This review originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.
Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is a project of epic proportions; a five and a half hour, three part, made for French television, biopic of notorious 20th century terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez (known as Carlos ‘the Jackal’), the film is an incisive portrait not only of one revolutionary, but also of the radical Left in the Cold War, and, indeed, of the methods, means, and reality of terrorism per se. Carlos, a Venezuelan-born, Moscow-educated, would-be Che, began his career as an agent for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, before the murder of two unarmed policemen at a Paris party in 1975 sealed his notoriety. A highly publicised turn in the spotlight as the bad-boy of international terrorism followed in the late 70s and early 80s, including a lead role in the famous OPEC raid in Vienna, and then a slow decline as a revolutionary for hire in Arab states like Syria and Jordan, until his arrest by French authorities in 1994 in Sudan.
Part 1 gives a propulsive account of Carlos’ early days with the PFLP, leading up to an exquisitely staged depiction of the murder of the policemen in Paris. Part 2 is largely taken up with an incredible, minute account of the Carlos’ raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna, as the initial paroxysms of violence when the terrorists storm the conference deteriorates into threats of murder that never erupt, planes idling on tarmacs as the group and its hostages are turned away by Arab nations who don’t want them, and tedious logistics of sleep, fuel, and food (the Austrian authorities send a room full of Muslim hostages ham sandwiches). The raid a failure, Carlos – who was ordered to kill a Saudi Arabian delegate, but accepted a bribe instead (for the ‘good of the revolution’) – is dismissed by the PFLP, and begins his extended exile behind the Iron Curtain and in sundry Arab states. Part 3 finds him as something like a mercenary, alternately protected and passed around by governments who aren’t sure they want him, his ideology and scruples growing increasingly thin as he himself get fatter.
Assayas’ technique throughout each part is largely to just get out of the way of the material; scenes are built faithfully from the accounts of participants, and dialogue is even lifted straight out of Stasi recordings from bugs planted in Carlos’ home. He guides us with a minimum of fuss through the proceedings, using skilful blocking, long takes, and a nimble, floating camera for an elegant, distanced perspective on each episode, and the film benefits in richness and durability from the confident simplicity of this approach. I’m increasingly fond of formally and theoretically minded directors like Assayas and Steven Soderbergh (whose scandalously underrated Che is an obvious companion piece to this film) who apply themselves to factual material in this fashion, and who don’t waste time trying massage ideological shapes out of the raw materials of history (Spielberg’s Munich, I think, suffers from this). Carlos has a lot to say about its subject, and about our recent history (and as Assayas is a child of May ’68, how could it not?), but real life and real history has enough unintended ironies that all it really takes is someone with the wit and skill to get it on screen.
The most overt bit of authorial meddling is the music: Assayas has cannily chosen to soundtrack the film with a selection of 70s and 80s Punk and New-Wave songs, and it’s a resonant complement to the heady juvenility of the revolutionary goings on. One scene has a particularly wild German terrorist, Gabriele ‘Nada’ Tiedemann, being chased down and apprehended to the ‘fuck authority’, ‘don’t need no mum and dad’ ersatz-nihilism of The Dead Boys ‘Sonic Reducer’. I was reminded, and not just because of the New Order on the soundtrack, of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, his chronicle of the haphazard rise and fall of Factory Records and the ‘madchester’ music scene, wherein the midwives of that cultural moment are shown to be just as clueless, ineffectual, and rudderless as anyone. Trying to wage a revolution must be a little like trying to be a hit band. There’s a time, and a place, and a cultural moment, and those who catch it are never any greater, more talented, more special, than those who don’t. Carlos, for all his braggadocio, and for all that he is one of the most famous terrorists of the 20th century, is something of a joke, along with all his compatriots. They literally couldn’t hit the side of a plane with a rocket launcher. Their most practically successful operations are also the most vindictive and cruel: throwing a grenade into a crowded bank; leaving a suitcase bomb on a train, both petulant reactions to the failure of more ideologically higher-minded schemes. Carlos understands that the mythologising of a movement, be it punk or Marxist, is largely built from the outside in; by the teenagers putting The Clash posters on their walls, or spouting ideology in coffee shops. Being part of the song, the band, the group, the scene, the revolution always looks better, sharper, realer, for those on the outside. On the inside it’s just a bunch of crap people, no wiser than the rest of us, and usually a good deal more myopic. Punks are never really all that punk, and revolutionaries rarely ever revolt.