6 September 1977. I was not yet eight years old. Helicopters in the air; police cars everywhere. On the way to school, the display of the box with the local newspaper you could buy for a few cents showed an image of cars assaulted by bullets.

Moving History Festival

Newspaper Image of Assault on Schleyer’s Car

Teachers greeted us with worried expressions. Fear was in the air. The terrorists might be hiding out in our neighbourhood, or maybe just the next town over, in Libur. I always remembered that their first hideout, after they kidnapped their target, was essentially just across the field from my parents’ apartment in Zündorf, a small suburb of Cologne, Germany. But all this time, I was wrong, as I figured out only a few months ago: the terrorists did in fact not hide out in Libur, as I had always believed, but in Liblar, a town across the Rhine, about 20 rather than a mere two miles away from where I grew up.

They: that’s the Red Army Faction (RAF), popularly also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, Germany’s infamous left-wing terrorist group that decided to fight the West German state throughout the 1970s (and, ultimately, into the 1990s). By the time I saw the image in the newspaper on the way to school, Ulrike Meinhof, who was an inmate together with other members of the RAF’s first generation in a prison in Stammheim (by Stuttgart), home location of Daimler Benz, had already committed suicide (on 9 May 1976). I remember her photograph, and that of the other terrorists (including Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Irmgard Möller), on “most-wanted” posters prominently displayed at the post office and the grocery store.

Moving History Festival

RAF Most Wanted Poster

And I remember asking myself in the early 1980s, now a young teenager whose political conscience had awoken and pushed him toward the far left: was I a Sympathisant, as people were called in the 1970s who had harboured some (however complicated) feelings of sympathy for the (early) RAF activities, including especially intellectuals and artists such as Nobel Prize winner of Literature, Heinrich Böll, or filmmakers such as Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, who adapted Böll’s Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) in 1975 into one of the better-known films of what had just been coined by American film critics the New German Cinema? By then, around 1983, 1984, West Germany had entered the Kohl era, and we did not yet know that it had just barely begun (it was not before 1998 that Germany would have a new Chancellor). At least in my recollection, any mentioning of the RAF — of Ulrike, of Gudrun, of Andreas: we talked about them as if they had been our friends – during discussions at meetings of my local youth chapter of the Social Democratic Party, also known as “the Jusos” or young socialists, always occurred with an air of awe or at least admiration, with a hushed sense of approval and, importantly, conspiratorial tenor; after all, many of us were convinced that the Stammheimer (so the RAF inmates were often called) did not commit suicide and had instead fallen victim to Justizmord (meaning: state-sanctioned murder). And now, with the new government under Chancellor Helmut Kohl having replaced the Social-Liberal government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who during the so-called hot autumn of 1977 had refused to free the inmates in exchange for Hans-Martin Schleyer, West Germany’s powerful Arbeitgeberpräsident (president of West Germany’s organisation of employers) whom the RAF had abducted in spectacular fashion on 5 September 1977 in Cologne – now, there was little hope that we’d ever get answers to what we felt were still open questions, to all those aspects of the State’s story about the Todesnacht (night of death) of 18 October 1977 that did not seem to add up. Or so we believed.1

This nagging, lingering doubt — the belief that the official version of the events has too many holes — has never quite left me, notwithstanding “de-mythologising” books such as Stefan Aust’s Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (1985), which I devoured in the mid-1980s with an increasingly queasy feeling in my stomach and which Uli Edel together with Germany’s erstwhile über-producer, the late Bernd Eichinger, turned into the action-packed Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (The Baader Meinhof Complex, 2008) thirty years after Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, and other luminaries of New German Cinema spontaneously responded to the events of that fateful night of death by putting the omnibus film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978) together. And this lingering doubt has always affected my attitude towards the RAF (as well as state power in general), making me instinctively weary of the increasingly codified narrative about them as having been little more than a small group of criminals who, for a few years, seemed to have a surprisingly large group of supporters among the German population (especially among those under the age of thirty) – at least until bullets started to fly with greater regularity and the number of casualties grew. Today, it is essentially impossible to insist that the RAF, however misguided (the means of) their actions might have been, actually may have had legitimate reasons to resist the State.2

