CARLOS IS a lightly fictionalized, pulsating biopic about the infamous Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known to the world as Carlos the Jackal, who for more than two decades played a leading role in bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings in Europe and the Middle East. Skillfully directed and written by Olivier Assayas, Carlos displays little stylistic virtuosity, except for fades in mid-scene. In this film, the vital rhythm of the narrative itself is the dominant formal motif.
Assayas, who is not primarily a political director, has made a wide variety of films, including the techno-thriller Demonlove; a meditation on the state of the French film industry, Irma Vep; and Summer Hours, a muted, subtle exploration of family dynamics in a France where loyalty to rooted traditions has begun to dissolve. Assayas clearly likes working in different cinematic forms. In Carlos he has made a thoroughly detailed political epic, covering the period between Ilich joining the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1970 and his being captured in the Sudan in 1994 and given a life sentence in a French prison. The film carefully reconstructs a number of his exploits. The centerpiece is a daring raid on the 1975 OPEC conference in Vienna, where Carlos, wearing a Che Guevara costume, and his group take the oil ministers hostage—and then have difficulty completing the mission. In his years as a terrorist, Carlos thankfully failed almost as often as he succeeded. Even in the successes, Assayas shows the viewer, there were moments of almost comic blundering, like when Carlos misses the arrival of his German comrades at a planned action because of a line in the men’s room.
Operating against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the clash between different Arab countries, and the birth of Islamic extremism, Carlos was a secular, non-suicidal precursor of modern-day terrorism. He was also financially backed at different times by different sources, largely in the Soviet bloc and its Middle Eastern allies in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Assayas feels that we can view Carlos’s actions, if we reflect on the “big picture,” as an illustration of “how terrorism is interconnected with geopolitics.” Indeed, the film shifts from country to country, including Lebanon, Syria, East Germany, and Hungary, among others. Intelligence agencies in all these countries dispense funds to Carlos to commit terrorist actions in other nations. It’s stunning to see KGB chief and future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov directly ordering the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Carlos and his cohorts may commit the mayhem, but those who fund him are even more culpable. Almost nobody who appears in the film has clean hands. When “justice” is even given mention, we know it’s just a rhetorical gesture to cover murder and the machinations of power politics. When the Cold War ends abruptly in 1989, Carlos and his pals watch their world crash around them. Allies in the Arab states who once used their bloody services now refuse them safety. They have become superfluous—no more than hated and hunted terrorists.
The film depicts the manipulations of various intelligence agencies and governments, but its focal point remains Carlos. Assayas makes no explicit judgments on the nature of Carlos’s political beliefs and actions, but he’s clearly critical of him. The director stands at a remove, watching Édgar Ramírez seamlessly inhabit the role of this sometime revolutionary idealist and full-time poseur, this murderous narcissist (he poses nude in front of a mirror in one scene), this mercenary and hedonist, this caring father and crude womanizer. Though Carlos may be aware of the image he projects to the world, he is not a man given to self-analysis or introspection. With Ramírez’s skilled performance, Assayas’s film needs little exposition to provide a richly layered portrait of Carlos, and it never tries to offer the final word.
At the film’s opening, a good-looking, relatively lean, extremely cool, and confident Carlos speaks about being much more committed to action than words. He commits acts of terror and kills people without guilt or hesitation. And though he indulges reflexively in anti-imperialist and Marxist rhetoric—he was born into a Marxist family—he’s more interested in guns than in revolutionary ideology. More than just weapons, guns are to Carlos a symbol of sexual potency and a tool of seduction. He seems more like a self-confident hit-man who gets off on violence than a revolutionary. One of the German radicals allied with Carlos, the working-class, anti-capitalist revolutionary Hans-Joachim Klein (Christopher Bach), begins to view Carlos as an executioner without politics. Repelled by, among other things, the terrorists’ anti-Semitism, Klein renounces terror as a political weapon and ultimately flees the group.
In fact, Carlos is committed to nothing more profoundly than being in control and asserting his own indispensability—a completely self-centered version of revolutionary discipline. His flamboyant egoism always takes primacy over his loyalty to comrades and lovers. Carlos’s relationships with women, however, are truly erotic and built on mutual attraction and some feeling (though never fidelity). Carlos womanizes with hookers as well as female revolutionaries. Many beautiful women love and harbor him (at the risk of their lives), but the only relationship the film develops is the one with Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstatten), his girlfriend and eventual wife. Magdalena is an intelligent, generally unhappy German feminist-cum-terrorist, an expert forger of passports who craves a more revolutionary form of action but totally fumbles her one terrorist assignment. When she has a child with Carlos, both the baby and the spouse become responsibilities Carlos cannot afford to bear. But his expression of anguish at having to separate from his daughter is one of his few sympathetic moments.
Carlos is an extreme example of the macho, terrorist Left of the Cold War half-century, whose commitment to political violence often had sexual, almost orgasmic overtones. But like Bin Laden and Zawahiri, whose ideological asceticism stands in stark contrast, Assayas’s Carlos always excuses his violent actions as the cost of war. He, like his contemporary terrorist counterparts in the Islamic world, claims to be a soldier for a just cause. But the death and terror they caused and continue to sow predominantly affects noncombatants; to justify it as a cost of war is murderously facile.
The end of the Cold War led quickly to the capture of the by-then paunchy, weary, and ineffectual Carlos the Jackal. (He had since converted to Islam and heaped praise on Bin Laden.) Unfortunately, terror has become commonplace in the world that followed his imprisonment. It doesn’t take an international “revolutionary” like Carlos to send suicidal believers to the slaughter of thousands of innocents and imagined martyrdom.
Leonard Quart is in the process of co-authoring a fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 and is a contributing editor of Cineaste. William Kornblum, a member of the Dissent editorial board, is a professor in the Doctoral Sociology Program, The Graduate Center, CUNY.
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