Home » Uncategorized » Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, Montage, and Planning

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, Montage, and Planning

by Christian Long

Allow me to start with a trio of well-worn sayings. The first is that war is long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. A second is often ascribed to Alfred Hitchcock: drama is “life with the dull bits cut out”. Finally, “It is impossible to make an anti-war film,” usually attributed to Francois Truffaut. I want to consider Uli Edel’s 2008 historical drama Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, and the Baader-Meinhof gang, or RAF, urban guerrillas’ experience of their war against the German state with these now-commonsensical ideas in mind.[1] Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex superficially reconciles seemingly irreconcilable positions; it appears to be insurgency-sympathetic and insurgency-critical, which perhaps explains the film’s mixed critical and political reception. The film shows that the Baader-Meinhof gang had a theoretically informed and spelled out social plan. What the film does not show is the way in which the concrete actions they undertake are parts of that plan. In what follows I argue that the need for drama in Der Baader Meinhof Komplex necessarily occludes or disregards the long periods of tedium inherent in an urban guerrilla insurgency in favour of the cinematic moments of sheer terror. This is not a contentious point, as Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex comes out of an entertainment system. To be specific, the film’s strongest resistance to the Baader-Meinhof political project takes the form of editing, in particular montages that mystify of the everyday work of revolutionaries—planning and organizing—and the juxtaposition of scenes of insurgency and scenes of police work. Without any vision of the practical work of an insurgency but plenty of vision of how the police work to stop that insurgency, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex creates not an anti-war film, but rather a pro-police, or more precisely, a pro-counterintelligence film.

The RAF activities included stealing cars, robbing banks, and bombing strategic locations as a form of propaganda of the deed, actions that would both show solidarity with oppressed peoples in the Third World as well as spur a popular uprising within Germany itself by showing that the state would respond true to its fascist nature. The Brazilian communist guerrilla Carlos Marighella, whose Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla appeared in print in the late 1960s, was a key figure in the RAF’s approach to urban insurgency.[2] Marighella’s blueprint for action emerged out of the Brazilian struggle against the military dictatorship that began in the mid-1960s. Like most military plans, Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla registers the importance of logistics. For a small and poor vanguard such as the RAF, the approach Marighella outlines was necessary and appropriate to their conditions. As Marighella describes it:

Money, weapons, ammunition and explosives, and automobiles as well, must be expropriated. The urban guerrilla must rob banks and armories, and seize explosives and ammunition wherever he finds them. None of these operations is carried out for just one purpose. Even when the raid is to obtain money, the weapons that the guards carry must be taken as well. Expropriation is the first step in organizing our logistics, which itself assumes an armed and permanently mobile character.[3]

Seen this way, stealing a car becomes a way to rob a bank which in turn becomes a way to purchase guns that enable further bank robberies—expropriations—that can fund the further mechanization of the insurgency, affording greater mobility, and so on. Each action to gain access to money, weapons, ammunition, explosives, and automobiles features sixteen elements:

1. investigation and intelligence gathering 2. observation and vigilance 3. reconnaissance, or exploration of the terrain 4. study and timing of routes 5. mapping 6. mechanization 7. careful selection of personnel 8. selection of firepower 9. study and practice in success 10. success 11. use of cover 12. retreat 13. dispersal 14. the liberation or transfer of prisoners 15. the elimination of evidence l6. the rescue of wounded.[4]

The first nine elements in this sequence all represent a form of planning. The five after the “success” of the action also depend on planning. In other words, logistics and planning are essential to every successful action of an urban insurgency. One slip up and the state authorities regain the advantage.

