There’s so much going on in the Baader Meinhof Complex it could fill a book. In fact, it was a book. This book.

So here’s the deal. In the late 60s in Germany, there was a group who called themselves the RAF (Red Army Faction), who others came to call the Baader-Meinhof Gang (two of their leaders were named Baader and Meinhof, you see). They were militant communists who organized a series of terrorist attacks in protest of all kinds of things they dubbed “fascist”. (Although it mostly lurks in the background, it’s important to remember these are very much post-Holocaust times). They weren’t particularly discriminate, and their actions were mostly deplored, but there was an undercurrent of sympathy that ordinary civilians showed for them. This movie takes that sympathy, defends it, condemns it, justifies it, ridicules it, tries to put it in context with the sexual revolution, and eventually hangs it out to dry.

With politically-based movies, pissing off both sides is a sure sign of success for me. How does one do this, you ask? With two and a half-hours, some rock music, a Palestinian terrorist training camp, naked women on rooftops, a portrait of Mao Zedong, a copy of Moby Dick, and a leather jacket. The movie jumps from anarchy-tinged anger to big-band rallies, from three people in an apartment to five people in a different apartment. The attacks escalate from planting bombs in police stations to the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet. Every action seems equal parts mercilessness, conviction, and vanity. And that’s the complex. Baader had it. Meinhof had it. The question is, did everyone else have it too? And there’s the inevitable, do we as audience members still have it?

It’s not so much a movie about the late 60s as it is a movie about looking back at the late 60s. In one scene, Andreas Baader gets out of jail to come home and find his girlfriend in the tub with a young boy who just escaped a juvenile detention center. He says a few words, kisses her, grabs her breast, and as he’s walking out, the boy says to him, “Cool jacket.” Baader takes off the jacket and throws it to him, effectively handing off his own cool to the next generation. A couple scenes later when we see Andreas Baader again, he’s wearing a different, equally cool, leather jacket. This reminds us that for all the political idealism, for all the fighting for the little guy, and for all the solidarity, these guys really wanted to be rock stars. As a result, it’s as similar to Almost Famous as The Battle of Algiers. But what do I know? I wasn’t there.

The movie is epic, culminating in a entire final chapter of courtroom drama and prison politicking. It’s very much an Academy Awards movie and it was nominated last year for Best Foreign Language Film. Having already released in Europe, it drew some mixed responses. People sympathetic to the RAF condemned it for making them look reckless and out of control. People who despise the RAF were angry that a viewer could sympathize with them. With politically-based movies, pissing off both sides is a sure sign of success for me.

As a perfect match for its, well, complex, political maneuvering, it has some confounding technique as well. There’s a discombobulating mix of big and small. Each bomb that goes off feels suffocated by the camera. Each woman’s bare breasts feel a little too up-front. We sympathize with the leaders, but when the focus turns to the followers, they’re just blank faces. And when they somehow steal a jet, why doesn’t it feel like they just stole a jet? The hectic style is consistent perhaps with the conflicted motives of the gang, but makes it tough for the viewer to keep up.

And ultimately I think it’s about the viewer here. How do we fit into all this? How do we want our terrorists to act? Do we want to hate them like we love them? Or is the most hated person the one who’s ignored? (I feel like Carrie Bradshaw if she wrote for the Washington Post.) The movie speculates but doesn’t argue. Movies about the past shouldn’t be just about the past. The Baader Meinhof Complex, finally coming to the U.S., surely isn’t.

Starts today at Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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