As robust as it is, there’s something about this film which isn’t entirely satisfying.
In the wake of Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, a film which offered a frantic portrait of the infamous German terrorist cell with added mustard-tint aviator shades and Marlboros, this thoughtful and considered debut film by Andres Veiel covers similar terrain but with much more tact and feel for the paradoxes of the material.
Dispatching wholesale the violent terror tactics employed by this gang of militant radicals, Veiel instead opts to closely examine the upbringing and maturation of two of those involved in the group: Gudrun Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis) and her lover Bernward Vesper (August Diehl).
The first portion of the film sees the pair as young, idealistic students who are forced to accept that they’re still living among a generation of people coloured by their county’s dark past. This context lends the film both an overall feeling of deep melancholy and a credible context for the characters’ actions over the remaining runtime. Ensslin and Vesper collaborate on setting up a boutique publishing house, initially to salvage the reputation of his father who was once a great Nazi author.
But later, as she gradually becomes entrenched in radical politics and overcome by the feeling that another war is inevitable, she becomes romantically involved with the ultra charismatic Andreas Baader. He, meanwhile, sees his publishing house as a tool to disseminate revolutionary material.
Veiel’s direction is elegant and unshowy, a mode which chimes nicely with the overall dour tone of the film. The production even has the feel of a plush HBO series, though you don’t ever feel there would have been enough to say about these characters over a five-hour tele-serial.
Veiel’s script, too, strikes a neat balance between the studious, of-the-time vernacular of budding German revolutionaries and the intimacy and sorrow that comes with the personal mysteries of love, family, identity and the sinking feeling that it’s tough to make a genuine change in this world.
If the film has an overarching plotline it’s the stormy relationship between Ensslin and Vesper, tender and erotic when they’re sharing their love for literature ("Read to me" is their regular refrain), but strained and angry once politics and history come in to play.
Yet, as robust as it is, there’s something about If Not Us, Who? which isn’t entirely satisfying. Perhaps it’s a fact that this character arc (youthful optimism through to dashed dreams, gloom, despair and death) has been done so many times that it no longer offers any room for surprise or invention?
Or maybe this character-based approach makes the film appear like a compendium of intimate moments rather than a drama where one event seamlessly evolves into the next? Veiel certainly comes across as a better writer than director – there are some awful inserts of historical newsreels – but this is otherwise a fine debut that bodes very well for the future.
It’s only been four years since The Baader Meinhof Complex. Do we need to go back there so soon?
A tough, upsetting subject dealt with accordingly.
A very, very solid, if a tad unadventurous, debut feature from Andres Veiel.