One of the most powerful aspects about the first instantiation of moving history: Festival des historischen Films Potsdam – a newly created German film festival that focuses on representations of history in German cinema – was precisely the film archival demonstration of how the RAF has been kept alive, indeed: how it has not been allowed to die, over all these years. For quite some time now, the RAF has enjoyed considerable presence in German cultural life as a ghostly and unquiet figure, as Berlin School filmmaker Christian Petzold depicts the group’s remnants in his brilliant Die innere Sicherheit (The State I Am In, 2000): not permitted to live in the state that they were in (or in any other for that matter), they also were not allow to die, at least not on the very symbolic level on which their former real existence continues to do considerable ideological work for the unified German state fifty years after the student revolution years of 1967/68. To speak with the festival’s topical title for its inaugural year (Keine Stille nach dem Schuss: 1967, der Deutsche Herbst und die RAF): there has been no silence after the shot. With this choice of title, the festival not only recalled the police shooting of student Benno Ohnesorg, who participated in non-violent fashion in the protest against the Shah of Iran’s visit to West Berlin on 2 June 1967, but also evoked Schlöndorff’s film Die Stille nach dem Schuss (The Legend of Rita, 2000) about a fictive RAF member who fled to East Germany where she lived under a false identity until the fall of the Wall.3

Moving History Festival

Die Stille nach dem Schuss (Volker Schlöndorff, 2000)

Schlöndorff’s and Petzold’s films were among the 20 screened over the course of five days. The festival, indelibly curated by Dr. Ilka Brombach and her team around Professor Chris Wahl (both teach at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf in Potsdam), also included a scholarly symposium, “Re-Framing RAF – Terrorismus in der audiovisuellen Erinnerungskultur” (Re-Framing RAF – Terrorism in the audio-visual culture of remembrance), two workshop conversations with filmmakers who have work-in-progress on the RAF, and a master class given by von Trotta, the festival’s patroness. Especially productive were also the Q&A sessions with many of the films’ directors (and in some cases actors and producers) that followed virtually every screening: at times, disagreements among the audience, or with the filmmakers, got heated enough to suggest that the fights of the past are not yet over even two decades after the RAF officially disbanded (in 1998). While the films by Schlöndorff, Petzold, as well as Germany in Autumn and von Trotta’s Die bleierne Zeit (Marianne and Juliane, 1981) are undoubtedly among the best-known RAF films and even enjoy a modicum of global visibility, the vast majority of the festival’s offerings – all screened without subtitles due to funding limitations, which one hopes can be overcome in the near future to raise the festival’s international appeal – constituted rarely if ever seen gems of German film history. Thus, the four-handful of short films and features, documentaries and fiction films, afforded the audience a truly unique, though by no means exhaustive, look at the history of German moving images’ attempts to come to terms with the RAF. Covering 50 years – from documentaries such as Der Polizeistaatsbesuch: Beobachtungen unter deutschen Gastgebern (The Police State Visit: Observations among German Hosts, Roman Brodman, 1967) and Ruhestörung: Ereignisse in Berlin, 2. Juni bis 12. Juni 1967 (Disturbance of the Order: Events in Berlin, 2 June – 12 June 1967, Hans Dieter Müller and Günther Hörmann, 1967), both of which were made in direct response to the events of 2 June 1967 that triggered the radicalisation of Germany’s student movement that ultimately led to the RAF’s founding in 1970, to Dominik Graf’s latest made-for-TV film, Tatort: Der rote Schatten (Crime Scene: The Red Shadow, 2017) – the festival invited viewers to engage in a complex process of mental mapping of this particular aspect of (West) German history, an aspect that, as the reception of Graf’s film would illustrate after its primetime screening on German television on 15 October 2017, continues to haunt contemporary German culture like, perhaps, few others.4

