If Not Us, Who? (Wer wenn nicht wir)
Germany (2011) Dir. Andres Veiel
In 1961, university students Bernward Vesper (August Diehl) and Gudrun Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis) begin a torrid relationship based on their love of literature, which leads to their collaborating in getting a book of poetry written by Bernward’s father Willi (Thomas Thieme), a Nazi sympathiser, published. Despite marriage and a child, the pair drift apart through Bernward’s philandering and involvement in drugs, while Gudrun becomes a political activist and a future key member of the infamous Baader Meinhof gang.
Andres Veiel’s film could be seen as a prequel/companion piece to Uli Edel’s 2008 powerful outing The Baader Meinhof Complex seeing as they both cover the same turbulent time period of modern German history. Veiel’s film differs greatly not just from starting the story much earlier and focusing on the history of one member of the group but it does so with less bombast, offering a character driven piece than an intense retelling of violent political activism. This last facet is rather subdued here, playing just a small part in the final act with Gudrun’s growing involvement with Andreas Baader (Alexander Fehling) and his political campaigns.
Willi Vesper’s book isn’t much of a hit and the first of many splits between the pair occurs but they always seem to find their way back to each other, eventually marrying and having a son, Felix. But as Germany changes political direction, along with the rest of the world, so do the attitudes of Bernward and Gudrun. Initially Bernward is the more keen of the two, using his publishing knowledge to help disseminate the many radical messages and manifestos to the masses, while Gudrun mopes in the background with baby Felix. That is until the charismatic Andreas Baader comes into her life, and suddenly it is all change; Gudrun dumps Felix on Bernward and moves in with Baader.
Much of what happens next on the activist front is covered in Veiel’s film (in which Bernward doesn’t feature; in fact, Gudrun’s leaving of her family is depicted totally differently here than from Veiel’s) so we get to see the fallout from Bernward’s point of view. With his publishing career in a downward spiral he turns to psychedelic drugs, endangering young Felix’s life while still clearly missing Gudrun. It should come as no surprise that both were destined for a tragic end with Felix growing up with a foster family, perhaps making him either the biggest casualty or luckiest survivor of this whole complex situation.
The film has a rather disconcerting flaw which is evident from the onset – with such hard to like characters Veiel was in no position to do anything but present their story in such a direct and impassionate manner. The end result is a cold and almost soulless film that does little to get inside its subjects. There motives, desires and background are never explored, offering no plausible explanation for their actions over the years other than their moving with the changing political climate, which is how this is presented. Bernward and Gudrun both appear to be brilliant students, the latter with strong pretensions about his literary tastes. While he is able to put his father’s Nazi past behind him, Gudrun struggles with this in light of her own fathers past, a pastor who was forced to serve during the war, deserting his family in the process, but pursues it anyway out of rebellious spite. This should be a powerful footing to kick things off from but it dissolves into nothing very quickly and sets the tone for the rest of the film’s time jumping structure.
Veiel at least captures the mood and atmosphere of these changes will keen attention to detail, signalling each time lapse with genuine footage from the time highlighting the significant political and world changing catalyst from this period. It’s a welcome touch but it doesn’t make the film feel any less empty and lacking in unambitious in terms of what could have been explored. There is one glaring anachronism as Python Lee Jackson’s classic In A Broken Dream is played in a scene set in 1961, eleven years before it was released!
What can’t be faulted are the performances of August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis who are tasked, and cope admirably, with carrying the film on their shoulders. Taking such unpleasant and relatively undeveloped characters on a ten year journey through many physical and emotional changes is a huge challenge and the pair meets it head on. Lauzemis is probably the weaker of the two – weaker in the sense that her features are quite masculine, borderline androgynous, and she seems to sport a permanent sneer on her face – her smile is nothing but sinister – as a result. Diehl is also fairly inexpressive for the early part of the film but begins to show some great signs of flair as Bernward’s descent into drug addled madness.
If Not Us, Who? has its flaws that prevent this from delivering on everything it promises, seemingly holding back from the deeper exploration of its subjects in favour of a slow moving and uptight drama that never reaches the boil. A suitable enough companion to the The Baader Meinhof Complex but nowhere near as dynamic.