Friday, 7 November 2014

Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (If Not Us, Who)

I recently watched the 2011 German film Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (English: If Not Us, Who), directed by Andres Veiel. The movie is largely set in the 1960s, and tells the story of Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin. The two main roles are played by August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis. The template for the movie was a book by Gerd Koenen.

Although this picture was produced by different people, it can be see in some ways almost as a "prequel" to The Baader Meinhof Complex;Ensslin went on to co-found the Red Army Faction. There is some overlap in the period 1967-70. Wer Wenn Nicht Wir follows the young duo in their literary endeavours and political activities, and their struggle to come to terms with their country's immediate past.
This movie is less flashy and "Hollywood" than others of its type, and the visuals have a very agreeably dusty and bookish feel to them, being understated and restrained.  The dialogue concerning literature is cleverly played so as to gently propel and complement the narrative. Real archive footage is employed in places to instil the context of the times. There are some excellent performances, most notably from Diehl and Lauzemis in the leading two roles.
Rightly or wrongly, I saw the efforts of Vesper and Ensslin to establish themselves as publishers as symbolic of the wider effort of the younger generation to break free from the shackles of the past, whilst at the same time endeavouring to confront, and make some sense of, what had occurred two or three decades before. There are some powerful scenes with both sets of parents, and a revealing one with a landlady when the couple are viewing an apartment, where they were given to understand that "co-habiting" without being married was seen as some kind of heinous sin.  It is hard to believe that such attitudes were still prevalent in the 1960s, but it gives some idea of the tenor of the times.
The hardening of Gudrun Ensslin's outlook becomes evident only quite imperceptibly, as the personal and the political continue to inter-mingle, but the move to Berlin was clearly something of a watershed. Something of which this film also reminds us is that up until about 1967/68, even the political radicals still wore sober suits or pretty dresses!
Of course, the scenario changes after 2 June 1967, and the arrival of Andreas Baader on the scene. Now jeans, leather jackets and cool shades begin to proliferate. A word for Alexander Fehling and his performance as Baader. He manages to capture some of the directness and impudence which we have been told about. It was intriguing to hear the Baader character say that you won't change anything with books. What did Baader and his cohorts ultimately change though? Less than words and peaceful protest did, I would contend.
This is a "dramatization", but it seems to stick quite closely to what we know of the true story. The scenes surrounding notable events are quite measured and plausible. Thankfully, there is a relative absence of "crowd scenes", which never quite work out in any movie....
One of the most significant scenes in the whole picture for me was in the prison, where a female prison official seeks to reason with Gudrun Ensslin about the methods being employed. The official may have had a point, in referring to the lack of mass grassroots support as a major flaw. She also used the phrase "small steps in the lowlands" - better than attempting giant leaps which alienate everyone and achieve little?
All in all, a fine movie, well worth a viewing, and not just for those interested in the precise subject matter.

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