Red Army Fictions

By Kieron Corless

german-sisters-margerithe-von-trotta-1.jpgThe German Sisters, Margaretha Von Trotta, 1981

The iconography and significance of the Baader-Meinhof group have been regularly explored and interrogated in film since the 1970s

 On October 18th 1977 three leading members of the armed revolutionary group the Red Army Faction  – Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe – were found dead in their cells in Stammheim prison in Germany. The official verdict claimed their deaths arose from a suicide pact made in swift response to the failed plane hijacking at Mogadishu that month, a horribly botched operation undertaken by terrorist colleagues to bring about their release. The 25th anniversary of these traumatic events was commemorated at a one-day conference held at the ICA in October 2002, supported by a short season of films, all of which in their various ways reflect on the events and legacy of what became known as ‘The German Autumn’. With grim irony, the Bali bomb went off the night before the conference, casting a very sombre pall and imparting a sense of increased urgency and relevance to the event.

The films screened during the conference and in the course of the season included reels spanning virtually the whole of the past 25 years, from the collectively-made Germany in Autumn (1978) to Christopher Roth’s recent Baader (2001), testifying to an enduring fascination with, and confusion around, the troubling figures of Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin et al. They afforded an opportunity to reflect on competing versions of the group’s history, refracted through cultural representations of its leading figures, and the political, cultural and generational divisions in Germany which led these figures to be romanticised and demonised in varying measures, a dichotomy which replays itself to this day.

The first speaker, Gerhard Wilke, set the tone, labelling the events of the German Autumn as “Gotterdammerung.” In his psychoanalytical reading of history, the forces arrayed against each other  – on one side the government and media, on the other the RAF and their supporters – were not separate and opposing, but rather defined and shaped each other. The RAF phenomenon was an eruption of unfinished mourning in a country traumatised by collective guilt over its recent fascist past, across which an amnesiac veil had been drawn by a deeply conservative older generation. In such circumstances, “the last battle of the Second World War” was inevitable, he suggested.

It’s a thesis supported to some degree by Germany in Autumn, made by a dozen collaborators attempting a collective statement on the prevailing atmosphere of fear and emergency in 1977. The juxtaposition of different cinematic idioms makes for an uneven work but Fassbinder’s section is notably powerful in its fictionalised depiction of himself as a boorish domestic tyrant prone to bouts of paranoia. More successfully than his collaborators, Fassbinder’s extremist behaviour demonstrates how the climate of suspicion, violence and assignment of guilt entraps and infects everybody, even those on the left who feel affinity with the RAF cause (if not necessarily supporting their methods). Alexander Kluge, meanwhile, filmed the funerals of Hans-Martin Schleyer (murdered by the RAF) and the three Stammheim terrorists to draw sly but pertinent ideological connections between Germany’s fascist past and the government of the time, and between state power and the media.

It’s impossible to overlook the overwhelming presence of cameras at the RAF funeral, eloquently invoking how the hysteria of that period had been liberally stoked up by the media. Ben Lewis’ 2002 documentary In Love With Terror (screened during the conference) appropriates media reports of the time and, as the provocative title indicates, asks whether their outraged condemnations mask a collusive fascination with terrorism. Baader-Meinhof became in effect the world’s first celebrity terrorists, their mythologisation assisted by the often seductively iconic images disseminated through the media. As Baudrillard puts it, “the media are made the vehicle of the moral condemnation of terrorism and of the exploitation of fear for political ends but simultaneously, in the most total ambiguity, they propagate the brutal fascination of the terrorist act...They are terrorists in their own fashion, working continually to produce (good) sense but, at the same time, violently defeating it by arousing everywhere a fascination without scruples, that is to say, a paralysis of meaning, to the profit of a single scenario.”[1]

german-sisters-margerithe-von-trotta-2.jpgThe German Sisters, Margaretha Von Trotta, 1981 

Lewis’ film was supported by British television, whereas Germany In Autumn, made outside the usual funding structures, showed filmmakers of the time wrestling with “the paralysis of meaning” haunting this taboo subject, attempting to combat official accounts of the closely entwined issues of terrorism, German history and national identity. Other films made in the period between, such as The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975) directed by Margaretha von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff, Stammheim (1986) directed by Reinhard Hauff and The German Sisters (1981) by Margaretha von Trotta (included in the season) engage in this discursive struggle, constructing versions of history – “counter-memories” as Olaf Hoershelmann memorably framed them[2] – at odds with dominant accounts. The German Sisters pinpoints the reactionary, amnesiac character of ’50s Germany as directly responsible for propelling two sisters towards rebellion (one ultimately ends up in a terrorist group) although von Trotta makes clear her own opposition to terrorist tactics (heavy-handedly, it has to be said) by portraying the terrorist sister as a poor communicator and a negligent mother.

