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Film review: Revisiting the Red Army Faction

20th July 2006

In the 1970s a strange phenomenon dominated the headlines in Europe.  A section of revolutionary youth embraced Maoism and in Germany the Red Army Faction (in Italy the Red Brigades) launched guerrilla war in their respective countries.

The movements reflected a deep alienation amongst a number of left intellectuals.  Their parents generation had been dominated by Fascism and the post-war societies had seen many middle-ranking Fascists re-installed in power as the US set up its Iron curtain against the USSR.  

The RAF (also known as the Baader-Meinhoff group) was always tiny.  In actually had, for a considerable period, some sympathy among young workers, but this never translated into support. The movement was savagely suppressed and has been almost forgotten, but there has been a recent revival of interest in Germany.  Below Andrew Johnson revisits the movement in a review of a film tribute to one of its leading figures.

Starbuck Holger Meins (Dir: Gerd Conradt, 2002)

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

20th July 2006

For those with a sense of history, the paranoia of this post-9/11 period, the drive to instil the fear of an enemy who is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, has an obvious counterpart in the “years of lead” in Italy and Germany in the 1970s. Though Tony Blair with his famous historical indifference is probably unaware of this, Blair’s Orwellian language about suspending our liberties to safeguard our democratic way of life could have been lifted almost verbatim from then West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. And, state secrecy being what it is, it will probably take decades for us to find out what is really going on, just as information about the Italian right’s “strategy of tension” is still coming to light.

During this period, Holger Meins (1941-74) became an iconic figure for sections of the German far left. A gifted artist who became involved in that section of late 1960s Berlin society where artistic and political commitment overlapped, Meins later became a founding member of the Red Army Faction, went underground, had his capture broadcast on TV and later died on hunger strike. Yet Meins was known mainly through pictures – on wanted posters, the footage of his arrest, his mug shots, the famous photo of the skeletal Meins in his coffin. In this film the last picture is compared to that of the dead Che Guevara, and there is an obvious parallel in that the icon obscures the person underneath.

For Gerd Conradt, a friend of Meins from their 1960s film school days, this feature-length documentary is clearly a labour of love, aimed at exploring the real Holger Meins – who he was, and why he came to take the decisions he did. Rightly suspicious of the idea that a single viewpoint could produce a definitive story, Conradt dispenses with linking narration, preferring to weave together archive footage with more recent interviews – with Meins’ late father, Wilhelm, with artists and political radicals – creating an almost kaleidoscopic effect that is strangely appropriate to the subject matter.

What sets this film apart from others dealing with the RAF is the concentration, particularly in the earlier parts, on Meins’ art. His paintings display what must have been a very strong aesthetic sense beneath Meins’ introspective personality. The film elements are sketchier, although Meins’ only work as director, the short film “Oskar Langenfeld”, is included on the DVD and shows an interesting talent at work. It is of course impossible to know what Meins would have produced had he survived and continued with his filmmaking.

We do however also see snippets of films in which Meins collaborated, as actor or more often as cameraman. They provide an insight into the style that was being developed in the late 1960s at the Berlin Film School, largely by the students ignoring the teachers and finding their own voice (Michael Ballhaus, one of the teachers, remarks here that he learned more from the students than vice versa). Especially interesting is Harun Farocki’s short (with Meins on camera) “The Words of the Chairman”, with narration of remarks by Lin Biao on Mao’s greatness over a silent drama. Farocki remarks on the alienating (though not ironic) style and its linkage to the effect that the Red Book had on his generation – left theory in Germany having been defined by Adorno’s convoluted prose, suddenly these laconic, almost Old Testament, sentences from China seemed to make everything simple. One sees here the aesthetic appeal of Maoism – at long distance, without the horrors of the Cultural Revolution being yet known. The clip is juxtaposed with an excerpt of Ulrike Meinhof’s TV journalism, and the aestheticism of Farocki and Meins makes for a sharp contrast with Meinhof’s Pilgeresque earnestness.

Then we have the archive footage and photography, which itself poses an interesting question. There is a period where Meins almost appears as a Zelig-type figure – here is Willy Brandt opening the Berlin Film School, with Meins in the audience; here a group of artists carrying out an agitprop protest against the Vietnam War, with Meins passing through the picture; here we see Meins relaxing at Berlin’s Kommune 1. The Zelig impression is underlined by the talking heads – among others, the artist Rainer Langhans, the political activist Margrit Schiller and the director Wolfgang Petersen (surreally holding forth at a press conference with George Clooney) – giving their impressions of Meins. Yet his thoughts are elusive, and the occasional quote from his letters does little to illuminate them.

This is not exactly Meins’ fault, still less Conradt’s. What we would like to know is what led Meins, and the others of the RAF first generation, to adopt their disastrous perspective of armed struggle against the West German state. But it is one of the puzzles of the RAF, that much of their reasoning is still opaque – the early texts, mostly written by Horst Mahler, set out various premises but at a level of abstraction removed from the group’s actual practice. From this distance, there is something antique, almost quaint, about the RAF’s projection of itself. Despite containing Meins and the photographer Astrid Proll, they really conducted no visual propaganda at all – no video messages à la Bin Laden; despite Meinhof being one of Germany’s best-known journalists, with an excellent writing style, their communiqués were always telegraphic and formulaic in the extreme.

This film of course doesn’t set out to provide a history of the RAF, but to sketch out a portrait of Holger Meins the individual, of his life and tragic end, and in that it succeeds. As for the rationale behind his actions, the best guess is that Maoism and guerrilla struggle, however wildly inappropriate they may have been for 1970s Germany, chimed in with the romantic leftism of a generation disillusioned both with their own society and the Soviet bloc that provided the “official” alternative, and impatient with the idea of long-term spadework. A clue is in the title – while incarcerated in Wittlich, the RAF leadership gave themselves codenames from Moby Dick – Meins was Starbuck, first mate of the Pequod. An uncharitable explanation would equate the charismatic Andreas Baader with the mad Captain Ahab; a better explanation of the RAF prisoners’ state of mind would be in terms of heroic pessimism. Like the crew of the Pequod, they expected to go to their deaths fighting Leviathan, and they didn’t care.

In the age of Bin Laden, the RAF today seems like very small beer. Bearing in mind that in 28 years of existence the group was responsible for 23 deaths (set alongside the 26 RAF members and sympathisers who died in the same period), it is hard to comprehend the hysteria that seized German society in the mid-1970s, with the Schmidt government apparently sharing the RAF’s delusion that this little group threatened the very existence of the state. Yet the RAF is not without interest, as an example of how some false premises and bad decisions virtually destroyed what was a very promising revolutionary movement. If new movements are to be built to fight the injustice that inspired those fighters, it does not reflect on their personal courage to say that they have provided us with examples of what not to do.

The Red Army Faction formally dissolved in 1998, after several years of inactivity. The failure to achieve anything it had set out to do simply led to an impasse in the group’s thinking, a profound demoralisation and the recognition that the RAF tradition was now obsolete. Organisationally, this movement left nothing behind, but we are beginning to see a critical engagement with its history, which might inform a new generation of radicals. Certainly there has been substantial work published in German in recent years (there is little English-language material on the RAF, most of it very old and very bad). We are starting to see useful contributions to a picture of the period and the movement, and Conradt’s fascinating film – bearing in mind that movements are made up of real people – fills in an important part of the jigsaw puzzle.



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