The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
On 2 June 1967, the Shah of Iran visits West Berlin and attends a performance at the Deutsche Oper. Angered at his policies in governing Iran, members of the German student movement protest his appearance. The West Berlin police and the Shah's security team attack the protesters and unarmed protester Benno Ohnesorg, is fatally shot by Officer Karl-Heinz Kurras.
Ohnesorg's death outrages West Germany, including left wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof, who claims in a televised debate that the democratically elected government of West Germany is a Fascist police state. Inspired by Meinhof's rhetoric, charismatic radicals Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader mastermind the fire bombing of a department store in Frankfurt am Main. While covering their trial, Ulrike Meinhof finds herself deeply moved by their commitment to armed struggle against what they see as a Neo-Nazi Government. She secures a jailhouse interview with Ensslin and the two strike up a close friendship. Soon after, Meinhof leaves her husband for Peter Homann.
Meanwhile, Ensslin and Baader have been released pending an appeal and attract various young people, including Astrid Proll and Peter-Jurgen Boock. After spending some time abroad, Baader, Ensslin and Proll return to West Germany and begin living with Meinhof. Increasingly bored with her middle class life, Meinhof longs to take more direct action. Even though Ensslin tells her that sacrifices must be made for the revolution, Meinhof does not wish to leave her children. But then, Baader is arrested. Using her connections, Meinhof is able to arrange for him to be interviewed off prison grounds, where Ensslin and the others rescue him. While the plan called for Meinhof to look like an innocent journalist caught in a prison break, she flees with Baader and Ensslin, thereby incriminating herself in the murders of an unarmed civilian and two policemen.
After leaving Meinhof's two children in Sicily, the group receives training in a Fatah camp in Jordan, where the egotistical and promiscuous Germans enrage their Muslim hosts. Homann leaves the group after overhearing Meinhof, Baader, and Ensslin asking Fatah to kill him. Having also learned that Meinhof wishes to send her two children to a training camp for suicide bombers, Homann informs Meinhof's former colleague Stefan Aust, who returns the children to their father.
Returning to Germany and styling themselves the Red Army Faction (RAF), Baader and his followers launch a campaign of bank robberies. In response, BKA chief Horst Herold orders all local police to be put at Federal command for one day.
During that day, RAF member Petra Schelm drives through a roadblock and is chased by two cops. When cornered, she refuses to go quietly, initiates a gunfight, and is fatally shot by the policemen's return fire. Regarding this as murder, Baader and Ensslin overrule Meinhof's objections and begin systematically bombing police stations and United States Military bases. As grisly footage of the maimed and the dead appears onscreen, Meinhof's press statements rationalizing the bombings are heard in voiceover.
As the violence escalates, Herold orders the BKA to pioneer criminal profiling and members of the RAF begin to be arrested. Baader and Holger Meins are caught after a shoot-out with police. Ensslin and Meinhof are captured soon after.
In separate prisons, the RAF inmates stage a hunger strike which results in Meins' death. The German student movement considers this to be murder. The authorities then move Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof, and Jan-Carl Raspe to Stammheim Prison, where they work on their defense for their trial and smuggle orders outside.
In 1975, a group of younger RAF recruits seize the West German embassy in Stockholm. The siege ends with a series of explosions, which kill several RAF members and injure the hostages. RAF member Siegfried Hausner survives the blast but is critically wounded, extradited to West Germany and dies in a prison hospital. The imprisoned RAF members are appalled by the poor execution of their orders for the Stockholm operation. Meanwhile, Herold's assistant asks why people who have never met Baader are willing to take orders from him. Herold replies, "A myth."
Meinhof, suffering from depression and remorse over the deaths caused by their bombings, is subjected to sadistic emotional abuse by Baader and Ensslin, who call her a traitor and "a knife in the RAF's back". In response, Meinhof hangs herself in her cell. The imprisoned RAF members accuse West Germany's Government of murdering her during their trial and are widely believed.
Upon completing her sentence Brigitte Mohnhaupt takes over command of the RAF outside. She informs Boock that Baader has forbidden any more attacks on "the people" and enlists his help smuggling weapons into Stammheim. In retaliation for the "murders" of Meins, Hausner, and Meinhof, the RAF assassinates West Germany's Attorney General, Siegfried Buback. Mohnhaupt, Christian Klar, and Susanne Albrecht, also attempt to kidnap Dresdner Bank President Jürgen Ponto, who fights back and is shot dead. Knowing that the imprisoned RAF members have ordered both murders, the West German Government returns them to solitary confinement. Even so, Ensslin and Baader obtain two way radios and continue smuggling orders outside.
Mohnhaupt then abducts industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer and demands the release of her imprisoned comrades in exchange for not killing him. When West German authorities fail to meet their demands, the RAF and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijack Lufthansa Flight 181. The hijacking ends with the plane being stormed and the hostages saved.
In Stammheim, Baader warns a West German Government negotiator that the violence will continue to escalate. Ensslin makes the same prediction to the prison chaplain and claims that the West German Government is about to murder her and her imprisoned comrades.
The following morning, corrections officers find Baader and Raspe shot to death in their cells as the handguns Mohnhaupt smuggled into the prison lie nearby. Ensslin is found hanging from the steel bars of the window. They also find Irmgard Möller stabbed four times in the chest, but still alive.
When the news reaches the free RAF members, they are devastated and certain that the trio was murdered. To their shock, Mohnhaupt explains that Baader, Ensslin, Möller, and Raspe "are not victims and never were". She explains, that they, like Meinhof, were "in control of the outcome until the very end". When the RAF members react with stunned disbelief, Mohnhaupt responds, "You did not know them. Stop thinking that they were different than they were."