Whether the part of an urban insurgency or one last job before getting out of the game, expropriations and bombings are the kind of actions that would, in many films, appear as a major set piece such as a heist. In Burglar’s Guide to the City, Geoff Manaugh links logistics and heists, noting that 

You see this attention to architectural nuance in nearly every heist film. No other genre gets away with showing characters hunched over floor plans, gesturing intensely at detailed maps of buildings, arguing over precise sequences of hallways and rooms, pointing with incredible drama at the tiniest spatial detail … It’s as if the heist genre had been invented for no other reason than to dramatize the unveiling of floor plans.[5]

However, for all of the RAF’s major heists and heist-like undertakings, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) shows them only as montages of the action itself; we don’t really see an extensive representation of the nuts and bolts of what makes an urban insurgency possible. In three consecutive RAF political actions[6]—three simultaneous expropriations (bank robberies), passport materials theft, and car theft—not a single planning scene appears on screen. These actions seem to emerge out of nothing. The montage used to show the RAF actions is not the intellectual montage of ideas emerging out of the juxtaposition of images, but an entertaining montage of attractions narrated—which is to say explained—by one of the characters.

The first sequence, the simultaneous expropriations, offers a brief glimpse of preparation, but not planning. Instead it offers the spectacle of daylight robbery. At the beginning of the sequence, a quick series of shots show RAF members buying guns out of a car boot. Then cars screech up to banks, people pull on ski masks, pull out guns, and move toward the tellers. No planning or discussion, they go into banks and take the money. They leave on foot, drop the ski masks in a rubbish bin in an alley, and then meet up together, picked up in new cars for the getaway. How were the banks chosen? How were the getaway cars secured? Who picked the meeting point for their rendezvous? What did the RAF plan to do with the money? Such practical issues remain invisible, passed over in favour of the thrills of the expropriation itself. 

Straight after the expropriations the passport stealing montage occurs. Again, no planning is shown; the passport theft is introduced with a news report with some footage of Molotov cocktails being thrown at administrative buildings and a young woman saying that the RAF doesn’t just talk like other groups but acts on their ideals. The reported action of stealing passports leaves out the importance of the action—its political valence—as something the RAF plans for, as a kind of practical step to their end goal. The montage shows only action and aftermath, with the young woman’s interview acting as ideological direction rather than anything the RAF may have in mind. In this manner, the quick insertion of the passport-stealing action makes the RAF behave in a manner that resembles a critique frequently made of reactive politicians: Something must be done. This is something. We must do this. Next, the car theft is shown as Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), in a blonde wig disguise, trying to hotwire a car, followed by a shot of a field of replacement license plates. A long shot of the attempt shows that the car’s owner lives in an apartment overlooking the carpark. He sees Ulrike and her accomplice, and his shouting causes them to run away. In fact, the RAF would find a desirable car, usually a BMW then locate another car of the same type and not steal it, but instead copy its license plate and fit the bogus plate to the stolen car. In this manner their stolen car’s identifying plates would not register as stolen should the police see them.[7] The film’s rushed montage figures the car theft as a crime of opportunity, and a poor one at that, rather than a system for getting transport that required collaboration and planning.

The excitement generated by the fast editing of the three expropriation montages, as well as the credibility generated by their apparent success, is first undercut narratively by almost immediate arrests. To reinforce these troubles, a much slower and serious scene set in a police station offers a marked contrast to the frantic pace spurred by the RAF actions. A sound bridge of Horst Herald (Bruno Ganz) carries us from the chaos of insurgency to the calm of policing. Herald notes 1 in 4 Germans under 30 are Sympathisant Szene, sympathizers or fellow travellers, which means it will be difficult to locate and neutralize the RAF without a good system. Herald and his assistant (Heino Ferch) outline the design of Rasterfahndung, a controversial police strategy (the controversy does not register in the film) first used in Germany against the RAF, that uses mass collection of multiple categories of private data—health fund, gas bills, child benefit—to find patterns in the data and gradually reduce the number of Sympathisant Szene to investigate.[8] The police, not the RAF, explain what use the expropriated money has: pedestrian tasks such as paying rent and gas bills, the sorts of activities that, combined with other pieces of personal data, make it possible to filter finely enough to identify suspects, safe houses, and potentially RAF members. The sequence in which Ulrike Meinhof’s voice-over explains the political correctness of expropriations uses handheld cameras, 16 cuts, 5 zooms, 11 instances of a moving camera, and both film and television stock in 32 seconds. By contrast, the scene that outlines how to stop those actions uses six static camera setups and 26 cuts in a two-minute scene. Such a marked contrast with the fast-cut, moving- and zooming-camera of the montages that preceded shows that unlike the RAF, the cops are methodical. This planning, in the form of an electronic data processing system designed to catch the underground RAF members, will overcome the RAF non-planning. 

