As we are in the middle of our annual International Film Festival down on the Riviera of the Antarctic (one of the kinder euphemisms for Dunedin), some comments on film and criticism seem very much in order …
I want to consider here the very good German film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Uli Edel, 2008), which screened last night and which recounts in whirlwind style the rise of the Red Army Faction (RAF) in West Germany from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. The film gets a lot of things right, not least in its casting (Moritz Bleibtreu finally succeeds in driving his repellent Manni – from Lola rennt – out of my head after almost a decade). Its recreation of the period is immersive, obsessively detailed, and utterly convincing. Its intensity and its brutality are never forced, never overplayed, and feel absolutely genuine. And, perhaps most impressively, it refuses to turn its portrait of 1960s political radicalism into facile hagiography, a tendency still pervasive in contemporary culture. What is less impressive is that the RAF’s actual ideology is given such short shrift. We learn a good deal about their actions, but very little about what motivated those actions. Though we do get the occasional glimpse of the sorts of things the RAF sought to tackle – prison conditions for political prisoners, the US-led war in Vietnam, the Israeli occupation of Palestine – it would be difficult for a viewer without at least some knowledge of the history of guerilla socialist movements to really gather much of an impression of their arguments and aims; indeed, the RAF’s central trio, Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin, often come across in the film as little more than invective-shouting blowhards or endlessly equivocating academics. Adding some genuine ideological reflection into the film would admittedly be a daunting task, not least in that dramatising complex philosophies on screen is exceedingly difficult. Doing this also places any film in immediate danger of being dismissed as either invective or as overly intellectual (particularly problematic in highly anti-intellectual places like New Zealand). This leads me to what I suppose is my main point here; film critics need to be as careful with and as conscious of ideology as anyone else.
In some of the professional criticism of the film, we encounter examples of a standard feature of many mainstream discourses on political or religious violence; that is, a total dismissal of the meaning of those violent actions we too easily label as terrorism. We find, for example, the following from Andrew L. Urban at Urban Cinefile, a respectable Australian website concerned with film:
If you lived through the 70s as an adult (or young adult), you will remember the name, Baader Meinhof, also known as the Red Army Faction. Perhaps like me, you’ll have forgotten what they stood for. This film reminds us that they didn’t really stand for anything much more than anarchy, even though they – eventually – dressed it up as a desire to ‘free the oppressed’ and destroy US imperialism, as they saw it. They wanted world peace, if you like, even it meant waging war and slaughtering civilians to get it … Perhaps the most important function of a movie about the Baader Meinhofs of this world is to reveal their hollow morality, their arrogance and their cruelty; nothing romantic here to entice youngsters to kill innocent civilians in pursuit of peace and freedom. In this respect, the film highlights the absolute failure of politically driven terrorism as an agent of socio-political change. Real, and really valuable change, can be bought about by societies without large scale slaughter – as they were with the fall of corrupt and greedy President Marcos of the Philippines, and the fall of European communism.
While he is right to condemn some of their methods, Urban, in dismissing outright the possibility that the RAF operated with any genuine political aims, makes an all-too-common mistake in that he seeks to defuse the symbolic threat that groups like the RAF represent. This is, perhaps, done in the service of another one of those simple stories that we are all so infatuated with; that those whose methods are questionable are following an incoherent and inconsequential ideology, if indeed they are not merely anarchists. Is not anarchism itself an ideology? Repellent as they may be, the actions of the RAF – not to mention those by al-Qaeda, Hamas, the IRA, and other more contemporary groups – are meaningful actions. Why would anyone perform these actions without reason? Would someone like Holger Meins (whose fatal prison hunger strike is brutally portrayed in the film) have acted as he did without a reason more compelling than a desire to cause chaos? As Mark Jurgensmeyer notes in his excellent 2003 book, Terror in the Mind of God, acts of violence are complex cultural formations that cannot simply be dismissed or ignored:
These creations of terror are done not to achieve a strategic goal but to make a symbolic statement. By calling acts of religious terrorism ‘symbolic’, I mean that they are intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye … Such explosive scenarios are not tactics directed toward an immediate, earthly, or strategic goal, but dramatic events intended to impress for their symbolic significance (pp. 125-126).
This leads me to my final point about textual criticism; it is dangerous to ignore the ideological content of films (and all text is ideological in one way or another). Nor, it must be mentioned, is there any need to make the opposite mistake, as the film critics at the World Socialist Website do on a regular basis, denigrating perfectly fine films for the flaw that they don’t happen to agree wholeheartedly with the rather narrowly prescribed (and frankly outdated) Trotskyite socialism that the site represents. This is not to denigrate Trotsky and certainly not to dismiss Marx, but there can be little doubt that classical Marxism has proven itself unable to grapple with a number of contemporary developments, especially those involving religion. To judge the value of every single cultural artefact on the criteria of how well it supports one particular ideology is to in essence declare an end to ideological and political debate and to turn all art into propaganda. And, Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein aside, propaganda film tends to be rather banal (if you doubt this, go out and see any film by Michael Bay, who is little more than a propagandist for the United States military).
Proper criticism involves considering the text on its own merits as a cultural artefact and as an aesthetic object. The mark of a good film critic is being able to admit that a film is good even if the critic disapproves of the meaning that it may be trying to convey. As a scholar of film searching for this ever-elusive detachment, I want to recall a number of films that I have seen and admired – at times even deeply admired – whose moral or ideological structure I find repellent. Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone is one of these films. So is American Beauty. For the same reason, a good critic or analyst should be able to admire a filmmaker as an artist and at the same time find their films to be abhorrent – and here Lars van Trier comes immediately to mind (I am, in fact, avoiding a screening of van Trier’s Antichrist at the Festival tonight for the simple reason that I can only make it through a van Trier film if I can pause it and walk away at intervals, perhaps to take a shower). Dismissing texts simply because we happen to disagree with them is the worst kind of criticism and smacks of a lack of conviction.