A History For Violence

A History For Violence

I hear that the term “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon” refers to something that you keep coming across at an alarming frequency after your first encounter with it. This might sound contrived but unfortunately, that is exactly how I felt when watching Germany’s official entry to the Oscars, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (2008). If you’ve watched the first couple of scenes, you’ve probably seen the whole film. Deservedly the least successful of the five nominees, The Baader-Meinhof Complex is an exercise in futility that seems to have wasted great raw material for historical, political and cinematic analysis. And looking back to see that this one overtook Gomorra (2008) is only shocking. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you plot details here. This link gives you all the necessary (and more than that) details about the script of the film!

The Baader-Meinhof Complex is an out and out political film as opposed to personal films with political subtexts. Its course has already been defined by the passage of time. Now, the only creative latitude that the director has in these kind of films is in providing dimensions, motives and moral conflicts to his characters in order to understand them. The director inherits the responsibility to explore the subject, analyze it and provide insights into the events from an arbitrary perspective. Take the case of a film that shares some of the content with this one – Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005). Having got heavily panned for his handling of history in Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg returns in style correcting all the errors that might have been committed in the latter film. He quite successfully delves into the psyche of a troubled man on whom a national mentality is forced, managing never to be speculative. All the “data” associated with the film – the Munich Olympic massacre, the initiation of the Wrath of God by Mossad and the statistics that would invariably arise with it – take a back seat with minuscule runtime.

Coming back to The Baader-Meinhof Complex. See what plot details Mr. Uli Edel chooses. Activities carried out by the gang, courtroom transcripts, initiation of major figures into the group, counter-terrorist measures of the police team and the members’ trip across the Middle East – stuff that any text book about the period can provide. The only scope of innovation, now, can come in the indoor sequences that actually merge these disparate events. There, too, Mr. Edel does an interpolating job by gathering the consequences of the preceding events and providing the obligatory kick off to the forthcoming ones. Now, a case may be made for the film to be considered as plain “time-pass” or tea-time entertainment, but its own runtime betrays it. One hundred and forty minutes can not be considered a time-pass, especially if the content can be wrapped up in ten.

I’m absolutely OK with on-screen violence if it is used for a purpose – as a motif or as a tool to illustrate additional meaning or at least to imply the futility of it all. In The Baader-Meinhof Complex, the violence is an experiment with the ways a bullet can go through a person. There are probably over a dozen extensively “choreographed” sequences of heavy gunfire and massacre in the film that serve no purpose than to pass (historical) time and to provide some cheap thrills. You can actually predict the routine as in our own mainstream films. SMGs and AKs hog the limelight once the perfunctory events that lead to it are established. It’s almost mathematical in the way the pattern evolves and destinations reveal themselves. You quickly realize how the RAF is, in fact, a shoddy wrapper to the laughable WW2 films from Hollywood, minus the one-dimensional portrayal of the two armies. Yes, credit has to be given to Mr. Edel for at least depicting both sides of the revolution with equal affinity, if not with a reason.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a film with fine cinematography, fine editing, fine casting and fine performances but one without a direction. Rather, it is a film with a direction that is already decided by history. As a result, Mr. Edel comes across more as the author of a sensational and often sleazy detailer of events than as a film director with skill or ambition. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a film without a soul, if you please. If at all Mr. Edel is attempting to say something of his own, it must be that the revolutionaries were as directionless and authoritative as the very system they were opposing. That it was more because of the hip-factor associated with it than the vision of real revolutionaries that anti-establishmentarianism became as widespread as it did. But, except for the last scene that actually salvages the film to a minor extent, these sporadic observations fail to come within the grasp of the film and die off within minutes of birth.

Consider one of the better scenes in the film where the car that Baader steals gets stolen from him immediately after he challenges one of his comrades to flick a purse. There was scope for great analysis following this. In Herzog’s spectacular Cobra Verde (1987), the Kinski character overthrows an existing regime with the help of the slaves of the country only to become its chancellor and indulge in slave trade. A while later, when an associate asks him who the arrested people in the cellar are, he says “Our future murderers”. Here too, a similar situation evolves. It is inevitable that revolution begets revolution. Successful revolutionaries will one day be overthrown by similar kinds. Snatchers will be snatched from. Anarchists will eventually become the system. But the film never capitalizes upon the ephemeral idea. Or the intriguing moment when an officer asks Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz) what perpetuates the evolution of terrorist groups. He replies “A myth”. It sets us ruminating. What myth is he referring to? The Raskolnikovian myth bordering foolishness?  The Guevara-esque romanticism?  Sadly, the film remains completely oblivious to it.

Verdict: 

Jag Mandir: Das Exzentrische Privattheater Des Maharadscha Von Udaipur (1991) (aka Jag Mandir)
Werner Herzog
German

“Culture in India is a basic life-sustaining force “

 

Jag MandirJag Mandir is a quiet and often overlooked film in the vast oeuvre of Werner Herzog. Apparently, 20 hours of footage was shot that covered the whole fest and the film hardly presents us a twentieth of that. A native walking into the film in between may well fail to immediately realize that it is his country that is being shown and these are figures from the mythology of various sections of his nation. You might take if for a scene from a procession in Thailand or a sketch from festival from Africa or even a snapshot from the gala celebrations in Brazil. Such is the diversity it presents that it reminds us of those clichés about Indian culture.

Werner Herzog’s Jag Mandir begins with an extended take of André Heller giving an introduction to the project (on which the film is based). He recollects his experiences organizing the folk-art festival called for by the Maharana of Udaipur, who the wishes that the succeeding prince sees the artistic diversity of the country before it succumbs to “mcdonaldization”. This is a mesmerizing section and Heller’s monologue contains observations that will leave you ruminating for a long long time. Being a native, I am always skeptic of westerners’ cursory probing of the country and the life-changing-experience it seems to give many. But Heller’s piece, though romanticized, gives everyone something to think about the way we live. The speech lasts for well over seven minutes and dissolves into the titles. Herzog then takes us back to the actual events which unfold without any demarcations between reality and fiction, as always with the director, The greater part of the film presents us footage of performances that run the gamut.

You have classical dancers in unison, street players wielding everything from swords to artificial horses, a man who lifts weights with his eyelids, a woman who balances a kid standing on a ten foot pole on her chin, a little girl who swings blazing torches with nonchalance and what not. It is highly likely the average Indian today hasn’t seen any of these folk art forms. The saddest and the most surprising part is that it looks like many of these art forms and skill sets aren’t seen around in the country today and may even have gone into oblivion without a trace. May be the Maharana’s nightmares have indeed come true.

P.S: Call it an obsession with a man obsessed with obsessions, but you’re going to be seeing more of Werner Herzog’s name on this blog. Trolls beware.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
German

“A chicken consists of the outside and the inside. Remove the outside, and the inside remains. Remove the inside, and the soul remains.”

 

Berlin Alexanderplatz

An epic if there ever was one…” says film historian Leonard Maltin. Indeed, Berlin Alexanderplatz forms the central showpiece in Fassbinder’s glorious career. It effortlessly obscures his other brilliant films and perhaps even sums up his whole style of working. Pulling off a film with a mammoth runtime of 931 minutes by itself is a landmark that only a few gifted souls can dream of. Performances of a lifetime, brilliant direction, gorgeous camera work and a memorable score are but some of the reasons that the film is of perpetual interest.

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Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang
German

“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”

 

MetropolisWhen cinema was in its infancy during the teens and the twenties, many pioneers sought to provide it a definite shape and even assemble various tools and benchmarks for the decades of filmmakers to come. This led to the formation of various cinematic and narrative techniques… Read More