The subject of the fascinating Oscar-nominated German film “The Baader Meinhof Complex” is the Red Army Faction — also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang — a real-life left-wing terrorist organization formed in the early ’70s. The film dramatizes the group’s ascension from anti-imperialist protesters during the war in Vietnam to one of the most infamous urban guerrilla groups in the world. It’s startling and captivating, and while director Uli Edel’s politics are unsurprisingly downplayed in favor of a more standard documentary-like approach, the film is unnervingly successful in its recreation of a time defined by turmoil.

The Baader Meinhof Complex

At the Michigan
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Martina Gedeck (“The Lives of Others”) plays Ulrike Meinhof, a radical left-wing journalist whose resentment of American imperialism and the war leads her to Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu, “Speed Racer”) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek, “North Face”). Together, the three form the Red Army Faction, welcoming other restless youths into their fold as they begin a series of bank robberies and protests that eventually lead to an all-out declaration of war on capitalism and the United States.

It’s not hard to see why something like “The Baader Meinhof Complex” would be embraced by mainstream audiences. Provocative and entertaining, the film plays like “The Battle of Algiers” for a generation raised on the breathless international intrigue of “24.” There’s not a whole lot of substance here; the subversive “third world” politics of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, in which the viewer, often unwittingly, is influenced to sympathize with the anti-French rebels, are ditched in favor of “Bourne”-like action scenes and an unsurprising objectivity that allows the filmmakers to skirt by without making an overarching political statement. Its insistence on aligning the terrorists’ actions with sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll — not to mention the fact that the members of the gang, with the exception of the middle-aged Meinhof, are all sexy, uninhibited and glamorous-looking — seem to demonstrate this.

The film is not so much concerned with deploying the inherent brutality of terrorism as it is with the young guerrillas’ insistence on using it as a means to feed their desire for rebellion. Also, the film is ruthless in the way it uses individual characters as mouthpieces for the various conflicting viewpoints of the era, as if to ensure no audience member would leave with a bad taste in his or her mouth.

All that said, “The Baader Meinhof Complex” is still a terrific film. It’s long, but it never feels slow; it’s violent, but it never feels gratuitous; and it’s often unpredictable, though it never feels manipulative. While it loses grasp of its numerous characters at times — some disappear from the film completely only to reappear later without warning — its frenzied nature just lends to the feeling of chaos it’s trying to emulate. The actors capitalize on their flimsy roles, but, ultimately, this isn’t a film that emphasizes characters — even Baader and Meinhof seem inconsequential to the narrative. The dramatic impact instead comes from the collision between powerfully staged action set-pieces and real-life news footage from the era in which the film takes place.

Like Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” a film with which this shares some similarities (right down to the muted color scheme which resembles faded newsreel footage), “The Baader Meinhof Complex” is a fascinating example of a film about the past made to address politics of the present.

Again, it’s not an overtly political film — in the sense that it doesn’t voice its own opinions about the proceedings — but it certainly poses many relevant and controversial questions regarding the origins of terrorism and the necessary acts a government must take to stop it. This may be the obvious route for a film of this nature to take — acting as a kind of arbiter for the Right and Left — and in that sense the film could have been more daring. But there’s no denying the sheer intensity of Edel’s film, or the fact that, despite its flaws, it’s one of the most purely diverting films to be released in quite a while.

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