Thursday, May 21, 2009

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

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Being an Asian viewer born during the 80's, without any knowledge of the Red Army Faction (RAF), it poses some challenges to me when watching The Baader Meinhof Complex. A warning to those who have no clue as to the RAF before watching this movie: Read on it first. And for heaven's sake don't watch it from the Constantin german DVD release if you don't know a word of german. The Paramount release could be an exciting alternative. I'm not saying why, just trust me, it works better that way.

Uli Edel’s "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" is an exhilarating historical picture with an intoxicating blend of fiction drama with fact-based evidence, resulting in one of the most exciting movies of the year. It is never highbrow in its approach to the subject, but it manages to curb the usual problems biographical features are associated with – chiefly the treatment of having actors introduce their characters initially in neatly composed frames, ticking all the boxes to their ideals. Edel drops us into the events at an appropriate point in history, but is determined to avoid his movie resembling a PowerPoint sermon. The first scene taking place on the sands of a nudist beach is an eye-opening introduction, and I believe Edel is challenging us straight away to look past the various human bodies on full display, and to concentrate on picking up the little details, like the magazine a woman is reading, or the question a blonde haired woman asks a gentleman, who manages an astute response despite the sheer size, and possible flaunting, of this female's naturally voluptuous breasts.

'The Baader-Meinhof Gang certainly didn’t expect to win their war by themselves. They assumed an epic proletarian backlash would be the Revolution’s true engine' explains Richard Huffman in his invaluable book The Gun Speaks. The genesis of the Baader-Meinhof group is discussed in the movie, but you have to look very carefully to find it. This is a movie that rewards attention, though, unlike "Gomorrah," it has a structure that is intricately connected. Observe the segment that develops from the garden party of two characters at this point we know little about - the husband has just received a printed note from a young student, and it is an essay written by his wife to her Majesty Farah Diba (whom we glimpsed on that cover a few moments earlier if you caught it.) As the wife, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), reads aloud her writings, the movie intercuts to footage from a student-led protest on the streets of Berlin, where one of the signs reads: 'Autonomy for the University of Tehran'. Rather than spend time explaining to those unaware of that institutions whereabouts, the movie endures through presumed audience cooperation by connecting the words spoken by Meinhof to these images. Her angry letter is attacking the Shah of Persia (seen only from a distance in the Berlin footage but the cries of '...long live the Emperor' from supporters confirm it is he who is in their presence.)

If you know your history you will have little troubling following all this. What occurs next is an interpretation of an event in which the Berlin police implicated a new measure for crowd control. Having researched it prior to my screening, I was curious to see how the movie would display 'The Liver Sausage Method' of squeezing bodies between barricades and background buildings. Would it commit and show a few who crushed to death? As it turns out, the movie tinkers a few facts, and has mainly one man start the act of violence by throwing what appears to be a brown papered bag; upon hitting the ground a white trail of dust causes a minor explosion and a cop's patience quota is surpassed. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" features, at this point, a superb riot sequence that is never melodramatic, never romanticised, yet, bizarrely, is observed from a close distance. The music is perhaps a little too ominous but the riot itself is deceptively pleasing - from moment to moment you feel as if you are right there on that street in 1968. None of the protestors are given room to make an impression, and hence the audience's sympathy is neutral. I liked the omission of the crushing tactic. These cops react as if they were zombies in "28 Days Later" jumping upon the pack for some lunch.

