Looking back at the
Red Army Faction

by Inez Hedges

Christina Gerhardt, Screening the Red Army Faction: Historical and Critical Survey. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, 307 pp., $43 hardcover and e-textbook, $40 paperback.

This eminently readable and beautifully researched book is essential reading for anyone interested in the German postwar period, from 1948 to reunification. In particular, Gerhardt’s historical and cultural analysis of the formation and activities of the Red Army Faction (RAF), which operated from 1970 to 1998, acknowledges the usual explanation for its origin in youth uprisings against the failures of denazification within West Germany’s post-1949 ruling class. But Gerhardt goes farther and deeper—she situates the movement within the larger international context of postcolonial struggles (Vietnam, Algeria, and other African nations) and of worldwide anti-authoritarian movements (the Iranian revolution). Her extensive archival research (for instance in the Berlin archives of the APO, or Extra-Parliamentary Opposition) and interviews with survivors of both RAF victims and perpetrators provides a sweeping and balanced view of the cultural landscape. Her close analyses of relevant films by well-known directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Christian Petzhold, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta as well as related art by Gerhard Richter are supplemented and illuminated by the historical context she so ably presents.

In her opening chapter, Gerhardt brings a historian’s understanding to the thicket of left-wing publications that sprang up around these issues. She usefully comments on the demonstrations against the visit of the Shah of Iran to Berlin in 1967, which resulted in the police killing of Benno Ohnesorg, a peaceful demonstrator. She relates how, the following year in April, future RAF members Andreas Baader and Gudrun Esslin set fire to a department store in Frankfurt, while future RAF member Ulrike Meinhof covered the events in the oppositional news outlet konkret. They were defended in court, in turn, by the lawyer and future RAF member Horst Mahler. Sentenced to prison, they were briefly liberated in 1969 under an amnesty for political prisoners, then ordered back to jail a few months later. Baader and Ensslin went underground, though Baader was later captured. Another flashpoint was the attempted assassination of Rudi Dutschke, a student leader, in April of 1968 after the ultra-conservative Springer press vilified him in the media. Gerhardt’s sure-footed navigation of this fraught terrain is essential to understanding the film texts she discusses in her next three chapters.

In several close analyses of filmic texts, she shows how the “New German Cinema,” as it has come to be called, is closely connected to the oppositional politics of the 1960s and 70s. When the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin was founded in the late 1970s, its first students included Harun Farocki and Helke Sander. In 1967 Farocki made a short film pillorying the Shah of Iran and celebrating the writings of Mao Tse-Tung as his actors tore out pages of Mao’s Little Red Book and made them into paper airplane projectiles. The voice in the film is that of Helke Sander, the future director of the 1978 Redupers: the All-Around Reduced Personality.

Meanwhile, the RAF as well as other radical groups such as the “June 2nd movement” that had grown out of the demonstrations against the Shah, resorted increasingly to violence as a reaction against what they perceived as government collusion against world-wide liberation struggles and the one-sided criticism of anti-colonial aspirations by the establishment press. In May 1970 Andreas Baader was liberated from jail by Meinhof, Ensslin, and others. Bank holdups and bomb attacks followed. The government’s response was to double down on repressive measures, surveillance, and censorship that is represented in two major films of the period, Volker Schlöndorff’s 1975 The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum (based on the novel by Heinrich Böll) and the multi-authored Germany in Autumn. The title of the second film refers to the 1977 kidnapping and assassination by the RAF of Hanns-Martin Schleyer (president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations and the Federation of German Industry, as well as a former member of the Schutzstaffel SS during the Hitler era), and to the subsequent apparent prison suicides of RAF members Baader, Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe and Irmgard Möller in October of that year (Meinhof had been found hanged in her prison cell on May 9).

The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum imagines how an innocent domestic worker who meets a German military recruit gone AWOL is ensnared in a network of conspiracy theories spawned by the close collaboration of the police and the yellow journalist media. Böll’s novel and the film expose the paranoia that gripped the German nation as a result of the RAF’s and other groups’ turn to violence. Things spiral out of control and Katarina ends up shooting the reporter who is baiting her.

