Vergangenheitsbewaltigung

Unlike Bernd Eichinger’s earlier Downfall, which depicted events around one central figure over a relatively short period of time and an extremely confined space, The Baader-Meinhof Complex takes place over the course of the ‘red decade’ from the 1967 killing of Benno Ohnesorg by the West Berlin police (recently re-evaluated as inflammatory act by the Stasi) to the RAF’s plane hijacking and kidnapping spree that later became known as the ‘German autumn’ of 1977. The events proceed across the entirety of West Germany, with excursions to Jordan and Iraq, and include a large cast of the gang’s central figures. Like Downfall, The Baader-Meinhof Complex works by presenting events as reportage, intercutting the narrative with scenes with contemporary television footage (rather oddly showing the crushing of the Prague spring alongside student riots in Paris). One of its particular strengths is its observation that this particular revolution was remorselessly televised, with the protagonists repeatedly captured on film throughout and spending much of their time watching the reporting of their actions on television.

Inevitably, this opens the question of whether the film glamourises the terrorists, making them heroes in an action movie filled with glamorous locations. If one compares the film posters to the wanted posters that could be found on nearly every street in West Germany, then it is difficult not to notice that the modern actors are rather better looking compared to many of the bespectacled faces on the original. Nonetheless, if the characters are shown driving fast (stolen) cars, wearing leather jackets and raybans, much of this is simply because the characterisation of the originals as rebels without a cause is not entirely unreasonable; Baader did model himself in figures like Marlon Brando. Baader always wanted to be a leader, but as a young man he had little success inspiring others to follow him. When he was a teenager, he was sent to a new boarding school near Munich. In a attempt to draw interest Baader began periodically coughing into a handkerchief, while dropping hints that he had some incurable lung ailment. The other students noticed that his handkerchief never showed blood. Most students saw his sad attempts to generate interest exactly for what they were, and they ignored him. Later Baader would adopt a swaggering style. In new situations he often talked aggressively, trying to establish early that he was the toughest in the room. His act never really worked with some of the crowds he mixed with, like the Rockers — who saw through Baader immediately. But within the burgeoning student movement he found that his tough-man routine was accepted unquestioningly. Baader’s life as a terrorist was as much the story of a dedicated violent poseur as the story of a Marxist Revolutionary.

The film is thus rather acute when it comes to depicting the gang as intellectually vacuous, their actions borne out of sociopathic delinquency rather than conviction. Confronted by an Italian third making of with their stolen car, Baader is outraged, just after he has incited Mahler to steal a woman’s wallet. Ensslin’s hysterical rants about the immorality of standing by in inaction is counterpointed by the wailing of her ignored children. The policy to only attack representatives of the state and not workers does not last long, from the security guard in the department store they burn down, a librarian they shoot or the typesetters at Springer publishing.

Conversely, the film is not as good at pinpointing the group’s ideological underpinnings. If Baader was simply a thug, Ensslin and, to a lesser extent Meinhof, were ideologues. One would not be aware from the film that the gang were used as an instrument by the Stasi, from whom they received funding. German universities were awash in what would now seem to be radical Marxist thought, filtered through Fanon, and parsed by Marcuse, Horkheimer, and the other titans of the Frankfurt school. Students learned that German society, like all western society, was in the throws of late Capitalism, eventually to be replaced by true Democratic Socialism. While it does acknowledge the RAF’s connections with Palestinian terror organizations in both Jordan and Iraq, it does not have Ulrike Meinhof’s character recite the diatribe she wrote justifying what she called the Munich “aktion” – the 1972 murder of Israel’s Olympic wrestling team. It also does not feature the earlier new-left bombing of a Jewish Community Centre in West Berlin on November 9th 1969, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. This left-wing anti-semitism culminated in the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, in which two German members of the Revolutionary Cells — another terrorist group to emerge out of the West German student movement — and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet, flew it to Entebbe and separated the Jewish passengers and the non-Jewish passengers before Israeli commandos stormed the aircraft. The cells had also planned to assassinate Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. This from a student movement that began as a rebellion against the ‘Auschwitz generation.’ Horst Mahler, the actual founder of the gang is now a neo-Nazi.

In some respects, the converse also applies. The film is strong when it comes to depicting police brutality during the visit of the Iranian Shah to West Berlin or the police state tactics used by the authorities to locate the gang. Less is made of the continued presence of Nazi party members in the administration at the time. The Wanted poster itself had originally acted to glamourise the gang, showing that half of the gang as female. German society was still characterised by the tripartite ideal of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (Children, Kitchen, Church), where it was still technically illegal to co-habit with a man who was not your husband, where all abortion was outlawed, and where men were legally recognized as the head of the household. To men and women alike, the posters made the gang appear both liberating and chic. Even the police seemed to be tacitly accepting the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s premise of gender equality by equally spacing the women and men throughout the poster; few would have noticed had the poster lined all the of the men along the top rows and the women along the bottom, indicating men’s traditional dominant role and women’s traditional auxiliary role. If anything, police chief Horst Herold is used as a means of authorial commentary, (inbetween plying his colleagues with lobster soup), regularly stating that the group are protesting against political problems which objectively exist and which must be addressed in order to resolve the conflict – in practice, it took the fall of the Berlin wall to dissipate the violence. The result may simply be that film is not as well equipped to deal with subjects of this kind as the novel is.

