Radical Chic with a German Accent

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Judging by the controversy over William Ayers—or rather the controversy over the controversy over Ayers—that radical chic is a thing of the past. And, in a way, it is. Partly it’s because of the current nature of radicalism, partly because of our hysterical reaction to it. That’s why The New Yorker cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama as fist-thumping Islamic radicals was so startling: it invoked the Otherness of Islamic radicalism while mocking our reaction to it.

Radical chic’s most potent expression right now comes from Chinese artists who invoke images of Mao as an oblique—or maybe just commercially canny—commentary on China’s economic boom. But Mao is very much, and very reassuringly, dead.

Buried even deeper in the ground is indigenous European terrorism. After the IRA the most notorious terrorist group was the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. They were the authors of some directionless mayhem, mostly in West Germany. At one point they even tried to kill Alexander Haig. Their origins and most spectacular deeds are the subject of a new film, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, which just opened in the UK. There’s no US release date yet.

Perhaps it’s a testimony to the power of the group’s hold on the European imagination that someone has only now ventured to make a film about them. The group had an intellectual pedigree (they were avid readers of Gramsci, Marcuse, and Adorno), and some erstwhile allies in Das Neue Kino movement. Volker Schlöndorff made a film adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, in which a nice, bourgeois young woman who falls in love with a terrorist. Although considered one of the best Neue Kino films, Katharina Blum feeds into the popular perception that the women involved with the Baader-Meinhof gang were dupes of Andreas Baader.

In fact, in some people’s mind the real leader of the gang was Baader’s girlfriend and co-founder, Gudrun Ensslin. She was the subject of Margarethe von Trotta’s searing film, released in the US in 1981 as Marianne and Julianne (German title: Die Bleierne Zeit). Ensslin is depicted as both obnoxious and riveting, a brave Mädchen full of sociohistorical rage. It’s a great film even when it gets too caught up in the hectoring spirit of its subject.

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