moving history is, as von Trotta reminded attendees in her brief essay included in the festival catalogue, the first-ever German film festival to focus on Historienfilme (history films), which is perhaps surprising for a nation that is “so rich of fateful, and catastrophic, enlightening, and shocking events.”5 This alone is enough justification for the festival’s existence; however, I’d argue that the value of the festival’s inaugural version was encapsulated by two specific aspects: first, that the festival demonstrated the ongoing relevance of the RAF for German society in the present; and second, that its well-conceived programming empowered the viewer to reflect on how German film and television have written, and re-written in nearly obsessive fashion, the events of those “leaden years,” to use the literal translation of von Trotta’s Die bleierne Zeit, thereby provoking the question of the degree to which such moving images exercise a witnessing function, on the one hand, and serve as historiographers, on the other.6 Recall in this context how Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, the RAF-film with which non-German audiences might be most familiar, tells the story of the RAF as an action film and works diligently to insists on the authenticity of its images. In so doing, the film intentionally blurs the lines between its documentary moments (in the form of well-known archival footage) and its re-staged and ultimately fictionalised core that re-reads, and re-writes, not only the history of the RAF but also the history of its media representations, including of the group’s existence as a film and television phenomenon. At more than one moment, that is, the film positions us as if we were witnesses to the events, while inevitably intervening in the events’ historiography. Rhetorically, the decision to make viewers feel as if we were witnessing the events is designed to make us accept the veracity of the film’s historiographical intervention, which culminates in the moment when Brigitte Mohnhaupt, one of the leaders of the RAF’s third generation, admonishes not only her diegetic audience but also, crucially, us as viewers not to see the RAF as something they never were.

Moving History Festival

Brigitte Mohnhaupt addressing her comrades in The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008)

Unlike Edel’s film, whose peculiar dialectic of, on the one hand, trying to position itself as witness to the real events and, on the other hand, harbouring the ambition to be accepted as giving the most accurate account in the historiography of the RAF, largely fails to explain anything about the RAF, the archive of RAF-films moving history made available presented attendees with a counter-narrative to those voices claiming that the RAF was never more than a small group of confused people whose actions were criminal rather than ideological in nature. Without taking sides, the festival evidenced that the history of the RAF was (and remains) much more complex than what today’s neoliberal ideologues peddle as received wisdom about the violent aftermath of ’68.7 For example, Das Abonnement (The Subscription, Ali Limonadi, 1967), renders palpable the fear and paranoia that at the time affected parts of the student population in West Berlin (and elsewhere). This short experimental silent film focuses on a young man whose dream life is split: on the one hand, he fantasises about his dream woman – played by none other than Gudrun Ensslin, whose performance oozes the cold affect that was then typical of fashion models posing for the camera and perhaps not unintentionally evokes Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966); on the other hand, he is haunted by a nightmare in which hundreds of copies of the centre-right newspaper Die Welt invade his home through his apartment door’s mail slit and gradually smother him. This long-lost short film, made by an Iranian student, testifies to the psychic pressure that young people must have experienced as a result of West Germany’s largest publisher, Springer, relentlessly polemicising against this new generation of West Germans (the first one born after World War Two) whose values increasingly rejected the conformism permeating the post-war economic boom experienced by the country in the ’50s and ’60s.

Moving History Festival

Das Abonnoment (Ali Limonadi, 1967)

While this short film poetically taps into the Zeitgeist in the mid-to-late ’60s, two documentaries explicitly react to the Shah’s visit to West Germany, including West Berlin. Whereas Der Polizeistaatsbesuch depicts the preparations across the country for the dictator’s visit and uses voiceover to offer a surprisingly ironic, even biting commentary on what the images depict, Ruhestörung is more in the vein of Richard Leacock’s Direct Cinema aesthetics, heavily relying on original footage and sound edited together without any qualifying voiceover commentary. The former film was made for the “Zeichen der Zeit” (Signs of the Time) program of the southwestern German subsidiary of West Germany’s ARD network; however, its makers had likely not planned for the film to be as overtly political as the finished product ended up being as a result of the events of 2 June 1967. This might also explain the film’s shift in tone from bemused (and amusing) irony when depicting Germans’ penchant for obeying and admiring authority to barely contained anger in the aftermath of the murder of Ohnesorg, the shooting of whom the soundtrack registers.

