Fatal attraction

Che Guevara, Carlos the Jackal, Andreas Baader: these are the faces of radical terrorist chic. Henry

Terrorist chic has until now been largely a matter for pop stars. The Clash, rock rebels in their own minds, conjured up images of a Westway Red Brigade; more recently, Shaun Ryder's disreputable band Black Grape used the Warholised face of Carlos the Jackal to assert their own bad-boy credentials. Film, traditionally conservative in these matters, has proved more resistant to the trend.

We're all too aware that "real" terrorists are less like the honourable crew of republicans from John Ford's The Informer (1935) than the protagonists of Alan Clarke's harrowing BBC drama Elephant (1989), a dialogue-free, non-narrative compendium of shootings, in which we are never informed of the sectarian, territorial or political bias of either the victims or the killers. That said, Germany's Red Army Fraction (aka the Baader-Meinhof group) retains an allure that most other terror groups - tending towards religious fundamentalism of various stripes - lack. They had a snappy logo and a generally sympathetic attitude towards Nazism and imperialism; they had a claim to the inheritance of 1968. So the new German film Baader, directed by Christopher Roth, in which the eponymous terrorist looks as if he belongs next to Che Guevara on a student bedsit wall, isn't a complete surprise.

Opening with a late Sixties-style montage of generic "counter-cultural" images with MC5's proto-punk "Kick Out the Jams" on the soundtrack, Baader sets out its store early: do not expect this film to tell you anything about Andreas Baader. Instead, sit back and enjoy a fairly straight comic-book fight between the forces of good - dissident rock bands, the Vietcong, Castro - and evil - LBJ, the military-industrial complex, the West German state. The end of the picture, in a radical departure from historical record, has Baader mown down by the police: it's a wannabe Bonnie and Clyde moment, stripped of that film's sexual charge.

The film, by unintentionally portraying Baader as a self-involved, misogynistic, beer-cellar bore (with gun), may well fail in its intentions - that is, to make Baader heroic - but what prompted its making is interesting. The group of German film-makers who last played on the world stage belonged to the same generation as the Baader group, many coming from the same Munich new left milieu. One story from this time has the philandering director Rainer Werner Fassbinder provoking a row with a Baader crony the night before the Fraction's first department store attack (the theme of "political" violence motivated by sexual jealousy would be a central theme of Fassbinder's films). These film-makers had far less sympathy for the terrorists than Roth, who, as a director of adverts, would surely not have survived the revolution Baader and co prophesied. And their collective response constitutes one of the most powerful of critiques of society in recent cinema.

They are proof, for example, that there is more to making movies than taking pretty pictures of pretty people blowing things up for kicks (largely the Roth strategy); that films can relate to society, even try to interpret it. Indeed, in a culture as saturated with images as ours, movies might be the best way to understand the world. One of the keynote releases of the German new wave, Syberberg's Hitler: a film from Germany (1977), included interview segments with the dictator's personal projectionist, who claims that Hitler made a definitive break in his viewing habits after September 1939. Having made his own fantasy of flesh and metal, he stopped watching fictional works and stuck to documentaries.

Schlondorff and Von Trotta's The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), from the novel by Heinrich Boll, one of the first so-called "New German films" to break into the international market, investigates the connections between capital, secret state and media that underlay the West German postwar economic miracle, with special attention paid to the use of the cold war as the ideological instrument of all three. The film depicts the "asymmetric" struggle of a young woman accused of consorting with a leftist terrorist - "asymmetric" in that the cold war (the Red Army Fraction was held to be part of the wider conflict) made the secrecy of the state absolute, while severely limiting the privacy of the individual; the state can find out everything about you, while you can find out very little about the state.

The media, more specifically the Axel Springer group of newspapers (with which many German artists, including Boll, were engaged in a bitter feud), is said to have benefited considerably from a CIA cash injection in the early Fifties, and stoked the mass hysteria, relying on its readers' morbid interest to sell papers, in turn, legitimising the secret state's reaction. Blum is, so to speak, shot by both sides.