Von Trotta was not the only filmmaker of that period deeply uneasy with the violent path taken by the RAF. What many filmmakers recognised, however, was the stark connection between the representation of terrorism (as conveyed through government and media channels) and the definition of what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate violence – naturally state violence is sanctioned when the state is perceived to be under threat. This link between representation and definition was not really pursued in the discussions at the ICA; delegates focused on the second part of the equation, the attempt to define the term ‘terrorist’ and the legitimacy of violent action against a violent state. Anti-globalisation activists were vocal at the conference, and there were hints that certain aspects of the Baader-Meinhof legacy (myth) were being appropriated to suit their cause.

Andres Veiel, director of the excellent documentary Black Box BRD (1994), has been quoted as saying that, “for younger people, living in this period of globalisation when the individual is powerless, the RAF are the true heroes – they actually succeeded in achieving something", although what that might be isn’t elaborated. At the conference it never became totally clear what lessons were available to present-day political organisations from a group born in a very particularised set of circumstances – the fragmenting student movement, opposition to American involvement in Vietnam and American soldiers’ use of German bases. One delegate drew comparisons between the murder of student Benno Ohnesorg by police in 1967 (which precipitated the formation of the RAF) and that of anti-globalisation protestor Carlo Guiliani in Genoa, proposing in the light of the analogy that popular violence could and should meet state violence, although what form it might take in the present climate wasn’t made explicit.

The impulse to romanticise and fashion glib interpretations was countered in part by the figure of Felix Ensslin, the abandoned son of Gudrun and now resident in New York, who was the subject of Victoria Mapplebeck’s documentary Between a Rock and a Hard Place (1993). Ensslin has no memories of his mother and is reliant on other people’s to fill the breach, so for him there is a great deal at stake in representations of her. Charismatic and highly intelligent, Ensslin adds his own often scathing commentary over clips of German films about the RAF (including von Trotta’s The German Sisters, which fictionalises he and his mother’s life), pointing out what he perceives to be blatant misrepresentations and manipulations of historical fact. Even more startling was the way Ensslin’s critique spills over into the documentary being made about him. His volatile interrogation of the director’s motives and mythologizing tendencies, his repeated disruption and undermining of the filmmaking process, made for riveting viewing and crystallised the crucial issue of a filmmaker’s responsibility to history.

The best film shown in the ICA season was Andres Veiel’s already mentioned Black Box BRD. A documentary portrait of two individuals from opposing ends of the class spectrum, Alfred Herrhausen, chief of Deustche Bank who was assassinated by an RAF car-bomb in 1989, and Wolfgang Grams, an active RAF member who was killed by the police during an attempted arrest in 1993. The film manages to capture the country’s highly charged political atmosphere, locating parallels between the two men’s lives in Germany’s ongoing pre-occupations with the economic miracle and its fascist past. Admirably the film refuses to attribute blame or draw simplistic conclusions, and doesn’t shy away from quietly depicting the devastations wrought on grieving family members.

The flipside to such a searching, dispassionate enquiry manifests itself in Christopher Roth’s Baader (premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival but unshown at the ICA due to technical problems). The trend to romanticise and mythologize here reaches its apotheosis. The ending shows Baader dying in a hail of bullets, ‘Butch Cassidy’ style, rather than in isolation at Stammheim, an invidious sacrifice of historical accuracy to dramatic effects. The modish accessories of armed existentialism are emphasised – the BMWs, the cool shades, lots of cigarettes. Roth’s film chimes with the current vogue for terrorist chic in Germany, where several T-shirt manufacturers draw on the group’s iconography and one company employs the slogan ‘Prada-Meinhof’. It’s as if they’ve become representatives of a generalised


[1] Jean BaudrillardIn the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (Semiotexte, 1983).

[2] Olaf Hoerschelmann – “Memoria Dextera Est: Film And Public Memory in Postwar Germany", in Cinema Journal 40, No. 2, Winter 2001.

Kieron Corless is a writer and critic.