As this riot unfolds to its historically accurate conclusion, I thought to myself why these students were there? 1968 was a particularly unsettled year worldwide, but why were they so enraged with the Shah of Iran to the point they felt they could change the world? They are liberals, of course, but that is a trigger word, explaining little. Are they part of what Huffman referred to as the 'epic proletarian backlash' that generated the Baader-Meinhof's Revolution? This is the Auschwitz generation, and with that legacy fresh in their identity there was enough fuel to energise a wave of discontent against elitist society. That is another trigger word, however, and doesn't really get to the bottom of what their goal was. Are they Communists if they are anti-capitalist? If they are joined by non-violence, does that brand them as ritualists or merely educators? We are introduced to another woman, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) after this rampage and she is certainly pro-violence. Her boyfriend Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) arrives at their apartment with some explosives. A fire occurs in a clothes shop a short time later. Ensslin and Baader go to bed together but it is not long before police raid the location. This particular strand to the story is momentarily forgotten, but commences once more after footage of Vietnam, Che Guevarra, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King and the perennial squeals of a long-haired man. The court trial is yet to be seen, but in that brief montage, the reasons for their terrorism have been outlined.

The movie uses the new forms of technology to link characters who otherwise would never meet - one of the great beauties of modern technology. Observe the swot who sits upright in his armchair watching television and sees a newsreel report about Rudi Dutschke. Edel makes the most of the incident, as he dissolves from the real-life individual to the actor in his movie playing Dutschke (Sebastian Blomberg.) One might think the television image was used for such trickery, but Edel has another use for it which I will not reveal here. Likewise, the two key women, Meinhof and Ensslin, are initially linked by the media as the latter is watching the journalist report her feelings on the right-wing tactics of dealing with today's students on a live talk show. Meinhof learns about this terrorist through a microphone orientated interview conducted with the father of the now imprisoned criminal, and she is engrossed with what she hears, as dad explains Gudrun's '...state of almost euphoric self-realisation through this act'. Naturally, when Meinhof visits her in jail, Enssslin is quick to highlight she is a fan of the journalist's columns. Whether the two women share an attraction is hearsay, but this is the birth of the Baader-Meinhof conglomeration.

Some commentators will argue the effectiveness of pertaining to violence. I have heard from writers who ridicule students for their belief they can change the world. They can't change the world. There is an admiration though to their action. If one man throws a stone, it is an act of crime that is deemed punishable. If one thousand men throw stones, it becomes more than that - it is, as the film notes, political action. The Holocaust generation feel an obligation to leave their mark, I imagine, and if I were alive during the period who is to say I wouldn't feel ashamed because of the lacklustre resistance the previous generation demonstrated against Adolf Hitler? I may even have got involved in these terrorist organisations in the heat of the moment. Ensslin can't explain her involvement, but she knows it is her historical responsibility to put up as much resistance as is physically possible to what she deems as unacceptable imperialism.

Everything I have described so far takes place within the movie's first thirty minutes. It is that sort of motion picture - the kind that stimulates debate and provokes controversy. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" runs for just under 150 minutes but it flies past in a heartbeat. If you are a fan of Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall" you may enjoy the reunion of sorts between Hitler and Albert Speer, as Bruno Ganz and Heino Ferch both appear here. Interestingly, Ganz plays Horst Herold and Ferch is billed as Horst Herold's assistant (I can imagine his agent telling him this was too good an in-joke to refuse!) You may also remember Alexandra Maria Lara, who played the angelic Traudl Junge, as one of the Red Army Faction's members, Petra Schelm. Sometimes such inclusions can appear redundant, but I sensed these actors were picked for their ability.

They say that only two things in the world sell anything worth counting: sex annd violence. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" excels in both departments. 'Sexual revolution and anti-imperialism go together' explains Baader to a group of fleeting voyeurs. We see quite a lot of Wokalek's flesh throughout the film, and there is a sense that Meinhof is in love with her character. They both look similar, with their poker-straight fringes covering most of their face, but whereas Meinhof looks mousey, Ensslin sizzles with femininity. A meandering student walks in on her as she bathes, and the lady politely asks the stranger to jump in. It is hard to believe a time existed when sex was treated so casually but it was and "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" taps into that. My only criticism with the movie is in its second-half, where a few of the prison sequences are not gloomy enough to support their lengthy illustrations, but overall this is great example of a reality thriller. If you were disappointed with Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and in particular the scene involving the detonation of a bomb in a building, there is an alternative example here that bears a striking, though likely unintentional, resemblance to a moment in "The Dark Knight" when Heath Ledger's Joker vacated Gotham's hospital.

