Paths of glory
Olivier Assayas’ ‘Carlos’ and terrorists in film
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Every road leads to a reckoning. In Olivier Assayas’ movie Carlos, the Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez – AKA Carlos the Jackal – meets his reckoning not when he is finally kidnapped in Khartoum in 1994 and taken back to France to be imprisoned for killing police officers but when he is standing in front of a class of puzzled Sudanese soldiers teaching them guerrilla tactics by reading from TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Carlos is an embarrassment, a bloated bore whose time on the world stage is over, and the uncomprehending faces of his students underline his reduced state. A clever, ironic cinematic moment, given that Carlos – ‘Ilich’ because his father was a Leninist – wasn’t known for wisdom but rather a rampaging ego.
The scene can be paired with one earlier in the film: Carlos admires his naked body in a mirror, cupping his genitals – ‘junk’ in popular parlance, and in the case of this fellow, apt – and then walks to a window and bends his knees, pointing his junk at the world. We see Carlos from the back in this last shot, the gesture muffled and all the better for the obvious going unstated. Anyone who supported or participated in the international armed movement that arose from the starkly polarising Vietnam War and the unending and ineffably tragic plight of the Palestinians, to begin a long inflammatory list, will know exactly whom we are dealing with here: that suspect species, the male revolutionary whose causes are just but whose motivations are murky.
The road to Carlos’ reckoning is a long one, movie-wise: five-and-a-half hours. Although many critics have found Carlos to be exciting for its action and Gallic sensibility – indeed the film won a Golden Globe in January – my reaction was the opposite, reminded instead of Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), which featured one of his Factory pals snoozing for over five hours. The problem is that Olivier Assayas directed the movie as if he were filming a life even though it’s a fictional portrayal and, as we all do, Carlos does the same things over and over. In his case, he takes hostages, plants bombs, fondles weapons, fucks, drinks, smokes, listens to zambas and pisses people off, repeatedly. Zilch character development: he begins a punk, ends a punk. With age, he puts on weight; hardly a compelling story arc. Captured: a yawn. Warhol thought of Sleep and his other epic, Empire (1964), where the Empire State Building stays in the frame for eight hours, as anti-movies. The point was their unwatchability. Life is not art.
The actor Édgar Ramírez, handsome in a doughy sort of way and dressed in the requisite beret and black leather jacket (Pierre Cardin), imbues Carlos with a curious preening flat-eyed impassivity, signifying if not emotions then the terrorist’s idea of himself with clichéd affectations, such as pushing his sunglasses down his nose to peer over them at journalists and then adjusting them upwards. He relishes his celebrity, telling the OPEC ministers that he and his commando team take hostage in Vienna in 1975, “I am Carlos. You may have heard of me.” Even though Assayas is aware that Carlos is an egotistical piece of work, he never goes for the jugular, never plumbs the depths of the man’s mercenary despicability, and ends up, by default, romanticising him.
Carlos carried out the OPEC “mission” for Wadie Haddad, the head of the militant arm of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the acknowledged godfather of Islamic terrorism, with the express purpose of assassinating two senior ministers from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Carlos demands a plane to fly his hostages to Algeria and, once there, instead of following orders, arranges a $20 million ransom from the Saudis. Haddad later fires him for disobedience. Carlos pleads with him, swearing fealty and arguing that he has done a great deal for the PFLP cause, but Haddad, who was a doctor in refugee camps – shades of Che Guevara – before moving to the dark side, tells him, “You have done a great deal for your own cause.”
When Carlos returns to the plane after negotiating the ransom, one of his team, Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann or ‘Nada’, played by Julia Hummer, launches herself at him, hissing and spitting her furious disagreement: “We are revolutionaries, not bandits!” The scene causes the movie to jolt awake for a minute or two, and Assayas captures the essence of the time. The zeitgeist, if you will. Small, fanatical, rabid with rage at injustice, Nada can outsneer, outswagger and outshoot Carlos. She has already served time for wounding a policeman and, without compunction, kills two people at the OPEC headquarters. If she could have, on hearing of Carlos’ deal with the Saudis, she would’ve initiated a bloodbath, preferable to the ‘shame’ of accepting money. Kröcher-Tiedemann was never prosecuted for the OPEC killings because witnesses were intimidated and wouldn’t come forward. I believe it. From then on, Carlos hated not only western imperialists but also German feminists.
