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Baader Meinhof Complex Director Uli Edel on Living Through Terrorism, and His Favorite Rapper

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Germany’s nomination for last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, finally hits American theaters today. The film tells the story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a group of young leftist radicals — led by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof — who terrorized West Germany throughout the seventies with a series of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, in a tragically misguided attempt to topple a government they believed was a continuation of the Nazi regime. The movie tracks the events between the June 2, 1967, murder of Benno Ohnesorg, a university student shot by a policeman while protesting the state visit of the Shah of Iran, which was the trigger of the movement, and the 1977 simultaneous suicides of the Baader-Meinhof high command — deaths made to look like they were perpetrated by prison guards — while in custody at the Stammheim prison. Vulture spoke to director Uli Edel.

I understand you paid a great deal of attention to detail, including even how many bullets were fired in various assassinations …
I mentioned the number of bullets in an interview, and now it’s always brought up. I did that specifically in relation to the Schleyer assassination, to really understand the scale of the massacre. At the time we saw the photos of the aftermath, and years later when I did the research, I saw they fired 119 bullets. I mean, are these really people like me and you? This was a massacre. And these were students, some at the same university as me — I could have been at the same discotheques as them.

How did you view the Baader-Meinhof gang while you were in school?
You couldn’t help but be curious what they gonna do. Especially a person like Ulrike Meinhof, who was at that time — 1967, '68 — a very prominent left-wing figure in Germany. So, we students, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old students, you had a kind of leftist thinking. You read her columns — she wrote in these magazines, leftist magazines, every two weeks — religiously, and followed her ideas and her analysis of the politics at that time. She was an established figure, a mother of two kids, she was married, and all of a sudden 1970 when basically it got quiet in the universities in Europe again, they all of a sudden vanished in the underground. And then you heard the first bank robberies — it was connected [in our heads] with a lot of, yeah, Bonnie and Clyde, romantic.

Did you identify with their ideology?
You have to know that, 1969, Willy Brandt came to power, so we had a Social Democratic chancellor. Before that, we had a former Nazi. You know that. It was teasing us. There were a lot of reasons for us young people, the postwar generation — we didn't trust our parents at all. We accused them of having supported the Reich. We have to resist, we cannot allow that something like fascism finds a new rebirth in Germany again. And that second of June, when Ohnesorg was shot, when the Shah arrives, and the few people were protesting — it was just a ruthless attack of the Berlin police. So, I'm just saying, I followed them with interest till the first bombs exploded. That was two years later. All of a sudden, you stepped back and said, are they nuts? The first innocent people were lying in the street. This cannot be Ulrike Meinhoff! It can not be her. Maybe it's Andreas Baaden, who's a nuthead.

The gang was officially known as the Red Army Faction, and it was the newspapers that dubbed them the Baader-Meinhof Gang. How effective was the media in shaping their image?
Ensslin and Baaden very well knew how to sell things to the media. They kind of played with the media — when you look at the pictures, when they appeared, wherever, they looked like young rock stars. The young rebels, sitting with sunglasses in the courtrooms. And having their supporters, giving them coverage in the all the kind of leftist medias. I’m talking now again about the time before the bombs exploded. They were really treated like rock stars.

What do you say to criticism from the families of the people portrayed, especially the widow of Jurgen Ponto, who claimed the movie was inaccurate in its depiction of Ponto's assassination?
We approached most of the people before — I knew, who wants to see his father killed in a movie again and again and again? I tried to contact, through some friends, Mrs. Ponto. There was no way she would let me talk to her. Especially that case, what happened in that living room, I wanted to hear it from her. I wanted to really hear it again, what she remembers. [But] I think I did it pretty close, what happened there. And I even think that she does not remember it right. But when a movie like this is done, sure, for the victims, it’s hard for them. I would never argue against the wife of Mr. Ponto.

It was revealed, after you completed your film, that the policeman who assassinated Ohnesorg was a Stasi agent.
It was the most amazing news for a lot of people in Germany after so many years. Now, so many years later, we find out that the killer, the shooter at the second of June was a Stasi agent … now that is really news! [Laughs] I still cannot believe it. And you know that even Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the student movement in Berlin — they tried to assassinate him too, and ten years later he actually died from the later effects. But his wife said that even he thought his assassin was maybe a Stasi. He suspected it but he never found out, because the guy committed suicide in prison.

Has the early myth of the Baader-Meinhof gang survived at all?
Irmgard Möller, the woman who survived that fatal night in Stammhein, she still tries to tell the myth that they did not commit suicide, that it was someone from the outside. They had to make their deaths look like, done from a fascist government, so that it would prove that all their actions were justified. Young people now started to believe again — sure, the government. It was the government, right? But there's no way. The only thing, what might be suspicious — we know for sure that they were wiretapped. We know that for sure. If they listened to what they were speaking, we don't know for sure. But Stefan Aust [who wrote the nonfiction book on which the movie is based] is still believing that there must be tapes of that fatal night. If they all collectively committed suicide, they must have had connections. If those connections were there, somebody might have listened to it. And somebody might have known that they were going to do it. And the question would be, why did they not prevent it? I don't know if this is a kind of a conspiracy theory. But you should ask Stefan Aust. He is not giving up. He said, I will find these tapes.

Moving along — now you're shooting an 8 Mile–type biopic on German rapper Bushido. Sounds like a drastic shift.
It's not such a big shift. First of all, my two sons — basically I'm listening since they were 12 years old to nothing else but rap music. So I got brainwashed heavily. When Bernd Eichinger, the producer, called me, he said, "Listen, there is this German rapper king, he's the best rapper in Germany. He's an Arab-German: His father was Arab — Tunisian — his mother a German. We call it a multiculti scene, kind of a ghetto scene in Berlin. It's a minority in Germany, this rebellious minority." And I said, "Wow, this is great. I love rap music!" I didn't even know the guy before. And I listened to the music and, it's really … my sons can't understand it 'cause they don't speak German … but the music is great. But it's not so much a movie about Bushido, it's a movie about ghetto culture in Berlin.

What rappers do you like?
I love Tupac.

Photo: Getty Images