For German film-makers closer to the convulsions of the Seventies than Roth, the "meaning" of terrorists lay less in their own stated objectives (at best hazy, in the case of Red Army Fraction) than in their unintended function within the West German state. Terrorism was (and is) used as a pretext for greater state snooping powers, by their industrial suppliers to boost profits, and by the media for reasons more complex, perhaps, than either the making of money or the accumulation of power.

Fassbinder took on the idea of duped terrorists, in The Third Generation (1979), a bleak film in which positive political action of the Rudi Dutschke era has given way, first to directed violence of the Baader-Meinhof years, and finally to an ugly lashing out that only benefits its supposed targets. In the film, terrorists, driven more by personal despair than idealism, are funded by an industrialist whose business benefits from terrorism: he sells snooping equipment to the state police. When, in a final act of despair, the terrorists kidnap their chief fundraiser, he believes that it is all part of the act. As far as he is concerned, terrorism is entirely a performance; the film, poker-faced, ends with a shot of his face "in reality" next to its representation on a TV monitor, suggesting that he may be proved wrong.

This inability to distinguish between real event and staged provocation comes to a head in the New German Cinema's most striking single film: Germany in Autumn (1978), a collaborative project that spliced documentary footage and found news footage with fictional and semi-fictional scenes.

Terrorists, says Don DeLillo, have stolen a march on artists - they have a more vivid and immediate ability to "make raids on consciousness". Here, one may weigh up their relative merits. The picture was both a response to and a summing up of the events of autumn 1977, in which members of the Red Army Fraction kidnapped and killed the prominent German industrialist and former Nazi Hans-Martin Schleyer, and were themselves captured, ending up shot dead in their cells; while Palestinian comrades, in the process of skyjacking a Germany-bound Lufthansa 737 in Mogadishu, were thwarted by Israeli commandos. Schleyer was given a full state funeral in Stuttgart, provided by mayor Manfred Rommel, the son of General Rommel; the terrorists' funeral was presided over by armed police.

While the documentary footage has the quality of a good espionage thriller - the funerals and the hijacking all being staged events - the "fictional" material is piercing, and rather shows up the poverty of artistic response to the events of the last September. The Boll-penned satire in which a TV station postpones a filmed version of Antigone (because of the parallels between the fate of Sophocles's tragic hero and that of the slain terrorists) is particularly pertinent; but Fassbinder, the then hardest-working man in show business, provides the most intriguing response, focusing on the psychological effects of being caught between the police and the terrorists - as Claude Chabrol argued in his terrorist drama Nada (1974), "two jaws in the same trap".

As a leftist, Fassbinder felt some sympathy for the RAF's critique of West German bourgeois hegemony, yet he is terrified that this ideological affinity could incriminate him - whether in the media or in the courts. Cooped up in his flat, taking out his frustration on his lover (in life and in his writing, the director had much in common with Joe Orton) and interrogating his 1933-generation mother, Fassbinder's self-portrait is a suicide note of a film, unable to distinguish national from personal despair. By acting it out on screen, he is responding in kind to the terrorists' yet more desperate psychodrama being played out on the global stage.

Roth's film might be characterised as a kind of "return of the repressed" - the violent Other haunting the very real success of Germany's new left, which, guided by Rudi Dutschke's strategy of the "long march", has recently, in the form of the Green Party, saved Germany from a hard-right regime.

The left has a habit of preferring the live-fast-die-young brigade (viz the Levellers), perhaps because they never have to contemplate the compromises of the hard-sloggers. Fassbinder's films demystify the Robin Hood aspects of the Red Army Fraction; but then he never lived to see the world of compromise that Roth inhabits. Fassbinder himself checked out in 1982, unable to maintain the multiple drug addictions that sustained his mammoth work schedule. Roth, perhaps, reinvigorates the Baader myth in the same way that most film critics would bring back the colourful auteur movies of the Seventies: more exciting, perhaps, but kept going on a diet of social chaos.

Henry K Miller writes for Vertigo