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.


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

“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

“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

The prolific career of German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder has been marked by decidedly minimal and vital films that have almost single-handedly defined German cinema during that period, with no credits taken away from Schlöndorff and Herzog. His mastery over the melodrama genre and understanding of the medium have consistently placed him at par with world cinema giants. But Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) forms the core of his cinematic achievements with the sheer length of the film capable of accommodating ten of his other films. 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.

Adapted from Alfred Doblin’s novel of the same name, Berlin Alexanderplatz was originally made as a 14 part television mini-series but is widely accepted as a monolithic piece. The film follows the life of Franz Biberkopf (played to perfection by Gunter Lamprecht), a visibly tormented man, right after he steps out from Tegel prison after serving for four long years. He tries gradually to return to normal life and meets his old acquaintances in the process. He is determined to turn over a new leaf and sets a strict moral code for himself that forbids him from taking to violence in even the most testing of times. He attempts to get a permanent and legal job but the city turns him down because of the prevalent social, political and economic conditions. He sells sleazy magazines, takes in women and dumps them later and takes up a fake political stand in order to earn but strictly adheres to his questionable code of conduct. His policy gains him more foes than friends and he is soon left with one arm amputated. In these testing times, his source of support comes from the various women he takes into his house. They are strangely attracted to him and believe Franz can really give a reboot to everything. He takes to alcoholism and casts off his policies. He continues to exist.

One will be tempted to think in the first scene as Biberkopf steps out of the jail that Fassbinder is going to show us what the cruel city is going to mete out to him and its consequences on his life. But Fassbinder adopts a totally different path. It isn’t the city that has brought Biberkopf to where he is, but his personal policies and principles that have got the better of him and have made him virtually devoid of any firm footing in life. Biberkopf is neither able to adopt himself to the changing times and its corruption of daily life nor is he able to fight it out in order to stay true to his resolution. As a result, he remains willingly passive to all the changes around him and hence becomes a victim of these very changes. He shuts himself from the world and immerses himself in excessive alcohol helplessly observing the world as it moves past him.

I’ve not read Alfred Doblin’s novel but Fassbinder’s visual version reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Both are set in tumultuous times where revolution is but evident and follow a simple individual battling his own troubles that are near independent of the socio-political conditions. Crime and Punishment is set when socialism was to take over the Russian elite administration whereas Berlin Alexanderplatz is set when “Fascism” was to oust the Socialistic regime in Germany. Both Raskolnikov and Biberkopf are individuals who have set high moral standards for themselves and get into deeper morass just because of that. Raskolnikov’s resolution is of utmost purity that he sticks to till the very end. On the other hand, Biberkopf’s fickle resolve is a product of his fear and is broken even before halfway. Also, Raskolnikov’s character is a mystery that grows more so as we progress whereas Fassbinder strips Biberkopf off all symptoms of a complex personality and leaves him as unsophisticated as an infant.

With such a huge runtime, one would naturally expect a meticulously etched character arc that takes a remorseful soul such as Franz Biberkopf and gradually portrays his transformation and ultimate attainment of redemption. Fassbinder, or perhaps Doblin, exactly shatters that presumption. Fassbinder carefully intersperses Biberkopf’s present with his moment of sin at multiple places. At one point in the film you feel bad for what the city has done to the man and appreciate his yearning for transformation and his mettle to put up with all this mess. In another, you loathe him for his reversion to crime and his attitude of acting upon impulses. This way, Biberkopf naturally becomes a multi-dimensional character and ultimately we come to know that he is as ordinary as a man can be with his own ideas of morality, with his own earthy human instincts and with his own set of flaws.

