We Do the Real Thing

By Christopher Roth

baader-meinhof-astrid-proll-3.jpgFrom Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run ’67-’77 by Astrid Proll (Scalo Books), 1998

The director of Baader reflects on the legacy of the Red Army Faction in German culture and society

The brain of Ulrike Meinhof is in the German news again. It has turned up in Magdeburg, having been transferred there a few years ago so that research could be carried out on it. It looks like they wanted to find out something about evil. “All problems start in the heads of a few, not in the damaged structures of society.” Meinhof wouldn't have liked that conclusion, nor would Horst Herold, Baader-Meinhof's prime opponent, the head of German police. Horst was on the left, and throughout his life he tried to explain the goals of Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and the German Red Army Faction. “The terror brain will be buried in Berlin” wrote the BILD-Zeitung, the rightwing paper which was the other main opponent of the RAF. Meinhof, a popular journalist and important society figure, was from the beginning the iconic face of the Baader-Meinhof group; a symbolic asset that turned out to be worthless as soon as they went underground. But people still recall Meinhof as the serious icon of the armed struggle, maybe because she had less of a rock'n’roll attitude than Andreas Baader or his love, Gudrun Ensslin.

baader-meinhof-astrid-proll.jpgFrom Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run ’67-’77 by Astrid Proll (Scalo Books), 1998

Baader was a small time criminal from Munich when he came to Berlin. He impressed the students by charming women and by stealing cars and handbags. The rest of the RAF were students or writers and became outlaws; in my eyes Baader travelled the opposite course - he was an outlaw and became a revolutionary theorist. On their way to Paris, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin repeatedly changed cars, even though nobody was following them. Before they burned down the Frankfurt department stores Baader saw Pierrot Le Fou by J-L. Godard and said: “Ha, that's only a movie. We do the real thing.” Baader's favourite film was an Italian Western called Il Silencio with Klaus Kinski as Locco, the bad guy who wins in the end.

Baader's duty in the RAF was to hire new people and sell them his thriller: “here, try a gun!” Since people who got close to the group were extremely left-wing already and knew as much as was possible about Lenin and Mao, Baader only had to make sure they felt like characters in a gangster movie. In this way he criminalized them, so there was no going back. Baader was a man of action while Meinhof remained embroiled in Marxist doubt: “When the time for uprising has come it's already too late to prepare it". Baader's response was: “What army can afford to doubt?” They lived in flats which were dressed like offices, they switched cars, constantly changed hair colour, wore wedding rings matched with fake wedding photos. Gudrun Ensslin was finally arrested in the most expensive fashion store in Hamburg trying on a blue leather jacket.

I was very young at the time and remember Germany only as permanently grey and snowing. The first images in colour were from the Olympic Games in 1972. I remember the red and green track suits of the policemen on the concrete roofs of the Olympic village during the “Black September” attack on the Israeli accommodation. (Much later I found out that the name referred to the destruction by the Israelis of the El Fatah camp in Jordan, where Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof were trained in the summer of 1970). I was too young to understand what the fight was about and we didn't have anything to oppose all this greyness until Punk appeared, save for American movies and Andreas Baader. For me as a kid Baader was an action hero, the front man of a band. And this image of Baader died in 1972. This self-invented rock n roll star, Baader the movie star, was terminated by his arrest in Frankfurt on the first of June. The movie star Baader would have wanted a shoot-out at the end. So I have seen Baader always as a co-author not only of this Hollywood denouement, but also of the rest of the RAF myth, wherein fiction and fact are inseparable. Later in prison he took another part. They were the victims of the system. The RAF had now a clear goal: freeing their first generation.

