Germany in Autumn (1978)

I knew a little bit about the Baader-Meinhof group before watching Germany in  Autumn, but not much. I’d seen the Gerhard Richter paintings based on the newspaper images of the leaders’ alleged suicides (haunting, amazing) and Margarethe von Trotta’s Marianne and Julianne. (Another bewildering translation for US distribution: the German title is Die bleierne Zeit, which means “the leaden times.” Do Americans really only trust foreign movies titled with characters’ first names? At least in the UK they called it The German Sisters.) But that’s about it. So I have to admit I was a little surprised to learn just how cataclysmic the events of autumn 1977 were in Germany. As revealing, I think, in terms of the fault lines and deep divisions within postwar German society as, say, Watergate had been in the US a few years earlier. Why didn’t I know this?

To understand Germany in Autumn you have to know what happened in Germany in autumn in 1977 and the events that led up to that fateful season. Which means you have to know about the Red Army Faction (RAF), the official name of the Baader-Meinhof group. Briefly, the RAF was a militant leftist revolutionary group whose titular leaders were Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Since the late 60s, they had been engaged in armed guerilla actions (bombings, robberies, arson, and later kidnapping) targeting the police, US military installations, German industrialists, and the Springer press (Germany’s analog to the Rupert Murdoch News Corp. empire). Five of the group’s leaders—Baader, Meinhof, Jan Raspe, Gudrun Ensslin, and Irmgard Möller—were arrested in 1972 and, since 1975, held along with other alleged RAF members in solitary confinement in Stammheim prison, a maximum-security facility in Stuttgart built specifically to house them.

In 1976 Ulrike Meinhof was found dead in her cell, hanging from a rope made of towels, reportedly a suicide. Meanwhile, the RAF stepped up their guerilla campaign, culminating in the events of the “German Autumn” of 1977, which began with the violent kidnapping of a leading German industrialist and former member of the SS, Hanns Martin Schleyer. In October, a Lufthansa jetliner was hijacked by a team of PLO-based militants (Baader and others had trained with the PLO who, lest we forget, were a militant leftist political organization at that time) demanding the release of the RAF prisoners in Stammheim. The episode culminated in Mogadishu, when the plane was stormed on October 18 by an elite SWAT team of German police called the GSG-9 who killed all the hijackers (the captain had earlier been killed in Aden) but, miraculously, no passengers. That night Hanns Schleyer was executed by the RAF and the next morning three of the four remaining RAF leaders in Stammheim were found dead in their cells. (The fourth, Möller, did not die from the stab wounds she was found with and was eventually released from prison 17 years later.)

The Stammheim deaths were reported by the government as suicides (or in Möller’s case, an attempted suicide), even though the two men were killed by gunshots to the head (in a maxium security prison?) and Möller’s stab wounds near the heart sound logistically impossible to self inflict (she maintained that she was attacked). It is an article of faith among the German left that the deaths were a coordinated act of retaliation on the part of the German governmment. Not surprisingly, the prevailing mood following these events was one of fear and depression. This is the setting of Germany in Autumn.

This is a really interesting film, and not just for its subject matter. It’s an omnibus film (there were 11 directors involved), but it’s not like the multidirector films we’re used to, in which each director contributes a single discrete, clearly demarcated chapter or episode. (Interestingly, the only section that is clearly identifiable as a stand-alone piece is Fassbinder’s.) Instead, the film is woven together so that the sections flow together more or less seamlessly (Alexander Kluge oversaw the final editing and voice-over which ties the stories together), like a slightly meandering essay, a meditation on a place and time. It’s a really haunting film, worth seeking out.

Germany in Autumn is made up of both documentary and dramatic material. It is bookended by documentary footage of two funerals: it opens with images from Schleyer’s funeral accompanied by a letter read in voice-over he wrote to his son during the 43 days of his captivity,  and closes with the funeral of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe, whose burial was hastily arranged by Mayor Rommel of Stuttgart (yep, son of that Rommel). The dramatic sections that make up the bulk of the film, however, tackle the subject of the German Autumn obliquely, with stories of characters experiencing various levels of anxiety at various levels of political engagement. From a school teacher questioning how to teach her country’s history to a couple who may or may not be RAF crossing the border into East Germany, presumably for good, to an educational TV production of Sophocles’ Antigone put on hold by the producers for fear it will incite youth to sympathize with the terrorists,  the movie depicts a traumatized society and a culture in crisis, consumed by anxiety and fear.

And then there’s RWF’s section which, for better or worse (I’d say maybe both), stands out like a sore thumb. Unlike the other chapters, whose very authorship is impossible to determine, Fassbinder stars in his section—along with his lover (Armin Meier) and his mother (Liselotte Eder aka Lilo Pempeit)—so there’s no mistaking whose work it is. The section is divided between increasingly paranoid scenes in his oppressive brown apartment shared with poor Meier, in which he despairingly learns of the October events as they unfold, and scenes in which he records himself and his mother in a Q and A about current attitudes (hers, mostly). Both are stark and brutal and uncomfortable. And disturbingly honest, even if they’re scripted (which they were). It’s a fascinating approach.

