Democracy Now, and Always: Close-Up on Jean-Gabriel Périot’s “A German Youth”

The exhilarating archival assemblage detailing the rise of the leftwing Red Army Faction invites a range of interpretations.
Michael Pattison

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jean-Gabriel Périot's A German Youth (2016), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from October 27 - November 26, 2017 as a Special Discovery.

I’ll never accept the tendency of the late capitalistic society, which leads us straight to fascism. You just have to look at what’s happening in the USA.

—Gudrun Ensslin

In the last analysis, terrorism is an idea generated by capitalism to justify better defense measures to safeguard capitalism.

—Rainer Werner Fassbinder

When fascists began getting punched this summer, and an excited wave of schadenfreude took hold, briefly, of the social-media trashcan, out came the liberal cavalry: in force. Punching Nazis, so went the cry, is at best the first step to moral oblivion and, at worst, already as bad as the people who want you dead. They are nothing if not predictable, this lot: necessarily tone-deaf to complexity, their rhetorical strategy is to pair a moralism quite detached from historical materialism with a kind of persistently pushy politeness. Their passion is dispassion, their position holier than thou. They understand your pain but seek, calmly and at every moment, to invalidate the notion that its causes might be rooted in the very mechanisms of democracy itself.

A politics is only as strong as the analogies it makes. Behold—and beware—false equivalences. While it is existentially necessary for liberals to advance the notion that the right and left really are just the same, they know, through political intuition, which side of their bread is buttered. They need it both ways. Towards the end of Jean-Gabriel Périot’s A German Youth (2015), an exhilarating archival assemblage detailing the rise of the leftwing Red Army Faction in 1960s and 1970s West Germany, Franz Josef Strauss—then chairman of the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU)—dismisses the notion that the anti-terrorist methods then being used against the RAF are equivalent to the police state under the Gestapo. Equating the two, he insists, “helps Hitler’s children!”

Périot, master of bricolage, positions Strauss’ speech within a sequence of politicians condemning the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 in October 1977, in which members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine took charge of a passenger jet in protest against the imprisonment of leading RAF organizers. Behind the lectern, justice is the name and anti-leftism the game: Carl-Dieter Spranger, also of the CSU, cries: “Terrorism has been able to develop because leftwing intellectuals, journalists, politicians and professors have trivialized the danger of the anti-establishment.” Helmut Kohl, then leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), brands the terrorists as—oh yes—“enemies of democracy.”

Kohl led the CDU from 1973 till 1998, and was German Chancellor between 1982 and 1998, when he lost an election by a large majority. In 1991, he had appointed a protegee, Angela Merkel, to the federal cabinet. Re-watching Périot’s feature-length debut, I recalled the incumbent Chancellor’s victory speech, following Germany’s recent federal elections, in which she utilized the 8% increase in votes given to the far-right Alternative for Germany to indicate (and vindicate) her own rightward shifts. Nothing, again, if not predictable: democracy now, and always.

No society, of course, is above its institutions. Early on in A German Youth, we see the ways in which the mainstream media, state broadcasters, favored police aggression during the 1967 student demonstrations against the visiting Shah of Iran. Again, we hear the same old tired arguments from suited men on panels, and see how postwar anti-imperial activism was weaponized against itself by those keen to equate it with a barely forgotten Nazism. Later, it’s not difficult to recognize the platitudinous sense of togetherness that gets dragged out for every traumatic occasion. “The accused are probably among this evening’s audience,” remarks a news anchor at the beginning of the Lufthansa sequence. “They can be jubilant and feel they’re all-powerful. But they mustn’t be mistaken. There is no future for terrorism. For terrorism has determined adversaries: the state and the German people are against it.” This is a common tactic. We might add a word: “The state, and therefore…”

Through all of this, or at least in the early clips, she sits: a lioness, in the knowledge she doesn’t need to break a sweat, or full stride, to devour up the room. Ulrike Meinhof is an electric screen presence, volleying verbal bullets at the older men around her. There is as much care given to content, from the young activist, as there is to form: patient but ruthless. And witty—such scenes in which she appears on a panel discussion titled “Authority in Decline” are entrancing. It makes later footage, in which we only see her from afar, from behind prison walls, all the more eerie; the sense of distance, in terms of both physical proximity and ideological relatability, compounds the mysteries behind hers and her fellow RAF members’ apparent suicides, at Stammheim Prison, in 1976 and 1977.

Périot, like his subject, also pays much attention to form. In December 2013, at the shorts festival CurtoCircuíto in Santiago de Compostela, I participated on a jury that awarded its prize to The Devil, the Frenchman’s ferocious, percussive, eight-minute ode to Black Power. I loved its rhythm, its unapologetic musicality and its archival juxtapositions, the emotive shift from images of black victimhood to a more militant ownership of class and racial identity. Here too, working on a much broader canvas, Périot provides a sweeping, almost overwhelming narrative punchiness, employing stills, broadcast footage, agitprop films made by the RAF, and sequences from the more overtly politicized output of the German New Wave; it ends with Fassbinder’s contribution to the 1978 omnibus film, Germany in Autumn. Most of the images, as well as the sounds, are startlingly clean: at points, one might wonder if we’re watching some mocked-up throwback rather than primary material.

It’s true that A German Youth invites a range of interpretations. As with many archive-based projects without an explicit authorial statement, it would be possible to editorialize here with the opposite stance to my own—to find truth in the Spranger and Kohl pontifications, and to be repulsed by Meinhof’s repeated calls to arms. The strength, I think, is the way in which Périot’s formal and structural energies—at first daunting, but gradually enthralling—provide space in which to figure out one’s position in relation to the image-sound combinations. His work always appears argumentative, but it is never reducible to a single argument.

One might charge A German Youth of failing to properly come down on a side: the liberals unable to imagine genuine social transformation, or the leftists seeking to dismantle the property relations on which capital depends. At around the midway point in the film, Périot quotes Heinrich von Lemke’s 1969 film The Arsonists. Margarethe von Trotta, directing a soliloquy to camera, suggests that you cannot act without violence in a society that has become violent. (We might flip this, too: not acting in a violent society is an inherently violent act.) Are films actions? Should they be? One exchange, in an early clip, begins: “You work in films, not politics.” To which the refrain is: “Films are politics!”

Does Périot mean to implicate himself as a practitioner of an art form doomed to political inertia? Or is he advocating ambivalence as an artistic prerogative? In the Lemke film, von Trotta continues: “Films about burnt children cannot stop napalm bombings.” 

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