Terrific as a terrorist
Martina Gedeck tells Kevin Maher about her brush with the Baader- Meinhof gang
Martina Gedeck studied archival footage and audio records in preparing for her role as Ulrike Meinhof in
WHEN Martina Gedeck was 11 and living in Berlin, her father, a prominent local businessman, got the dreaded phone call. ‘‘ We are the BaaderMeinhof gang,’’ the caller said. ‘‘ We have kidnapped your daughter and we want one million marks for her safe return. Today!’’
Gedeck wasn’t in school or at home at the time. She was supposed to be at a cinema in Charlottenburg, but there was no way of contacting her. She was a perfect, and perfectly vulnerable, target for the infamous urban guerillas of Baader-Meinhof, aka the Red Army Faction, who used kidnapping and extortion as instruments of terror and means of fundraising. Her father called the police, who stormed the cinema in Charlottenburg, where they found her happily ensconced with her school friends.
‘‘ Who knows?’’ Gedeck says. ‘‘ Maybe it was just someone having a joke. But that’s what the atmosphere was like in the 1970s, very threatening. The question was always: ‘ Will the BaaderMeinhof come and get us?’ ’’
Today Gedeck, 47, is a multi-award-winning actor, Germany’s Meryl Streep if you will, who has wowed audiences recently in The Lives of Others , Atomised and opposite Matt Damon and Robert De Niro in The Good Shepherd . The Baader-Meinhof gang, however, has finally got her, body and soul. For she’s starring as Ulrike Meinhof in Uli Edel’s multimillion-dollar historical blockbuster The Baader Meinhof Complex .
The film is an epic and often harrowing depiction of the first 10 years of the organisation, from 1967 to 1977, and its gradual slide from anticapitalist ideological struggle into bloody nihilistic violence. As Meinhof, a journalist turned Marxist revolutionary, Gedeck charts this same descent. She plays an impassioned woman who begins by writing angry pamphlets but gradually disintegrates in the face of the struggle and ultimately ends up hanging herself in a cell in Stammheim prison in the summer of 1976.
Naturally, the movie has become a hot potato in Germany. ‘‘ People in Germany get very upset when discussing this subject and the film has aroused a lot of emotion,’’ Gedeck says. ‘‘ They see it as an open wound and I’m getting it from all sides: from people who agreed with Meinhof’s motives and from those who believe that the debate should stop and that we shouldn’t be giving these ideas a platform.’’
A common German complaint has been that the Red Army Faction is glamorised in the film and that the terrorists, dressed in black leather and sporting semiautomatic weapons, have become hipster role models. Gedeck, rightly, dismisses this criticism and points to the movie’s downbeat ending as proof that it’s hardly a recruiting poster for a career in urban violence. ‘‘ When you come out of this film you’re not thinking, ‘ Oh, they’re cool, they’re so hip, they’re sexy,’ ’’ she says. ‘‘ You’re just thinking how awful it was, how these people couldn’t be stopped, how it got out of hand and how they were ultimately overruled by their own violence.’’
Gedeck watched days of archival material and studied the audio records of Meinhof’s trial in order to become Ulrike, but she refused to meet Meinhof’s friends or family. ‘‘ They want to give you their own interpretations of the woman and it just becomes distracting,’’ she says.
She says she was unafraid of going to her character’s dark side and, in fact, it’s something she seeks out whenever she is offered a role. ‘‘ I need the character, even if it’s only for a couple of seconds, to be able to show this side, to show that we are all just helpless creatures in life and not in charge of ourselves.’’
Her East German stage siren Christa-Maria in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others is plagued by so much despair and self-loathing that she flings herself under a truck. Before that, in Atomised , Gedeck played a 40-something swinger who, after being paralysed during an act of sexual misadventure ( don’t ask), throws herself off the top of a tower block. Taken together with Meinhof’s suicide, well . . .
‘‘ I know!’’ says Gedeck in half-confession, half-confusion. ‘‘ I’m not obsessed by death, I promise. In fact I’ve just done a lovely Christmas comedy called Messy Christmas , where I don’t throw myself anywhere expect in front of the oven.’’ She argues that it’s the freedom from an overwhelmingly oppressive life that interests her. She’s big on freedom, intellectual and spiritual, and has been since she was a child.
She doesn’t know where this has come from, but being the oldest of three girls, growing up in Bavaria and then Berlin, and always carrying the weight of her father’s expectations on her shoulders may have pushed her in that direction. She says her biggest moment of early liberation came in 1981 when she nervously told her father that instead of becoming a professor of history ( a subject she was then studying at the University of Berlin) and making him proud, she was going to jump ship and become an actor. ‘‘ He wasn’t angry,’’ she says. ‘‘ He was sweet, wished me luck, and then became very supportive of my career.’’
Since then it has been steady progress from playing girlfriends and lovers in supporting roles to starring as real women, such as the crippled farmer in the German television movie Dame Gretel , to co-starring with Damon and De Niro in The Good Shepherd , playing a spy contact in Berlin. ‘‘ That was a beautiful experience,’’ she says. ‘‘ I had a tough scene to play because I had to speak Latin, quoting Ovid, to Matt Damon, to show how smart I was. And De Niro just came over and said quietly, ‘ Martina, you cannot be wrong.’ That’s such great direction and exactly what an actor wants to hear.’’
She is, however, no luvvie and will happily push Hollywood noses completely out of joint when it comes to speaking the truth. For instance, on the movie No Reservations , the big-budget Catherine Zeta Jones vehicle and flop remake of Gedeck’s German hit comedy Mostly Martha , she hisses: ‘‘ I avoided that movie. I don’t like Catherine Zeta Jones as an actress. I find her boring and very shallow. I’m sure she’s a nice person but her acting couldn’t add anything to Martha .’’
She says she’s happy to go to Los Angeles for movie roles, just as she’s happy to go to Italy ( her next film is the chaotic Italian comedy drama Bella Famiglia ). Although you suspect that with awards, notoriety and hot-button movies to her name, she has little left to prove. She lives in Berlin’s Dahlem district with her partner, Swiss film director Markus Imboden, and she hasn’t ruled out marriage and children. ‘‘ OK, well maybe I won’t be able to do children when I’m 70,’’ she jokes. ‘‘ But . . . I’ve been married so often in film, I really want to do it sometime.’’
Meanwhile, she says, she’s waiting for the Baader-Meinhof hoopla to die down so she can get on with her life.
‘‘ At the moment, in Berlin it’s like being in a small town where everyone knows you,’’ she says. ‘‘ I go outside and I have to dress nice and be nice and behave.’’ And what happens when you don’t want to behave? ‘‘ Well, sometimes I hide under a cap. [ At] other times I just stay indoors. And sometimes,’’ she says, with a devilish giggle, ‘‘ I just don’t care!’’
The Baader Meinhof Complex