Olivier Assayas’s Carlos played this past Saturday at the 48th New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release the full film in both a special roadshow version and an abridged 2-hour, 45-minute version on October 15; the full version also plays October 23 and 24 at BAM‘s complete Assayas retro.
“This past August, as both Iraqi and “coalition” cadavers piled up in post-“victory” insurgency fighting, the Pentagon’s Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict office sent out an e-mail advertising a private screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 The Battle of Algiers.”
-Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice, 12/30/2003, on the occasion of Film Forum’s seminal revival of The Battle of Algiers
“You can bet there won’t be many other movies at the multiplex extolling anarchist terror.”
-J. Hoberman, The Village Voice, 3/7/2006, a lead review running as part of a three-article cover package on V for Vendetta
“Only in a member-nation of the Coalition of the Un-willing could The Terrorists be reconfigured as the heroes. Or, you know, on Pandora.”
-Henry Stewart, The L Magazine, 2/3/2010, review of the Luc Besson-produced parkour programmer District 13: Ultimatum
In the years since the Pentagon screening of Battle of Algiers, the terrorist-as-hero paradigm has become as familiar as yesterday’s headlines, as films from across the spectrum have grappled with how, and why, the Left descended from idealist insurgency into nihilistic terror in the space of a generation. Italy’s Red Brigades, Germany’s Red Army Faction and Japan’s United Red Army have all gotten domestic treatments; Regular Lovers and Terror’s Advocate were odysseys traversing the respective private and public domains of France’s post-’68 hangover; Che case-studied “the conditions necessary for revolution” and The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Paradise Now restaged analogous historical and contemporary discussions about the uses and limitations of political violence (with Hunger’s suicidal implosion perhaps a bridge between the two); New Yorkers have seen revivals of La Chinoise, Robert Kramer’s Ice and Peter Whitehead’s The Fall, and the entire Spirit of ’68 series at the Walter Reade—which ran concurrently with Weatherman Bill Ayers’ return to the network news.
And now, from France—Algeria’s old colonial master and the cradle of radical thought—comes Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, a film that, by sheer dint of running time—five and a half hours, originally aired in three parts on French TV and screening here in a roadshow version—promises something like a definitive reckoning with the recent history of revolutionary violence. It’s not, maybe because nothing could be, but Assayas’s tracing of the trajectory of the terrorist known (but not here) as Carlos the Jackal makes for an obsessive immersion. When I put Terror’s Advocate—Barbet Schroeder’s sanguine portrait of Carlos-affiliated rebel jurist turned terrorist mouthpiece Jacques Verges—on my year-end Top 10 a few years ago, I called it “The longest movie of the year, if you count the time spent on Wikipedia after.” Carlos is even longer.
It’s all here. When we meet Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (Edgar Ramirez), the son of Venezuelan Marxists, soon to be better-known as Carlos, it’s the early 70s, and he’s already left his studies in Moscow and trained with Palestinian guerillas, throwing his lot with Wadie Haddad’s (Ahmad Kaabour) Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine out of either solidarity with the struggle or a hunger for some action.
Stationed in London in Paris, safe within PFLP cells and in the beds of a string of pretty, idealistic students, Carlos talks tactics with the boys and spouts aphrodisiacal rhetoric with the girls. His early actions have a black-comic edge, the rapid professionalism of detailed talk and livewire handheld camera contrasting with the brute confusion of the execution: Carlos’s pistol jams (during a home-invasion hit on a Zionist magnate). A rocket hits the wrong plane, and a second attempt fails when the triggerman gets stuck in the bathroom line (at Paris’s Orly airport, with help from the post-Baader-Meinhof Revolutionary Cells). Carlos misses a raid on the French consulate in the Netherlands (he leaves when his Japanese team gets lost on the way). He bombs cafes and department stores to secure the release of his bumbling comrades, and shoots his way out of a low-key party when his own arrest seems imminent (the murder of those two French cops is the only crime Carlos has thus far been convicted of; he’s serving a life sentence).
Even in comparison to the early jobs, the 1975 raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, Carlos’s big moment in the spotlight and the bulk of the film’s middle chapter, feels like a slapstick routine on the mouth of the abyss. With logistical support from Iraq, jockeying for regional power in the guise of support for the Palestinian cause, Haddad charges Carlos with a military-style assault, high-profile escape and hit on several oil ministers; after a hostage negotiation (the sandwiches brought aren’t halal), Carlos, his team, the OPEC dignitaries and two increasingly sleep-deprived Austrian pilots hopscotch Africa in a DC-10 without enough fuel capacity to make it to a country that’ll allow them to kill certain hostages, until, over the objections of his neurotic German and committed Arab coconspirators, Carlos allows the Saudis to buy the Saudis off him (the movement needs the money, Carlos reasons, and he’s more valuable alive than dead).
Booted from the PFLP, while the German movement fractures over their ugly role in the anti-Semitism Entebbe action, Carlos finds patrons in the Stasi, through Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer), whose girlfriend, Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten), Carlos steals with a titillating promise of revolutionary discipline, and in kingmakers hidden deep in the autocratic Syrian government, after Mossad’s poisoning of Haddad (one one of many hyperlink-quick scenes covering more established history). Wanted for murder in France, Carlos, with Magdalena and Johannes, is set up in Romania, thanks to strings pulled deeper behind the Iron Curtain, and their actions become more mercenary as a consequence: wheeling and dealing in the market for targeted havoc, Carlos plots assassinations whose relevance to the class struggle requires lengthy, subtle justification, and plants bombs which mostly serve to agitate for the rescue of captured members of his own ad-hoc group.
