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Radical roots 'Baader Meinhof' will educate as it entertains

One of my favorite moments in Uli Edel's often-superb "The Baader Meinhof Complex" comes when the film is a little more than a quarter of the way through.

Andreas Baader -- an impetuous, '60s radical who is always on the lookout for the most extreme and violent expression of his ideals -- is mocking his underground group's lawyer. He's such a wuss, to Baader, that the fellow couldn't even steal a wallet from the handbag of the woman at the adjoining restaurant table.

To prove how gutsy he is, the lawyer accepts the challenge and does just that -- and wins the approval of his friend.

A minute later, Baader's own car is stolen -- a no-account Renault he'd already stolen from someone else -- and the militant bank robber erupts with violent obscenities at such naked, disgusting thievery on city streets.

Another couple scenes later, Ulrike Meinhof -- a radical journalist and intellectual whose husband's infidelity sent her into extreme militancy -- has entered into a plan to spring Baader from police custody. She was supposed to be just a decoy, the one who lured Baader into the open for "an interview" and then claimed ignorance after the "liberating" raid all went down.

Everything goes like clockwork, except that people are killed. At one point, Baader and his all-female "liberators" escape through an open window. For a few seconds, Meinhof stares at the open window. Then, dramatically, she jumps through it into another life entirely from the politicized domesticity -- and two children -- she has previously contented herself in.

It's that tiny pause on the open window that got me. That is superb filmmaking on the fly.

In fact, the first hour of "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is as fast and down and dirty and successful a portrait of late '60s, early '70s radicalism you will ever see in a movie.

That's always been the way. When movies have presented the subject quickly, while preoccupied with something else, they have sometimes done so exceptionally well (see "Katherine," Jeremy Paul Kagan's 1975 TV movie with Sissy Spacek). When they've been important, they've usually been preposterous (see Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," which ends with a dynamited version of his masterful ending of "The Eclipse" and is, in its prettified destruction, almost indistinguishable for Hollywood's gaudy explosions thereafter.)

This movie, though, has a lot more on its mind. While it ends up, at 2 1/2 hours, just a wee bit too long, it is also, in its way, a thoroughly superb and informative introduction to the forms of terrorism we're struggling with in the 21st century.

What you're subsequently seeing is everything that happens to the Baader Meinhof Gang long after its leaders are imprisoned and new generations take over. They edge ever closer to involving "innocent" civilians in large numbers as victims in their crimes against capitalism and oppression.

There are those murders of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics. And then there are hijacked flights. And finally there is the horror when the gang -- wiped out in original form -- merges with jihadists and becomes instrumental in the kind of nightmare, Hobbesian war of "all against all" we know far too well.

Edel is a very peculiar filmmaker. He has done formidable work before in English -- his adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn." He's also directed Madonna in "Body of Evidence."

While the film is a bit too long, it's also one of the best things Edel has ever done -- and one of the most absorbing docudrama treatments you'll find of how we got where we are.




Three stars (out of four)

STARRING: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu and Bruno Ganz


RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes

RATING: R for nudity, sex and a great deal of bloody violence.

THE LOWDOWN: The fact-based tale of how radical West German bank robbers in the '60s and '70s became the decisive influence on the brutality of modern 21st-century terrorism. In German with subtitles.

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