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Figure 1: Static shot of police planning (screenshot)

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Figure 2: Static shot of police planning (screenshot)

For all their expropriations, for cash, passport materials, and cars, the RAF appear to improvise their way to a modicum of success. A completely improvisational insurgency is not credible, so instead of a shared material process of RAF members in a room together planning, we get theoretical post-hoc explanations in a Meinhof-written communique as voice-over laid on top of the montage. Somehow the leftist revolutionaries are associated with an abstract didacticism painted on after the fact and the police root their actions in a careful analysis of Germany’s material conditions.

As if the police doing more materialist analysis that the RAF wasn’t bad enough, the RAF’s montage-represented actions are ideologically undercut in a montage that compresses time. Fast-cut montages of expropriations give way to a slower scene of cops bemoaning the support RAF has and planning accordingly. RAF support and lack of planning appear in the very next scene, showing the police fears are valid. However, the RAF not only take advantage of one of their sympathizers, but also once again resist thorough planning. The first image of the sequence suffers from Stefan Aust, the author of the book The Baader-Meinhof Complex, also writing the screenplay adaptation. This shot looks like a generic moment from heist pictures in which the successful bank robbers play with their loot. In a heist or caper picture, the score is the end, or at least the means to a very personal end, usually leaving a life of crime behind

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Figure 3: Making new expropriated money look old and usable (screenshot) 

Playing with money in the wake of a heist runs counter to the RAF’s plan and politics. For the RAF, the heist is the means to a collective end, to fund and build a continued insurgency against the repressive state. Aust explains in the book that what appears to be a frivolous activity—playing with money—is in fact a way to get the new and clean bills expropriated from the bank into more usable, well-worn condition. This scene of what appears to be literal money-grubbing is compounded by what immediate follows it: the arrival and quick expulsion of the owner of the apartment where the RAF is hiding out. Ulrike Meinhof tells him that the gang will need his apartment for one more night than previously agreed, sending him away without even a thank you. He agrees, but Ulrike seems to grasp that this bodes ill for the RAF. She rejoins the gang to see the televised news of RAF member Petra Schelm (Alexandra Maria Lara) being killed by the police. In leaving the unappreciated supporter behind in the entryway and rejoining the RAF in the other room, it becomes clear that the price of losing public support is death. The reactions to Schelm’s death splits the gang. Some, like Heinrich Fichtner, want immediate violent reprisal. Meinhof proposes they wait, and argues for better planning by the group by getting to know cities before acting in them, drawing almost directly from Marighella, who writes

Our experience is that the ideal guerrilla is one who operates in his own city and thoroughly knows its streets, its neighborhoods, its transit problems, and its other peculiarities. The guerrilla outsider, who comes to a city whose streets are unfamiliar to him, is a weak spot, and if he is assigned certain operations, he can endanger them. To avoid grave mistakes, it is necessary for him to get to know the layout of the streets.[9]

In making this important connection Meinhof speaks in stilted, academic language, while Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), who says that individuals’ shortcomings are the problem, uses much more direct language. Meinhof’s assessment of the situation speaks to the film’s form itself: RAF has a broad social plan in place, but the concrete planning necessary to achieve it has not yet appeared (in the film) and their members are being killed. At the same time, police planning has appeared and shown its success.

