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When terrorism threatened Europe

The documentary A German Youth tells the story of the Baader-Meinhof group exclusively through archive clips. It does not make the parallels to today's news picture less obvious. 


A German Youth (Une Jeunesse Allemande)
Directed and cut: Jean-Gabriel Periot

“The world today lives under a constant fear of terrorism. There is no longer anywhere in the world to be safe from bombs, hijackings and hostages, ”a documentary in the documentary said A German Youth. This may sound like an argument for stepping up our "war on terror" today, but the clip is more than 40 years old. For although our continent has been hit by some major terrorist attacks in recent years, such attacks reportedly occurred more frequently and resulted in more deaths in Western Europe in the 70 and 80 centuries than in the current and previous decades. This was at least the message in an article published by the Urix editorial on NRK's ​​website a few weeks after the terrorist attack in Paris in November. And it can be important to be reminded these days, where it seems difficult to keep your head cold and the heart warm in the face of both terrorist threat and refugee stream.

Admittedly, in the same article, terrorist scientist Thomas Hegghammer emphasizes that the decline has been evident mainly in the United Kingdom and Spain, where events in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country respectively led to many deaths in the two decades. But there were also significant terrorist groups in other European countries – including West Germany's Red Army Group (RAF), which A German Youth is about.

A survey done at their most popular showed that 25 percent of West Germans under the age of 40 had some sympathy for the Baader-Meinhof group.

The documentary, which is directed and edited by French Jean-Gabriel Periot, premiered at last year's Berlinale, and was shown at the Bergen International Film Festival this fall. Through an impressive compilation of archive clips, it tells the story of the RAF, known as the "Baader-Meinhof Group", after the two central members Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Together with student Gudrun Ensslin and lawyer Horst Mahler, in 1970 they founded the left-wing, urban guerrilla group, which through its bomb attacks, executions and kidnappings, left its brutal mark on West Germany's post-war history.

Postwar Period. A German Youth begins with the question of whether it is possible to make films in Germany today, posed in one of the film's many clips from the television reports of the time. Although it may seem strange at first, the estimate is basically appropriate. For it will largely be about what kind of society Germany was in 1965 and the subsequent ten years, in addition to filmmaking itself being a thematic and narrative element of the documentary.
In its introductory section draws A German Youth a picture of postwar guilt-ridden West Germany, against a backdrop of protests abroad – not least the anti-war demonstrations in the United States. "The parent generation has lost their credibility because they are associated with Nazism," says the strikingly well-articulated Ulrike Meinhof in a television debate early in the film. The war had created a deep divide between the generations, which was hardly diminished by the many movements that revolted against the existing in both Europe and the United States.

Filmmaking. In western Germany, protest movements also arose in the late 60s. Especially among students, for example at the newly established Academy of Film and Television in Berlin. One of the students here was the later RAF member Holger Meins (who died as a result of a hunger strike in prison in 1974), and he was not the only one in the Baader-Meinhof group who had experience in film production. Although Ulrike Meinhof was best known as columnist and co-editor of Konkret magazine, he also directed short films and wrote the screenplay for the television film bamboo before she went underground as one of the terror group's leadership figures.
A German Youth shows clips and reconstructions of several of Mein's and Meinhof's films. In one of Mein's productions, a sexy Gudrun Ensslin appears in front of the camera. Another one is talkative enough called How to make a molotov cocktail, and is an instructional film not unlike those ISIS is spreading online today, while BZ in the toilet shows the newspaper Berliner Zeitung that is thrown into a toilet where there is already stools. Particularly sophisticated, this unfinished film can hardly be said to be, but it is nevertheless easier to forgive than much else the members of the RAF did. And then it reminds us that they were young.

Violent clashes. The criticism of the media is also an important aspect in the history of the Red Army faction, as it is told in the A German Youth. Central to this context are the demonstrations when the shah of Iran visited West Berlin in 1967. Violent clashes broke out between the demonstrators and the shah's security guards, and then the police. German television defended the authorities, while the television images clearly showed that unnecessary brutality was being perpetrated against the protesters. With this, the media mogul Axel Springer – who was a kind of German Rupert Murdoch at this time – became a symbol of what many considered a lack of press freedom in Germany.
During the same demonstration, student Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a civilian policeman, who was then acquitted in two lawsuits. "You cannot act without violence in a society that has become violent," says one of the RAF members – I think it is Ensslin – at a later date in A German Youth. Together with right-wing extremist Josef Bachmann's attack on student leader Rudi Dutschke the following year, which is also covered in the film, the killing at Ohnesorg is considered one of the triggering factors for the formation of the Red Army Fraction.

Young and attractive. At the same time, it is too easy to point to single events only, and A German Youth then also draws a composite image of a radical breaking time. “All those convicted come from middle-class families. How is it that they became criminals, ”a storyteller asks dryly during a news piece from the first lawsuit against Baader, Ensslin and a few others. "How could a young woman place bombs," he wonders further, as the camera pans to Ensslin. In the same clip, Baader and the others celebrate cigars, as if to demonstrate their total opposition to the system.

I don't think I'm the only one ever guilty of some romanticization of the Red Army faction.

There is certainly something attractive about these young rebels, who almost look like rock stars. Baader himself drove Porsche and is supposed to have modeled after Marlon Brando, and hardly wanted to counter the image created by the group as a kind of modern Bonnie and Clyde. A survey carried out when they were at their most popular also revealed that 25 percent of West Germans under the age of 40 had some sympathy for the Baader-Meinhof group, and that one in ten reportedly would have hidden an RAF member for the police. And I have to admit that I am almost a little taken aback by Ulrike Meinhof when I see these old recordings.
Although their motivation was undeniably political, the RAF represented in some way the ultimate youth rebellion – perhaps not quite unlike how Islamic fundamentalism can be considered the most radical form of rebellion against today's Western society. The fact that extremism in its various ideological failings is not necessarily so far apart is also confirmed by the fact that RAF founder Horst Mahler is today an extreme right activist, convicted of Holocaust denial and racial hatred (which the film does not mention).

No romanticization. Of course, one should not take lightly on RAF's misdeeds, which cost many people their lives. On the contrary, it is unpleasant to realize how easily one can be fascinated by the extremist group. And I don't think I'm the only one ever guilty of some romanticization of the Red Army faction.
However, Jean-Gabriel Periot does not do so in his film. Instead of coming up with his own considerations, the filmmaker lets the story speak for itself through the diverse archive material. This approach means that the film requires certain basic knowledge of the viewer, but is also an important reason why A German Youth is a unique documentary about a group many films have been made about before. And the parallels of our time are nevertheless so striking that you do not need anyone to point them out. This applies to both the very threat of terror – which can even come from within society – and the authorities' harsh words and harsh reactions. As well as, fortunately, some strong warnings against resorting to fascist methods in the fight against terrorism, which are constantly worth listening to.


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