Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 21, 2010

United Red Army; Carlos; The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:00 pm

This week I downloaded the short version of Carlos from IFC movies on demand. I should add that is long in comparison to most films (2 hours, 45 minutes) but half the length of the original version shown at the IFC Theater. It was originally a television miniseries on Canal +, a premium cable station in France. I decided that there was just not enough there for me to sit in a movie theater for 5 ½ hours. In fact, it was a chore to sit through the short version since I detest “exemplary actions” of the sort that made Carlos infamous.

As dessert, I watched The Baader-Meinhof Complex on my computer courtesy of Netflix, another bloated effort coming in at 2 ½ hours. I now have the dubious distinction of having endured three movies about 1970s terrorism, the first being the 2007 United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun), another marathon (190 minute) semi-documentary (actors re-enact real historical events) about the group formed through the fusion of two of Japan’s most notorious terrorist organizations in the early 1970s, the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Left Faction. (Unfortunately, the movie is not available from Netflix but can be downloaded from bittorrent.)

Director Koji Wakamatsu made the film in an effort to humanize and possibly redeem the United Red Army (URA), an almost an impossible task. It begins by setting the context for an ultraleft development in the student left in Japan-not that different from what occurred everywhere else. Frustration over the inability of mass demonstrations, even those incorporating “exemplary” physical confrontations with the cops, to end the war led a segment of the movement to opt for Narodnik type tactics, but in the name of “Marxism-Leninism”, and Maoism more specifically.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, such students were encouraged to use violence against their opponents on the left. Since the Red Guards were encouraged by Mao, who was ostensibly the world’s greatest revolutionist, to beat their rivals into submission, why not do it at places like the University of Tokyo?

After the URA decides to train itself in guerrilla warfare techniques, several dozen of its key members go up to a large mountainside shack where they spend their time in nearby woods and fields marching or taking target practice. In the evenings there are “self-critique” sessions in which members beat their breasts for one inadequacy or another.

When they are deemed to be inadequate self-critics by the cult leader Tsuneo Mori, who is given to exclamatory rants about the need to become “true communists”, other members take turns beating them in the face and stomach, or even stabbing them. Fourteen members of the small group died as a result of this kind of violence.

Eventually the cops found out about their location and pursued them to a ski resort near Karuizawa and laid siege to the heavily fortified lodge from February 19, 1972 to February 28, 1972. The film describes the confrontation in dramatic and convincing detail. So repugnant are the URA activists that I almost found myself cheering the cops, despite my long-standing socialist convictions.

Japan was so shocked by the behavior of the URA that the left was put on the defensive for a number of years. Although I am no expert on Japanese politics, I do have to wonder if the weakness (non-existence, almost) of the Japanese left is the price paid for the stupidity of the URA.

Carlos has the same kind of lurid fascination as United Red Army. It documents the rise of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez to the top ranks of world terrorism in the 1970s, culminating in the spectacular attack on an OPEC meeting in Vienna on December 22, 1975 and the eventual flight to Algiers with 22 hostages.

Ilich was named after Vladimir Ilich Lenin, while his two brothers were named Lenin and Vladimir. This was the bright idea of their father, a Venezuelan lawyer and CP’er. He received the nom de guerre Carlos from by Bassam Abu-Sharif, a top official in the PFLP. This was turned into “Carlos the Jackal” when cops discovered Frederick Forsyth’s spy novel Day of the Jackal at one of his hideouts. It turns out that the book belonged to the guy who had put Carlos up there.

Carlos is played by Édgar Ramírez, a Venezuelan actor with typical movie star features. I think it would have been far more realistic if he had been played by someone as unpleasantly plump as the real life Carlos but that probably would have undercut the real goal of the film which is to make Carlos “sexy” even if repellent.

As head man of the operation sponsored by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as being fiercely independent-minded in general, Carlos took it upon himself to strike a deal with the Algerians. In exchange for $20 million put up presumably by the Saudis, the hostages would be released.

When PFLP Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour) discovers that Carlos has not killed the hostages and has taken money instead, he is expelled from the movement. In the film, Haddad is a slogan-spouting cardboard figure just as you might expect. Carlos appears relatively more reasonable insofar as he is not ready to commit suicide for the movement.

Of course, it becomes almost inevitable that his career path develops in a mercenary direction given the decline of terrorism internationally in the 1980s. The last hour or so of the film depicts Carlos wandering from country to country trying to ingratiate himself with one “rogue state” or another as either a provider of goods and services or as an instructor in the fine arts of urban guerrilla warfare—or terrorism to be more accurate. In Khartoum, his last residence before being kidnapped and taken to France to stand trial, he is seen as a slatternly, overweight and decadent figure. One imagines that there is some kind of moral to this movie but I couldn’t detect it.