After the fatal contrast of RAF not-planning and police planning, we go straight into the RAF’s successful bombings of key buildings to the imperialist cause, US military bases in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, and police headquarters in Augsburg and Munich, the original gang’s last major actions. These bombings repeat the same montage style, again narrated by Meinhof’s writing. And again, without any planning. Meinhof’s communiqué repeats “Wir fordern”—we demand—showing that the RAF has concrete demands. Two women, members of the Commando Petra Schelm unit, enter the station, walk the hallways, place the bomb, and walk out. Their walk away from the building, not even looking back when the explosion blows out the building’s windows, shows their purpose and implies planning. But during the same time- and space-compressing montage, during the very moment the most accomplished bombers are carrying out their mission, Heinrich, a voice for immediate revenge, is shown to have been arrested and convicted of killing a cop. Planning gets better results; quick revenge has limited reward. The two bombings appear to more well-planned, especially the Augsburg police bombing. 

Much like the bank robbery/expropriations show a glimpse of preparation rather than planning, there are a couple of moments in Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex that show the preparation stage of bomb making, but not the more mundane steps of accumulation of all the materials, developing bomb-building skills and techniques, and planning the bombings themselves. Andreas Baader is introduced in a bomb-making scene early in the film, and his attitude to the danger and the skill involved makes him less a dedicated revolutionary and more an insouciant anti-hero dilettante. After extreme close-ups of a wire being soldered and liquid being poured into a jug that has an alarm clock taped to its base, the ringing of a doorbell startles two men assembling a bomb and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) at a desk, but the rhythmic banging on the door in a parody of a secret knock relaxes her. 

Figure 4: Bomb-making extreme close-up of soldering (screenshot)
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Figure 5: Bomb-making in extreme close-up of careful pouring (screenshot)

Baader enters, kisses Ensslin, and produces a large bottle marked with skull and crossbones. While the bomb-maker at the table carefully pipettes liquid into the bottle, a look of concentration written on his face, Baader grabs a funnel and, as his name appears in the top left of the screen, formally introducing him, sloppily pours great glugs of the dangerous liquid into the bottle almost without looking. Baader’s language is politically astute, but it’s also very coarse, as when he calls one of the bomb-makers “halbschwule tussi”, something like “half-gay bitch”. 

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Figure 6: Bomb-making, carefully pipetting (screenshot)
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Figure 7: Bomb-making, pouring forcefully (screenshot)

The contrast of the careful unnamed bomb makers, identified with extreme close-ups and small details, and the move-fast-break-things approach Baader takes in slinging around props shows that he is serious about a bigger explosion making the RAF seem a more serious, which is to say non-theoretical threat to the state. But his cavalier treatment of the mechanics of bomb-making as opposed to his clear desire for destruction evacuates the bombing of political valence, which it most certainly has, both historically and within the film itself.

The second scene of Baader making bombs appears at the end of the montage of the successful military base and police headquarters bombings, offering a kind of retrospective explanation. As the voice of a cop interviewed on the news says that experts have been called in to determine the materials used in the bombs, a cut takes us to a second bomb-making scene. The RAF is preparing the powdered portion of the bombs, and Baader struggles to turn the crank on a grinder. Soon after, Baader tells his two bomb-making comrades Holger Meins (Stipe Erceg) and Jan Carl Raspe (Neils-Bruno Schmidt) they need more grinders. There are two close-up reaction shots of Meins and Raspe, as if neither wants to make another run for a grinder. 