Not entirely unrelated themes emerged in the rather more traditional setting of the Old Vic, with a performance of Joe Sutton’s Complicit. The interior of the building had been extensively remodelled to replace the conventional stage with a circular dais at the centre of the theatre. The result is rather like the Globe, allowing for a rather more intimate performance where the actors are not quarantined from the audience. With only a few props and three actors (David Suchet’s performance being particularly good), the play is a rather intense piece although a little unsatisfying: it feels like a vehicle to explore political ideas around torture rather than a character piece.

The Tate’s Rodchenko and Popova exhibition leaves me feeling a little depressed; ane arlier exhibition last year had captured Rodchenko’s decline into a propagandist on a par with Leni Reifenstahl. This exhibition covers an earlier period and demonstrates how great the fall was. The early work of both artists is easily comparable to that of artists in Western Europe. The texture on many of Popova’s works recalls Kandinsky, while her use of wood as a canvas and wood dust to add texture to the paint anticipates Duchamp’s readymades. Rodchenko’s focus on the geometrical recalls Mondrian, Braque and Malevich, while a painting of two layers of black anticipates Rothko’s version of abstract expressionism. Nonetheless, their social context created difficulties their Western counterparts lacked. Like the Futurists, the Russian constructivists embraced the machine age, dwelling on the dynamic and geometric. The discarding of representational models seemed to chime with the Bolshevik policy to discard the traditional elements of society. In practice though, the attempt to reconcile avant garde art with politics was an uncomfortable one. Assigning a utilitarian purpose to artforms lacking representational content proved difficult at best, with attempts to replace subjective artistic creation with objective construction of forms doing little other than to obfuscate the problem with terminology. A point of crisis comes as Rodchenko paints three solid blocks of red, yellow and blue and declares it the end for painting. Hereafter, art must be aligned to industry, and a turn to architecture, textiles, set design and advertising (under Lenin’s new economic policy) follows. This isn’t entirely unusual in art; the Arts & Crafts movement was closely related to the Pre-Raphaelites. Figures like Lautrec, Millais and Mucha produced adverts. The difference between high and low art is certainly an arbitrary one, as examples like Chinese ceramics show. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to be relieved that Millais didn’t base a career on his Pears soap work and it’s equally hard not to be dismayed at seeing Rodchenko and Popova throw themselves into often rather bad posters for Red October biscuits and rubber boots. This seem particularly so when one considers that their design work was not greatly more purposeful than their artwork; Popova might have thought seeing a peasant woman wearing one of her designs the highpoint of her career but in practice the peasant’s need for clothes was not overly dependent on Popova’s designs. While the suppression of constructivism in favour of socialist realism was certainly done by Stalin’s fiat, it also seems surprising that it was not done earlier; as an artistic project it was simply rendered superfluous by the the same October Revolution it had embraced. Before leaving I revisit the Soviet School room – a collection of Soviet propaganda posters. None are overly constructivist in style but they do represent a better view of what popular style in the Soviet Union was than the work of Rodchenko and Popova.

Zola’s Germinal and The Belly of Paris both betray a visceral hatred of the Second French Empire, to the point of siding with the assorted communists who wished to see it annihilated. By contrast, the novel that depicts that annihilation, The Debacle takes a surprisingly moderate. The novel is balanced between the views of two characters, Jean and Maurice. The latter is depicted as intelligent and unstable, accordingly sides with the commune. The former is portrayed as stolid but dependable, and accordingly sides with the government. The relationship between the two is oddly homoerotic, with them kissing; “no woman’s arm had held him as close and warm as this.” Dead soliders are frequently depicted locking in dying embraces of hatred or love. When Jean kills his friend the act is described as being akin to the removal of an infected organ. At the same time, the novel dwells on the possibility of the creation of a ‘new France’ by Jean, even after he has said that “it was destruction for destruction’s sake so as to bury the ancient, rotten, society beneath the ashes of the earth in the hope that a new society might spring up.” The novel endless debates these points, beginning and ending with the observation that “Is not life a state of war every second? Is not the very condition of nature a continuous struggle?… war if life and it cannot exist without death.” The evolution analogy is explicit with the soldiers compared to wild beasts or to black ants on the march. While here, as in Germinal, Zola advances the idea of a new dawn (typified in Jean and Maurice’s love; ” in the midst of the savage egotism around him… this total self abnegation”), the novel stresses the “self centered rage of the individual” and a relapse into savagery. Unlike in Stendhal, there is no sense of glory in the fighting and no sense of a guiding hand, with Napoleon being depicted as weak and powerless.