Nada brought back memories of my own glow-in-the-dark intensity. I’m surely not the only Australian of my age who, had I lived in the US – ‘Amerika’, as we spelled it – would have joined the Weather Underground in a heartbeat; if in Germany, the Red Army Faction (RAF); or Italy, the Red Brigades. There but for the grace of geography go I. As it is, I emerged from those endless lofty discussions of revolution with a keen nose for bullshit and an allergy to rhetoric. But I’ve also remained deeply drawn to the subject: Why did we argue and act as we did? We didn’t support violence implicitly or advocate it explicitly for kicks, for the heck of it. We weren’t Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) who, when asked what he is rebelling against, says, “Whaddya got?” We had our reasons. All the same, what were we freaking thinking?
We were the product of an era when trouble was stirred with short and long spoons by the CIA, FBI, US State Department, Stasi, KGB, Mossad and myriad other state security apparatus. They tossed chum into already disturbed waters and the student protest movement ravened, only to be repressed, often brutally, viciously, with the result that some retaliated in kind by picking up weapons and constructing bombs. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but there you have it. Mixed in with the students, however, were the Carloses of the world, opportunists rather than idealists. Crooks and chancers who could quote Marx. Jackals.
What’s missing from most of the movies that dramatise the international armed struggle is an exploration of motive. And to understand motivation, you need context. Assayas makes a stab at both at the beginning of his movie when Carlos and a girlfriend – identified only as ‘Amie de Carlos’ in the credits (Juana Acosta), and the man had heaps of amies, girls being attracted to bad boys – dine in a posh London restaurant. She asks him why he didn’t picket against Pinochet’s coup, initiating a discussion about protest methods.
“Demonstrations bore me shitless,” says Carlos, “and serve no purpose. They never change anything.”
She answers, “We need to show the Chilean people we support them.”
“The Chilean generals and the CIA don’t care,” he retorts. “You do nothing. You talk politics in London cafes.” He invites her to join his new group. “I am advocating an internationalist struggle, using revolutionaries the world over.” He assures her that “we are not nihilists. We are out to do good.”
“Ilich, fighting capitalism with guerrilla means is romantic. Doomed to failure.”
“Words get us nowhere. The fight I propose will lead us to glory.”
His amie becomes scornful. “Glory? That’s what you want? To be admired? That’s what drives you? Bourgeois arrogance hidden behind revolutionary rhetoric. Just another selfish, two-bit petit bourgeois!”
“I am talking about true glory. Not what the Zionist media drones on about but the pleasure of doing one’s duty in silence. Behind every bullet we fire will be an idea. Because we act in harmony with our conscience. You say I am arrogant? I guess I am. For defending the innocent.”
He then informs her that he is no longer Ilich; he is adopting the nom de guerre of Carlos, in honour of Carlos Andrés Pérez, the Venezuelan president who nationalised the oil and mining industries in the 1970s. The media would add the jackal part later, reputedly when a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal was found in his luggage. The conceit of the scene is that their rat-a-tat chatter about the pros and cons of insurgency – The revolution has come! / Off the pig! / Time to pick up a gun – is interrupted by waiters serving food, pouring wine, whisking away plates.
Contrived, yes, but conversations more or less like this one took place, with genuine if naive conviction. However, it takes a gifted actor to inject believable emotion into lines such as “Behind every bullet we fire will be an idea,” and cupid-bow-lipped Édgar Ramírez doesn’t quite rise to the task. The same goes for other slogans of the time, such as “The only good pig is a dead pig,” which gets an awkward airing in Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us (2010), a movie about the legacy of the Black Panthers. Or Che Guevara’s oft-quoted line, “A true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love,” which Benicio del Toro delivers with eye-crossing solemnity in Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008). When the inevitable movie is made about Julian Assange, whoever plays him – Tilda Swinton? – will have a hard time with his declarations: “I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards.”
Ilich Ramírez Sánchez’s activities are given context in Barbet Schroeder’s lacerating 2007 documentary Terror’s Advocate about Jacques Vergès, a lawyer who started out with a conscience and has ended swollen with smugness, warty with vanity, one of the more repulsive creatures on the planet. His story arc is the stuff of true drama. Vergès had proudly enlisted under de Gaulle but was radicalised when thousands of Algerians – the numbers vary from 6000 to 40,000 – were massacred by French soldiers in the city of Sétif on Victory in Europe Day in 1945. He became vehemently anti-imperialist, cosying up to dictators, despots and terrorists and deluding himself that he befriended and defended them in the name of human rights. His client list includes Carlos and members of the RAF. “Soldiers of a noble cause … I can’t hide the sympathy and esteem I feel for them,” declares Vergès. He came to particularly ugly prominence when he represented Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, insisting that all he wanted was the French government to acknowledge its own war crimes but also crowing about the 40-odd lawyers lined up against him: “That means each one is worth a fortieth of me.”