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Figure 8: Reaction shot to request for new grinders (screenshot)
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Figure 9: Reaction shot to request for new grinders (screenshot)

Aust’s description of Baader-Meinhof’s bomb-making reveals an important practical aspect to Baader’s call for more grinders. Many of the chemicals used for bomb-making

had to be pulverized. Baader thought of using electric coffee mills for the purpose. He sent Müller off to buy some. As the capacity of the coffee mills was small and they wore out fast in the process of mass production, a larger mill was obtained, but this one wore out even faster. So they were stuck with grinding ammonium nitrate and charcoal in small quantities. Baader put the coffee mills in buckets, to reduce the nuisance of flying dust as much as possible. The police later discovered a whole battery of carefully packed coffee mills in the Inheidener Strasse apartment, ten of them in all.[10]

Baader’s second go at bomb-making starts as a close-up on a manual coffee grinder, then a tilt up to Baader’s face, exertion written on it. Then a later static, eye-level shot shows the bomb-making room where Baader, Meins, and Raspe work: multiple bowls on the worktable create some clutter, but nothing like the more systematized ten grinders and Aust writes about. This bomb-making—not planning but preparation—occupies about 23 seconds of an almost five-minute montage. The RAF’s greater success, judged not only by violence done against their enemies but also their enemies taking them seriously, owes something to this increased presence of preparation, if not planning. The RAF bombings are successful and prove their analysis of the German state. The state’s reaction is a one-day police state. Horst Herold asks that every police officer in the country be activated on one day to check papers, stop border crossings, and catch RAF members. 

Such an example of massive planning ends up imprisoning the main figures of the original Baader-Meinhof gang, and so, for the state, planning leads to success. The RAF members avoid arrest for a short period, but Baader, Raspe, and Meins are caught at a garage where they store bomb-making materials. Ensslin and Meinhof are arrested soon after. They spend the second half of the film in prison. While Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and most of the first generation of the RAF are in jail, a second generation continues the insurgency. Though Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin communicate with the outside, the RAF is no longer under their control. All they can control is their prison surroundings, their court case, and their communiqués.

Some planning is present in the second generation, but it comes in a strange form. With Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin in prison, the police continue to make arrests; one of their arrests leads to evidence of future actions in the offing. In other words, police planning, in the form of the Rasterfahndung, finds an example of RAF planning, but that plan never reaches its intended audience. And without planning, political actions are more likely to fail. Immediately after Herold reveals to his colleagues that the police know of RAF plans, the RAF assassinates Attorney General Siegfried Buback (Alexander Held). However, instead of any scenes of the RAF planning their ambush, the motive of revenge and its political salience are revealed, once again, in a voice-over that narrates—didactically explains—action. The second generation members who act together, Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), Peter-Jürgen Boock (Vinzenz Kiefer), Christian Klar (Daniel Lommatzsch), and Susanne Albrecht (Hannah Herzsprung), represents what Marighella calls a firing group, “a group of no more than four or five” that “executes urban guerrilla actions, obtains and stores weapons, and studies and corrects its own tactics” (Marighella). With the original leadership of the RAF in prison, the remaining members, according to the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, are obliged to act, as 

No firing group can remain inactive waiting for orders from above. Its 

obligation is to act. Any single urban guerrilla who wants to establish a firing group and begin action can do so, and thus becomes a part of the organization …  The firing group is the instrument of organized action. Within it, guerrilla operations and tactics are planned, launched and carried through to success. The general command counts on the firing groups to carry out objectives of a strategic nature, and to do so in any part of the country.[11]

However, the actions undertaken by Mohnhaupt and her group show no study or correction, no planning, only a limited kind of success. Without planning, they do not carry out organized action of a strategic nature, but rather ex post facto tactical actions. By contrast, the police may not stop every RAF action, but find success on the basis of their meticulously-organized and planned dragnet.