Olivier Assayas, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dan Franck, directed. In an interview on lead actor Edgar Ramirez’s website, Assayas tries to establish his leftist bona fides:

I lived in the 70s. I was a teenager. At that time it was hard not being involved in this great movement that wanted to transform the world. I also participated, without adhering to the Maoist ideas.

Somewhere along the line, Assayas dumped these “great movement” ideas overboard, at least when it comes to a defining issue of our day. He is asked about the BDS movement and Israel’s response to the Gaza humanitarian flotilla. His reply:

It’s terrible. Such is the simplification of the problems of the world today. Some find that there are other truths that the media. People are deceived. This boycott is ridiculous, in general, the incursion of politics, the simplification in the film. This is the same as saying that “it is political theater,” while it is more often social cinema.

Whatever else you might think about Carlos, he at least understood the justice of the Palestinian cause.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex has exactly the same approach as Carlos. The film studiously avoids any kind of obvious moralizing and prefers to allow the main characters to hoist themselves on their own petard, especially the awful Andreas Baader, a vile sexist who routinely refers to women as “bitches” and “cunts”. Played by Moritz Bleibtreu as a kind of charismatic street person in the style of Charles Manson, he says not a single intelligent thing throughout the film. Next to him, Carlos is Leon Trotsky.

Stefan Aust wrote the screenplay based on his 2008 book. Aust was actually part of Ulrike Meinhof’s social set back in the 1970s and even helped retrieve her daughters from a Palestinian orphanage after she had abandoned the kids in favor of the “cause”, an act that was not unheard of in the American Trotskyist movement. From 1994 to 2008 Aust was editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, a rancid newsweekly in the Time Magazine mold. Given this background, you can imagine that Aust was capable of supplying just the sort of lurid detail that will keep the reader or movie audience glued to their seats. The movie is one long string of bank robberies, bombings, kidnappings and murders punctuated by members of the Red Army Faction mouthing revolutionary jargon.

Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) was much more cultured and accomplished than others in the RAF. Early on in the film, we see her and her husband at a nude beach with their two daughters, a sign that they were part of the freethinking middle class. At a garden party, she is asked to read an open letter to the Shah of Iran’s wife on the occasion of their visit to Germany that will appear in her husband’s newspaper, where she is a regular contributor. It makes many excellent points and reminds us of what a loss it is to our movement when someone like that gets sidetracked into terrorism.

There are even less politics in this film than there are in Carlos. The dialog consists nearly entirely of discussions about how their next bloody adventure will be carried out, punctuated by accusations against each other for lacking revolutionary principles or courage. Baader is the worst, heaping invective on the members of the RAF on the slightest offense.

As someone who is two years younger than the late Andreas Baader, who committed suicide in Stammheim prison in 1977, and four years older than Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, now serving a life sentence in France, and who shares some of their motivations, I cannot help but reflect on how differently we interpreted our duty to humanity.

Carlos in particular appears not that far removed from the urban guerrillas of Latin America, who thought in their own misguided way that they were following in the footsteps of Che Guevara. Indeed, Carlos wore a beret to the OPEC meeting in 1977. Even Hugo Chavez was moved to say some kind words about his fellow Venezuelan as the Guardian reported last November:

Ramírez Sánchez, the son of a wealthy Venezuelan Marxist, gained notoriety in the 70s and 80s as the mastermind behind a series of bombings, killings and kidnappings. He teamed up with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and West Germany’s Red Army Faction.

French agents abducted him from his villa near Khartoum in 1994. He was trussed up in a sack and spirited back to Paris, where now, aged 60, he is serving a life sentence for the 1975 murders of two French secret agents and a Lebanese alleged informant.

“They accuse him of being a terrorist, but Carlos really was a revolutionary fighter,” Chávez said during a televised speech on Friday.

The president has been a strong critic of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, which he has termed “genocide”. Earlier this year he expelled the Israeli ambassador and broke off relations.

Without putting too much stock in Chavez’s off-the-cuff remarks, one must say that the left really has to get this “revolutionary fighter” business straightened out since it continues to be a problem. The frustration and moral outrage of a young person like Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Ilich Ramirez Sanchez forced them to substitute themselves for the masses. They hoped that bold actions would somehow changes the relationship of class forces internationally so that the Palestinians and other oppressed people might get a better deal. Unfortunately, there is little doubt that such actions helped to isolate Palestinians just as suicide bombings did in the most recent uprising.