More damning than Vergès’ attraction to controversy is Schroeder’s revelation that the lawyer was funded over the years, as were Wadie Haddad and Carlos, by François Genoud, a real-life Lucifer: a Nazi whose wealth came from royalties derived from publishing Joseph Goebbels’ diaries. (Nazi hunters allege that he also had access to Third Reich assets hidden in Swiss banks.) As one commentator says, Genoud was “everywhere and nowhere”, especially in the Middle East. As for Carlos’ motivation, consider the opinion of Hans-Joachim Klein, another of the OPEC commandos, whom Schroeder’s documentary features and who publicly renounced political violence by sending his pistol to Der Spiegel in 1977. “Carlos was not normal,” the penitent terrorist says bluntly to the camera. “He was a psychopath.”
Biopics often fudge facts and shy away from political and personal complexity, but omitting Genoud from Carlos, who was critical to the success of Carlos’ missions, is more than a fudge; it contributes to turning Carlos into a romantic rascal, instead of showing him for what he was: a stone killer. In the New York Times, the critic Manohla Dargis wrote that placing Genoud in the story alongside Carlos – a Nazi and a self-declared Marxist joined at the hip by their anti-Zionism – might have “sent the movie off the rails”. But we are grown-ups; we understand that history is knotty. And those knots are more engrossing and enlightening than sex and shoot-outs.
Steven Soderbergh’s Che is another example of a director dramatising the international armed struggle and leaving out the tantalising, paradoxical parts. Instead, for four-and-a-half hours, he gives us a dour Ernesto Guevara slogging through humid sugarcane fields and foul jungle, along the way teaching peasant soldiers to read and curing children of ghastly eye infections. Some excitement is thrown in when Santa Clara is taken in the Cuban Revolution in 1958, a turning point in the insurrection that had Cuba’s president, Fulgencio Batista, saying hasta la vista and hopping on a plane. But even Soderbergh’s Santa Clara action scenes are head-scratchers because they could have been cut from a Lee Marvin Western.
Again, documentaries fill the gap, in this case Che Guevara: Where You’d Never Imagine Him (2004). Less than an hour long and spotty in quality, it contains footage of Guatemala City when it was strafed by planes flying across the border from Honduras at the behest of the United Fruit Company and the US State Department in 1954. The purpose: overthrow the government of Jacobo Arbenz, a democratically elected president embarking on land reform. Fresh out of medical school, Guevara tended victims of the air raids. You might say Che got his revolutionary training wheels in Guatemala City. His lesson: try reform of any kind, much less revolution, and the US will come after you.
Absent from Soderbergh’s movie is not only historical perspective but also Che’s personal life – two wives, five acknowledged children – and even his personality. After Che died, the Cuban poet Eliseo Diego wrote of him: “you were made of nothing less than fire, light, and air”. True, he was. The man sparkled. But he was many other things besides, not all of them attractive. In the credit column, he had a wicked sense of irony. Here is one of his last diary entries, written when CIA-trained Bolivian soldiers were closing in on him and his remaining cadre – a handful of people – in the benighted Bolivian jungle. He’d been betrayed by just about everyone, given less than full support by Fidel Castro. “Eleven months since we began, no complications, everything bucolic.” You have to think twice about a man who can write with that kind of self-aware gallows humour. He was 39 years old when he died, a CIA agent outside the schoolroom where he was shot. He would have appreciated the title of Eliseo Diego’s best known book: Libro de Quizás y de Quién Sabe (Book of Perhaps and of Who Knows). That man, the sardonic Che who had his doubts about Soviet-style economics, along with his disarming smile, is missing from Soderbergh’s epic.
Like Assayas, Soderbergh was praised for making a brainy movie. Two parts, one in which Che triumphs, another in which he fails. Dialectics! Well, yes: dialectics for dummies. Given what they leave out, both movies are indulgent in their length, easily qualifying as “long-assed movies”, a term invented by the website Nerve: “There are long movies, and there are really long movies. But there’s also that notorious third category: The Long-Ass Movie. You know them.”
Long-assed but also Google- or Wikipedia-enabled movies. How else to explain the lack of context? For example, why was the asthmatic Che wheezing his way through sugarcane fields? Go to Wikipedia, look up ‘Batista’. Another example, from Uli Edel’s Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008), based on the exploits of the RAF. (Don’t fret, only two-and-a-half-hours long.) A former car thief, Andreas Baader got his kicks from roaring along highways at top speed, weaving through traffic, chucking wheelies, a recklessness that led to his first imprisonment. In Edel’s movie, Moritz Bleibtreu imbues him with an anarchic delinquent carelessness and a manic gleam to the eyes, while his background is left for us to deduce.
