Movie Review: Machete and The Baader Meinhof Complex
Machete (2010, Ethan Maniquin and Robert Rodriguez) and The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008, Uli Edel) are two recent movies set in imperialist countries, both depicting armed struggle against reactionaries.
Machete garnered criticism prior to its release, including campaigns by White supremacists to have the film pulled from Amerikan theaters, ostensibly for fear its depiction of Mexicans engaging in mass-violence against Whites would spark a real-life ‘race’ revolt. (1) The Baader Meinhof Complex is ‘foreign film’ dramatizing the real-life Red Army Faction, a clandestine group which beginning in 1970 waged armed struggle against the Federal Republic of Germany in the name of communism and anti-imperialism.
While the movies follow dissimilar plots, both deal with the topic of revolutionary armed struggle and reaction. It’s worth noting that we at RAIM-Denver are fairly familiar with the situation involving the national oppression of Mexicans on both sides of the militarily-imposed US/Mexico border, yet are largely ignorant regarding the factual details surrounding the RAF. Thus, our treatment of The Baader Meinhof Complex will be solely as a cultural product, and not as historical analysis of the real-life RAF.
In Machete, we meet the protagonist of the same name (Danny Trejo) as a federal agent of the Mexican state. Fleeing a powerful drug cartel, Machete ends up in Texas where, while searching for work as a manual laborer, he’s forced-hired into assassinating an anti-migrant state senator, played by Robert De Niro. It’s a set-up, however. The botched assassination attempt is pinned on Machete in hopes of building public opinion for even more anti-Mexican legislation, including an electrified fence along the border.
The Baader Meinhof Complex opens in 1967, showing a student protest against the despotic Shah of Iran. The students are beat by goons of the CIA-supported monarchy and by German police as they stand defenseless, backed against a wall. Soon into the film, Ulrike Meinhoff (Martina Gedeck), a sharp-worded, progressive journalist, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibteu), depicted as arrogant, extreme and prone towards violent action, and Gundrin Esslin (Johanna Wokalek), a young blonde depicted as rebellious and verbally aggressive towards her parents, decide that words alone will not stop “Amerikan imperialists” or the fact that over “half the people in the world do not have enough to eat,” deciding instead to take up arms against the West German state and organs of Western capital. After going underground and running from the law, the group is apprehended and placed in isolation together as their trial begins. Subsequent ‘generations’ of the RAF arise, continuing the armed struggle but with the goal of freeing the original members. After several years and armed actions by various RAF unit, the imprisoned lead members, save Meinhof who previously died in what was called a suicide, lose hope and kill themselves as well.
People who like Machete for its thematic violence of the oppressed against the oppressor will also find The Baader Meinhof Complex interesting, though the latter is fairly longer and has slower moments towards the end. While Machete depicts plenty of over the top, high-action, fight scenes and climaxes with a ‘battle royale’ between the forces led by Machete and White supremacist militias, The Baader Meinhof Complex depicts a number of gun fights, bombings, bank robberies and even an ill-fated plane hijacking. The Baader Meinhof Complex is also explicitly more political. Cries of ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Mihn’ are chanted at one gathering; students have Mao posters on their dormitory walls; references are made to ‘May ’68’ in Paris and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; RAF members meet with members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Tunis and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Jordan; and there is a steady denunciation of the West Germany’s support for US imperialism and “fascism.”
Both movies have strong female lead characters. In The Baader Meinhoff Complex, Ulrike Menhoff is the the eldest founder of the RAF and in charge of propaganda. Esslin Gundrun, the youngest lead character and girlfriend of Baader, is nonetheless shown as passionate and as someone who was pivotal in getting things done within the group. Further into the movie, under the pressure of capture and confinement together, both begin to break down emotionally and increasingly argue with one another, reinforcing the view that women are emotional and weak while discounting the psychological pressure brought to bare on them by the reactionary state.
In Machete, the two female lead characters are initially foes. Lulz (Michelle Rodriguez), shown as righteous and socially concerned, organizes an underground “network” to provide services for oppressed migrants while Sartana (Jessica Alba), a naive, sycophantic ICE agent, harasses her and makes threats of criminal charges. The women come together as part of Machete’s quest for revenge. In the process, Lulz gets shot in the eye and comes back fighting even harder: if nothing else an allegory for revolutionary determinism. Sartana recants her previous position in support of imperialist legalism and declares to a crowd of migrants, “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us!”
Unfortunately, Machete does drop the ball regarding gender in a number of ways. In one notable scene of question (of many), Machete gives tequila to the wife and daughter of the man who set him up, sleeps with them and films it for his foe to watch later. While there is no doubt an element of humor simply for the outrage this must generate on the part of actual White supremacists, this scene is symptomatic of the film’s larger depiction of women, i.e. they are not treated as independent agents (with perhaps the exception Luz), but instead act as objects, things to be acted upon in one way or another by Machete or the male viewer.
