Decades after their demise, the German Red Army Faction is still generating bad karma—and crime scenes. Of course, the later is the name of the game for the long-running German police procedural television show Tatort (translation: “crime scene”). It is such an institution it periodically produces stand-alone TV movies that often tackle more ambitious subject matter. In this case, the RAF conspiracy theories garnered unusual fest play for Tatort: The Red Shadow, which screens during Anthology Film Archives’ retrospective of leading German film and TV director Dominik Graf.
For Detective Chief Superintendent Thorsten Lannert, this case will hit close to home, because he was once a terrorist-sympathizing leftist himself. It starts out like a tabloid story when Christoph Heider is arrested for trying to smuggle his ex-wife’s body to France for an autopsy. He is convinced her current lover, Wilhelm Jordan murdered her. After some cursory investigation, Lannert and his junior partner Sebastian Bootz start to suspect there might be something to Heider’s suspicions.
Jordan is definitely a creep, but he seems to be protected by a high-ranking state prosecutor and the Witness Protection service. They soon more-or-less confirm Jordan served as an informer on RAF activities. Suddenly, questions about the Baader-Meinhof gang start percolating when Jordan’s old lover, Astrid Fruhwein returns to her violent, gun-toting criminal ways. Lannert will even start to doubt the official version of the suicide of the Baader suicides.
There is a lot of conspiratorial smoke-and-mirrors in Red Shadow, which kicked up quite a fuss in German, but does not amount to much for viewers not steeped in the extremism of the “German Autumn.” Even if the FRG went a bit extracurricular on the RAF, it is hard to have sympathy for them. Just ask the families of Dr. Heinz Hillegaart, Andreas von Mirbach, Fritz Sippel (age 22), Jürgen Ponto, Dionysius de Jong (age 19), Johannes Goemanns and the dozens of other policemen, diplomats, customs officers, and U.S. servicemen the RAF murdered.
In fact, the murkiness of the conspiratorial speculation turns into a big “eh.” What works best in Red Shadow is the Law & Order-style chemistry shared by Richy Muller and Felix Klare, as Lannert and Bootz, respectively. Muller is especially watchable as the crusty Lannert. Hannes Jaenicke is also thoroughly loathsome and intensely creepy as Jordan. Regardless of your ideological convictions, he is definitely a very bad guy.
Graf conveys a sense of the overheated vibe of the German Autumn and how it continues to exert a corrosive influence several decades later. He helms with a surprising degree of flair and maintains a brisk pace throughout. It is a solid procedural outing for the warhorse franchise, but it just doesn’t add up to as much as it thinks it does. Recommended for procedural fans and conspiracy nuts, Tatort: The Red Shadow screens this Friday (5/24) and June 1st, during the Graf retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.