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German filmmakers tackle nation's dark past

  • Story Highlights
  • "The Baader Meinhof Complex" tells the true story of a German terrorist group
  • It is the latest German film to look at one of the dark periods in the country's past
  • Two million Germans watched the film in the first month after it opened
  • The film is Germany's Academy Award entry this year
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By Marco Woldt
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Speaking during celebrations to commemorate German Unity Day last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of historical awareness. Young Germans in particular need to learn more about the country's communist past, Merkel said.

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" has recently generated a wave of interest in one of the darkest chapters in Germany's past.

Fortunately, German screenwriter and producer Bernd Eichinger is a reliable source of inspiration in this regard. His latest historical drama "The Baader Meinhof Complex" has recently generated a wave of interest in one of the darkest chapters in Germany's past.

The movie tells the story of the Red Army Faction (RAF) -- a group of radical anti-imperialists which terrorized an unstable German democracy for nearly three decades. Beginning with the student riots of 1968, the film traces the RAF's gradual evolution from resistance to terror.

It is the latest in a series of German productions that deal with difficult periods in the country's history.

Eichinger's previous film, "Downfall," which was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel portrayed Hitler's final days in a bunker, while Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others," was set against the backdrop of an East German state monitored by secret police.

Coming to terms with the past

Like its highly-acclaimed predecessors, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" has enjoyed some box office success. During its first month in theaters across Germany, the film attracted over two million viewers and it has grossed more than $20 million so far.

Undoubtedly, the enormous budget and cast of well-known actors including Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck and Alexandra Maria Lara, partially account for the film's popularity. But for many Germans the movie's main appeal lies in its gripping depiction of a turbulent time. Germany's media is also reflecting this fascination with history: the film has inspired a string of televised discussion rounds, examining the legacy of the RAF.

In the week of "The Baader Meinhof Complex's" release in Germany, distinguished current-affairs publication, "Der Spiegel," devoted its front-page to the film. Former "Spiegel" editor-in-chief, Stefan Aust, wrote the book on which the film's screenplay is based. He thinks the time is right for Germans to explore the more difficult periods of their past.

"German people are very aware of the country's history. Now that several decades and generations have gone by we can make these films. You always need about 30 years to let the wounds heal," Aust told CNN in London.

But for many Germans the RAF-era remains a sensitive subject. Some older members of the crew on "The Baader Meinhof Complex" became so overwhelmed with emotion while filming that they had to leave the set.

Like his colleagues, Bernd Eichinger was also forced to confront his suppressed emotions while working on the film. "I was a young student when all this happened and still I kind of rushed over it in a way, I didn't let it come close to me," Eichinger told CNN. "Only now I suddenly thought 'I want to do this movie, I want to write about my own youth.'"

Getting history right

In order to prevent his personal views and emotions from seeping through, Eichinger approached the script much in the style of an historian. Throughout the production, Eichinger and director Uli Edel were meticulous about accuracy.

"When you are dealing with historical events where people have been killed, you have a responsibility as a filmmaker to be as precise and thoroughly researched as possible," Eichinger explained.

While preparing the shoot, the pair consulted a number of eye-witnesses and former terrorists. Whenever possible original documents, photos and news footage were used as visual cues for the film's set design. The resulting level of precision is remarkable. Minute details, down to the license plates of the cars are historically accurate.

Even the number of bullets fired during action sequences was derived from official police reports. Eichinger and Edel were also keen not to glamorize the characters -- a trap other Baader Meinhof group films have fallen into.

Consequently, the film has no protagonist. Instead, it follows the violent chain of events, while RAF group members veer in and out of the narrative, often remaining unnamed. "I hate the characters, they're obnoxious. I didn't want the audience to identify with them," Eichinger told CNN, "I wanted to throw the facts at the audience and let them deal with it."

International audiences

The downside to this unconventional approach is its assumption of background knowledge on the part of the audience. Critics have maintained that without a basic understanding of the events, one quickly gets lost in the intentionally disjointed narrative. While this has not hindered the film's success in Germany, it remains to be seen how international viewers will react.

The film's two co-writers are optimistic that audiences will respond well. Stefan Aust is convinced that "real stories" such as "The Baader Meinhof Complex," are appreciated the world over. The film has been selected as this year's German Academy Award entry, Aust and Eichinger hope it will emulate the success of "The Lives of Others" -- the German Oscar-winner from two years ago.

They have reason to be optimistic -- after all, history has been known to repeat itself.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is playing in selected UK cinemas now.

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