The action against Buback succeeded in, as Marighella would put it, eliminating “an agent of the dictatorship…involved in crimes and persecutions”.[12] The two kidnappings attempted by Mohnhaupt and her firing group do not succeed in the aim of a kidnapping, “to exchange or liberate imprisoned revolutionaries or to force the suspension of torture in jail” (Marighella). The first kidnapping attempt of the banker Jürgen Ponto (Hubert Mulzer) shows not the planning of the kidnapping, but the technical aspects of smuggling guns into the prison: Peter-Jürgen Boock hides a gun and ammunition in a solander made from Baader’s lawyer’s file binders. After smuggling the gun past both a security check and a metal detector, the lawyer swaps binders with Baader, and Baader allows himself a smile when he registers that the binder holds a gun. In this way, the main goal is clear, getting comrades out of prison, but the visible form of planning matters a great deal. The other route to freeing the prisoners, in a swap for a kidnapped banker, shows no planning. Instead. In a sequence that echoes the lawyer entering the court, passing through the security check, and giving Baader the gun-filled binder, Susanne, Brigitte, and Christian arrive at the Ponto house, and are greeted by a butler at the door, who lets the nicely-dressed trio in. Once in the house, things go sideways when Ponto does not immediately consent to the kidnapping, and physically resists Christian. Brigitte produces a gun and shoots and kills Ponto. Presented in this way, it appears as if the second generation of the RAF continues to go into actions cold, without any planning. As the group makes its escape from the Ponto killing, Albrecht tries to throw herself out of the car, overcome with guilt in having killed Ponto. The group’s failure leads to political implications, explain not with voiceover of a montage, but as dialogue within the diegesis. Brigitte asks Albrecht if all she wanted was to be “Robin Hood.” The implicit alternative to the redistributionist Social Democrat-like Robin Hood, left implicit in the wake of a failed political action: an anti-imperialist revolutionary. Aust’s account details both why Susanne might have been so upset after the killing as well as the time and planning that went into the attempted kidnapping. Susanne Albrecht was family friends with the Pontos, made three visits to the house over a month before she showed up with Brigitte Mohnhaupt and Christian Klar, even spending the night once; when they arrived for the kidnapping they were armed and dressed in a “very respectable” manner so as not to look out of place in the neighbourhood (Aust 292-293). However, by not showing the planning for the failed kidnapping, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex makes it clear that police planning will succeed further while unplanned RAF actions will not. 

 The second kidnapping Brigitte Mohnhaupt’s group attempts appears without any evident planning and, like the first attempt, fails to achieve its aim, to secure the RAF prisoners’ release. A coded message tells Brigitte’s group that there is a plan to kill the RAF prisoners, making the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer immediately necessary. The very next day, the group ambushes Schleyer, killing his armed escort. The first cut away from the violent scene of the kidnapping is a hand on a map—Herold’s hand. Herold tells someone on the other end of a phone that the kidnappers can be a maximum 20 kilometres away; moments after the kidnapping Herold has already begun to plan, to draw a circle around the crime scene on which to centre the investigation. The kidnappers pull into an underground parking garage, pull Schleyer out of the boot, and drag him blindfolded into an apartment, where they lock him in a closet. Brigitte then dictates a communiqué. The historical Schleyer kidnapping had slightly more planning. Aust’s account features a description of the food and housing needs of a kidnapping:

Plenty of food had been laid in so that they need not leave the apartment for days. They had bought baby-food for Schleyer; the whole fridge was full to the top with it. ‘Alete brand for preference said Boock later, ‘because anyone can digest that even if he has stomach trouble or he’s so upset that he keeps throwing up’.[13]

And in the apartment they first hid Schleyer in, 

there was a Samurai brand TV set and several small things, including a doormat with a stag motif on it. Investigators later found such doormats with pictures of hunting scenes in a whole series of apartments used by RAF members, and they concluded that there was an allusion to the name of the Interior Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia at the time, Burkhard Hirsch (Hirsch meaning ‘stag’ in German).[14]

Schleyer never eats. He is transported in a wicker basket to what is identified as Brussels in a title. The apartment where he sits has almost no decoration, certainly no pictures of hunting scenes and stags. 

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Figure 10: Bare apartment with towels, soap, and shadow of lamp, but no stag (screenshot)

The drama of the film coming to its conclusion—Baader and Ensslin make their final statements to the authorities before they die—crowds out such quotidian details made possible and visible in planning. Instead, Brigitte and Peter- Jürgen travel to Iraq to instigate still another action (a plane hijacking) that fails, even as Schleyer remains under RAF control. Baader, Ensslin and the others die in prison. No longer useful, Schleyer is taken into the woods at the Belgium-France border and shot.

