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Hunger/The Baader Meinhof Complex

Directed by Steve McQueen, Certificate 15, 122 mins
Directed by Uri Edel, Certificate 15, 150 mins

Terror in the good old days. Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinho

Two films take as their subject matter terrorists from recent decades. Hunger, McQueen's first feature, is a low budget British movie about the experiences of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in 1981. Made by an accomplished director and producer team, The Baader Meinhof Complex is a big budget German language movie about the post-1968 rise of the German anti-capitalist terrorist group the Red Army Faction (RAF).

The first deals with terrorists in prison, the second deals with them first in the outside world and then in prison as well as their ongoing impact on events. While each film recreates a specific historical time and place, the first abstracts from these to articulate ideas on human suffering, while the second tries to portray, with as much historical accuracy as possible, the diverse and ever mutating group of people in the group, what they did when and what happened to them.

Hunger therefore focuses on the minutiae of Maze life, a slow paced, quasi-dreamlike affair periodically spewing out arresting imagery. A warder checks his car for explosives before work, nude political prisoners defy criminalisation by refusing to wear uniforms, and in one lengthy, static shot, urine, channelled from cells into a corridor as a protest, is disinfected and brushed away by a guard walking the corridor's length. The emotional core is another long take, a riveting conversation between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) in which Sands reveals his plan to go on hunger strike.

BMK on the other hand skilfully orchestrates a multiplicity of characters, recreating a series of complex events. While it too throws up shocking images - the shooting of an aged archive curator during a prisoner escape attempt, the assassination of a target in his car along with bodyguards - these are less poetic statements and more events that move history forward. Although the first wave RAF members suffer considerable psychological torment at Stuttgart-Stammheim prison, they seem to have got off awfully lightly compared to the near inhuman conditions the Maze.

Yet while Hunger's soundtrack samples Margaret Thatcher's non-negotiation speeches, we see no external IRA activity beyond one reprisal killing of a Maze guard. By contrast, BMK gets inside the heads of Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) to explain why they did what they did. The piece never takes sides for or against but lets the viewer draw their own conclusions.

History has moved on and the rules of terrorism have changed. In retrospect, 1977's hijacked Lufthansa plane carrying hostages from country to country in search of a haven seems almost quaint after 9/11, yet in their day such events flummoxed the international authorities. But the sight of an RAF hostage explaining to police that he'll be killed if they don't move back - then being shot dead at point blank when they don't - has lost none of its horror. If the impressive Hunger borders on being a tract; the more matter of fact BMK sidesteps this pitfall to offer up for discussion a terrifying but seminal slice of modern history, producing a bravura cinematic masterwork almost as an afterthought.

Jeremy Clarke