a variety of environmental, labor, and human rights groups shut down the World Trade Center Conference in my hometown. I’ve avoided the feature film Battle in Seattle because I know it’ll just piss me off with overbroad characters and a general dumbing down of what happened over those five days. I was there in the thick of it, inhaled my share of tear gas, and took about three hours of video myself. I’ve been basically saving my impressions of that event for a future book, but I will say that one of the overarching themes I noticed during that week was nonviolence–and not just as a means of protest. What characterized the WTO riots to me, what made them so Seattleish was how passive aggressive they were. While the police often resorted to dickish maneuvers, threw their nightsticks and pepper spray around as they bumbled their way around downtown , they didn’t shoot anybody with live ammunition. Rubber bullets, yeah. But nobody ended up bleeding to death during the WTO riots.
The same can’t be said for Germany in the early ’70s or, for that matter, Iran in the past several months. No matter how vituperative discourse has gotten in the United States, no matter how many racist sneers talk radio shows shovel into the ears of their listeners, ours is a society in which nobody is taking literal shots at one another for political reasons. Yet, anyway. One could argue that Fort Hood is an exception, but I’d counter that such attacks are still considered, rightly or not, to be externally motivated by Islamic jihad, a force, we’ve been constantly reminded, that exists outside the United States and seeks ever more ludicrous methods of penetration, i.e. via underpants.
The questions I’m left with after watching this fine film are, where’s the line that gets crossed that leads to domestic guerilla warfare? How close are we to that line? Is the Tea Party movement capable of crossing that line? What would it take for the American equivalent of the RAF to come into being? These aren’t rhetorical questions; I really want to know, as terrifying as the answers might be.