 How can we make sense of Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex’s use of montage and scene juxtapositions to understand its position on the RAF’s approach to politische Aktion? The film avoids the generic convention of a group planning a significant activity, as in a heist carefully staged on architectural drawings. A Hayes Code-era film would studiously avoid any planning, but Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex is no Hayes Code film. Its reticence might be read as a way to de-glamourize the RAF, to take away evidence of their practical intellect and cunning. In doing so it would be a little more possible to make Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex an anti-war film. However, keeping planning and the on-the-ground research behind it out of the film and relying on narrated montages in turn prioritizes the force of rhetoric, the kind of theorizing present in Meinhof’s communiqués, rather than propaganda of the deed that sustains its own forward motion, as Marighella’s Minimanual delineates. On the one hand, members of the RAF reject this approach. Baader calls such an approach “liberal shit” and Ensslin calls it “theoretical wanking” (or theorywank), and even the magazine writer Meinhof moves from theory to praxis, as when she moves from passive to active involvement in Baader’s prison break, robs a bank, and acts alongside other underground RAF members. It seems as though we arrive at the end point of identifying the politics of an entertainment film; Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex has contradictory politics on its surface with an underlying investment in the status quo. Be that as it may, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex does offer an account of why the police succeeded and, by way of contrast, why the RAF was not successful. This account shows some thematic sympathy to the RAF cause, in particular to the theoretical critique of the state’s taste for repressive apparatuses. But the film’s montages and editing structure end up valorising the state’s oppressive crackdown.

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex shows that the RAF was right by showing that the cops are always planning. Horst Herold does say that material conditions are the root cause for RAF actions. Root causes never change, in fact the film registers that more police power emerged – exactly the RAF critique. Though the RAF’s planning remains almost invisible, Horst Herold’s slow march to building an ever-more-developed surveillance system occupies almost the entirety of his screen time. He explains it in dialogue. He and his assistant give tours of its computer heart to outsiders. He convinces other branches of law enforcement to support him for a limited time and keeps them on his side. By contrast, the RAF appear at safe houses unannounced. They stay longer than they said they would. They lose the support of the masses. Who, then, will give them a place to stay or pass a message or buy a coffee grinder or ten? If Baader is the brute action, Meinhof the lofty rhetoric, and Ensslin the gun-toting Mao-quoting synthesis, who buys the extra grinders to make the bombs and kidnappings possible? Who establishes a reason to intrude on a banker’s house? Who does the carpentry to turn a closet into a cell? Who makes multiple grocery store trips to buy the food to feed hostages? While plodding cops appear, showing photos of suspected RAF members to the public, the workaday revolutionary does not. In Aust’s version of the story, he writes that RAF member Klaus Jünschke said,

You join the urban guerrilla and then you find yourself spending a month fixing up an apartment, and there’s always shopping to be done, things that are needed. That’s ninety-nine percent of what goes on.[15]

Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex may offer Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin ample screen time for speeches and military-like training, but the same cannot be said for the less spectacular parts of their revolutionary lives. In the end, for a film to understand urban guerrillas, much less offer them even ambivalent support, the mostly unglamorous work of planning and the maintenance of the quotidian needs to be present not just in the voice-over of montages, but also in the visible actions of the insurgents. 

Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence pays the most attention to Weathermen, probably the closest thing the United States had to the RAF. As Burrough describes the workings of the Weathermen, some tasks are almost universal across the group; members making bombs also had to attend to less glamourous jobs like making fake IDs. To prepare to bomb Fort Dix in New Jersey, Weathermen member Ron Fliegelman “walked into the offices of New England Explosives in Keene, New Hampshire, presented the stolen driver’s license of a New York rabbi, and laid out less than $60; he walked out with two fifty-pound cases of American Cyanamid dynamite, each case containing one hundred sticks”.[16] In a footnote Bryan Burrough elaborates: “At the time, the sale of firecrackers was illegal in New Hampshire. The sale of dynamite wasn’t. ‘You can buy dynamite easier than bananas,’ the state’s attorney general complained in an interview with the New York Times”.[17] The dynamite purchase hinged on a fake ID. Accordingly, Burrough concentrates on the grunt work of life underground: 

“Building” false identities became a never-ending job for most people in the underground … In time, even dealing with UD brokers was deemed too risky. By the spring [of 1970], most Weathermen had begun building false identities employing an old Communist Party trick: using the birth certificate of long-dead infants to file for Social Security cards and other government identification papers. Dead babies could be identified by searching old newspapers or, as [Bill] Ayers did more than once, walking the grounds of remote cemeteries in search of infant graves dated between 1940 and 1950. Collecting their birth certificates became a “small industry,” Ayers recalled; soon the group would amass hundreds of them.[18]

This attention to the importance of the maintenance of fake IDs and safe houses and money flows shows that groups operating underground have much more work to do than planning their next spectacular action. The have to put food on the table. They also have to find a table and an apartment where they can put that table. While Aust’s and Burrough’s accounts are not entirely sympathetic to RAF or Weathermen, they offer a window into the kind of concrete everyday planning necessary to sustain an urban insurgency. Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, on the other hand, devotes far more attention to how the police go about countering insurgency.

The German Autumn was a season of periods of relative calm, punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex shows a dramatized version of that “life with the dull bits cut out”. And while it doesn’t show that it is impossible to make an anti-war film, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex’s use of montage in the RAF’s strikes against the German state, when compared to the scenes that carefully stage the police response to the RAF, show that it’s easier to make a film that sides with the state’s implementation of intrusive surveillance to stop an insurgency by making planning visible.

Special thanks to Joachim Froese for his feedback and help with the German dialogue. 

Christian B. Long lives in Brisbane, where he works in an office. He is the author of The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema, 1960-2000 (Intellect, 2017) and the editor of ReFocus: The Films of Albert Brooks (Edinburgh, 2021) and Film and the American Presidency (Routledge, 2015).


[1] The Baader-Meinhof gang was also known as the Rote Armee Fraktion, or RAF, which I will use for brevity’s sake in the body of this piece.

[2] See Jan Hentschen, Die RAF-Erzählung: eine mediale Historiographie des Terrorismus (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2013), and Liana Rothenberger, “A Terrorist Group’s Strategic Communication—The Case of the Red Army Faction,”International Journal of Strategic Communication 11, no. 4 (2017): 286-305.

[3] Carlos Marighella, Minimanual of the Urban Guerillahttps://www.marxists.org/archive/marighella-carlos/1969/06/minimanual-urban-guerrilla/index.htm.

[4] Marighella Minimanual.

[5] Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar’s Guide to the City (New York: Farrar, Strauss Giroux, 2016), 26, 27.

[6] This is a direct translation of a phrase Ulrike Meinhof uses in a communiqué: politische Aktion

[7] For a description of the system see Stefan Aust, The Baader Meinhof Complex (London: Bodley Head, 2009), 84-85.

[8] To see how the Rasterfahndung works in its current form, see Tuomas Ojanen, “Terrorist profiling: human rights concerns,” Critical Studies on Terrorism, 3, no. 2 (2010): 295-312.

[9] Marighella Minimanual.

[10] Aust, Baader Meinhof, 158-59.

[11] Marighella, Minimanual.

[12] Marighella, Minimanual.

[13] Aust, Baader Meinhof, 314

[14] Aust, Baader Meinhof, 311

[15] Aust, Baader Meinhof, 122

[16] Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (New York: Penguin, 2015), 103

[17] Burrough, Days of Rage, 103.

[18] Burrough, Days of Rage, 91-92.


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