Today: February 26, 2024
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If Not Us, Who?

For many Brits, knowledge of 20th century German history goes like this: war, Hitler, another war, wall built, wall torn down.

– by Erykah Brackenbury

For many Brits,
knowledge of 20th century German history goes like this: war, Hitler, another
war, wall built, wall torn down.
If
Not Us, Who?
explores what was happening in West Germany whilst we were
busy inventing the Beatles and Doctor Who – chiefly the radicalisation
of the notorious Gudrun Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis) in the 1960s.

Set against this is Bernward Vesper (August Diehl), her sometime lover,
struggling to balance love and respect for his author father against abhorrence
at the latter’s passionate Nazi views. Still an undergraduate, he persuades
Ensslin to assist him in establishing a publishing house, in which he can
reprint his father’s work in hope of attracting a re-evaluation.

Charming and charismatic, Vesper takes the lead for the
first half of the film, with Ensslin a relatively meek character. Training to
be a teacher, her spare time is dedicated almost exclusively to supporting
Vesper’s struggling business.

The years fly by, signalled by our actors gaining a new wig
with the passing years, with continued stock footage (remnants of director Andres Veiel’s documentary background)
firmly signposting the context of events. Whilst this is wearisome at times,
the much-needed surroundings provide those unfamiliar with West German history
with a lifeline.

Naturally, this being the 60s, the lovers aren’t exclusive,
leading to a rotation of pretty young things hopping in and out of the
relationship. Whilst this is shown to ultimately contribute to Ensslin’s
fragile state-of-mind – particularly in a gruesome attempt at self-harm,
grotesquely mirroring her seduction of Vesper – this does not lay an entirely
convincing foundation for the sudden change that befalls the two halfway
through the film.

Andreas Baader (Alexander
Fehling
), the catalyst to these changes, is finally introduced, with
Ensslin falling obsessively and dangerously in love with him. She is suddenly
no longer the victim, channelling her self-loathing and misery into hatred for
the state, emerging as a radicalised Communist, cold and withdrawn. Vesper
falls pitifully and haphazardly into drug addiction.

They are the children of the Nazi regime, unable to escape
the legacy of what their parents have done, whether it be sincere belief in the
Fuhrer or simply trying not to rock the boat. Ensslin particularly struggles to
accept her father’s part in WWII, insisting that if he did not agree with the
regime he should have fought rather than remained silent. His calm reaction is
that perhaps the fascism she claims to fight against is something she secretly
anticipates.

Whilst an impressive fiction debut (Veiel a
documentary-maker prior to this), the film’s narrative thrust starts to flag
towards the end. This may be purely down to context – the events that followed
are well-known in German history but certainly less-so from a British
perspective.

Worth watching for Lauzemis alone, this is a
fascinating but difficult introduction to a turbulent part of Germany’s past –
just be prepared to do some background reading after.

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