1 September 2007 | Thorsten_B
Making the Trial visible
This, the controversial winner of the 1986 Berlin Film Festival, is rarely seen on TV screens these days, at least in it's native country. This is not unlikely to be caused by the controversy of the subject. Based on a script by well-known German journalist Stefan Aust, who himself based the script on his lengthy book "The Baader-Meinhof-Complex" about 1970s terrorism in Germany, and directed by Reinhard Hauff (who already had experience with "political themes" in film, not least in "Messer im Kopf"), "Stammheim" reconstructs the trial against four leading figures of the so-called Red Army Fraction. The RAF was the prime terrorist movement in Germany from the early 70s on, split in three different "generations", with the prisoners of this trial being the first. (The second, consisting of people who hardly knew the first, was far more violent; the third is still some sort of mystery today, since almost nobody was ever caught). Stammheim is a suburb of the city of Stuttgart, and here stands the jail house especially build for terrorists and equipped with an own trial room to host prosecution against, as it was called then, "participation in terrorist alliances". During the course of this particular trial – which became famous as "the" Stammheim trial, thus the title –, the defendants used every opportunity to display their political propaganda, and chances were given quite a lot during the 192 days it ran. At the same time they aimed at unmasking the judge and the attorneys as ideologically driven quasi-Nazis; they tried to manipulate the trial, supported by their lawyers (some of which later became famous politicians, but not all of them remained leftist), and their eager agitation gave insight into their own thoughts, perspectives and prejudices. In essence, the four RAF leaders (two men: Baader and Raspe, two women: Ensslin and Meinhof) claimed that the German government was on it's direct way back to fascism, especially after supporting the US-American attacks on Vietnam. Therefore it was just to fight the state, destroy it's facilities or even kill people in charge.
This is the outline of the recitations that make up this film. Hauff presents scenes from the trial by juxtaposing few fictional elements with lots of quotes from the actual protocols. The atmosphere is theatrical (and indeed "Stammheim" was co-produced by a Hamburg theater company) and a bit surreal, with the setting – as realistic as it is – looking almost like sci-fi (as did the courtroom in the real Stammheim). Given the impact that the RAFs terror made in German politics and society from the 70s up until 1998 (when the third generation announced the end of their mission), the picture is dynamite: For instance, it dares to focus on the highly controversial topic of "raison d'etat", which stands – in the eyes of the RAF and their lawyers – for the German authorities' secret strategy of killing "political prisoners". When, in 1977, the Baader, Raspe and Ensslin killed themselves (Meinhof already committed suicide during the trial), many supporters and intellectuals accused the state of murder. But before that, following the sentence to life-long prison for each defendant came the most famous kidnapping case in German history. It is not seen in the film, which ends with the sentence, but viewers should be aware that the second generation abducted an influential industrial manager (with personal Nazi background) to blackmail the freeing of the first. After that failed, a plane full of travelers on their way home from summer holiday was hijacked additionally. In the end, the manager was killed, the passengers were freed violently, and the inhabitants of Stammheim took their own lives that very same night.
The film is all about talking, confronting positions, discourse. The action is in the words. For those familiar with the background of the story and it's social, psychological and political implications, "Stammheim" delivers stunning entertainment by making the trial visible. Even if you don't know about the roots of the film, it is still impressive. It's a laudable achievement in bringing together fiction and political reality in a unique and thrilling way.