Opening on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) is an explosive but scrupulously journalistic drama about the radical group that terrorized Germany for nearly 30 years. Bernd Eichinger, who wrote and produced the movie, based it on a 1985 book by Stefan Aust that chronicles the group’s first and deadliest decade, from 1968 to 1977. And like Aust, he aimed to tell exactly what happened during those chaotic years, leaving any political judgments to the viewer. “When you’re dealing with historical events where people have been killed and others have become killers, you have a responsibility as a filmmaker to be as precise and as thoroughly researched as possible,” he explains in the movie’s press notes. Yet the simple process of inclusion and exclusion can slant the most responsible journalism, and when The Baader Meinhof Complex was released in Germany last year, some accused it of glamorizing terrorism.

Ironically, the most complex character in the movie, the one who provides the viewer with an entry point into this hothouse of violent fanatics, is herself a journalist—Ulrike Meinhof, a columnist for the left-wing magazine Konkret who stunned her family and colleagues in May 1970 by throwing in with a cadre of self-styled revolutionaries. After meeting and writing about Andreas Baader, who’d been found guilty of firebombing a Berlin department store, Meinhof took part in a daring scheme to free him from prison and in the process became a fugitive from justice. The most public face of the group—which called itself the Red Army Faction, or RAF, but was popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang—she served as propagandist, writing communiques to explain the group’s attacks. Onscreen her life is portrayed as a prolonged struggle between the impotence of her words as a journalist and the horrendous consequences of her deeds as a terrorist, consequences that may have driven her to suicide.

Eichinger hardly set out to make a biopic of Ulrike Meinhof. “I did not want to hinge the film emotionally onto one character,” he says. “To side emotionally with one character would have automatically implied a certain interpretation of the film—and that’s exactly what I wanted to avoid.” The movie has more than a dozen major characters, and the story continues for nearly 40 minutes after Meinhof is found hanged in her prison cell in May 1976. Yet the filmmakers gravitate toward Meinhof almost in spite of themselves because, like them, she started out observing and recording events, before getting swept up in them. There’s also a personal connection: Aust worked with Meinhof at Konkret before she went on the lam, and at the behest of her estranged husband, Klaus Rainer Röhl (Konkret‘s editor), he helped retrieve the couple’s twin daughters from Sicily after Meinhof parked them there with friends.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex opens with an intimate view of the life Meinhof left behind. As her little girls frolic in the waves at a nude beach, Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) catches her husband flirting with a lissome blond friend (ever the journalist, he deflects his wife’s suspicious gaze by playfully pointing a home-movie camera at her). During a backyard party at their nicely appointed home, Röhl puts Meinhof on the spot by having her read aloud a recent column about the visiting shah of Iran. In the column she upbraids the shah’s wife for claiming that most Persians spend their summers by the Caspian Sea, when in fact most Persians suffer from poverty, illness, and starvation. It’s a stinging indictment, but a quick cut to Ulrike’s bored and perfunctorily clapping guests underlines the distance between her impassioned writing and her own bourgeois world. Shortly thereafter, Meinhof walks in on Röhl banging the blond from the beach, then piles their daughters into her car and leaves him.

In general, though, Eichinger and director Uli Edel concentrate on the hurtling momentum of world events, showing how an inherently reasonable person might be persuaded that political violence is the only remedy to an authoritarian state. Their first big set piece—intercut with the couple’s party—is the notorious riot that took place on June 2, 1967, when demonstrators turned out to protest the shah’s visit to the Berlin Opera House. As police stand idly by, black-suited thugs loyal to the shah wade into the protesters, beating them with sticks, then hordes of police swarm the protesters, cutting loose with their truncheons. The riot culminates in the death of an unarmed student. Then in April 1968 an assassination attempt against antiwar activist Rudi Dutschke provokes an angry mob to storm the Berlin offices of the Axel Springer publishing group, whose reactionary Deutsche National-Zeitung paper has urged readers to “Stop Dutschke now!” As flames spread across the company’s parking lot, police collar Meinhof, then turn her loose because she’s a reporter.

The violent excesses of the Vietnam era left a deep impression on Aust, Edel, and Eichinger, all of whom were in their early 20s at the time. Like Meinhof, Aust witnessed the Axel Springer riot firsthand, and in a bizarre coincidence, Edel and Eichinger were both celebrating birthdays on April 11, the day Dutschke was shot. The burning question of how far one should go to stop a repressive government was particularly urgent in Germany, where a whole generation weighed their parents’ culpability in the Holocaust. Eichinger’s most ambitious project before The Baader Meinhof Complex was Downfall (2004), a harrowing epic about the disintegration of the Nazi high command. “There were a lot of people in my circle of friends who supported [the RAF’s] militant stance,” Eichinger recalls. “On the one hand I’m revolted by it, but at the same time I can’t get it out of my head because it’s a mystery that I want to solve.”

