Saturday, September 19, 2009
Sorry I missed reviewing “The Baader Meinhof Complex” when it opened last week (now playing at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) but to talk about it in relationship to a film that just opened, “Flame and Citron” (opened September 18 at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Cinemas), actually makes more sense.
Both films look to historical events as the foundations for their stories. "The Baader Meinhof Complex" (nominated for both a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) dramatizes the story of the real-life West German militant group known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). Co-founded by journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and high school dropout Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), the RAF described itself as a communist urban guerrilla group engaged in armed resistance against what they saw as a fascist government. The RAF was formed in 1970 shortly after student protests around the globe (France, Germany, Mexico, Prague) served as inspiration to young people to take action ranging from political activism to terrorism. One other member of the RAF, Gudrun Ensslin, provided the inspiration for the 1981 Margarethe Von Trotta's superb film “Marianne and Juliane.”
The RAF was active for decades and taunted German police with repeated violence and robberies. Meinhof essentially left her career and children behind in order to engage in acts of resistance and political writing. She wrote about the group’s actions and defended their decision to fight for a better society through acts of violence and anarchy. Baader and Meinhof were the children of Germany's Nazi generation, and in their fierce determination to never let anything like Nazism happen again, they were willing to sacrifice a normal life and commit acts of violence that sometime killed innocent people. Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the head of the German police force, is the first official to understand what drives these militants and what it will take to catch them. The film was written and produced by Bernd Eichinger (“Downfall”) and co-written and directed by Uli Edel (“Last Exit to Brooklyn”).
“Flame and Citron” also looks to history but this time to a spy tale set during World War II. It opens in 1944 Nazi-occupied Copenhagen as World War II is entering its final stages in Europe. Ole Christian Madsen's political thriller claims to work from eye-witness accounts to create a morally complex story about two resistance fighters nicknamed Flame (Thure Lindhardt) and Citron (Mads Mikkelsen) who become heroes of the underground for their violent dealings with traitors to their cause.
Both films serve up characters who are passionate about their causes and could be labeled idealists for the fervent belief they have in what they are doing. Both also deal with the moral complexity of using violence to achieve political or idealistic ends. In the case of “The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” it’s easy to condemn the violence that takes innocent lives and is committed in the commission of a crime. Yet director Edel and writer Eichinger also spend much of the film glorifying and romanticizing the militants. They are played by attractive stars and are defined by a certain fashion sensibility. They display a definite passion for the ideas they are trying to promote, and are critical of things that deserve to be challenged. But then Edel ends the film with a few brief minutes that seem to contradict everything that went before, as if he was saying “Okay I romanticized them but now let’s consider them in the cold light of day and condemn them.” So it’s more like moral confusion than moral complexity and you leave the film not sure of what the point of the movie was. I have to confess that being an American and not having grown up with coverage of the RAF and the terrorism that afflicted Germany for decades, it took me a while to get up to speed with events in the film and to start putting it in a context. So maybe the film plays more forcefully and clearly to an audience that grew up with the events covered.
Edel does deserve credit for following the story for an extended period and not just covering the most sensational years. So we follow the RAF founders from the heyday of their violent activity to years in hiding to imprisonment and trial. There are times through this extended coverage when you can sympathize with their cause, other times when the German government infuriates you, and still other times when you are shocked by their willingness to commit violence.
In contrast, “Flame and Citron” shows us two men who work for the resistance and believe they are following orders but who end up killing innocent people. The film is centrally concerned with that moral complexity and with how it affects the men who kill under orders only to discover that they may have been misguided by those they viewed as superiors. So at the end of the film when a title card announces that these men have been honored as heroes, you are almost surprised because although some of their actions are glamorized there’s also a dark undertone running through the film undercutting a clean sense of heroism. War is a dirty business in this film and the people we see are not fighting on a battlefield where uniforms clearly distinguish who’s fighting on which side, and there’s a clear chain of command for a soldier to follow.
At one point Flame is told that people fight for three reasons: career, ideology, and hatred of the enemy. But there are dangers to all three motivations, especially for the idealist who feels betrayed by the cause. In the case of Flame and Citron and their Holger Danske resistance movement, the organization was successful and secretive but also susceptible to infiltration from the Nazis. So the organization eventually becomes consumed with internal power struggles and betrayal, which further complicates the moral complications.
As with “The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” “Flame and Citron” also looks to what living an underground life can do to a person’s relationships. Meinhof ends up abandoning her children for a cause while Citron’s already troubled marriage is completely undone by all his clandestine activities and secrets. Maintaining a relationship -- where trust, honesty, and simply being able to spend time together are of the utmost importance -- proves impossible under the conditions depicted in these two films. The only relationships you can maintain are ones with your closest cohorts and even those become strained when betrayal and deceit are constant dangers.
Both “The Baader Meinhof Complex” (R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language and in German with English subtitles) and “Flame and Citron” (unrated and in Danish and German with English subtitles) are challenging, compelling films that fail to fully deliver on some complex themes. Of the two, “Flame and Citron” is the more elegantly stylized and controlled while “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” is more provocative, unruly, and unfocused. Both also look to chapters in history that Americans are likely to be unfamiliar with.
Companion viewing: “Army of Shadows,” “The Patty Heart Story,” “The Final Option.” “Che”