V for Vendetta, the film which first sold that hyper-stylized mask of Guy Fawkes, is a myth. Specifically, it is the anarchist fable of propaganda of the deed. A liberator of all humanity strikes against tyranny and inspires a revolution. So goes the grandiose fantasy. The actual history has been far more squalid. It, too, has been given a cinematic treatment.
The Baader Meinhof Complex is a story of the Red Army Faction, which was a West German gang of urban guerrillas. The complex referred to in the title is psychological. Christopher Hitchens wrote a sharp description of this mindset in his review of the film:
There was a prevalent mystique in those days about the Cuban and Vietnamese and Mozambican revolutions, as well as about various vague but supposedly glamorous groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In the United States, the brief resort to violence by the Black Panthers and then by the Weather Underground was always imagined as an extension of “Third World” struggles onto the territory of imperialist North America. Other spasmodic attempts to raise armed insurrection—the so-called Front for the Liberation of Quebec, the I.R.A., and the Basque ETA—were confined to national or ethnic minorities. But there were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponized and organized group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honor of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy.
You may notice that the three countries I have just mentioned were the very ones that made up the Axis during the Second World War. I am personally convinced that this is the main reason the phenomenon took the form it did: the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do. And this was also a brilliant way of placing the authorities on the defensive and luring them into a moral trap. West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s is not actually holding any political prisoners. Very well then, we will commit violent crimes for political reasons and go to prison for them, and then there will be a special wing of the prison for us, and then the campaign to free the political prisoners by violence can get under way. This will strip the mask from the pseudo-democratic state and reveal the Nazi skull beneath its skin.
It doesn’t take long for the sinister ramifications of the “complex” to become plain. Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts. (The gang bought its first consignment of weapons from a member of Germany’s neo-Nazi underworld: no need to be choosy when you are so obviously in the right.) There is, as with all such movements, an uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both.
The film, as Hitchens said, is indeed an acute portrayal of “the way in which mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical.” Any doubts or disagreements within the group “can always be attributed to betrayal or cowardice, resulting in mini-purges and micro-lynchings within the gang itself.” In this psychodrama, the revolutionary promise can never be falsified; it can only be betrayed.