When I began work as a teacher, I believed that teaching was about knowledge, about what was inside me, about making a part of others’ brains identical to a part of mine. Of course, I was wrong. Teaching is about communication, about allowing another to come to the knowledge you wish to impart, about the student, not the teacher. Since then, I have been interested in the ways in which people choose to tell their stories – the rhythm of speech, the interplay between text and images and the construction of the narrative arc. How does the audience “learn” what the storyteller “tells”?
In The Baader Meinhof Complex, director Uli Edel dramatises the rise and fall of the group which terrorised West Germany through the 70s. Using Stefan Aust’s book of the same name as a source, Edel understands that it would be pointless to deny the glamour attendant on the heady mix of youth, sex and danger that drives the group’s foundation and binding, floating on a swell of sympathy from a public uneasy with their inchoate dissatisfaction with the still fragile Federal Republic’s rulers, themselves uneasy about their own role in failing to resist the Third Reich a generation or two earlier. Soon, and unstintingly, the descent to group psychosis begins, as the stakes rise and the high-minded political rhetoric of Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin give way to an all-consuming desire to “fight back” that even disconcerts the sociopathic Andreas Baader. By the end of the film, Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin are shown bickering and broken, unable to control the strategy or tactics of their successors outside (whom they have never met). Their ambition has been reduced to smaller and smaller targets, beginning with an entire culture, then a state, then its agents, eventually reaching its endgame in wrestling with prison guards and screaming at each other, before the violence has nowhere else to go but into their own humanity. The film demands that we consider their suicides not as a final defiant act against The Enemy, but as the inevitable consequence of an ideology run out of steam.
A different approach to similar material is taken by Peter Taylor in Provos, his brilliant television history of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Good though Edel’s reconstructions of street violence are (at least as good as Spielberg’s celebrated reconstruction of the D-Day landings in “Saving Private Ryan”) they cannot compare with the visceral quality of news footage used extensively in Taylor’s documentary. Taylor’s approach to telling his story is in more conventional, but gains power as a result. Using the television language later adopted by Big Brother (and all the more affecting as a result), clips of bombings and shootings accompanied by an explanatory voiceover are woven between talking head interviews with those involved. Not even the fine acting of Edel’s cast can deliver the pauses, twitches and occasional flashes of fire in the eyes that Taylor draws from his interviewees, all of whom are dazzlingly eloquent in front of the camera. They were there and, in a real sense, are still there now – their stories are told with an economy of softly spoken words and an avalanche of expression. To Taylor’s immense credit, he prompts with questions that are short as possible, then lets the extraordinary words and pictures speak for themselves.
You can see Peter Taylor’s documentary on youtube by clicking on this link. He also produced an equally brilliant series on Loyalists available here. I can also recommend the books on which the series were based. For an excellent review of The Baader Meinhof Complex, here’s Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts in Vanity Fair.