Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I went to the Roxie to see the epoch (pun intended) film Carlos. Originally a French/German television mini-series, Carlos was screened back-to-back-to-back for a total of 5 hours, 30 minutes or 5 hours, 50 minutes after the two intermissions were taken into account.

Carlos starring Édgar Ramírez; directed by Olivier Assayas; French, Spanish, German, Arabic, English and other languages with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website

Édgar Ramírez in Carlos

The film was quite riveting for its entire screening. My attention never flagged and I have been known to doze off during slow parts of some films. The film is divided into three parts which seem to be The Rise of Carlos, The Legend of Carlos and The Fall of Carlos.

For me, the film was more of a who's who of 1970s terrorist groups and government security forces. Carlos interacted with Palestinian liberation groups, the Japanese Red Army, the German Red Army Faction, Saddam Hussein's government, East German Stasi, Soviet KGB, Syrian Intelligence, Sudanese warlords, etc. The film dutifully catalogs Carlos' dealings with these various groups. I was amazed at how many languages Carlos spoke.

What insights did I gain into Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the man who became Carlos the Jackal? Not too much. He was smart (but not quite as smart as he thought he was) and ambitious; he was charismatic; he espoused rabid anti-capitalism; he enjoyed fellatio; he was not big on monogamy. More than anything, he was opportunistic. He didn't mind killing to further his cause (and himself) and he didn't mind sparing lives to further his cause (and himself). This self-interest (disguised as pragmatism) did not make him popular with the Arabs whose hatred of the Israelis and each other demanded murder and self-sacrifice.

A person with a passing knowledge and interest in history will be amazed as Carlos seems to be the Zelig of the radical movement of the 1970s. He kidnapped OPEC oil ministers. If not for his lack of resolve, he may have led the Arab terrorist who hijacked the hostages made famous by Operation Entebbe. He was part of the Black September battles. He blew up a bullet train in France in the 1980s. The list goes on and on...like the film.

Although I remained alert and interested during the film, I wondered if a skilled film editor would have improved the experience. Indeed, an abridged version of the film exists and is currently available. I may try to see that version to compare.

Even more curious is that this is the third film I've seen in approximately a year covering the terrorist cells of the 1970s. I saw Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army (2007) last November and The Baader Meinhof Complex in September 2009. The radicalism of the 1970s must be très chic again after having fallen out of favor for the past 25 years.

Whereas United Red Army was brutal and unflinching in its depiction of the radicals and The Baader Meinhof Complex portrayed them as cool and decadent, Carlos tried to be more detached about its subject. Carlos is just shown to be who he is and although there is plenty to disdain about the man, he tried to live by a code of honor. At least at the beginning; later in his life, he became little more than a mercenary and started to believe his own legend.

The film is silent as to the origins of Carlos' career choice. He starts off the film as a car bomber and assassin. It would have been interesting to know what set him on that path but its probably just as well. The filmmakers would have had to film some tired and contrived scene where Carlos as a boy sees some horrible injustice perpetrated and it lights the fire in his belly. Perhaps the origins of the real Carlos are shrouded in mystery. Regardless, I think the film was better for accepting his casual cruelty and criminal sociopathy as a given or a starting point. Carlos is absolutely Shakespearean in the tragic arc of its hero and the Bard rarely bothered with backstory.

Édgar Ramírez as Carlos deserves any awards he receives for his performance. I found two actresses to be outstanding in their supporting roles. Nora von Waldstätten as Magdalena Kopp, Carlos' long-suffering wife, shows the inner conflict she has. Unabashedly attracted to Carlos, I wonder if it was the man or the legend who she first became smitten with. Julie Hummer played Nada, an angry young woman who was too wild for Carlos to work with. She burns up the screen with her savage performance as the most violent of the terrorists in the film.

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