In both movies nudity is prevalent. In The Baader Meinhof Complex, such is not so one-sided. In an opening scene, children and adults are shown nude at a beach. In this regard, that nudity serves not sexual purposes solely, The Baader Meinhof Complex is less reactionary. In another scene however, while the original RAF are training with Muslims in Tunis, they sunbathe nude in plain view. When told by the camp commander to cover themselves, they respond, “fucking and shooting are the same.” In the scene, Baader and Esslin are rightly depicted as crass, almost as if they are Amerikan vacationers. If fact, this is not an example of anti-imperialist fraternity nor spreading sexual liberation, but imposing the culture of a dominating society under the guise of such.
While there is much to say about the minutia of the films, the main theme of both is violence in name of the oppressed against the oppressor within imperialist countries.
In Machete, a work of fiction, the violence is over-the-top and gratuitous. In one early scene, the protagonist swings his machete in a circle and decapitates three people who were closing in on him. In another set in a hospital, he uses a ‘bone-scraper’ and several surgical knives tied to a belt to cut up several gun-toting men before using one’s small intestine to jump out the window and swing into the floor below. Likewise, the social setting in Machete is narrow, there being only politicians, main characters, hired guns, a few pigs, border militiamen, migrants and some cholo-type Chicanos. Missing from the picture are Whites- particularly the reactionary White masses, including so-called “workers,” or the imperialist state in full force. This, along with the movie’s revenge-based plot, allows Machete to be a movie with a happy ending, where Machete himself defeats the bad guys and ‘gets the girl.’ By the end though, despite the protagonist’s personal achievements, nothing has really changed. In an ironic twist, the right-wing politician played by Robert De Niro is shot to death near the border by White vigilantes who thinks he’s Mexican. Perhaps Machete will return in a sequel and broaden the scope of the struggle? We won’t hold our breath.
In The Baader Meinhof Complex, supposedly based on true events, the ending isn’t as happy. The members of the RAF, mostly student-aged and young adults, are driven by causes such as anti-imperialism and communism and are sympathetic to the plight and resistance of Third World peoples. They are outraged and disenchanted with the response of everyday West Germans to these phenomena, yet never come out and say as much, nor do they ever make the demarcation and write off West Germans entirely. When they launch their clandestine armed struggle, they envision it as being part of a world-wide revolutionary movement yet make efforts to not harm your average West German, seeing this as pivotal to winning public sympathy. After the founding members of the RAF are apprehended, others from similar backgrounds arise, carrying on the struggle and including “the release of political prisoners” as part of their campaign against German reactionaries and imperialism. This too is ill-fated, as these newer members are all apprehended or killed, leading to the climax that is the apparent suicide of the remaining lead characters.
While certainly not the ‘happy ending’ of Machete, the down conclusion to The Baader Meinhof Complex does leave us asking, “what went wrong?,” a serious question for revolutionaries in imperialist countries. Many would say RAF were ultra-leftist and their militant armed struggle freaked out the west German ‘masses.’ In truth, this is not the case. Rather, the RAF was ultra-“left.” Though their action appeared militant and extreme, it was always predicated on a perceived political alliance and unity with a portion of the west German population, all of which were part of a global petty-bourgeoisie and thus an unreliable ally (at best) to their struggle. The founders of the RAF would have done better to develop their writing capabilities under the direction of Ulrike Meinhof, coordinate real ties to foreign fighters, fall under their discipline when appropriate and develop alternative means of contributing to the global revolutionary struggle, not launch an hasty armed struggle in west Germany with the assumption that west Germans would support them.
More interesting than any possible Machete sequel or the First Worldist focoism of the RAF would be a film featuring She and the Network. In Machete, it’s stated that Lulz has been busy organizing migrants, helping them cross the border, securing housing and jobs and “making sure they play their part” once they’re settled. The operation is called the Network, and it includes a mythology about a militant female leader known only as “She.” When Machete makes his hulkish last stand, his success is aided b y the connections Lulz has already made.
Today, the situation involving Mexicans migrants is dynamic. Historically, there has been a trend towards assimilation. However, as the numbers of Mexicans and Chicanos rise, particularly in the Amerikan ‘southwest’ (occupied Mexico), a situation may arise where the social basis for national liberation struggles becomes more readily apparent. Ultimately, it will be the type of work typified by Lulz, politicized ‘serve the people’ programs organized outside pre-existing power structures, which will advance and aid this struggle.
Again on Violence
One final note. We imagine many First World viewers will find the presentation of violence in both Machete and The Baader Meinhof Complex to be off-putting in one way or another.
In Machete, the violence is unnatural, over-the-top, intense, frequent, etc. However, the same could be said with the Expendables or any number of Amerikan-inspired action movies. In Machete, the difference is that the violence is dished out by forces representing the oppressed against oppressors. Simply put: that is why it stands out, why it is good.
Many so-called “leftists” would reject the violence of the RAF on rotten grounds, whether pacifism, charges of being too extreme and “left,” or other liberal reasons. However, the violence of the RAF should be looked at critically and put in the correct perspective.
Nothing is more violent than imperialism. Every 2.43 seconds, someone dies from starvation- a form of structural violence. The violence in Machete by contrast is mild and restrained. Though ultimately misguided at a fundamental level, the same could be said about the RAF. The question is not whether in either movie violence was depicted in a gratuitous way, this answer being obvious. Ultimately, it matters against whom the violence is being expressed upon, and towards what end. And for this, we see no reason to broadly criticize either movie.