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.