By Greg King
“We could not have made this film in Germany ten years ago,” German actor Moritz Bleibtreu says of his new film The Baader Meinhof Complex, which opened the Festival of German Films in Melbourne recently.
Part thriller, part historical drama, part character study, The Baader Meinhof Complex traces the rise of the Red Army Faction terrorist group in 1970’s Germany. The crux of the group was Andreas Baader, disenchanted journalist Ulrike Meinhof and Gundrun Ensslin. The film draws links between the RAF and several other key events of the decade – the Munich Olympics massacre, the Stockholm embassy siege, the hi-jacking of a Lufthansa jet and the dramatic rescue of the passengers in Entebbe.
Although Bleibtreu is too young to remember the events depicted in the film, he didn’t have to do much preparation or research, because the producers had done most of it. They came prepared with plenty of archival footage, and research and detailed notes on the era and the characters.
“People can hardly believe it’s a true story,” admits Bleibtreu. “We didn’t exaggerate any of it. It happened like that. There was a documentary-like recreation of the facts. Some people have said: ‘Did they really sunbake naked on the roof in the desert?’ and it was like: ‘Yes, they did!’ But there was still a lot of stuff that we didn’t put in the movie as it was not believable.”
Was Bleibtreu worried that by playing Baader he would make the character appear too sympathetic? “That was discussed,” he admits. “He was a powerful character, he’s a myth, but nobody really knew the man. I can’t just rely on what people said about him. To some people he was a hero, a charismatic guy, and to others he is a murderer. I do my job, which is acting. I play him like any other fictitious character. It’s my job to interpret, not to imitate. Scenes were written that way and I just had to play them.”
Born in Munich in 1971, Bleibtreu is the son of actors Hans Brenner and Monika Bleibtreu. As part of an acting family he virtually grew up in the theatre and considers that it was almost inevitable that he would become an actor. “It was my second home,” he says. “I never even considered another option.”
Moritz made his first appearance at the age of six on a children’s television series called Neues aus Uhlenbusch, written by his mother. He has since appeared alongside his mother in a number of film, television and stage shows. He enjoys those experiences of working along side his mother, whom he graciously calls “one of the greatest actresses in the world.” But with a tinge of regret he adds: “However, there are not that many good projects around that we can work on together.”
After briefly working as an au pair in Paris, Bleibtreu informally studied acting in New York for a few years, but he professes a dislike for the method acting style of immersing yourself intensely into a character. In recent years Bleibtreu has become one of Germany’s most recognisable young actors, and certainly one of the busiest, appearing in a number of films made both locally and abroad. He speaks a couple of other languages, including English and French, which, he confesses, gives him plenty of opportunities to appear in international movies. “I am open minded, and want to try everything,” he admits when asked about what kinds of roles he is attracted to.
He is arguably most famous for his breakthrough role as Franke Potente’s hapless boyfriend Manni in Tom Tywker’s energetic Run Lola Run. He has also appeared opposite Harvey Keitel in Istvan Szabo’s WWII drama Taking Sides; he played a reporter infiltrating a notorious prison in Oliver Hirschbeigel’s cult 2001 drama The Experiment; he played a ruthless SS officer in the recent French WWII thriller Female Agents; he had a small role in Steven Spielberg’s Munich; and he more recently appeared in the Wachowski brothers’ garishly coloured live action version of popular Japanese animation Speed Racer, which was filmed in Germany using just about every actor available. It was digitally filmed largely in front of a green screen, using lots of CGI special effects to help it maintain its comic book-like style.
Bleibtreu’s latest film is The Baader Meinhof Complex, and ambitious, sprawling and uncompromising film that explores the rise of terrorism in post-war Germany. After an innocent student is killed by the German police during protests against the visit by the Shah of Persia in 1967, the youth of Germany became more vocal and politically motivated. The war in Vietnam was raging, and students were resisting what they saw as the imperialism of America, supported by the German authorities, many of whom had a Nazi past. From this spirit of radical protest grew the Red Army Faction, one of Germany’s most notorious terrorist groups who embarked on a campaign of bank robberies, assassinations and bombings during the ‘70’s. After an intense manhunt, Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin were eventually arrested, tried and imprisoned. All three died while in prison.
This film is based on the book written by Stefan Aust, who had spent 20 years of his life researching the facts, and had intimate knowledge of many of those involved. Much of the dialogue in the film is based on actual recordings made during interrogations. Producer and writer Bernd Eichinger and director Uli Edel, who grew up in Germany during the events depicted here, have personal memories of the time, and their experiences help shape the film. This ambitious, big budget film was shot over a period of 70 days, over a number of locations, ranging from Germany to France, Italy and Morocco. However, director Edel was a stickler for veracity, says Bleibtreu. He even counted the number of bullets used so as to be precise in the details during the shootouts.
“I felt protected by him,” Bleibtreu says of working with director Edel. “He guides you without you feeling guided. He was clear on what he wanted, he was fast and precise. You could feel the experience he had gained working in Hollywood.”
Edel had made the bleak, controversial film Christiane F, about the plight of a junkie prostitute in Berlin in the ‘70’s, before Hollywood beckoned. Edel made the powerful drama Last Exit To Brooklyn based on Hubert Selby’s novel, before he made the dire sex oriented thriller Body Of Evidence, yet another dud Madonna film. Edel had also worked extensively on television, directing episodes of Homicide: Life On The Streets and Oz, before returning to Germany.
Upon its release in Germany, the film was instantly controversial, as many people feel that it glamorised terrorism, although Bleibtreu feels that is not the case. A couple of law suits were even lodged against the producers. But Bleibtreu also acknowledges that the film fits into the new spirit of a progressive Germany which seems more willing to deal with its dark past.
“We could not have made this film in Germany ten years ago,” Bleibtreu elaborates. “Ten years ago it would have been impossible. It’s amazing that we could do a movie like this in Germany. Downfall was a liberation. People are rediscovering their cultural identity now. Some films like these are therapeutical, they are connected to the guilt associated with the past. We have learned something from these incredible, horrible events. That’s why I think these kinds of movies help a lot. They help a lot in dealing with this bad history.
“I grew up in a country that was completely detached from its own cultural identity. We didn’t have a sense of German identity and culture. And cinema is directly connected to your cultural identity. I’m happy that we are at this point where we are starting to rediscover our cultural identity. Part of it is dealing with our history. It’s going to give the younger generation a different view of their country. For me, as an actor, it is an exciting time to be working.”