Tytti Rantanen: The autumnal Germany of the 1970s, terrorism and cinema

Naked, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982) is touching himself and crying on the phone that “they” are dead. “They” were the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists Andreas Baader (1943–1977), Gudrun Ensslin (1940–1977) and Jan-Carl Raspe (1944–1977) who had been waiting for trial in Stammheim prison and found deceased in their cells after a failed attempt by RAF to free them by hijacking a Lufthansa plane.

The same visceral scene appears both in Annekatri Hendel’s portrait of Fassbinder (2015) and in Jean-Gabriel Périot’s compilation film A German Youth (2015) that evokes archival material. The fragment originates from a collective film Germany in Autumn (Deutschland im Herbst, 1978), which taps into the crisis-prone mental atmosphere and the foreboding of terrorism in West Germany. Fassbinder was a singular and an unyielding political artist who had no direct connections to the terrorists whom he criticised. Still, at least thematically, his career and life intersect with the radicalism of his time and also provide it with a caustic commentary track.

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Europe has been self-sufficient when it comes to terrorism long before the recent attacks by Islamic extremists; the concept even has its roots in the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. During the interwar period, the far Left organised into red army factions and brigades in the countries succumbed to fascism, namely Germany and Italy. Young people were disillusioned with the silence of the older generations and their wanton failure to assume responsibility. In France, universities and factories were taken over – and art was formulated into a means for struggle inspired by Maoist contemplation.

Périot’s film underscores the effect French political cinema – spearheaded by Jean-Luc Godard (s. 1930) – had on the development of West Germany. Student activism was broiling globally from Finland to Mexico and Berkeley to Paris, but many of the figureheads of the Red Army Faction, such as Ensslin, Holger Meins (1941–1974) and Ulrike Meinhof (1934–1976), armed themselves also with cinema and journalism. Meins’ alma mater, the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin founded in 1966, was at its peak a tempestuous think thank for revolution.

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Everyone idolised the documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov (1896–1956); cinema could actually provoke change in the world. In a scene lifted from A German Youth, Godard’s Vladimir et Rosa (1971) sees Juliet Berto (1947–1990) insisting that words and action alone will not suffice unless the young Western bourgeoisie revolutionise. The forces of imperialism were to be attacked in earnest. West Germans heeded the call. Shooting involved both cameras and guns; in Frankfurt, department stores were set ablaze.

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Périot’s compact film draws a large arch from a 1960s bunch of creative class posers with great media sex appeal to the ramshackle wanted criminals they became in the 1970s. There’s similar tearing tension in the fierce biography of Fassbinder by Annekatri Hendel. Close colleagues from Irm Hermann (b. 1942) to Hanna Schygulla (b. 1943) hold back no punches while describing their demanding and grueling artistic leader and his productivity that bordered on the obsessive. Even though Fassbinder did gather a regular ensemble around him, he never embraced the contemporary collective art scene that swore to anonymity. “Being a director is like playing God”, quipped the maker in the moustache of many a controversial shooting.

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The auteur did not die of radical art theory but of his rock ‘n roll lifestyle and extreme work regimen. Schygulla believes that the “beastly” genius eventually crumbled under the weight of his own imperial myth. The director, who filmed the far reaches, cracks and ruptures of every-day life, never saw the reunification of Germany. Perhaps the era of car bombs and department stores on fire was the most natural habitat for the non-being Fassbinder strived to achieve in his art.

Tytti Rantanen
A PhD student and journalist based in Helsinki

Still photos are from the films A German Youth ja FASSBINDER.
See also the DocPoint Main Seminar: A German Youth – From Activism to Terrorism, in which the audience and professionlas discuss activism and terrorism in Europe in the light of the film A German Youth.

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