Moving History Festival

Der Polizeistaatsbesuch: Beobachtungen under deutschen Gastgebern (Roman Brodman, 1967)

Whereas Der Polizeistaatsbesuch is primarily about the lead-up to the Shah’s visit, Ruhestörung exclusively documents the immediate days after the 2 June events. Made at the Institute for Film Design in Ulm, Germany’s first film school (it was founded by Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, and Detten Schleiermacher), the documentary focuses on the student discussions in the violence’s aftermath and culminates in the famous debate between West German student leader Rudi Dutschke and Frankfurt School philosopher Jürgen Habermas, with the latter infamously accusing the former’s position as “left fascism”. Unlike Der Polizeistaatsbesuch, which is characterised by the pronounced presence of its voiceover, this film never explains who its featured speakers are; is characterised by the desire to let the discussants speak till they have finished; uses harsh cuts to link the various discussions; and, as a result, assembles a document of the time that serves as witness to the students’ uncertainty (and disagreements with each other), as well as to the processes through which they laboured to arrive at collective political position statements and plans of action.

Just as these three films were eye-opening because of how they allow viewers, 50 years later, to witness the emerging student movement and its rapid radicalisation, so a feature-length fiction film from the same year, Tätowierung (Tattoo, Johannes Schaaf, 1967), proved to be a real discovery and, in my view, one of the festival’s true gems. Starring a young Christof Wackernagel, the film focuses on Benno (Wackernagel) and his increasing inability to cope with his liberal factory-owning bourgeois foster parents who gradually suffocate this “troubled” teenager by relentlessly exhibiting their tolerant attitude towards him and the world at large.8

Yet, the more the liberal representatives of West Germany’s post-war “economic miracle” seek to normalise Benno’s aberrant behaviour by casually excusing each and every of his (intentionally or not) rebellious actions, the more they transform his new-found liberty into a prison that is more all-encompassing than the reformatory from which he was “rescued” ever was (which is why, for a while, he even yearns to be readmitted to the state’s institution). Paradoxically, the more the parents try to fold Benno into their lifestyle, the less freedom he experiences: instead of pulling him closer into society’s bosom of liberal conformity, their (self-)love pushes him ever further away. Consequently, the only subject position left for Benno is that of the outsider – or if you will, of the abject. As the film unfolds its barely existing narrative, he quite literally comes to embody the very social and psychic excess that the normalising desire of bourgeois culture finds itself unable to contain.

Moving History Festival

Tätowierung (Johannes Schaaf, 1967) – Benno running

Indeed, from the opening credit scene on, the film renders sensible West German society’s inability to normalise Benno. Benno is all restless movement: we see him frantically running away from a hoard of teenagers, but initially we are not able to discern whether this is a game or serious business, not least because Benno’s pursuers frequently close in on him only for him – unrealistically – to escape time and again. It’s as if the film simply wanted to show bodies in motion, perhaps precisely because the larger socio-cultural context in which these marginalised, deviant bodies exist suffers from a stasis induced by a society smugly enamoured with its own accomplishments, including its seemingly stable liberal democracy. (The following ten years would of course put West Germany’s seeming stability to a serious test, in the process also casting doubt on its liberalism.) But what this society, organised around the tenets of a capitalist social market economy, failed to notice was precisely that its self-satisfied liberalism did not amount to true freedom: for the liberal attitude with which Benno’s foster parents respond to his violations of social norms is precisely what deprives him, one well-meaning embrace at a time, of his ability to be, or rather to become, himself. The only times we sense that Benno experiences a modicum of true freedom is when he is running, or when he is riding on a motorcycle – and, finally and most remarkably, when he is joyfully splashing around naked in a swimming pool after having shot his foster father, with the police approaching.