In the final analysis, the only way that imperialism can be stopped in its tracks is by the massive intervention of the working class internationally. Mass actions such as longshoremen refusing to unload Israeli goods will have a lot more impact than any bomb set off by a commando.

This work, however, is not easy. Getting the labor movement and academia to mobilize against Israeli apartheid requires breaking down ideological habits that are rooted in the experience of WWII. Fortunately, the Israeli state is acting as a battering ram against its own long-term interests, just as happens inevitably when an ultranationalist bourgeois government thinks that it accountable to nobody.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Video Media Stars, tvebookdotcom. tvebookdotcom said: United Red Army; Carlos; The Baader-Meinhof Complex « Louis … http://bit.ly/bkXHu8 […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention United Red Army; Carlos; The Baader-Meinhof Complex « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist -- Topsy.com — November 22, 2010 @ 12:38 am

  2. I have little to add to your ideological deconstruction of 1970s politically inspired violence as displayed in “Carlos”, except to say that I believe that it has its roots in a particularly virulent form of young, middle class alienatio, but, you might be interested in my review of the film, which relates to it in terms of the theme of transgression, which has been a primary preoccupation of Assayas, as well as his filmmaking technique, and what I perceive as his “orientalist” portrayal of Arabs (which you apparently perceived as well, given your statement that Haddad is portrayed as “cardboard figure”).


    An excerpt:

    [Some have said that Carlos is the best film that Assayas has ever made, and it is quite fine if you are disinterested in the underlying political themes. Unfortunately, for all of its brilliance, Carlos is a work of cinematic orientalism. With the possible exception of Carlos, Assayas generally portrays the South American and European characters as politically and emotionally responding to an unjust society, while the Arabs are the ones that betray the revolution. Through their contact with the Arabs, they are corrupted by money, seduced by violence and ultimately acquiesce to patriarchal authority. There is a clear binary opposition within the film in terms of the characteristics of European and Middle Eastern society. Given the actual history of the radical left in the US and Europe, where many participants fell prey to them in the absence of any contact with Arabs or Muslims, it borders on being racist. Rather oddly, the Arab characters reminded me of the yakuza ones in Japanese crime films by people like Kinji Fukasaku, which just shows the extent of the contrast. Amazingly, one ends up perceiving Carlos and his European allies as initially more supportive of the Palestinian cause than the Palestinians themselves (with the exception of lower level soldiers).]

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 22, 2010 @ 5:36 am

  3. I’m no expert on the Japanese left, either, but I read an article claiming that the Japanese Communist Party was growing by the thousands. However, if you go to their website, the party claims it is solely interested in transforming society through strictly non-violent means. Not that I’m against non-violence when appropriate, but it seems that this declaration is a way of distancing the party from the idiocy of the terrorist United Red Army. I’ve always had a fondness for Japanese culture, but have lamented the lack of a real left presence over there.

    Comment by Rob — November 22, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

  4. P.S. The article was in Adbusters, a magazine I appreciate for it’s critique of consumer capitalism, but have become less interested in because of it’s timidity in taking on the free market system as a whole.

    Comment by Rob — November 22, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  5. Well, this out of hand dismissal of revolutionary violence is a cop out. Not sure what the hell Bolsheviks were doing in Russia post-1917 if that wasn’t it. The Bolsheviks overtook Tsarist Russia with violence. People like Kautsky called Lenin a terrorist, so out of hand dismissal of violence is frankly phooey. As to Cuba and Che, why is what happened in Cuba any different than other parts of South America? Fidelistas were armed vanguard revolutionaries. That said, as someone who grew up in the Iran of 1970’s (still elementary school but a precious one) which had its own version of urban guerilla movement (Fedayaian-e Khalegh and Mujahedeen-e Khalgh) I’ve always been ambiguous about urban guerilla vanguradism. But I can tell you that in the absolute dictatorship of the Shah, the guerilla warfare was the only sound of dissent and those guerillas who died did open the way for 1978, of course they didn’t benefit from it but that’s another plot. Now, whether or not you can apply those tactics to West Germany I can’t be sure. But you seem to forget the reasoning for Armed tactics in Germany, what with ex-Nazis filling all security apparatus, German government and other European governments participating in suppressing third world movements (CIA, mercenaries, Congo, Lumumba). Louis, Hollywoddism is not the only guilty party here, you seem to be simplifying the situation too. I don’t deny the often degeneration that some of these movement took but that is not the whole story. When there is practically no bloody way to organize as was the case in Iran, what else do you have to do to break the state terror? As for places like Germany in the 1970’s or the US now, you can wait for the internatioal working movement to rise up but what if they don’t? They may in the long term but in the long term we’re all dead.