Germany in Autumn opens with documentary footage of state funeral of RAF victim Martin Schleyer and closes with footage of the burial of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe. In between there are short pieces by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, and others. This complex film has been analyzed by some of the major contemporary writers on German cinema—among them Miriam Hansen, Rick Rentschler, and Thomas Elsaesser. Gerhardt does a good job of finding a path through their commentaries. Importantly, she cites Alexander Kluge’s discussion of the role of film in the public sphere and argues persuasively for the importance of this particular film. Schlöndorff’s fictional representation of scene in which a TV film of Sophocles’ “Antigone” is being censored by TV executives is a successful parody of the prevailing nervousness of the period. The censors are portrayed as being unwilling to countenance any opposition to authority, even embodied in a Greek play from the 5th century BCE.

Ismene argues that Antigone should yield to the violence of the State. Creon as the embodiment of State violence.

In the 1970s directors also made films about workers and about the rising feminist movement, issues Gerhardt explores in a separate chapter on Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) and the trilogy of “sisters” films by Margarethe von Trotta (The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, 1978; Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness, 1979; and Marianne and Juliane, 1981). Here, the exclusive focus on West Germany means that she doesn’t mention important East German films on workers, such as the Wittstock series by Volker Koepp from the same period. This could have added another dimension, since there were RAF members who sought refuge in East Germany (and who had their covers blown when the wall came down in 1989).

In her close analysis of Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Gerhardt offers an interesting commentary on the way that framing emphasizes the claustrophobic entrapment of the workers in their workplace and circumstances. She also highlights the melodrama and empathy with characters that defines Fassbinder’s signature style. She usefully explains how the film was released with different endings for German and U.S. audiences—a happy one for the United States, a grim one for Germany.

Gerhardt’s discussion of von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane demonstrates the intersection of the personal and political and shows why this film is an important statement about the choices activist women faced in the 1970s and 80s. Marianne, loosely based on Gudrun Ensslin, has gone underground; she supports the PLO and abandons her son to Juliane, who is forced to place him in foster care. The film delves into the sisters’ childhoods and their different rebellions against their authoritarian father.

Gerhardt discusses how this film is a “meditation on history and memory.” There are images of German women’s fight for abortion rights and a scene where, as schoolchildren, their father took them to watch Alain’s Resnais’ Holocaust documentary Night and Fog. Gerhardt comments,

“By presenting the screening of Night and Fog from a variety of vantage points, the film calls attention to the relationship between historical events and familial history.” [187]

Juliane joins demonstrations for women’s rights… ….while Marianne becomes a wanted underground revolutionary.
Juliane visits Marianne in prison. Juliane learns on TV of her sister’s death in prison.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of a related film by Christian Petzhold, an early collaborator of Farocki’s and now head of the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin, The State I Am in (2000). The stress in Petzhold’s film is laid on the daughter of two activists living in the underground and the incompatibility between their way of life and their daughter’s needs.

Films about the RAF continued after reunification. In a chapter on terrorism and the cold war, Gerhardt comments on the way Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita (2000, co-written with East German Director Wolfgang Kohlhaase) explored the fate of RAF members who were left exposed after the wall came down, with nowhere to go for asylum. Gerhardt comments that the film “can be read critically as a heritage film that seeks to produce consensus, a post-wall West-East German collaboration.” Yet she also notes that by focusing on Rita’s life in East Germany, the film eclipses the international arena within which the RAF operated, its ties to postcolonial and anti-capitalist struggles.

Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita deaks with members of the RAF in Paris, ... ... their jailbreak and escape to the GDR.
After the wall:  a futile defense of socialism. Nowhere to flee:  Rita on her death ride.

A final chapter moves away from film to discuss the controversies enveloping Gerhard Richter’s painting series, “October 18, 1977” (first exhibited in 1989) and an exhibition in Berlin on the RAF in 2005. Richter’s paintings consist of large oils referencing newspaper photographs of the capture of Gudrun Ensslin, images of her death by hanging in her jail cell, and the funeral in 1977 of three RAF members after their apparent suicides in a maximum security German prison. Gerhardt describes Richter’s exhibition, which aroused considerable controversy in Germany, as a way of working through trauma. The artist washes out the focus in the photographs so that they seem to be blurred, a work of mourning and a reference to the receding sharpness of memory.

For readers like myself who lived through this era, Gerhardt’s book fills in many lacunae and provides explanation and context for one’s individual experience. For those “born later” (in Brecht’s phrase) Screening the Red Army Faction, which is accompanied by an extensive bibliography, is an indispensable resource and guide to the complex currents that have shaped postwar Germany.