The two most critical factors for sustaining the film’s atmosphere are evidently its cinematography and production design. Xaver Schwarzenberger replaces long time collaborator Michael Ballhaus and does an equally impressive job. His organic camera movement sometimes cowers behind obstructions and at other times, accosts the characters aptly reflecting the mood of the scene. The masterful cinematography is enhanced by the haunting score by Fassbinder regular Peer Raben whose theme track is the X-factor the epic needed for its melodramatic completeness. For most part of the film, Fassbinder uses a brown tinge for his images which are supported by the excessive yellow lighting that provide the images the melodramatic quality it requires. Schwarzenberger employs the lens flare to the maximum extent with even the pupils of the characters looking like micro light sources. As a result, each image looks like an impressionist painting and the quality of the production shows in each frame.

The most and perhaps the only debated aspect of the film is its out and out surreal epilogue that sums up Fassbinder’s understanding of Doblin’s novel. Fassbinder sheds reality and shows us Biberkopf’s tour of the limbo using the most bizarre of images that include a torture factory and a human slaughterhouse. It is this chapter that will either increase the vitality of the film manifold or will pull it down to a wasted effort depending on your inclination to accept it as it is. We interestingly see Biberkopf being crucified with all his kith praying before him. Indeed, Biberkopf is like the messiah himself but his suffering has brought more sorrow to others than salvation. The epilogue by itself can concoct a full length film that forms an intensely personal chapter in Fassbinder’s life.

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. 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. Agreed that it is depressing and unconventionally uninspiring but that is precisely the reason why it must be seen. Till date it remains the best representation of an ordinary life of an ordinary person entangled in extraordinary situations.

Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang

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



When 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, characteristic to their country of origin, which were later used by tens of directors from that country. One such trait, expressionism, was extensively used by the filmmakers of Germany such as F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. The latter’s magnum opus, Metropolis (1927), is a grand marriage of the expressionist method and unimaginably high ambitions for its time.

Joh Fredersen is a huge industrialist and the owner of the high-tech city of Metropolis. The workers of Metropolis are overworked and are exploited in exchange for small amounts of wages. This pains Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of Fredersen who seeks to get justice for the workers from his father. The workers are on the verge of a revolution, but are held back by the hopes given by Maria (Brigitte Helm). Knowing this, Fredersen plans to use the evil genius of the city, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and build a humanoid that resembles Maria in order to disorient the workers. However, Rotwang has his own plans and decides to double-cross Fredersen , in the process endangering everyone’s life.

To get an idea of the film’s influence on cinema it is enough to consider that it was the pioneer of the Sci-Fi genre – the one that Hollywood has never grown tired of. Its ideas of science and future have tricked down to every science fiction film made after it – both great and disastrous. Right from the struggle to create a whole new world (Minority Report, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow etc.) to the debate of humanity versus artificiality (Blade Runner, A. I. etc.), the impact of the film is omnipresent in the genre. The film’s special effects, needless to mention, were groundbreaking for their time (The Tower of Babel sequence retains its potency to amaze).

Going hand in hand with expressionism, the film is full of black and white characters and only aids the film’s heightened take on fantasy. Its consistent message of compassion for the working class may be a tad tasteless for viewers of today who do not expect any propaganda from the medium. However, this was, perhaps, required for Lang to drive home the point of the film which would otherwise have been deemed meaningless. Faith in the face of apocalypse becomes a joint theme, along with importance of humanity over science, which is supported well by biblical references.

Special mention must be made for the 2002 restoration of the epic which happens to coincide with its 75th anniversary of release. With over 25 percent of the film’s footage lost, the techies at the F. W. Murnau Foundation have done a staggering job of gathering the remaining material, removing the blemishes from each and every frame and providing intertitles summarizing the missing sections. The conventional score by Gottfried Huppertz for the version majestically supports the grandeur of the film.

Metropolis invariably takes the second place when the works of Fritz Lang are discussed and is overpowered by the dynamism and adrenaline of M (1931), immensely influential by itself and unbound by time. When watched today, Metropolis may look very amateurish in the execution of its themes and dated in its techniques, but placing oneself in its age and assessing its influence on future of the medium and the massiveness of its strides, it is ineluctable to call it a classic.