For such an earnest song, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” sounds weirdly sardonic and cutting as it plays over the closing credits of The Baader Meinhof Complex. By the end of the 150-minute drama about the German anarcho-communists who murdered, blew up, and set fire to what they disliked about the bourgeoisie in the 1970s (and killed 34 people in the process), the lyrics cut both ways: “How many deaths must it take before he knows/That too many people have died?” Ripped from its original context, the line lands like a vicious joke. It is one of the many masterful choices in Uli Edel’s ash-can-gritty drama about the hideousness of capitalism and its discontents.

A quick primer on the Baader Meinhof gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction): It’s 1970s Germany and a conservative, monolithic government filled with ex-Nazis runs the country. The official parliamentary opposition party gets only 5 percent of the vote and the Communist Party is illegal, so students and radicals start “extra-parliamentary opposition.” Strangers are shooting each other over ideological differences, police are acquitted for beating and shooting protesters at rallies, and there are bloody riots in the streets. The country is extremely tense.

Enter Ulrike Meinhof (a brooding, restrained Martina Gedeck), a leftist journalist who writes sentences like: “If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offense. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action.” She meets a group of political arsonists during their trial and falls in with them as they escape to France, hide with a friend of Che’s, and return to Germany to commence bold guerilla warfare. They’re surprisingly popular among the disenfranchised left, and their charismatic center is a handsome young egoist, badass, and high-school dropout named Andreas Baader. According to Moritz Bleibtreu’s stormy performance, Baader is as devoted to chicks, fast driving, and shooting guns as he is to proletarian emancipation—though he’d punch your nose through the back of your head for saying so. (Once Baader achieved international notoriety, Jean-Paul Sartre visited him in prison and allegedly described him as “an asshole”—a detail that, sadly, didn’t make it into the film. By Complex’s grinding final act, a bit of comic relief would’ve been refreshing.)

The Red Army Faction robs banks, blows up newspaper offices and barracks, and assassinates judges, cops, politicians, and whoever else seems appropriately “fascist.” They go study terrorism in the yellow deserts of Jordan with the PLO, whom they enrage with their nudism, coed living, and spoiled-brattiness. Those scenes are both the funniest and the darkest in the film—a bumbling clash of civilizations where dangerous first-world clowns tangle with actual freedom fighters who are battling for their lands and lives and not some abstracted notion of international justice as articulated by their favorite author from the Frankfurt School. It would be absurdist comedy if it hadn’t actually happened.

Everyone in the film is indicted: the corpulent, conservative (and frequently ex-Nazi) politicians eating lobster soup and the RAF smoking their incessant cigarettes. But through careful, meticulous storytelling, Edel sends us tennis-balling from one side of the fight to the other and forces us to identify with each major character at least once or twice: Yes, it is wrong to prosecute an ideological war on a poor country and unleash state thugs on peaceful demonstrators; yes, it is also wrong to blow up a newspaper office because you don’t like what you read.

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Edel stretches the film with the classic description of the pacing of war: pulse-raising action, horrifying aftermath, and then back into the slow wait for the next charge. By the time the original gang is all dead or imprisoned and a second generation has sprung up and started executing hostages in embassies and on airplanes, The Baader Meinhof Complex takes on an awful, operatic weight—not unlike the final act of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

Baader Meinhof has the hopeless, concrete-monolith feel of ’70s German architecture: complicated, violently sexy, horrifying, and heavy—and deeply satisfying.