'If Not Us, Who' Director Explains Why Germany's Red Army Faction Is Still Relevant (Berlin)

Courtesy of Berlinale 2011

In his award-winning documentary Black Box BRD, Andres Veiel looked at the so-called "second generation" of Germany's notorious left wing terrorist group the Red Army Faction, or R.A.F. In If Not Us, Who? Veiel goes back to the origins of the R.A.F. in the 1960s, looking at the lives of R.A.F. founding members Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader and that of Ensslin's husband, the author Bernward Vesper, who sympathized with the R.A.F. but did not become a terrorist. German Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough sat down with Veiel to talk about the enduring fascination of this period in German history and what lessons its holds for the present day.
The Hollywood Reporter: There are already a number of German films on the R.A.F.. Why make another?
Andres Veiel:
There's a long tradition of German R.A.F. films from (Margarethe von Trotta's) Marianne and Juliane to my documentary film Black Box BRD to The Baader-Meinhof Complex. Every film has its own perspective. Marianne and Juliane looks at the relationship between the two sisters – between Gudrun Ensslin and one of her sisters. In Black Box BRD I look at the second generation of R.A.F. terrorists. And in Baader-Meinhof the focus is on what the terrorists did and less the why. My focus in this film is very much on the why. And to get at that you have to tell their back stories.

THR: Why is this time period and these people still relevant for today?
Veiel: I think we see a lot that is relevant for the present day. It's not about the violence. It's about the protest, about the desire for change and the dissatisfaction with the current political system. We are seeing this same sort of dissatisfaction, in a completely different context, right now on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia. But even in Germany we are seeing a re-politicizing of the public. With the Stuttgart 21 protests or the anti-nuclear demonstrations. The exciting question is at what point does an individual say, this is enough? How does it come to this point? That's what interests me. I think we have to engage ourselves with these people's biographies and not just say: a killer is a killer. What are their motives, what compels them to see violence as their own alternative? It's not about justifying their actions. I walk a thin line but wanting to understand something is not the same as justifying it.
THR: Do you feel your movie gives us a different picture of Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Bernward Vesper then we've seen in other films?
Veiel: I think so. Ensslin is always seen as a Medea figure – someone who sacrifices her children, cold unscrupulous, for her political action. But when you read her letters you see how torn she was. How much it pained her, how much she wanted to return to her child. This final break with her child shows me how the private and political were bound together. Because the pain leaving her child was so great, the political project had to be as big to justify her leaving. It had to be world revolution. Films up to now have tried either to tell everything through the political lens or to only focus on the private lives. If Not Us, Who? I found, and this surprised me, that the more I focused on the political, the more I kept finding the private and the more I focused on the private, the more political it became. You can't separate one from the another.

THR: Gudrun Ensslin's parents play a big role in the film, why did you want to emphasis them?
Veiel: There's been the argument, which you still hear all the time, that the R.A.F. terrorists reacted against their parents and their old, encrusted and fascist attitudes. But if you look at Ensslin's parents, what do you find? A resistance fighter. Or at least a father who almost was in the resistance. It was the same with Andreas Baader's father.They both had one foot in the resistance but they didn't go all the way. They saw what was wrong but did nothing about it. It was like an unspoken pact with the children that they should do what the fathers never dared.

Tragically, it was at a time when this form or resistance was no longer needed. Germany in 1967 didn't have a military dictatorship, not like Greece, where there was a brutal military regime. If we had a government like Greece's then we'd have a Gudrun Ensslin Square and an Andreas Baader Boulevard in Berlin today. But we didn't have fascism them. It didn't come. That's what Ensslin's father says to her in the film: 'What if fascism doesn't come?' That's what I see as the tragedy of this story – this call to do something historic, a revolution in a time when it wasn't needed. But they did it. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.