French New Wave associate Barbet Schroeder’s newest documentary, Terror’s Advocate, is an account of the controversial lawyer Jacques Vergés. A political extremist, Vergés is infamous for defending such figures as Djamila Bouried (who planted the milk café bomb portrayed in Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers) and former Nazi Klaus Barbie. Concurrently, the film chronicles the role of terrorism in modern politics, in which Vergés’ has a dubious, if unclear, connection. Schroeder isn’t so interested in biography as in mythology: murky and opaque political ideologies (not to mention affiliations) that are as disconcerting as they are compelling.
One can see a predilection for fringe characters throughout Schroeder’s career: More, with 1960s counterculture; General Idi Amin Dada, about the infamous Ugandan dictator; and Barfly, based on the writings of skid row’s poet laureate Charles Bukowski. Schroeder doesn’t necessarily align himself with his subjects, nor does he exploit or malign them. Instead, he is fascinated by the performance and construction of extreme individualism. Vergés, with his excessively phallic cigar and cool, calm, and collected persona, recalls his past with narrative assurance. However, his vagaries, oversights, and particularly the contentious areas of his life, prove to be the most fascinating and frightening aspects of the film.