‘A German Youth’ (‘Une Jeunesse Allemande’): Berlin Review

A German Youth
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
An intriguing archival assembly that revisits German left-wing radicalism

French director Jean-Gabriel Periot screened his new feature at the Berlinale Panorama

With much of the public discourse on movies dominated by comic book franchises and awards ceremonies, it’s hard to imagine a time when filmmaking was seen as a radically political art form. But back in the 1960’s and 70's, there were some aspiring directors who thought their work would change the world. And there were others who went from making films to trying to make a revolution, taking up arms against the man.

At least that was the case in Germany, as evidenced by the reams of archive footage assembled by French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Periot into his captivating feature debut, A German Youth (Une Jeunesse Allemande). Exploring the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof Group (aka the Red Army Faction) through student movies, protest films, news broadcasts and other audio-visual records of the epoch, this densely layered documentary reveals how members of a disillusioned post-war generation gradually transformed into left-wing militants whose actions would have deadly consequences for all involved. Essential for anyone interested in cinema and politics, this Berlinale Panorama premiere should nab Euro art house slots and fest/VOD play abroad.

Covering the decade stretching from 1965 to 1975 – a period that saw leftist movements sprout up in the U.S. (the Vietnam War protests), France (May ’68), Italy (The Red Brigades) and elsewhere – Periot begins by providing context for what would happen in Germany, where children born before or during WWII were raised by authority figures they could no longer trust. “Parents have lost their credibility due to their identification with Nazism,” claims the highly articulate Ulrike Marie Meinhof, who worked as a journalist for a left-wing magazine, and also directed a few short films, before co-founding the RAF along with artists-turned-radicals Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, and the lawyer Horst Mahler.

At the same time that West Germans took to the streets, the Berlin-based DFFB film school was founded, and some of its pupils quickly joined the fight. Among them were Holger Meins, whose various short movies – artful pieces of left-wing agitprop – are intercut with coverage of events that gave rise to the student-led revolution, including the killing of Benno Ohnesorg by riot police and the shooting of Marxist agitator Rudi Dutshke by the anti-communist Josef Bachmann. These two incidents, along with growing protests against news magnate Axel Springer (a sort of German Rupert Murdoch of the time) would inspire the Baader-Meinhof Gang to take action in 1970.

With no commentary beyond audio clips and visuals composed almost entirely of historical footage, Periot uses the radicals’ own images and words to show how their discourse evolved over ten years from progressive to militant, with the RAF carrying out several bombings in the early 70’s before they were hunted down and then arrested or killed. (Ulrike Meinhof committed suicide in jail under mysterious circumstances.)

While the exploits of Baader-Meinhof and similar groups would have a major political impact throughout the decade, Periot also reveals how certain filmmakers of the era – including Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – found themselves mixed up in the movement, either making their own radical films like Godard or contextualizing it as Antonioni did in Zabriskie Point.

But it’s Fassbinder who deservedly gets the last word here, with an excerpt from the 1978 omnibus film Germany in Autumn that shows the director (more or less playing himself) arguing politics with a woman played by his mother, Lilo Pempeit: the former defends the leftist ideals of his country’s youth, while the latter longs for the absolute rule of the past. It’s no small irony that the RAF, which was born from the flames of fascism, wound up taking a stance that some deemed fascist, while pushing others to the far right. Periot thus closes A German Youth with Fassbinder's mother disturbingly calling for “an authoritarian power that were good, agreeable and just.”

Production companies: Local Films, Alina Film, Blinker Filmproduktion
Director: Jean-Gabriel Periot
Producers: Nicolas Breviere, David Epiney, Eugenia Mumenthaler, Meike Martens
Editor: Jean-Gabriel Periot
Composer: Alan Mumenthaler
Sales agent: Films Boutique

No rating, 93 minutes