If Not Us, Who: Berlin Review

This backstory of terrorist Gudrun Ensslin and her mellower husband Bernward Vesper doesn’t provide enough drama or insight.

German filmmaker Andres Veiel's Berlinale award-winning film tries to unravel how a group of young people from good homes could turn into terrorists, but doesn't provide enough insight.

BERLIN -- (Competition) While Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex chronicled the exploits of the left-wing terrorist group RAF extensively, the film stayed mum when it came to a major question: Why would a group of young people from good homes turn into terrorists, bent on destroying the West German government?

Director Andres Veiel’s If Not Us, Who tries to answer it through the stories of terrorist Gudrun Ensslin and her publisher-husband Bernward Vesper at a time when their left-wing beliefs were just forming. While it presents an intriguing slice of German history and two rich characters, the film runs out of steam long before a conclusion is reached. Theatrical prospects outside of Germany should be limited for this sizeable production, with festivals and DVD/television being the most likely international destinations.

Veiel, whose Black Box BRD in 2001 proved to be the most insightful documentary about the RAF to date, begins his film with Bernward Vesper (August Diehl). He adores his father and cannot understand why he, one of Hitler’s favorite poets, is now shunned by the literary community. Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis) enters later as a young student who only pays lip-service to liberal ideas.

Both are unique characters but Veiel fails at making their radical changes halfway through the film believable – whether it’s Vesper’s turn into guilt, drugs and madness or Esslin’s sudden radicalism, which is later explained away by her falling for a charismatic and hunky terrorist-in-training, Andreas Baader (Alexander Fehling).

Ensslin’s father has a moment, when the exasperated moderate-lefty tells his daughter: “And what if this new fascism you always talk about never comes?”, going on to say that she might not so much be fighting it, but eagerly anticipating it. There is a bit of insight here, from an older generation, but little comes dramatically from the protagonists themselves or their peers. They may enjoy their newfound freedom and the sex and drugs that go with it, but mostly spout political slogans that seem learned, but not felt.

Diehl handles the first half of the film well, but badly stumbles when his character plunges into madness – chewing scenery and losing us long before running around naked in a children’s sandbox. Lauzemis, on the other hand, is a true find – but her character becomes less interesting once she falls unequivocally for Andreas Baader, who is played with leading-man attitude by Fehling. 

Technical credits are unusually high, especially Annette Focks' versatile score and Judith Kaufmann's brilliant cinematography. Editor Hansjorg Weissbrich’s newsreel-montages provide steady historical guidance.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production Company: Zero One Film
Cast: August Diehl, Lena Lauzemis, Alexander Fehling, Thomas Thieme, Michael Wittenborn
Director/screenwriter: Andres Veiel
Producer: Thomas Kufus
Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann
Production designer: Christian M. Goldbeck
Music: Annette Focks
Costume designer: Bettina Marx
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
No rating, 125 minutes