Whereas the other sequences in the film are told in the third person and are either poetic or tense, angry or elegiac (or ironic, in the case of Schlöndorff and Böll’s Antigone story), the tone of RWF’s contribution is slightly hysterical, the voice implicitly first person. I found this somewhat off-putting at first, but I think that is at least partly the point. In one scene, late at night or early in the morning, a naked Rainer calls Ingrid Caven in Paris on the phone to tell her of the suicides in Stammheim. No doubt in response to her question about what he thinks really happened, he replies “What I think is irrelevant.” Either Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe committed suicide or they didn’t; a film director’s opinion in the face of this unfolding tragedy is beside the point. And so he shows us the only thing on which he is qualified to hold forth: what it feels like to be a character called Rainer Werner Fassbinder at this moment in history.

The characters Armin Meier and Liselotte Eder are well chosen. RWF uses them as representatives of the prevailing attitudes among the German public at the time: his mother, who lived through the Third Reich, expresses alarm at the idea of criticizing the government in a time of crisis (you don’t know what people are going to do with that). She refers to democracy—the suspension of certain aspects of which she blames the terrorists for—as the lesser of evils. A better solution at a time like this would be a strong and benevolent authoritarian leader to set things right. (The sequence is followed by a series of Romantic German illustrations: a handsome and noble prince in battle, a goblin at the window of a castle, the idyllic German landscape at twilight and a picturesque cottage nestled in the woods, blanketed by fog. If I’m not mistaken, this is the same sentimental  imagery celebrating heimat and Grimm’s fairy tales and Siegfried and all the rest, invoked by Hitler and Goebbels et al. only a few decades earlier.)

If Mother suggests that for every passenger and crew member killed on the hijacked plane, an RAF inmate at Stammheim should be publically shot, Meier, simple and uneducated, thinks the government should just blow up the plane and kill all the terrorists in captivity at once and be done with it; if terrorists can ignore the law then so can the state. RWF harangues them both for their willingness to give up their democratic rights and responsibilities, but ultimately turns his anger and frustration inward (drug use, deteriorating work habits, paranoid behavior). What else can he do?

He can’t stop the rightward thrust of postwar German politics, just as he cannot morally support the tactics of the RAF. Too jaded to pretend that human systems can transcend human nature as it currently exists, too honest to believe that violence can be a corrective against violence, his ambivalence about doctrinaire political movements, no matter how worthy their goals, had been evident at least since The Niklashausen Journey. Politics (to put it simplistically) is the work of humans, subject to their weaknesses, their desire for power, their selfishness, their cruelty. For Fassbinder, to reverse that famous feminist adage (and, I hope, coin a neologism, which I really hope nobody has used already), the political is always personal. Isn’t that, literally, what his movies demonstrate?

So if people are the problem, you have to get people to change. You have to change them emotionally and not just ideologically. And the first step toward this goal is to make them look at the ways their own consciousness and behavior are shaped by society and its institutions (school, parents, marriage, work), which is what I think every one of RWF’s films does or attempts to do. In this regard, making a film about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s personal descent into paranoid despair after the events of October 1977 is a political act. Showing himself vomiting from anxiety, verbally abusing his lover, arguing with his mother, even exhibiting his genitals are political acts. Movies are not supposed to show any of these things: they are not polite, they do not provide visual or narrative pleasure, and they are not morally uplifting. What they do, though, is offer a glimpse at another way of being in the world, of representing yourself to others, which is honest and open and, I think, really pretty brave. It’s not going to get people marching in the streets, but then it’s not intended to. (Germany in Autumn shows us what violent revolutionary protest leads to: police with riot gear and tanks in the street, emergency security measures, maximum security prisons, increased surveillance, a frightened electorate eager to trade their so-called freedom for security, etc. . . )

In the multiple endings of Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, the heroine either dies pointlessly in a revolutionary political action or resigns herself to her failure to achieve moral restitution for her husband. As I’ve already mentioned, RWF maintained that the second “happy” ending is even bleaker than the first. I don’t agree. Through the course of that film, Frau Küsters found her own voice and learned how to use it—something she had never even dreamed of doing when she was a good working-class hausfrau—and something RWF’s mother expresses alarm at the very prospect of doing in Germany in Autumn. Frau Küsters comes to realize that she cannot rely on “isms” or parties or movements—or bosses, journalists, or family, for that matter. She must determine her own moral code and her own way of being in the world. I think there is every reason to believe that her life with the night watchman, assuming such a life follows, will not be like her life as the wife of Hermann Küsters was before. This to me is cause for optimism, if only on a small scale. In RWF’s world I think maybe that’s the only scale that matters?

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