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Sex, bombs and politics
From biopic to historical re-enactment drama, the line between feature and documentary can be razor thin (My Winnipeg). Some dramas would have been better off as docs (The Social Network). At stake is how to recount past events in all their depth when footage is rare and witnesses dead or averse to talking. In German TV docudramas, boring academics or historical witnesses blabber to the camera or else events are expensively re-enacted – both often to tedious or embarrassing result.
Now we have French director Oliver Assayas’ [check out our interview with Assayas here] attempt at scripting the eventful life of Venezuela-born globe-trotting Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal – the first international terrorist star – while at the same time encrypting world politics during the Jackal’s 25-year rise and fall. The film goes on for five-and-a-half hours, spans three continents, speaks countless languages (as Carlos himself did) and casts a great actor (Édgar Ramírez). The result is everything you would want from an intelligent political biopic: not only is it the best-researched bio of Carlos ever presented on print or film to date, but a fascinating thriller which keeps you on the edge of your seat all 330 minutes.
Édgar Ramírez is so good in the title role that you feel you’ve never been so close to a terrorist. Yet one of the great strengths of the movie is how it avoids the pitfall of futile psychological extrapolation. Carlos was a man of “many masks” (see interview to the left). Instead of trying to unravel the ‘real’ Carlos, Assayas relies on a chronological portrayal of the Jackal’s eventful life to tell the story.
This is a film, like Syriana, about the globalised, hidden network of geopolitics – when states support terrorism through a complex network of pragmatic subterranean coalitions to support their diplomatic claims. Spanning two decades – from 1973 to 1994, the year Carlos was finally caught – it admirably shows the complex interconnection between the Eastern Bloc and Middle Eastern interests in their common fight against ‘the capitalist-Zionist’ alliance; not to mention the Machiavellian opportunism of rogue states like Gaddafi’s Libya or Saddam’s Iraq in their megalomaniac bid to dominate regional politics.
In this shady world, alliances are tied and undone according to a simple motto: the enemies of my enemies are my friends and vice versa. Thanks to Carlos, many a bomb or weapon used by terrorists in Western Europe travelled from Syria or Libya via the welcoming cellars of some communist country’s embassy. Hungary sheltered terrorists trained in Jordan or Yemen and East Germany’s Department 22, officially a unit to fight terrorism, actually did the opposite. Ironically, much of the prosecution’s evidence against Carlos came from declassified Stasi documents!
The film also shows the other, lesser-known face of German terrorism besides the RAF. Not only was Carlos’ first wife, Magdalena Kopp, a German terrorist, but so was his right-hand man, Johannes Weinrich (founder of the RZ, the Revolutionary Cells), who also worked with the Stasi. Ambiguous motives are at play within the title character himself: a self-proclaimed Marxist with a rather infantile belief in the credo. He wages merciless war in the name of the oppressed, but doesn’t hesitate to kill for more petit bourgeois reasons like blowing up trains to get the French to release his wife from prison.
The line between private pettiness, megalomaniac ardour and ideological belief is fine and often confused. Meanwhile, America is refreshingly absent from the game. Back then, if you wanted to influence Middle Eastern politics, it was in Europe – in France and Germany in particular – that you would detonate your bombs. In this context, Assayas succeeds to portray the many ambiguities of both a bygone era, and a finished man (Carlos, 61 last month and serving a life-long jail sentence in France, complained about the film to general disinterest): Carlos, the star terrorist, a larger-than-life character who was not the powerful actor he thought he was but a puppet instrumentalised by greater forces and later ditched like an old Kleenex in the post-Wall political era.
French director Olivier Assayas on his 330 minute (140m for the ‘short’ version) part investigative-saga, part bio-epic on the breathless career of one of the world’s most famous terrorists, Venezuela-born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal (nicknamed by The Guardian for allegedly owning a copy of Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal), a man of many names, masks and (evil) deeds. [Check out our review and the trailer for Carlos below.]
What is your first personal memory of Carlos?
