Friday 2 March 2012

Oblique strategies: "If Not Us, Who?"

If Not Us, Who? is another German excavation of the country's own history, albeit one that takes a problematically oblique line on the political and cultural tumult of the 1960s and 70s. Andres Veiel's drama goes after a period when Nazi war criminals were still being put on trial, students were in revolt, and the Cold War was heating up from the perspective of Bernward Vesper (August Diehl), a well-to-do literary student (and son of a noted Nazi sympathiser) who came to found a publishing house, in part to put back into print his father's contentious scribblings. In the process, Vesper lands himself a new girlfriend - two, in fact, this being the era of free love, one of whom turns out to be Gudrun (Lena Lauzemis), a.k.a. Gudrun Ensslin, a.k.a. - as anyone who caught 2008's The Baader-Meinhof Complex will already know - one of the key movers and shakers in that particular, infamous band of revolutionaries who began to terrorise German society around this time.

To come at this period from a new angle, Veiel has had to reinvent the era's struggles as parables - a prologue, involving a cat stalking a nightingale around the Vespers' backyard, takes almost two hours to be explained - and there's a sense he's trying very hard (too hard, arguably) to tell us anything new: If Not Us, Who? proves an altogether stern warning from history. Where Complex actually straightened out many of the revolutionaries' ambiguities, and arrived at something that almost counted as a Saturday night action movie at the Curzon Soho, you can tell Veiel's film wants to be the thinking person's version of these events, just from its opening barrage of literary references, or the suicidally detailed depiction of the turn-of-the-70s publishing industry.

The problem is that stripping these individuals of any revolutionary glamour - and making them all seem like muddled, self-serious, generally intolerable prats - counts against the film working as involving drama. Vesper emerges as a stiff ditherer, and (more damagingly yet) a historical footnote, albeit one who just so happened to represent everything the revolutionaries abandoned in their lust for glory; Lauzemis's Ensslin is an oddly cropped weirdo with bunny-boiler eyes who enjoys such pastimes as sitting on broken glass and scraping her knuckles against brick walls, in a rather melodramatic attempt to take on her share of the world's suffering. (Oddly, Ulrike Meinhof appears to have been written out of this retelling altogether, to make room for her.)

The film is dourly Teutonic: we get its thesis - that the unrest the revolutionaries created was sparked less by pressing social concerns than by their need to rebel (and to be seen to rebel) against their own parents - early on, and then have to rely on intermittent bursts of period pop music and news footage to usher things along. For all its seriousness, I missed the colour and passion, the revolutionary fervour: matters liven up slightly around the halfway mark with the arrival of Alexander Fehling as Baader - here conceived of as a fresh-faced James McAvoy lookalike in a very familiar, Motsonish fleece - but that they do only goes to point up how much of what's come before has been operating as mere backstory. Then again, as I'm sure more than a few historians have pointed out over the years, with Germany, it's all backstory.

If Not Us, Who? opens in selected cinemas from today.

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