Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Wer wenn nicht wir (If Not Us, Who), Andres Veiel, Germany 2011

Expectations had been high for Veiel's much anticipated Red Army Faction drama. Veiel's aim was, to tell the "previously untold story of what went on before Gudrun Ensslin took to violence" as a last resort against the state in which she seemed to detect more than just a few remnants of fascism. Yet, from the first I was struck by Veiel's claim of Ensslin's story having never been told. In fact, in what surely was one of the few high points of post-war German cinema, in Die bleierne Zeit (English title: Marianne and Juliane), Margarethe von Trotta does exactly that. Granted, she changed the names of her two female protagonists to Marianne and Juliane - hence the English title - and she may have taken some liberties here and there regarding Ensslin's biography, but in her film she told the exact same story, at least, as far as the basics are concerned. More than that, unlike Veiel's film, von Trotta's transcends the borders of a mere biopic, allowing for some glimpses, not only into Ensslin's psyche, but into the German psyche as a whole. The scene even, in which in Veiel's film Lauzemis is seen attending a screening of a French film, struck me as a direct reference to Marianne and Juliane. Only that in the latter von Trotta has the two sisters watching Alain Resnais' Nuit et Brouillards, which was one of the first documentaries about the Holocaust. Similarly to Veiel, von Trotta already linked the founding of the RAF to the crimes of the Nazis. Even if the crime consisted merely in turning a blind eye, as was the case with Ensslin's father rather than active collaboration.

While this may seem unduly harsh on Veiel, his film does have its merits, if not surprises. But they have more to do with Ensslin's boyfriend, Bernward Vesper, rather than Ensslin herself. I'd even go so far as to call Veiel's film more a film about Vesper than about Ensslin. But that may be because ever since her death she's dominated the German media by varying degrees whilst Vesper virtually disappeared into oblivion, which is why Veiel's film amounts to a rediscovery of Vesper and his work, notably Die Reise (The Journey). He certainly was a fascinating character. Fascinating, because he defies easy labelling. Unlike Ensslin's, Vesper's father, Will, was an admirer of Hitler, a heritage which Bernward Vesper struggled with for the remainder of his short life. While watching Veiel's film, I couldn't quite shed the impression that Veiel himself seems to have become increasingly engrossed by this torn and tormented figure, which may explain why - to me at least - the focus in If Not Us, Who seems to shift from Ensslin to Vesper as the story unfolds. Certainly, his is the more intriguing story, but not only because Vesper has almost completely disappeared from the radar screen of German history. More interesting, however, is the fact that due to his family background, Vesper's biography isn't as straight forward as Ensslin's. Although needless to say, he condemned the crimes of Hitler and Nazi Germany just like Ensslin, passing judgement on his father and his generation didn't come as easy to Vesper as it did to Ensslin. Nor did he he believe in violence as a means to fight society.

It is this, this grey zone in which Vesper moved which makes him a remarkable, fascinating, figure and uncovering it is the true achievement of Veiel's film.