I often have reservations about reading much postwar American literature, much of which seems imbued with a sense of machismo and a fear of emasculation by women. Where nineteenth century American literature foregrounded pioneer mythologies of the lone hero, its later counterparts centre on the irrelevance of such figures cast into the enfolding social structures of a commercial, bourgeois, society. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is perhaps less bad than examples like Hemingway and Bellow, but it still seems present. The plot rather reminds me of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying: but whereas Orwell is sceptical of romantics seeking to shun mundane existences of work and family, Yates leaves little doubt that he subscribes to them. As such, when Frank seems to avoid a bohemian life in Paris in favour of public relations, his animosity to April’s sponsorship of these ideas manifests itself as misogyny, citing Freud’s ideas of penis-envy or characterising abortion as a ‘denial of womanhood,’ later admitting that his masculinity had felt threatened. Shep Campbell imagines April after years of being the breadwinner as having become like a man. Frank denounces a woman who criticises his affairs with a secretary as a ‘latent lesbian.’ When it comes to the final tragedy, the voice of the chorus represented by John Givings denounces Frank as a coward but rather than praising April he also denounces her as a tough shrew who gave Frank a hard time. Frank is allowed to step outside prescribed social structures, April is not, meaning that she must be punished.

The authorship of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates is often disputed, with the text attributed to Defoe rather than the eponymous Charles Johnson. Like Defoe, the text presents moral fables that undermine that basic premise with an emphasis on the contingent nature of vice (“in the beginning he was very averse to this sort of life.. yet afterwards he changed his principles”). AS in Defoe ‘sudden changes of conduct’ are far from uncommon. In many cases, crews of attacked vessels are forced into service on the pirate ships, making difficult to determine whether their service was voluntary or not. The author notes at one point that the only difference between a sailor on a pirate ship and a government man of war is circumstance; &quo; who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause”. As in Defoe, poverty is often cited as a key motivation for vice. However, in a vein that is less characteristic of Defoe, the author often cites little cause for a life of piracy other than piracy: “it is surprising that men of a good understanding should engage ina course of life that so debases human nature and sets them on a level with the wild beasts of the forest.” If Defoe is often Lockean, this is rather more Hobbesian; “nature seems to have designed him for a pirate from childhood”. In some of the tales, the pirates simply end up dispersing back into society, in others they revert to their old ways even when offered repentance.

It’s been a while since I looked round the permanent collections at the V&A and there were more things that I recognised than on my previous visit: the statue of Perseus from Munich in the Cast Court or the three silver lions from Rosenborg Castle in the silver galleries, for example. But there were many other exhibits I didn’t recall; three ivory dragons fighting over a crystal globe in the Chinese section, an articulated metal snake in the same area, Celadon pottery from Korea, Chinese funerary art such as ancestor painting or ceramic horses and camels. In the Islamic section there’s the large Iznik tile frieze, the Ardabil Carpet, Rock crystal ewers and marble window screens. In the European section, I’m quite struck by Leighton’s frescos and a ceiling in the vein of the Great Exhbition that is only visible through a small window, as it has only since been blocked up with the construction of a smaller roof beneath to block out the light. The section on the Great Exhibition itself is quite striking, noting that similar buildings were planned for New York and Munich. The contents of the exhibition included a German style tankard with a byzantine mosaic and gothic planters by Pugin. The Victorian section also includes furniture from Webb, Voysey, Burges (especially ornate cabinets and glassware) and Wyburd through to Mackintosh and art nouveau. The origins of the Gothic revival are traced in Beckford’s Holbein furniture and in the Walpole collection. An entire fake Monk’s cell is included from a house designed in imitation of Strawberry Hill. Imperial influences also abound – Japanese influences on Godwin’s furniture or porcelain clocks, Islamic influences on Owen Jones and Morgan’s ceramics. The section of stained glass proceeds directly from the medieval period to Rossetti, Burne Jones and Piper. The sculpture section contrasts Canova with Thorvaldsen, the paintings section comprising Blake, Martin, Roberts, Rossetti, Alma Tadema and Turner. Last but not least is a small picture of a church reflected in a pond taken by the Victorian photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner.

Food cooked: Sicilian spaghetti, Peking duck, Balti pasanda, Chicken and papaya soup, Salmagundi, Turkish chicken with walnuts, Calderette of rice with allioli, Flamenco eggs, Steak with anchovy sauce, Duck liver pilaf, Scallop and potato soup, Steak with anchovy sauce, Chocolate cake, Morroccan chicken with pears and honey, Lychee curry, Paprika Hendl, Spaghetti Carbonara, Prok Stroganoff, Portuguese Jugged Duck and Orange, Chicken with Tamarind and Turmeric, Vietnamese seafood with lime and coconut, Apple and Coconut cake, Poacher’s pie, Georgian chicken, Louisiana paella, Crab bisque, Greek prawns with feta and peppers, Pecan pie, Fish with Harissa and Tahini, Bobotie, Spanish pork and chocolate stew, Sri Lankan cashew and chicken curry, Kidneys with Mustard, Guinea Fowl with Pomegranate and Cherry, Chicken with Sumac and Lemon, Poussins with dirty rice, Mediterranean Baked Fish, Polish pork with juniper, Carbonnade Flamande.

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