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Interview: Eric Heath (dm)September 19, 2008

Journalist and author Stefan Aust's book "Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex" has been used as the basis for a soon-to-be-released film of the same name. He told Deutsche Welle about why the RAF still interests people.

Hanns Martin Schleyer's kidnapping in a scene from the film Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex
Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex opens across Germany on Sept. 25Image: picture-alliance/ dpa
Both the book and the film chronicle the events of the late '60s and '70s surrounding the German terror group the Red Army Faction. Aust spoke with DW-RADIO about the movement's protagonists, the spirit of the time and the film.

Deutsche Welle: What do you think of the film, having written the book that the film's based on?

Stefan Aust: Actually, I think it's a really great film. It's really close to the book, and the book was as close to reality as I could do it. I think it's the same spirit that's in the book that inspired the filmmakers to do it. It's a fiction film, but has elements of a documentary as if you had been with this group, with the people, with the terrorists all the time during a whole decade.

What are the fictional parts and what are the real parts?

Stefan Aust
Stefan Aust said RAF leaders lost their sense of realityImage: DW-TV

The whole thing is as close to reality as you could do in a feature film. A lot of dialogue is more or less authentic, as I did the research. Some parts are exactly as they were in reality, so for instance we had parts in the courtroom in Stammheim, when they were on trial there. It was word for word. Everything that was said in the courtroom was recorded and written down and we used that for the script. If you had dialogue, for instance, in prison -- the fights between the two women, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof -- it was reconstructed out of letters that they sent to one another. So it's very close to reality.

Concerning the book and maybe your own personal research, what was it that got you interested in this topic?

Well, I got to know some of the people who went underground, who were members of the Red Army Faction, because I was working for a school magazine in a little town in northern Germany together with the younger brother of the editor of the leftist, radical magazine konkret, Klaus Rainer Roehl, who was the husband of Ulrike Meinhof. So I knew them when I was still going to school.

When I left school, I worked for three years for that magazine and that was the high-time of the students' movement and radical developments, so I knew Ulrike Meinhof pretty well, I also knew the lawyer Horst Mahler pretty well; he became a member of the Red Army Faction. When the whole thing started in 1970 I was working for public television in Germany, and I had to do a lot of documentaries, short and long and magazine-type stories, about what happened. So I knew everything quite well.

In the beginning of the '80s I decided that I wanted to know everything. So I quit my job, more or less, and spent about three years researching and writing the book.

RAF leadership mug shots
Stefan Aust said he knew the leadership of the RAF, but was not friends with themImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

You said you knew these people. Would you have considered yourselves as friends?

That would be a little too much. I was a very young journalist at that time. I started when I was just 20 or 21 and they were all a little bit older. So I knew them, I was rather close to them, we were not friends, and I was always a little bit younger than they were and I was not as radical as they had been.

What do you think drove them? What was the overarching goal that they were going for?

I think some of them really wanted to change the world. They felt solidarity with the poor, and unemployed and exploited people of the world, so they fought imperialism. That's what they thought. They fought against the police, they fought against the state and they forgot that they weren't putting bombs in "dead places" ... but on living human beings. They became very cruel in their attempt to fight the cruelty of the world.

Do you think they lost sight at some point of the goal that they'd started with?

They mainly lost their realistic view of reality. Suddenly, when they went underground, they thought and felt that they lived in a police state, a fascist police state. And when you are living in a fascist police state you are allowed to do anything. They had to change reality and their view on reality first in order to be able to do all these terrible things.

Even 30 years later there's still a fascination with the RAF and still this swirl of controversy because they began with such idealistic views. What do you think makes the RAF so intriguing for people even today?

A scene from the upcoming film, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex
Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex film is as close to reality as possible, Aust saidImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

I think it was the biggest crisis that post-war Germany had had. It was an attack on the state, on the government, on the authorities of the government and on the representatives of the government. They killed important people. It was really a threat to the stability of this country, and actually it was the only threat after the war that this country ever had from the inside.

When you think about the German autumn in '77, which was 31 years ago, it was really a state of crisis we were in. In the collective memory of the Germans it's a little bit like September 11 for the United States.

What do you think the majority opinion about the RAF is right now? That they were terrorists or some kind of revolutionary heroes?

I think it's both. We tried in this film to show what they really were. They were a group of people from a certain age, from a certain society, for a certain decade -- the decade of revolution all over the world -- and they felt themselves being revolutionary. In the end it was a group of people killing other people and in the end killing themselves. So I think most people see them more as terrorists than as revolutionary heroes, which sometimes happened in the '70s.

Is that the message that you want people watching the film to come away with?

Yes, to take the group down to earth. To make them human and to show what they really did. Because terrorism is terror, and people sometimes forget that.