It’s the headline of Libération following the shoot-out on the Rue Toullier in Paris. That’s the first time anyone had heard of Carlos. It was very confusing – two policemen got killed, one badly wounded, plus another guy who was presented as a police-informer. It all happened in the centre of the quartier latin, the neighbourhood I would walk through everyday. Something really brutal which was obviously connected one way or the other with [the] leftist ambience of those times, which I was somehow part of, you know – in my generation you had to be involved in politics in one way or another. But it was absolutely mysterious, and you had no idea of who this Carlos-character was.
That’s basically when the name Carlos surfaced?
Yes, because it’s the name of the fake passport that the French cops had. That was all the information they had at that point. All of a sudden you had a headline calling him Carlos. He had never called himself Carlos; his code-name was Johnny at that time.
Carlos was a pretty atypical terrorist at that time...
Absolutely. He was very unique in the context of those times. Leftism was very puritan. The issue of physicality was repressed – the French leftists and most of the Western leftists saw themselves as monks. And all of a sudden you have this Latin-American man with that macho physicality and who, unlike Western European leftists, was already involved in the armed struggle. He was 19, he was there with a rifle with the Palestinians in the hills of Jordan – he had this prestige associated to him. He would wear suits from the best English tailors; he loved the good restaurants, best hotels. In England, they called him the ‘Cocktail Lounge Terrorist’ ... He was like from another planet. And of course that’s why I chose Édgar Ramírez. When you compare him with European or Lebanese actors or whatever, he’s a Hollywood guy. Carlos was a little bit like a Hollywood actor.
Was the glamour part his appeal to you as a character?
I was more interested in the diversity. Carlos is a different character at different ages. He’s a man of many masks. When he has to lead the Vienna operation [hostage taking from the headquarters of OPEC in 1975], suddenly he’s not the ‘Cocktail Lounge Terrorist’ anymore. He wants to look like Che Guevara – he grows his hair and some beard, puts on a beret and a leather-jacket. He never dressed like that or looked like that before ... it’s another mask.
Carlos studied the doctrine in Moscow and is a self-proclaimed Marxist. Do you believe that?
In a sense you could ask that question to anyone who had been a radical militant in the 1970s and ended up working for an advertising agency or something ... The beliefs might not have changed, but of course life, pragmatism has changed him. That’s the story of a whole generation. Maybe from his jail Carlos still thinks he’s a Marxist, maybe he still has the same convictions that he had as a young man, but obviously his actions have been extremely different. He has become a mercenary.
How much do you think Carlos mastered his own fate? You get the impression he gets caught up by broader politics.
Exactly. I think there are a couple of major turning points, like the Rue Toullier shoot-out. It’s like a freak accident – everything that could go wrong goes wrong – he was drunk, the cops were drunk... and from the moment he killed those French cops, he’s not just a political militant anymore. He is a criminal who’s on the most-wanted list in the whole of Western Europe. So somehow he has to run with no hope of coming back.
Another point of no return is when he decides to quit the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine]. From then on he’s out of the Palestinian cause which defined his actions from the start. There’s no way of going back to Latin America; there’s no way of going back to Europe. He’s stranded. So he’s completely dependant on who’s going to hire him.
He becomes an entrepreneur in terrorism, sub-contracting terror-operations, buying and selling weapons and so on. It’s using the little space he has left. Once the Iron Curtain falls in ‘89, he’s finished. He’s useless. He has no historical, political things whatsoever. He’s just a man on the run, and that’s it.
Your film is incredibly well-documented. You even had a journalist investigate. Is that ‘investigative cinema’?
Yes, this film is much better documented than any biography of Carlos so far ... it puts together elements that were not available to journalists or historians until recently. The best biography by John Follain is already 15 years old. Carlos hadn’t even been arrested when he wrote it, so ... it’s now very outdated. For instance he had no access to the Stasi files; he had no access to the Hungarian files which provided a lot of information for the film.
What can we get from the shorter version you can’t from the longer one, and vice versa?
The shorter version is more documentary-like. It’s kind of condensed on what is absolutely factual and established – the events leading to Rue Toullier, the OPEC-operation and the arrest of Carlos in Sudan. There are very few narrative elements and fictionalisation.