The brains in the gang was Baader’s girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin. Like Kröcher-Tiedemann, Ensslin radiated a revolutionary purity worthy of Jeanne d’Arc, although her victims might think otherwise. Jeanne d’Arc is not a stretch, at least not for Ensslin’s father, a pastor, who said after her trial for arson – burning down a Frankfurt department store – that it was surprising for him “to see Gudrun, who was always rational, reach almost a state of euphoric self-realisation, a holy self-realisation.” Guerrillera heroica. Burning down buildings, blowing them up – a buzz.
I watched only one fictional movie that showed a radical conspirator tussling with her conscience: Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night (2003), about the 1978 kidnapping of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro (Roberto Herlitzka) by the Red Brigades. The story centres on Chiara (Maya Sansa), one of a group that holds Moro captive in a tiny room for nearly two months, where he writes letter after letter pleading with the political powers – his supposed friends and colleagues – and Pope Paul VI to release several Red Brigades prisoners and save his life. Watching Moro deal with impending death, Chiara has a change of heart and mind. She protests his execution, but the class war is invoked. Revolutionaries can’t be humanitarians! Orders are orders! The government refuses to bend to terrorismo; the group kills Moro, stuffing his bullet-riddled body in the boot of a car. The movie features a rousing version of the World War II resistenza song, ‘Fischia Il Vento’, in which a freedom fighter is victorious over a “low treasonous fascist”. Chiara’s comrades, by fighting fascism with fascism, are traducing the message of the song. The conundrum of the time.
Good Morning, Night contains archival footage, as do nearly all the movies based on the era, but the effect is to diminish the fictional performances surrounding it, not enhance them. The reality was savage and surreal in the extreme, which is perhaps why the documentaries are so much more striking and unforgettable. One in particular, Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground, watched in tandem with Errol Morris’ brilliant The Fog of War (both 2003), explains exactly what we were freaking thinking.
The pivotal event for the Weathermen was the murder of Fred Hampton, a charismatic Black Panther shot by the FBI as he slept, galvanising them to go underground and systematically blow up an astonishing number of government institutions. While many of her old Weather Underground comrades squirm over their actions, shaking their heads sorrowfully, Naomi Jaffe acknowledges that what they did was “insane”, but that it “fit into a period of revolution in the whole world”: “I didn’t want to miss it. I wanted to be part of it.” At the end of the documentary, Jaffe says she would do it again: “Only I’d like to do it better, differently, smarter.” The film-makers juxtapose her remark with footage of Operation Rolling Thunder (an air campaign conducted during the Vietnam War): bomb after bomb, spaced just so, dropped along the coast of Vietnam, leaving behind a fury of flames and mile-high billowing smoke. As the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reminds us in The Fog of War, the US “deployed” two to three times more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped on Europe during the whole of World War II.
The record of McNamara’s agonised efforts to rationalise his role is one of the great feats of documentary-making and repays repeated viewing. McNamara asks, “How much evil must we do to do good?” He can’t leave this ethical dilemma alone, worrying it, poking it, turning it over, examining it this way and that, and finally concluding, “We have to engage in evil but minimise it.” Another Weather Underground member flickers moth-like around the same question, pointing out the obvious: taking the moral high ground can make you do unconscionable things. He has the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the attacks of 11 September, 2001, on his mind, as well as his own subversive activities and the petty bickering and ugly factionalism that shattered the Left. He concludes, “The Vietnam War made us all a little crazy. That’s the only way I can explain it.” All of us a little crazy. Look up ‘COINTELPRO’ on Wikipedia. Salutary.
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara died in 1967. A year later, amongst worldwide student uprisings, Lindsay Anderson made If…., an allegory set in a British boarding school, as far from Vietnam and Bolivia as you can imagine, and yet you need go no further than this movie to experience viscerally the emotion of those decades. It’s all there, stark as could be: the oppressor and the oppressed. When the movie was made the frank exposition of schoolboy homosexuality had everyone in a tizzy, but now it’s the violent ending that overwhelms, as well as the excruciating entitled cruelty. At times, I found myself turning my head away, unable to watch. Anderson was able to plunge a needle straight into the vein of the zeitgeist: “There’s no such thing as a wrong war. Violence and revolution are the only pure acts.” The movie segues from reality to fantasy, and it could be said that’s what many of us did back then.
Carlos the Jackal lived the fantasy but he was always marginal, a revolutionary for hire, if a revolutionary at all. Carlos aside, the analysis of society’s ills by my generation was accurate, our solutions misguided and sometimes appalling. But to wring our hands in retrospect? Then as now, better to stand up and be counted, rather than succumb to futility and cynicism, a sentiment underlined by The Roots song used to close Night Catches Us:
Out on the streets, where I grew up
First thing they teach us is not to give a fuck
That type of thinking can’t get you nowhere
Someone has to care.