When Olivier Assayas's epic study of the international terrorist Carlos the Jackal was released in 2010, we were afforded the opportunity to not only review the film but also to discuss with the director how this film fits into his larger body of work.
By the time he appears on screen at age 23, in the early 1970s, the arrogant idealist (portrayed by Edgar Ramirez) has honed the Marxist views inherited from his parents and furthered by studies in world domination at a Moscow university. There’s also been some training in Jordan as a fighter for the anti-Zionist cause. While many of his American contemporaries are demonstrating against the Vietnam War, Carlos chooses a path far more insidious than that of the Weather Underground. “I don’t believe in protests,” he says at one point. “Words get us nowhere … Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea.”
Maybe so, but there is also an egocentric quest for glory in a crowded field of amoral operatives. His first professional gig involves wreaking havoc on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine under the guidance of Wadie Haddad, played by Ahmad Kaabour. Their first target: the Jewish chief executive of Marks & Spencer, a posh London department store. Carlos botches the job, as well as a rocket-propelled grenade attack on El Al jets at Orly. Both events are harbingers for what will be many flops in his career as a lethal revolutionary collaborating with militants from East Germany and Japan. Unfortunately, this Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight period soon gives way to full-fledged carnage.
His initial taste of blood comes in Paris, where he spontaneously kills an informer and two French counterintelligence agents about to corner him at a party. The prolonged scene is as suspenseful as moviegoing gets, and Assayas allows the circumstances to unfold at their own nervous pace rather than ginning up the action for cinematic thrills. Another gripping extended sequence traces a 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna and its aftermath. Carlos is supposed to assassinate the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers at the behest of the Iraqi leader, never seen on camera (but already a devious force in world affairs almost 30 years before the 2003 American invasion that will lead to his capture and execution). When Austrian police thwart their commando raid, the hostage-takers are flown to Algeria, which doesn’t want them. Ditto for Libya when they try to land in Tripoli. Onboard the DC-9, Carlos and his comrades begin to turn on each other as they wait for a resolution. This will not be the last of his frustrations and humiliations. He experiences a showdown with Haddad, who shouts:”I decide who lives and who dies. Not you!”
The closest he comes to a tender adult bond probably is with Hans-Joachim Klein (Christolph Bach), for some reason nicknamed Angie. Yet, this character displays the only semblance of a conscience among the villains, preferring nonviolent activism and denouncing the anti-Semitism of others in their movement. Inexplicably, Carlos protects him instead of ordering a hit. While demanding absolute fealty from his followers, he’s incapable of being a good boy in the established hierarchy. “You are famous now, a big star,” Haddad tells him. “But celebrities are never keen on obeying orders.”
Ah, fame. So fleeting. Carlos starts out as a sought-after communist enforcer inspired by the courage of Che Guevara but, as his influence dwindles in the wake of the eroding Cold War, he succumbs to mercenary pursuits, like smuggling arms for the highest bidder. He pledges his allegiance to Islam, despite being an atheist who has always thought of religion as the opium of the masses. By this time, his sociopathic opportunism has replaced any notion of a pure anti-imperialist struggle. Betrayals are inevitable, none worse than by his own body. As years go by and his importance lessens, Carlos develops a middle-age spread. He seeks liposuction. And how’s this for cosmic justice: His penis hurts. It’s not the clap, just a horribly painful blockage of semen.
Ramirez inhabits the role with amazing confidence, artfully conveying the trajectory from charisma to inconsequence. The script, by Assayas and Dan Franck, sticks close to the fascinating details: Carlos is almost a terrorist procedural, old-fashioned yet totally of the moment. In terms of comparative genres, this is a slice of documentary-like realism (Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, an intense thriller (Costa-Gavras’ Z), a comprehensive historical record (Steven Soderbergh’s Che) and an examination of the inevitable futility in any geopolitical maelstrom (Steven Spielberg’s Munich). As disturbing as such depictions of large-scale human folly may be, we can’t look away. We don’t dare look away.
- originally published on October 7, 2010 in Critics at Large.