Moving History Festival

Tätowierung (Johannes Schaaf, 1967) — Benno shooting his foster father

With its ambiguous ending, Tattoo seems to evoke François Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), the legendary French New Wave film about another “troubled” teenager who experiences freedom only when he is in motion – whether while spinning in a rotor’s drum or when running away from the reformatory in the film’s famous concluding tracking shot that culminates in a zoom-in-on-freeze-frame image of his gaze addressing the camera.

It is difficult to imagine that Tattoo could be made in today’s German film and television production system, where any film that does not attribute psychological motivations to its characters’ behaviours through a clear “realist” narrative framework seems to be met with resistance by potential (television) producers and, in the few cases where such “deviant” films are financed, greeted with disdain by most critics and viewers; and yet, Tattoo – made before the events of 2 June 1967 – is that rare film that truly saw or sensed something “in the air”: it not just depicted but criticised its time, seeing with remarkable clarity a society in the process of changing at the very moment when it narcissistically celebrates its stability as its greatest accomplishment. Eerily prescient, the film witnessed a violence-to-come that would shatter the West German post-war consensus and its ultimately conservative liberalism that, so Tattoo subversively suggests, generously tolerated everything so that nothing would have to change.

Each of these four films made in 1967 can be considered part of the mosaic that formed the context from which the history of violence involving the RAF emerged — and to these four we can add Die Wilden Tiere (The Wild Animals, 1969), a mid-length film by Katrin Seybold and Gerd Conrad that documents in a series of fragments the so-called Rote Knastwoche Ebrach (Red Prison Week Ebrach), which was in essence a campaign designed to show solidarity with an imprisoned student but also served as an occasion for the leaders of the various far-left resistance groups (including a number of future RAF members) to develop new strategies for dealing with the West German justice system.9 And it is this history of violence that many of the post-1967 films screened at the festival investigate in vastly different ways. Brandstifter (Arsonist, Klaus Lemke, 1969), for example, fictionalises the future-RAF’s first significant action (they set fire to a department store in Frankfurt). According to Lemke, who knew Baader because they frequented the same bars and cinemas in Munich’s bohemian neighbourhood of Schwabing (Fassbinder was also a regular there), the future RAF leader would one day show up at the director’s apartment to demand financial compensation for how the film exploited his real-life action. More than a decade and many dead bodies later, von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane was among the first films to cast a look back at the “leaden years” by dramatising the relationship between Gudrun Ensslin and her sister Christiane, a feminist journalist who obsessively investigates her sister’s death at Stammheim and suspects foul play on the government’s part.

Moving History Festival

Brandstifter (Klaus Lemke, 1969)

Also focusing on the perpetrators is Wer wenn nicht wir (If Not Us, Who?, Andres Veiel, 2011), which was one of nine post-2000 films screened by moving history that turn their fictional or documentary gaze at the history of the RAF in order to write it anew for a new generation. The film, which had premiered at the Berlin Film Festival’s competition in 2011, narrates the RAF’s pre-history, depicting Ensslin’s early adulthood with her boy-friend Bernward Vesper, a struggling writer who was never able to escape the domineering shadow of his author-father, who, in turn, never found acceptance among the post-war West German literati because he had been one of Hitler’s favourite poets. (Vesper, who never joined the RAF, eventually committed suicide in 1971; today, his posthumously published autobiographical book, Die Reise [The Trip, 1977], is considered a classic, at times even seen as representing the bequest of an entire generation.) In drawing an explicit connection between the founding of the RAF and Germany’s Nazi past, the film, aesthetically mainstream, follows the cues provided by Gerd Koenen’s controversial biographical reportage, Vesper, Ensslin, Baader: Urszenen des deutschen Terrorismus (Vesper, Ensslin, Baader: Ur-scenes of German Terrorism, 2005) to approach the history of RAF violence from a more intimate, biographical vantage point.