Like many movies similarly structured around a glamorous outlaw’s rise and fall, Carlos seems to speed up in its second half, jumping ahead through more historical signposts (the present day fast approaching) even as our antihero grows antsier and more paranoid, smashing up his own possessions for a change during the ever-lengthier longueurs between acts of violence. When the Cold War ends, and with Islamic movements having supplanted Arab nationalists as the voice of region’s dispossessed, Carlos is shunted off, almost apologetically, to lesser and lesser state sponsors, finally drinking too much and teaching guerilla warfare (to future perpetrators of genocide?) in Sudan. A relic of a lost revolution, he’s almost a myth to the long arm and memory of the French law; when he’s at last captured, this one-time world traveler is literally rather than figuratively dragged from place to place, a dazed patient in recovering from surgery, agency and initiative long since gone.
Carlos’s myth seems, here, largely his own creation—outside the OPEC headquarters, Carlos plays to the media who’d later name him after a Fredrick Forsyth novel, shooting rounds off into the air; he argues with Haddad about the legitimacy his high profile grants the movement, though he would think that—he takes ministers aside during the OPEC raid and addresses them as equals, fishing for admiration. Early on, he’s seen naked in a full-length mirror, fluffing himself up as the TV reports on a bomb he’s just dropped, and late in the movie, when atrophy sets in, he explores liposuction. Whether all his talk of absolute commitment through action was an ideal abandoned or a self-gratifying pose is an open question, partly because either answer is so totally depressing.
These psychological speculations, and occasional exposition drops, are like little pebbles of emphasis lumped into a swift rush of process-oriented narrative—disappointingly rocky and unintegrated as individual scenes, but there’s such a torrent of incident that these scenes sink to the bottom in the remembering—Carlos’s movement through the movement hardly encompasses all the various experiences of war and terror, government and politics, lived through in parallel, tributary and intersecting lives. As Carlos accrues, you can, at little loss to your understanding of the whole, spend entire scenes fixated on individual details: the checked pants and short leather jackets; the post-punk soundtrack (as angular, repetitive numbers by Wire, New Order, A Certain Ratio, the Dead Boys, the Feelies, and the Lightning Seeds bridge sequences, the tone of Carlos is frequently one of anticipation); the bright cosmopolitan Middle Eastern hotel lobbies, continental walk-ups, Eastern Bloc-y office-tombs, and intermediary airport terminals from all over.
There’s lots of Pass Control in Carlos—at checkpoints, Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux’s camera dips down to recheck passports real and forged, as if nervous that police are waiting to swoop (they often are). Assayas’s upcoming complete BAM retrospective shows a filmmaker uniquely at home in the heady international existence of the businessman, touring band, film crew or piece of human traffic, and the try-to-keep-up multilingual Carlos is structured as a network of global cause-and-effect. Government officials or heads of cells hold conversations in one capital, and their decisions play out—as a bombing, a hijacking, an assassination; an arrest, a seized arms shipment—in another capital another, often in consecutive scenes bridged without an establishing shot. “Paris, Amsterdam, Baghdad, Beirut, Budapest and East Berlin, Aden and Khartoum,” goes one critic’s itinerary—he omits London, Damascus, Tripoli, Bucharest, The Hague, and more, but you get the idea. Carlos concerns people convinced that what they do has the power to change the world; as the film expands outwards with its ever-growing cast of foot soldiers, true believers, strategists, agents, ministers and innocent bystanders, variously tipped off and gunned down, greasing skids and withholding support, following orders and flubbing assignments, arrested and released across Western Europe, the Eastern Bloc, the Middle East and North Africa, Assayas shows us the obscure, often unfathomably complex connections through which their actions have consequences.
Sorry for this, but Carlos could almost be called The Social Network, the way underground contacts and alliances shapeshift throughout—and the way they encompass both private and public life. Carlos and Magdalena’s domestic arrangements cramp his revolutionary style, and the fall of the Berlin Wall is juxtaposed with the birth of their daughter, and archival newsreel and TV news footage, with its concrete datelines and artifactual texture, acknowledges the historical results of secret meetings. The lookalike casting for this disclaimered but scrupulously researched fiction account is intensely detailed—Carlos and Magdalena’s lawyer Jacques Verges will look almost amusingly familiar to fans of Terror’s Advocate, as will a home-video clip Assayas restages. (A working familiarity with the semi-secret history excavated here probably deepens appreciation of the film, but I wouldn’t say you need to study flash cards before viewing.) Carlos is a sustained invocation of cultural memory.
Discussing another portrait of the zeitgeist as a young megalomaniacal nexus, Eric Hynes, in the Village Voice, described how “The Social Network doesn’t will meaning onto the material, but allows meaning to arise from accumulated circumstance.” Carlos is likewise a data mine, a vast trove of the 20th century and beyond’s most relevant political thought, in principal and action, and an embodiment of the tragedy of the Left. It’s such a fucking beast.