In a sign that RAF terrorism will continue, the last moments of the film show the murder of hostage Hanns-Martin Schleyer.
In an ironic commentary on the violence of the era, Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind plays during the credits.Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof
Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas Baader
Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin
Nadja Uhl as Brigitte Mohnhaupt
Stipe Erceg as Holger Meins
Niels-Bruno Schmidt as Jan Carl Raspe
Vinzenz Kiefer as Peter-Jurgen Boock
Simon Licht as Horst Mahler
Alexandra Maria Lara as Petra Schelm
Daniel Lommatzsch as Christian Klar
Sebastian Blomberg as Rudi Dutschke
Bruno Ganz as Horst Herold
Heino Ferch as Horst Herold's assistant
Jan Josef Liefers as Peter Homann
Hannah Herzsprung as Susanne Albrecht
Tom Schilling as Josef Bachmann
Hans Werner Meyer as Klaus Rainer Röhl
Katharina Wackernagel as Astrid Proll
Anna Thalbach as Ingrid
Volker Bruch as Stefan Aust
The film began production in August 2007 with filming at several locations including Berlin, Munich, Stammheim Prison, Rome and Morocco. The film was subsidized by several film financing boards to the sum of EUR 6.5 million.
The American trailer is narrated by actor Will Lyman, a voice commonly associated with serious documentary films.
"When the film opened in Germany last year, some younger viewers came out of theaters crestfallen that the Red Army Faction members, still mythologized, were such dead-enders. Some who were older complained that the film had made the gang look too attractive. But they were dead-enders, and they were attractive. A film about them, or any other popular terrorist movement, has to account for both facts if it seeks to explain not just their crimes but also their existence."
The film premiered on 15 September 2008, in Munich and was commercially released in Germany on 25 September 2008. The film was chosen as Germany's official submission to the 81st Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
The review website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 87 percent of critics gave the film positive write-ups based upon a sample of 83 with an average score of 7.1 out of 10.0.
The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a favourable review, praising the acting and storytelling, but also noting a lack of character development in certain parts. A mixed review with similar criticism was published in Variety. Fionnuala Halligan of Screen International praised the film's excellent production values as well as the efficient and crisp translation of a fascinating topic to film, but felt that the plot flatlines emotionally and does not hold much dramatic suspense for younger and non-European audiences unfamiliar with the film's historical events.
Christopher Hitchens wrote a very favourable review for Vanity Fair. He appreciated the film's attempt to strike against conventional Hollywood stereotypes of revolutionaries by making the connection between urban warfare and criminality explicit. By slowly erasing the boundaries, the film revealed the "uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both," as well as the tendency of the terrorists to offer their support and allegiance to only the most extreme factions of the revolutionary underground. Hitchens describes the RAF as "a form of psychosis" which swept through all of the post-Axis countries following the war, all of which Hitchens claims had similar leftist terrorist groups. "The propaganda of the terrorists" [...] showed an almost neurotic need to "resist authority" in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do." Finally, he praises the film's depiction of an escalating cycle of violence and paranoia in "which mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical."
Film and Red Army Faction scholar Christina Gerhardt wrote a critical review for Film Quarterly. Arguing that its nonstop action failed to engage the historical and political events depicted, she wrote "During its 150 minutes, the film achieves action-film momentum—bombs exploding, bullets spraying, and glass shattering—and this inevitably comes at the expense of quasi journalistic exposé or historical excavation."
Film-maker Olivier Assayas who also made a film on left-wing terrorism with Carlos the Jackal remarked that the fact that the film addressed a very painful subject for modern Germany "was some kind of revolution," however he also remarked that its political perspective was limited: "I’m not German and I’m not an expert, but I never really bought the collective suicide theory. For me it’s absolutely impossible to believe. So I don’t think The Baader Meinhof Complex fully addresses the issue. The supposed suicides in Stammheim prison are for me the elephant in the living room of German politics dealing with that subject. You have to take a position on the subject and face it. The Baader Meinhof Complex doesn’t exactly face it."
The Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden, Germany's national agency which evaluates movies on their artistic, documentary and historical significance, gave the movie the rating "especially valuable." In their explanatory statement the committee says: "the film tries to do justice to the terrorists as well as to the representatives of the German state by describing both sides with an equally objective distance." The committee asserts: "German history as a big movie production: impressive, authentic, political, tantalizing."
Michael Buback, the son of former chief federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback, who was assassinated by the RAF in 1977, expressed doubts concerning whether the film seriously attempts to present the historical truth, although he had not seen the movie when he expressed this concern. He subsequently amended this statement, but pointed out that the film concentrates almost exclusively on portraying the perpetrators, which carries with it the danger that the viewer will identify too strongly with the protagonists.
Protesting against the historically "distorted" and "almost completely false" depiction of the RAF's assassination of leading German banker Jürgen Ponto, Ignes Ponto, his widow and witness, returned her Federal Cross of Merit, since she saw the German government, which co-produced the film through various film financing funds, as jointly responsible for the "public humiliations" suffered by her and her family. Representing the family, her daughter Corinna Ponto called the film's violation of their privacy "wrong" and "particularly perfidious."
Jörg Schleyer, the son of the assassinated manager and then president of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations, Hanns Martin Schleyer, states, however, that the movie was a great film which finally portrayed the RAF as what it actually was, "a merciless, ruthless gang of murderers." Commenting on the blatant depiction of violence he said, "Only a movie like this can show young people how brutal and bloodthirsty the RAF's actions were at that time."
The German TV channel ARD aired the film split in two parts with new footage added to each part. This extended version was later released in Germany on DVD as well. The first part adds ten minutes and 41 seconds of new footage, the second part 3 minutes and 41 seconds.