Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Lost in translation

Opening in the UK on November 14, The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a sprawling film telling the unwieldy story of how urban guerillas Red Army Faction (RAF) polarized West German society in the 1970s.

Having written several scripts based on historical fact, I’ve crashed into the problems of trying to shape historical events into dramatic narrative. And the closer the writer hews to historical fact, the harder this tends to be. Writer-producer Bernd Eichinger (Downfall) noted during a Q&A after the film that wherever possible he had used the actual words of those involved, trawling for instance through several thousand secret notes RAF members had smuggled to each other during long years of imprisonment. This, he maintained, makes the film as close as possible to a definitive history. But in that case, I hear you cry, why not make a documentary? Excellent question. I think the film tries to cram in too much material, and in trying to show us all the history it careens along too fast and too superficially to allow the audience a point of entry.

But there are places in the script where it’s not the broad sweep of history in focus but tiny moments, and it’s one of these I want to talk about, a moment of very precise writing. Whether it comes from a transcript or the writer’s imagination, it’s a pivotal moment and one that subtitles simply cannot convey.

Setting aside the archaic thou, English uses one egalitarian word to address others: you. Modern German, on the other hand, uses two: the formal Sie and the informal du. Sie is used in business, church, education, to address anyone in authority. In school, children would use Sie to their teachers and receive du back until a late stage in their education when they would be judged adult enough for the teachers to address them as Sie. Du, on the other hand, is for the familiar: family, friends, animals.

Early in the film, left-leaning professional journalist Ulrike Meinhof goes to interview one of the imprisoned RAF members. She naturally addresses her interviewee, Gudrun Ensslin, with Sie. Ensslin, on the other hand, is part of the radical left, for whom aggressively using du to everyone is a political act. So she greets Meinhof with du.

The interview unfolds, Meinhof the efficient, neutral professional, Ensslin the truculent, passionate rebel challenging Meinhof to think differently. And during the interview comes a tiny turning point that carries profound consequences: Meinhof switches. She starts addressing Ensslin with du. Suddenly they are equals. With just one word, the writer shows Meinhof opening the door to a terrifying new world. It will be a while before Meinhof actually joins the terrorists, but that one word shows us she has taken her first transgressive step. Wonderfully subtle.


David Gerard said...

All I could think of was what the Disney version would be like.

Piers said...

Hm. There doesn't appear to have been a post on this blog for almost a month.

Don't make me call Arnopp over here.