Pursuing a different approach than any of these films are a number of post-2000 films that turn their cinematic gaze on the RAF’s victims rather than focusing on the perpetrators. Schleyer – Eine deutsche Geschichte (Schleyer – A German History, Lutz Hachmeister, 2003), for example, documents the history of one of West Germany’s most powerful economic and political figures, Hans Martin Schleyer. The film tracks his rise during the Nazi years all the way to his death at the hands of the RAF on 18 October 1977 (to this day it remains unclear who pulled the trigger just hours after the news of the deaths at Stammheim prison spread). A compelling portrait of the “Boss of Bosses,” as Schleyer was known in West Germany due to his hard-nosed negotiating tactics with Germany’s powerful labour unions, the film’s most telling moments might be scenes when Schleyer’s widow and former friends prove to be incapable and/or unwilling to acknowledge how Schleyer and his family directly benefited from the Nazi’s expropriation of Jewish property in Prague during the occupation.

Moving History Festival

Schleyer — Eine deutsche Geschichte (Lutz Hachmeister, 2003)

In den besten Jahren (In the Best Years, Hartmut Schoen, 2011), too, focuses on a victim of the “leaden years,” in this case the (fictional) widow of the first policeman whom the RAF shot (in 1971). Forty years after she lost her husband, the widow’s life continues to be defined by her loss, as she has never been able to “move on” and create a new life for herself. This film also exemplifies a more recent trend among RAF-films in that it approaches the group through the logic of the “return of the repressed”. Just as this film depicts its protagonist four decades after the RAF violence “tattooed” her for the rest of her life, so Mord am Meer (Murder by the Sea, Matti Gschonneck, 2005) also focuses on how the RAF past re-emerges in the post-millennial present. The film begins with the (fictional) discovery of a murdered former RAF member, who for decades had lived under a false identity; the discovery of the dead man’s history occasions the need for the two crime investigators to come to terms with their own histories — with one remembering with significant sympathy the events of ’68 while the other, who grew up in East Germany, continues to be affected by the frustrations she experienced living her life behind the iron curtain. (Another film, not screened at the festival, that approaches the RAF through the “return of the repressed” framework is Connie Walther’s Schattenwelt [Long Shadows, 2008].)

Films such as these keep re-writing not only the history of the RAF but also its media history as they respond to previous films’ attempts to come to terms with the ongoing trauma the existence of the RAF inflicted on West Germany – a trauma that continues to affect Germany more than a quarter century after unification. How deep the scars are that the RAF has left on the German socio-cultural psyche is perhaps best evidenced by the reception of the festival’s sole premiere screening – Dominik Graf’s The Red Shadow. A made-for-TV film as part of Germany’s longest running television program – Tatort (Crime Scene, 1970-present) – The Red Shadow revisits in speculative fashion what might have happened that fateful night at Stammheim at the end of which the inmates were found dead, allegedly having committed suicide but possibly, just possibly, having fallen victim to state-sanctioned murder. Graf, German cinema’s master of the police film10, approaches his subject matter in ways that alienated some viewers at the film’s premiere due to its highly discursive nature. Not only is the film dominated by Graf’s trademark staging of extensive dialogue scenes in which a multiplicity of voices compete for the viewer’s attention, but it also uses its dialogue for obvious explanatory purposes: at various moments, protagonists describe to each other (but really to the viewer) who was and (possibly) did what over the last 40 years during which the account of what happened at Stammheim increasingly calcified around the state’s claim that the inmates killed themselves with the help of weapons provided by their attorneys.11

Moving History Festival

Der rote Schatten (Dominik Graf, 2017)

During the Q&A, Graf pointedly remarked that his film was intended to challenge this state-narrative, arguing that many questions remain unanswered about the official account (to this day, for example, there are still files that have not been made publically available). In this regard, Graf’s film echoes von Trotta’s: the latter has its journalist protagonist carefully re-stage the alleged death-by-hanging of her sister only to discover that the weight of her sister’s body would have been too much for the rope to hold her long enough to choke her to death; the former weaves together in complex ways two temporal planes – that of 1977 and that of 2017 – and uncovers through the investigation of a seemingly straightforward death the existence of a V-man who might be the key to the truth about what happened on 18 October 1977 at Stammheim. The “scandal” of Graf’s film, then, is its speculative positing of the very possibility that the state’s narrative might not be as convincing as the ruling class claims it is.

