Nazi roots of 70s radicalism in spotlight at Berlin fest

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A little-known story about the origins of urban guerrilla outfit the Red Army Faction as a reaction to Germany's Nazi past hit the screen Thursday as a competition contender at the Berlin film festival.

Starring August Diehl, best known abroad as Angelina Jolie's husband in "Salt", "If Not Us, Who" (Wer Wenn Nicht Wir) examines how Germany's initial failure to face up to its bloody past fed the deadly radicalism of the 1970s.

Although several recent films have tackled the RAF's terror campaign of bombings and assassinations, none have turned the spotlight so sharply on the conflict between the Nazi and postwar generations behind it.

"We made this film because there were a lot of unanswered questions about this issue," director Andres Veiel told reporters after a well-received press screening of what is both a tragic love story and gripping political thriller.

"You have to start earlier, you have to start with the families to see where the personal became political."

Based on a true story, Diehl plays Bernward Vesper, the son of a Nazi author best known for writing a birthday ode to Hitler in 1942.

He grows up in the postwar years, as Germany attempts to put the Holocaust and World War II behind it and prosper.

But his home is still steeped in the ideology of the Third Reich. When his father kills Bernward's beloved cat, he coolly explains, "Cats don't belong here -- they are from the East, they are the Jews of the animal kingdom."

After he leaves for university, his father demands on his deathbed that Bernward promise to have his popular Nazi-era novel re-published.

Meanwhile Bernward and his new girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, whose father was a pastor who became a Nazi soldier during the war, have grown intoxicated with the budding student radicalism of the period.

They agree to the father's request but plan to use the proceeds to print agitprop against a society still riddled with former Nazis in positions of power.

Using gripping archival footage, the picture traces how the couple become increasingly extremist in their views about the war in Vietnam, US "imperialism" and their fear of a nascent German neo-fascism, even as they become a "bourgeois" family with a young child.

But Ensslin, under the influence of the bomb-hurling radical Andreas Baader, becomes convinced that provocative flyers are not enough. She abandons Vesper, who kills himself in 1971, and takes up arms against the state.

The RAF, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, went on to kill 34 people in attacks on West Germany's elite and US military bases before disbanding in 1998. Ensslin and Baader committed suicide in prison in 1977.

The picture was Veiel's first feature film after award-winning documentaries such as 2001's "Black Box BRD", also about the RAF.

Although focused on the German past, Veiel said this month's revolution in Egypt underscored the relevance of examining the roots -- and limits -- of popular uprisings and political activism.

"This is a movie that is not just about a closed chapter -- it's not just about coming to terms with the Nazi period or breaking out of a suffocating, oppressive family home," he said.

"It is about figuring out who we are and that meant asking questions that are also relevant today. Whether it is the climate catastrophe or the next financial crisis...those problems also pose the question: 'if not us, who?'."

"If Not Us, Who" is one of 16 films vying for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded Saturday by a jury led by Italian-American actress and director Isabella Rossellini.

© 2011 AFP

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