That decision never to repeat himself is a deliberate one, he said, during a wide-ranging interview in Toronto to promote his latest film, Carlos, the true story of the infamous terrorist known in the West as Carlos the Jackal.
|Édgar Ramírez as Carlos|
The geopolitical angle of the film is one part of a complex, terrifically exciting and remarkably detailed drama. The story explores Carlos’s place in the worldwide terrorist network and his gradual decline into irrelevancy in the 1980s as his backers, who included at various times, Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians, began to wash their hands from him after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Carlos, which Assayas co-wrote with Dan Franck, from an idea by producer Daniel Leconte, was originally made for French television, where it showed in May /June 2010 in three weekly installments, and will play around the world in both its full version and Assayas’s specially prepared 2 hour, 30 minutes ‘director's cut.’ (Ironically, the full cut will play in all the world’s movie houses, except for those in France, where its television broadcast precludes a theatrical run.) Sitting in a Toronto hotel room where he was going to introduce a sneak preview of the film on October 4, before the movie’s commercial release on October 21st in its longer incarnation, the casually dressed, soft spoken 55-year-old Assayas discoursed comfortably about the film, politics and his philosophy when it comes to making movies.
Carlos, as portrayed in the film, is a true believer but not someone who is a monolithic figure, which is what attracted Assayas to the idea of making the movie. “One of the aspects [of the story] that of course interested me…in terms of writing it, is that he is a different person at different moments in his life. At a certain point, his idealism becomes pragmatism, he becomes involved in action. He’s not an intellectual, he’s not a writer, he’s not a theoretician, an action has to do with pragmatism. When you’re in action, you’re never at the core of whatever your idealism is about, it makes you move on.” In fact, as the film progresses, Carlos comes across as less of a true believer and more someone who is just mouthing the phrases that are expected from him. “From pragmatism to cynicism, there’s just one more tiny step [and] of course he will walk that step pretty early, which has to do with both his personality and with the times changing,” said Assayas.
So how do the realities of terrorism, and its present-day practitioners in general, differ from Carlos and his like? “The way I see it,” said Assayas, “terrorists are foot soldiers; they are guys that higher powers use for their own ends, which are geopolitical ends. So in the 70s, you recruited these foot soldiers among believers of the Marxist faith. They were Marxist militants, international Marxist militants, and they were convinced that the Revolution was at hand. [T]hey [the handlers] did not promise them eternal life in some kind of abstract heaven. They promised … the hope that they were involved in building some kind of better society, even if they did not exactly believe that, [they] at least pretended that they did." That was something the director himself believed for a time. “I was a teenager [then], it was often my world view.”
Filming Carlos, which spans twenty-plus years in the terrorist’s life, ranged across 16 countries and dialgoue was spoken in nearly a dozen languages, was obviously a tremendous undertaking. It was made more impressively so by the fact that Assayas and company were scrupulous in getting their facts right, and didn’t indulge in any fictionalization of the details. (The filmmaker chose only to dramatize the actual events where Carlos was witnessed carrying out terrorist acts; other actions, such as the 1975 fatal Rue Marbeuf bombing of a Jewish-owned drugstore, which was likely carried out by Carlos but which no one actually saw him commit, is represented by TV news footage from that time.)
In fact, because of a legal injunction, Assayas could not even show Johannes Weinrich, one of Carlos’s German cohorts, parking the car which contained the bomb that blew up the drugstore. Because of a technicality – “The French did not send to the German judge the right documents at the right time and so on and so forth” – Weinrich was acquitted of that crime when he went to trial in Germany, a fact which constrained Assayas when it came time to shoot that scene. “I filmed the whole scene with Weinrich parking the car bomb but I was not allowed to use it because he had been acquitted. The lawyer did not allow me to show him, so when I filmed the guy who parks the car bomb in Rue Marbeuf, I only show his back, I could only use that shot.”
Assayas is perturbed that the Rue Marbeuf bombing hasn’t even gone to trial yet in the country where it actually occurred. “It’s supposed to go on trial in France next year, why is it not [yet] going on trial? The cynical answer, he said, is “because if you pull the thread, you don’t get Carlos, you get the Syrians, and the French don’t want to alienate the Syrians. They’re trying to somehow bring back the Syrians into some kind of negotiation (in the Middle East peace process).” The French government, deservedly, doesn't come across too well in Carlos; even knowing the history of that era, I was struck by how quickly and readily it, and other Western governments, gave in to most of the terrorists' demands.
|Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours|
His receptivity to so many varied kinds of movies and genres stems, he said, from his constant need to test himself as a filmmaker. “To me, there is something specifically exciting with the notion of doing something I don’t know how to do. I’ve always had this notion that for me movies have to be challenging, I have to be scared [and] and if I’m not scared before making a film, it’s boring.”
Since boring is the last word you’d ever think of when viewing any of Olivier Assayas’s films, even the relatively few that don’t work, let’s hope he continues to be scared for many years to come.