Or so it would appear, in any case, based on the film’s remarkable reception upon its screening on German television on 15 October 2017, three weeks after moving history premiered it to a full house of expectant viewers. For only two days later, on 17 October 2017, Gerhart Baum, who served as West Germany’s Secretary of the Interior during the days of the hot autumn, published an essay in the online edition of Germany’s leading weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, arguing that “German history is not a ‘crime scene’” and charging that the film’s “unbearable blending of reality and fiction” is simply “irresponsible.”12 Stefan Aust, author of the landmark book that served as the basis for Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, claimed that Graf’s film offered “dangerous nonsense.” Not to be outdone, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier took the occasion of a speech he gave to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Schleyer’s death to scold Graf, declaring with all the moral authority invested in the country’s figurehead that The Red Shadow allowed “the martyr legend of the state-sanctioned murder of the inmates” (“die Märtyrerlegende vom Justizmord an den Häftlingen”) to come to life again.13 Strong tobacco, this – and a powerful indication that filmic “fabulation” (I’m referring here to Gilles Deleuze’s use of the word in Cinema 2: The Time-Image) still has, on occasion, the power to unsettle the powers-that-be because of its capacity to reframe how we see, how we remember, and thus how we think about our history. Thus, the true scandal of The Red Shadow is the fact that the state’s functionaries do not exhibit more Souveränität (a good German word meaning “sovereignty” in the sense of state authority, as well as “being above things,” as in: “Even acknowledging something is beneath me”) in their respective responses to what is after all a rather common artistic strategy (Graf’s film is, as we all know, hardly the first to mix truth and fiction, reality and imagination): that is, what is scandalous is that the sovereign seeks to censor the public sphere precisely because it fears that its hegemonic power to control the interpretation of an historical event is corroded by a single crime film.

Or, put differently and in conclusion, the scandal (in a positive sense) of Graf’s film – and in this regard also of moving history’s inaugural year – is to have shown that the cinema (even in its “bastardised” version of television) still has the power to redistribute the sensible, to speak with Jacques Rancière. When used well, it is able to insert a moment of disagreement, of dissent, into the public sphere and thereby to reframe that which the public can see, perceive, and sense. And what the politicians (and experts such as Aust) seem to misunderstand is precisely that the point (and power) of Graf’s film is less about whether or not there is any truth to its speculation about what took place than it is about the very freedom to issue dissent – the very dissent Tattoo issued (in the form of its protagonist) in untimely fashion against 50 years of the state’s effort to gradually wean society off of its very desire to dissent in collective fashion. At a time when neo-fascism is on the rise in Germany and elsewhere – but especially in Germany – both films’ accomplishments, regardless of their significant differences, are considerable feats that my much younger self might have intuited, however naively, when, still a child, I found myself sympathising with those strange people staring at me from the most-wanted posters hanging at the local post office.

moving history – Festival des historischen Films Potsdam
20-24 September 2017
Festival website: https://www.moving-history.de


