A German Youth (Une jeunesse allemande, France-Switzerland-Germany 2015)


This is a fascinating documentary in the Cinema Versa section [Underground Voices] at the Leeds International Film Festival. Essentially the film follows the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction or Baader Meinhof Group in Germany through the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is not a narrative in the sense of the earlier fictional treatment The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008). This is an exploration of a time, a place and a movement – providing an assemblage of film extracts, some records of the time, some by the members of the movement and some by their opponents, the West German State and media.

There are films by Ulricke Meinhof made for German television, there are the films of Holger Meins and young filmmakers at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin: we see at one point Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany in Autumn / Deutschland im Herbst (1978, a very fine treatment). We also see media coverage from German television and material from the Springer publication empire.

Jean-Gabriel Périot, the writer and director, explained his approach in the Festival catalogue.

“To be truly objective, one must truly examine and question the motivations and thought processes of the so-called wrongdoers as well. This raises unresovable and even unbearable questions. While considering these ideas as human beings neither rewrites history, nor excuses the crimes committed, it does open a door to a more complete discussion about the nature of the acts and our own humanity, albeit the gloomiest part.”

I would question the ‘truly objective’, and I do not think that the film achieves all of Periot’s aims. However, it does revisit the now notorious movement and period with an interesting eye. There is familiar material but also film extracts I have not seen in the UK before. The heady days when the group developed is well captured. At one point some official comments that the Film School aimed to bring technically skilled entrants to the industry and they actually got ‘revolutionary wrongdoers’.

The film is less successful with the stance of state and media: these are all official or public presentations. So the sense of the interests that drove these responses is not clear.

But the film holds ones interest and offers a compelling portrait of the characters and events. It is also a pleasure to see a film that treats archive footage with respect, much of the film is in plain black and white and academy ratio. It eschews a commentary letting the protagonists speak for themselves. There are several powerful sequences with a blank screen as we hear the recorded voices of group members: though in the UK we do have the English subtitles.

The film is re-screening on Tuesday November 17th at 2 p.m. You can check out more background in the Hollywood Reporter; and you can get a taste of the content with the IMDB censor’s comments: this includes the following not objective appraisal:

 “In view of the documentary’s depictions and exploration of the leftist movements’ hostile actions to undermine the authority of Germany’s democratically elected government, this film would be recommended to persons aged 21 and above (in Germany and in other countries, with a warning), as a matured audience would be better able to understand the historical context and portrayal of the radicals in this situation.”

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