David Wallace, United Kingdom,

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Salinui chueok (Memories of Murder)

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Beginning in the fall of 1986 and continuing for the next four years South Korea was haunted by the nation's first recorded serial killer. Preying upon women in a remote rural community the killer was both vicious and meticulous, strangling his victims with their own undergarments and leaving nothing of any use to the police investigating the crimes. The killer was never caught.

I do not envy any director trying to make a true crime film, particularly not one so high profile and so recent that the crimes still live on in the public consciousness. Stray too far in one direction and you devolve into saccharine sentimentality, go the other direction and you risk crass exploitation. Director Bong Joon-Ho avoided both of these traps by charting an altogether different route: he has made a film that is not about the killer or the crimes or the victims but one that is purely about the police officers charged with the case and the devastating emotional toll it took on their lives. In charting his unusual route Bong has created a bleak masterpiece, one that took home a stack of film awards in its native land but which has been largely neglected on these shores until now.

The film begins with the first body discovered, a woman strangled with her own stockings, raped, tightly bound, and hidden in a drainage culvert. The detective in charge of the case is Park Du-Man (Song Kang-Ho) and it is immediately clear that he is out of his depth, that the entire local police force, in fact, are out of their depth. The crime scene is chaos, crowded by reporters and locals trampling over potentially vital evidence. Park himself is not what you'd call a systematic investigator, scoffing at the scientific approach and trusting in his supposedly unerring eye at picking out criminals just by looking at them. He relies on swagger and bravado and the brute force of his uneducated assisting officer Jo Yong-Gu.

Serving as a foil to Park and Jo is Seo Tae-Yun (Kim Sang-Kyung) a detective from Seoul who has volunteered to assist with the investigation. Seo is the polar opposite of Park - methodical and rational - and it takes mere moments for the two to clash, clashes that lead to the two of them overlooking some key pieces of evidence.

As the film progresses and the body count continues to rise you can feel a sense of desperation slowly settle over the department. Under educated, under manned and woefully under equipped the local force is simply not up to the task. As the realisation that they will not find the evidence they so badly need begins to set in Park and Jo resort to planting evidence to bring in suspects Park picks out with his 'keen eye', suspects they then set out to extract coached confessions from. The process inevitably leads to public humiliation. Soon even Seo begins to lose his faith in reason and just as things bottom out they finally catch a break and settle on a prime suspect, one who truly appears likely to be their man. But can they make it stick? What sets Memories of Murder apart from the crowd are the rich performances from its leads and the sure hand of Bong Joon-Ho. Bong knows exactly what he wants to do with this film and he steers the ship with a firm hand. He has a keen eye for imagery but he consistently avoids the cheap resolve, the quick hit, in favour of a slowly building mood and the film is all the stronger because of it. Song and Kim are both stellar in their roles, giving their characters much needed depth. You can feel their frustration and helplessness continually growing and when the final crushing blow is delivered you can feel their utter despair at being abandoned by a system that they have given their lives to. Bong isn't just asking how this could happen, how someone could be as evil as this killer, but how could a government allow this to happen? How could the police not be given the tools and manpower they so obviously needed to protect the people? The DVD release has been given the standard Palm treatment. The transfer is strong and presented in anamorphic widescreen. The film is presented with both the original Korean language track in 2.0 stereo and an English dub in both 2.0 and 5.1. The English subtitles are solid, clearly translated and easy to read. The disc also includes a reel of cast and crew interviews discussing their characters and the creation of the film as well as an extensive reel of deleted scenes.

Memories of Murder is a minor masterpiece, a film that moved Bong immediately onto Korea's A-list of directing talent. It is richly detailed, beautifully performed and disturbing in precisely the way that people need to be disturbed in from time to time. Don't miss it.