  1. While Baader, Raspe, and Ensslin died in prison, Möller survived her suicide attempt. The first two died from gun shots, Ensslin from hanging, and Möller tried to stab herself to death. Stammheim was said to be Germany’s most secure prison, which is why there was considerable consternation about how the inmates could have possibly gotten their weapons. It appears that their attorneys were able to smuggle them into Germany’s Alcatraz.
  2. The literature on the RAF is vast and continues to grow. For an account of the RAF’s existence in media representations – print, art, and film – see Christina Gerhardt’s forthcoming Screening the Red Army Faction: Historical and Cultural Memory (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018).
  3. By now it is well established that East Germany aided the RAF. And in 2009 it was discovered that the policeman who shot Ohnesorg, Karl-Heinz Kurras, worked at the time as an informal collaborator for East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.
  4. While there is no official founding of the RAF, the group’s formal beginning is attributed to Baader’s escape from police custody on 14 May 1970. This escape was organised by various of Baader’s comrades, as well as Ulrike Meinhof. Until then, Meinhof had been best known for being a talented left-wing journalist, as a result of which she was able to set up a meeting with Baader at the Deutsches Zentralinstitut für Soziale Fragen in Berlin under the pretence of doing research. Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex dramatises her becoming-illegal as a moment of decision that she was forced to make when the plan to free Baader without violent means went awry.
  5. Margarethe von Trotta, “Grußwort,” moving history 01 festival catalogue, p. 3, www.moving-history.de/app/uploads/2017/09/Katalogmovinghistory2017.pdf.
  6. While the “leaden years” generally refer to the events of the ’70s, the RAF continued to perpetrate significant acts of violence throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s. Perhaps most famously, on 30 November 1989, the RAF killed Alfred Herrhausen, president of the powerful Deutsche Bank. Andres Veiel’s superb documentary Black Box BRD (2001), not included in the festival program, suggests that Herrhausen argued for debt relief for highly indebted developing countries and thereby advocated for an ethical stance that ran counter to the position held by the majority of his banker colleagues and their political leaders — a stance that would seem to have been in accord with the RAF’s political goals.
  7. Today’s dogma holds that ’68 was a failed revolution that has been safely discarded in the dustbin of history.
  8. Mr. Wackernagel joined the RAF in 1977 and was subsequently imprisoned for a decade. He attended a number of the festival screenings and was happy to contribute to the conversations.
  9. Conrad’s later film, Starbuck Holger Meins (2001), which also screened at the festival, is a landmark documentary about the RAF. It focuses on Holger Meins, erstwhile film student at the dffb (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin), who died in prison on 9 November 1974 from the causes of a hunger strike in which he engaged to protest what the RAF inmates perceived as Isolationsfolter (torture by being kept in isolation).
  10. For more on his work, see my extensive interview with him in Senses of Cinema 55, https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/%e2%80%9c%e2%80%98i-build-a-jigsaw-puzzle-of-a-dream-germany%e2%80%99-an-interview-with-german-filmmaker-dominik-graf%e2%80%9d-2/
  11. To fully appreciate Graf’s highly speculative encounter with the RAF’s ghost one must, I think, watch it multiple times. But this is of course what the history of the films engaging the history of the RAF have collectively done: in order to make sense of what, perhaps, we can never make sense, they have re-visited it, time and again, from one generation of filmmakers to the next. (Clearly, German cinema’s encounter with the country’s internal left-wing terrorism is second to none: neither Italy nor Mexico nor Japan nor the US have produced nearly as many filmic representations of their respective terrorist events in the aftermath of ‘68 than has German cinema and television.)
  12. Gerhart Baum, “Die deutsche Geschichte ist kein ‘Tatort’,” Spiegel Online 17 October 2017, http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/tv/tatort-ueber-die-raf-die-deutsche-geschichte-ist-kein-tatort-a-1173270.html.
  13. Aust’s and Steinmeier’s statements are quoted in Peter Körte, “Fiktionen der anderen,” Frankfurter Allgemeine online 21 October 2017, www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/tatort/zur-kritik-am-raf-tatort-von-dominik-graf-15255768.html.

About The Author

Marco Abel is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies and chair of the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the 2014 German Studies Association Book Prize, and Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique After Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007); the co-editor with Chris Wahl, Michael Wedel, and Jesko Jockenhoevel of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010), with Jaimey Fisher of The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art-Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2018), with Christina Gerhardt, of Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968 (Camden House, 2019), and with Jaimey Fisher and Aylin Bademsoy of Christian Petzold: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2023). He has also published numerous essays on post-unification German cinema and interviews with German film directors in journals such as Cineaste, German Studies Review, New German Critique, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Senses of Cinema, as well as in a number of edited volumes on German cinema history. With Roland Végső, he is the co-editor of the book series Provocations (University of Nebraska Press). He is currently working on his third monograph, Mit Nonchalance am Abgrund: Das Kino der ‘Neuen Münchner Gruppe’ (1964 – 1972), which is under contract with transcript Verlag (Germany) and likely to be published in 2024.

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