    Comment by Mazdak — November 22, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

  6. Mazdak. I think Lou’s point was that terrorism conducted by the masses, like in Bolshevik Russia, has little in common with the individual terror of the Narodniki variety, where frustrated intellectuals who’re unwilling or unable to organize the massess substitute themselves. They are, as Marx said, “The Alchemists of Revolution.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 22, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

  7. “. . . Aust was actually part of Ulrike Meinhof’s social set back in the 1970s and even helped retrieve her daughters from a Palestinian orphanage after she had abandoned the kids in favor of the “cause”, an act that was not unheard of in the American Trotskyist movement. . .”


    Comment by John B. — November 22, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

  8. Karl, Nardonikis believed in revolution from the top, more or less solely through terror, very similar I’d say to the anarchists of their time. The majority of South American armed vanguardists attmepted organizing student and workers organization as their backbone. They drew from those movements. Their stated goal was to in fact be ‘the small engine that kicked the big engine into action.’ So you can’t compare them with Nardnikis. I don’t know much about the Japanese Red Army, but in case of the so-called Baader_meinhoff group, they had specific goals such as hitting the German security apparatus, which actively trained Iran’s secret police, SAVAK. It seems to me that sometimes this antagonization of class struggle that jolted comfortable leftists is what makes them such villains. Sometimes you have to make a decision. Do you want a revolution without a revolution? For instance take the situation right now. The ruling elite in the US has no problem with sites like this and people like us so long as it doesn’t challenge the system. The system is so powerful that it can totally absorb this criticism. But look at the militancy of the Tea Party crowd. They’re teathing with militacy. They’re almost ready to pick up arms. What will you do in face of militant fascism? What the US left did in the 1930’s? Well, some went and fought in Spain but at home?

    Comment by Mazdak — November 22, 2010 @ 11:33 pm

  9. Well, Mazdak, so what exactly did those “revolutionary” terrorists achieve?

    Comment by ish — November 23, 2010 @ 4:34 am

  10. Well, ‘ish’, not any less that non-terrorist “revolutionaries”, unless you care to enumerate the vast achivements of the non-terrorist left in the past 30 years, say in the US.

    Comment by Mazdak — November 23, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

  11. The last 30 years sees the US left in a deep valley it has been descending in to since the 70’s. On the other hand there are many examples of the terrorist right-wing success since that period.
    Lets take it back a bit and compare the last 50 years of left organized popular action to the lone wolf left-wing terrorist cults successes, in the US or world wide, or take it even back further.

    Comment by Michael T — November 24, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  12. @John B.: acutally, Aust found them in Italy in a hippie commune, before they were to be shipped to Lebanon.

    Comment by PfromGermany — November 24, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  13. @Prom: Actually, I was wondering how Lou came to the conclusion that people in the “Trotskyist Movement” were known to abandon their children for “the cause.” We were both members of said movement, and I know of no such thing.

    Comment by John B. — November 25, 2010 @ 4:06 am

  14. My girlfriend in Houston gave her baby daughter to her mother to raise for exactly that reason.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 25, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  15. Wow, pretty broad generalization to draw about “The Trotskyist Movement” based on one incident.

    Comment by John B. — November 25, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

  16. I said, “an act that was not unheard of in the American Trotskyist movement.” This should not be interpreted as a general pattern. In fact, the general pattern in the SWP was to not have kids, except of course after the turn when SWP members were encouraged–momentarily–to emulate ordinary workers. (I can also refer you to a comrade who was advised to get an abortion because a child would interfere with her ability to do political work.)

    Comment by louisproyect — November 25, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

  17. Interesting – do you know where I can find a copy online of the Japanese film? Also, if you want to complete your set and see an Italian version of the story, you should also watch La Prima Linea: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1347442/

    Comment by raff — February 7, 2011 @ 4:01 am

  18. […] my review of the theater version, I […]

    Pingback by Carlos (uncut version); My Life as a Terrorist « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 24, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

  19. Aust did not wrote the screenplay. He wrote the book on which the screenplay is based. Therefore, he gets a “story” credit, but to say, “Stefan Aust wrote the screenplay based on his 2008 book” is factually inaccurate. The screenplay was adapted from Aust’s book by Bernd Eichinger and the film’s director, Uli Edel.

    Comment by Sam — January 15, 2016 @ 2:54 am

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