In the movie, that mystery is powerfully visualized in a brief shot of an open window. Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his lover and coconspirator Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) have been convicted of the department-store bombing but freed by the court pending their appeal; they flee to France and Italy, then return to Berlin, where they meet Meinhof. When Baader is picked up again by police, Ensslin persuades Meinhof to help spring him, and the journalist petitions the court for permission to interview Baader in the reading room at the Institute for Social Issues, where they can review archival documents together. Ensslin and three others storm the building, shooting a security guard and a prison guard, and leap out the window with Baader. Stunned by the violence, her back to the wall, Meinhof stares at the window briefly before following after them and sealing her fate. (The moment is one of Eichinger’s few but forgivable fictions: in fact, Meinhof was the second one out the window.)

Meinhof isn’t the only character whose personal life figures in the narrative; there’s a fascinating glimpse of Ensslin’s relationship with her parents, a Protestant minister and his wife, who come to respect their hotheaded daughter’s political awakening. But the film keeps coming back to Meinhof as a moral barometer for the group’s increasingly ruthless actions. When she and Baader are sitting together in the reading room, she asks the prison guard if he has family, and upon learning the man has a wife and two children, she gives Baader a rueful glance. During the group’s paramilitary training at a PLO camp in Jordan, she’s visibly troubled but says nothing when it’s decided that her daughters must be transferred from Sicily to a refugee camp for Palestinian orphans, and that Peter Homann, one of their more insistently ethical members, must be killed. These moments seldom amount to more than reaction shots, but again and again Meinhof is the only RAF member who registers any compassion for the people hurt by their actions.

These close-ups of Meinhof are especially potent because once she joins the group, The Baader Meinhof Complex becomes a story told mostly with action. “The RAF decided to turn their back on political debate and to resort to violence,” Eichinger says. “Therefore it’s only logical that the film follows suit and concentrates not so much on what the RAF said, but what they did.” After returning to Germany, the RAF carries out a spectacular troika of bank robberies that makes them folk heroes in Germany. More bank jobs follow, and a poll reveals that nearly a quarter of the German public sides with the terrorists. But when the U.S. mines the harbors of Vietnam, the RAF launches a bombing campaign against U.S. Army installations and police headquarters across Germany. The carnage turns the public against the group, and the police begin to close in.

Once the bombings begin, Meinhof’s communiques drift into rationalization and Maoist propaganda. A turning point arrives when the RAF plants three bombs in the Hamburg printing works of the Axel Springer papers; their phoned-in threats are ignored by switchboard operators, and the bombs explode—one of them in the proofreaders’ room—wounding 17 employees, some of them severely. Along with a car bomb four days earlier that had wounded the wife of a federal judge, this marked the first time the RAF had targeted civilians, and it not only horrified the public but, as later events suggest, caused the first significant rift between Meinhof and the others. “Springer decided to risk the lives of his workers and employees in the bombing, rather than give up a few hours of work, that is, profit, for a false alarm,” writes Meinhof, charged with creating the RAF’s follow-up message. “We are deeply saddened that workers and employees were injured.” In the film, staring at her typewriter, smoke curling up from a cigarette, she looks unconvinced by her own words.

The Baader Meinhof Complex seems to near a resolution in June 1972, when the police apprehend Baader (who seems delighted by this turn of events), then Ensslin (who’s furious), and finally Meinhof (who bursts into tears). But in fact the arrests mark only the midpoint of the movie, and the RAF’s history enters a new and infinitely more complicated phase as the founding members await trial and a second generation of terrorists takes over for them. Meinhof spends nearly eight months in solitary confinement in a Cologne prison, and a delirious sequence inside her tiny, windowless, white-walled cell objectifies what she describes as “The feeling that your head is exploding. The feeling that the cell is moving. You can’t get it to stop moving. Raging aggression, for which there is no outlet. That’s the worst thing about solitary confinement: the clear awareness that you have no chance of survival.” As the RAF prisoners begin a series of hunger strikes, their treatment becomes part of their successors’ political agenda.

Eventually Meinhof, Baader, Ensslin, and other RAF prisoners are reunited in the maximum-security unit of Stuttgart-Stammheim Prison to be tried, and as Meinhof slowly comes unglued, she begins to pull away from the others. In the ultimate insult, Ensslin insists on revising her communiques, telling Meinhof, “The stuff you write is depressing.”

But Aust—and Eichinger after him—concludes that what really drove Meinhof over the edge was the others’ tactical decision to deny any responsibility for the Axel Springer bombing. As her remarks in court and her personal writings imply, she couldn’t defend herself against the charge without betraying the others. On the day Ensslin announced to the court that they knew nothing about the operation, Meinhof failed to show up. The movie’s penultimate image of Meinhof alive shows her lying on her cell bunk, staring dully into space, and then Edel cuts to a flashback of the bomb going off in the proofreaders’ room and hurling bodies through a glass wall.

The sequence violates Eichinger’s strict edict that the movie present only what happened, yet it’s only natural that he and Aust, who backed away from political violence, might want to see Meinhof as someone who saw the error of her ways. At the time the RAF and its sympathizers spun her death in a different direction, insisting she’d been murdered by the authorities, though there’s no evidence of that. The only clue is some marginalia in an essay Meinhof had written months earlier, stating that suicide was “the last act of rebellion.” Whether she might have been rebelling against the state or her shameless comrades is a mystery that will never be solved, because a year and a half later, Baader, Ensslin, and a third RAF member, Jan-Carl Raspe, committed suicide in their cells as well. In this regard, at least, Meinhof was the first one out the window.