#93 - In Critical Condition

Dedicated To
Ted Kennedy
1932 - 2009

Added 9/1/9

Guten Tag, everybody. Welcome back to Herr Jahnke’s Elektrisches Theater. We’ve got a very German-centric lineup this week, so let’s head over to Deutschland!


The Baader Meinhof Complex

Any time you see a movie “based on a true story”, take a moment to acknowledge what a difficult task that really is. The filmmakers must take possibly familiar events and stage them in a way that seems fresh and new. At the same time, they cannot assume that everyone in their audience is well-versed in history and already knows even the broad strokes of the story. Also, most historical events don’t occur over a movie-friendly matter of days. Months, often years, must be condensed into just a few hours. The players have to be arranged in such a way that they don’t remain vague historical figures but become three-dimensional human beings. And since nothing occurs in a vacuum, the filmmakers have to recreate the look and feel of the period, both visually and emotionally. Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex triumphs in every way. It’s a thrilling, cerebral story masterfully told.

American audiences may not be as familiar with the Red Army Faction as they ought to be. Emerging from the student protest movement of the 60s, the RAF terrorized West Germany throughout the 1970s, fighting a form of “urban guerilla” warfare against what they perceived to be an increasingly fascist regime. We see the brutality of the police early on in a savage riot scene. The film does an excellent job portraying the mindset of the younger generation. They were the first to come of age in the aftermath of World War II and loathed their parents and grandparents for what they viewed as their complete failure to prevent Hitler’s rise to power. The radical left vowed to prevent such tyranny from ever happening again, by any means necessary.

Edel wisely focuses on the formation of the group, intertwining the fates of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and liberal journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Meinhof gradually becomes radicalized and throws her fate in with the group by aiding in Baader’s escape from prison. Bleibtreu is charismatic and frightening as Baader, while Gedeck is utterly believable every step of the way. We feel her desire to get involved as well as her gradual isolation from the rest of the group. Edel spends an equal amount of time planting the seeds for what the RAF would become. After the arrest of the group’s leaders, the RAF continues to evolve, launching increasingly violent, ill-conceived attacks in the hopes of forcing the government into freeing the political prisoners. The RAF has taken on a life of its own and its founders can do nothing about it.

Edel’s film is epic in both size and scope. He trusts his audience to keep up with the increasingly complicated characters, relationships and ideologies. This is one of those rare movies that actually rewards you for using your brain. The film is violent but never gratuitously so. The violence is as realistic and as harsh as it should be. Most impressively, The Baader Meinhof Complex places these events within a global context. Without beating the audience over the head, we see how the RAF is informed by events in America, Vietnam, Cuba, the Middle East and elsewhere. This is a rich and fascinating movie, thought-provoking and exciting all at the same time. It’s opening gradually across America over the next several weeks. Keep an eye out for it and treat yourself to one of the best films of the year. (* * * ½)


The Counterfeit Traitor

There is no great plan when it comes to scheduling the recommendations I get for Tales From The Queue. You write in, I add it to the list and when it happens, it happens. Still, it feels like serendipity is at work in bringing the 1962 WW2 movie The Counterfeit Traitor to TFTQ the same week as The Baader Meinhof Complex and just one week after Inglourious
. I wasn’t familiar with this title at all until now but it’s a smart, gripping war movie that deserves your attention.

William Holden stars as a Swedish oil trader blacklisted for dealing with the Germans. He’s approached by a British agent (Hugh Griffith) and essentially blackmailed into helping the Allies. He is asked to publicly become a Nazi sympathizer, thus gaining him access to Berlin. He makes weekly trips into Germany under the pretense of building a refinery, reporting back on what he learns. By doing this, he loses his friends and his wife. But eventually, his eyes are opened to the real horror of Nazism and he continues to spy for the Allies even when his own life is endangered.

Directed by George Seaton, The Counterfeit Traitor is surprisingly subtle for a movie of its type. Holden is terrific as the conflicted businessman. Yes, he eventually signs on for the right reasons but he makes no bones about the fact that he’s originally cooperating against his will. Danger lurks in unexpected corners, such as a German associate’s young son who has signed on with the Hitler Youth. The movie takes its time but the tension is ratcheted up in the last act, as Holden has to smuggle himself back to Sweden.

The Counterfeit Traitor is an unusual, extremely well-done espionage tale. It’s a welcome reminder that even in wartime, nothing is black and white and our motivations for action are constantly in flux and almost always murky. (* * *)

Thanks to Brian DeLeon for this week’s TFTQ recommendation! As always, if you have information that leads to the capture of an underrated gem, send it my way. No questions asked.

Your pal,