The left always had a problem with Baader because in the end he insisted only that the RAF were tough, that they put being tough at the core of their lives until being tough could come to define their identity. He asserted that he wanted to become a projectile; all of which sounded more like military existentialism than Marxist-Leninist analysis. The Baader-Meinhof group very early on made their lives and the lives of others liable for the truth of their ideas. Was Germany ready for a revolution? They saw it as an experiment: You have to find out if the armed approach is possible.

baader-meinhof-astrid-proll-2.jpgFrom Baader Meinhof: Pictures on the Run ’67-’77 by Astrid Proll (Scalo Books), 1998

In our film we always wanted to retain a conceptual unease, to keep and restore a sense of ambiguity. The shoot-out ending is a big question mark, with no answer proposed. On the other hand it is romantic and almost in a “spiritual” way right for me personally. If you do a biography you must make sure that it isn't pretending to be the same thing as life. Life is always more complicated and complex. I tried to rearrange the (hi)story and mediate an image Baader seemed pretty sure about. You can't separate what is made and what is real.

Terrorism itself lives from staged images. When the RAF bombed a US HQ in 1972 they knew that the German public would recognise the similarity between the news photographs of American soldiers walking through destroyed cars and buildings with the images they knew from the Vietnam war.

In Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, famous writer Bill Gray talks to the terrorist George Haddad (there was a Dr.Wadi Haddad and a Dr. George HabaschAl Hakim, the doctor.” Both were Lebanese leaders of the militant Palestinian PFLP).

“For some time now I've had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game."

“Interesting. How so?"

“What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous."

My favourite contribution to the 2002 Documenta Art Festival was by The Atlas Group, an imaginary foundation, created in New York in 1999 by Lebanese Walid Ra'ad. It focuses on the civil wars in Lebanon from 1975-1991 and presents a fictional archive of films, photographs, and a notebook by a Lebanese historian with photographs of car-models involved in bombings. Another work, Secrets in the Open Sea, consists of 29 large blue photographic proofs which were found underneath the 1992 bombed commercial districts of Beirut. Atlas claims to have sent 10 prints to a lab in Paris for technical analysis and discovered latent images in the blue which represented black-and-white prints of individuals who had been found dead in the Mediterranean.


Baader, Christopher Roth, 2002

Marcel Duchamp declared that in art there is no solution because there is no problem. As I write, the Miss World Competition is being transferred from Abuja, Nigeria to London “in the interest of Nigeria and the competitors.” More than a hundred people have already died and the rioting continues, because the newspaper This Day proposed that the prophet Mohammed would have liked beautiful women. President Obasanjo couldn't calm the masses in a television speech. This week the new James Bond Movie, Die Another Day, comes to German cinemas. Well, isn't it too late, years too late, too far from reality, with too many quotation marks, too many drinks, too many ‘bad’ girls? Bond has become a retro fool. It’s become boring. Every cheap launch party looks like a Bond movie. Who could save Bond? Aki Kaurismäki? Mike Leigh? Or Mullah Omar? The Taliban leader first registered in the wider public mind commanding the destruction of the Buddhist statues at B-amiyan and disappeared, leaving behind only one photograph. We are in the middle of an image war and we can't expect peace.

I am working on three ideas, films maybe, trying to explain Germany to myself. One is about General Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who tried to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944. He came from a writers’ circle centred around the Romantic poet Stefan George, a reference to Friedrich Hölderlin, who invented “The secret Germany.” He planned the conspiracy for many years, lost his arm in the war and was shot on the 20th of July 1944, the day his attempt on Hitler's life failed.

The second is about Hannelore Kohl, late wife of Chancellor Kohl. She committed suicide in 2001, after suffering from a light allergy. In her last months she had to live in total darkness. Like a vampire she only could leave the house at night, while her husband was fighting a charge of corruption. It’s a story that encompasses the extreme glare of publicity and intense private darkness.

The third is a contemporary western. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud come to a small town and want the same woman.

I feel like a paparazzi of history, chasing forbidden images. I am not a documentarist seeking that which lies behind the image. It is not about destroying or raising icons or idols. I'm with Bruno Latour (curator, with Peter Weibel, of the wonderful exhibition “iconoclash” at the ZKM in Karlsruhe), Latour has proposed a new reading of the second commandment: “thou shall not freeze-frame any graven image!"

Finally, Haddad again, from Mao II: “The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn't figured out how to assimilate him. It's confusing when they kill the innocent."

Christopher Roth is a film director.