The Spectacle of Terrorism

Olivier Assayas's Carlos, a portrait of the guerrilla as a narcissistic cipher
by Richard Porton  posted September 23, 2010
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The ongoing cinematic obsession with terrorism reflects a number of deep-seated tensions within popular, as well as political, culture. Even before the advent of Hollywood cinema, American filmmakers exploited the widespread fear of political violence—often fueled by unsuppressed xenophobia—by making movies that castigate primarily foreign terrorists for sullying the American way. Glancing at summaries in turn-of-the-20th-century trade papers such a Moving Picture World confirms the early cinema’s relish for depicting foreign anarchists—to cite one prominent target—as bomb-toting fanatics. One of the most famous extant films of that era, D.W. Griffith’s The Voice of the Violin (1909), exemplifies the unsavory mixture of political paranoia and cloying sentimentality that characterized much of pop culture’s response to resurgent radicalism. Released a year after what has been called “the anarchist scare of 1908,” the film explores the plight of Herr von Schmitt, a German émigré who teaches the violin for a living but misguidedly becomes a saboteur. When Von Schmitt realizes that he has been dispatched to bomb the family of a beautiful and wealthy young woman who previously spurned his advances, he magically regrets the errors of his way and rejects class resentment by saving the day with a typically Griffithian last-minute rescue.

For Griffith and his moralistic descendants, the terrorist is always nothing more than a demented individual who, with luck, can be properly reformed. Since it’s now apparent that “terror” and “terrorism” are loaded terms indeed, the simplistic bromides of Victorian morality (which unfortunately persist in different forms in many contemporary Hollywood films) will not suffice. In assessing Matthew Carr’s excellent The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism (2006), cultural critic Mike Davis concludes that “the satanic face of Terror” is “usually the State looking at itself in a mirror.” Carr is particularly astute concerning the activities of pundits he terms “terrorologists,” Cold War propagandists whose influence reached its zenith during the Reagan and Thatcher regimes. According to terrorologists, “political violence” was “a concept that referred to violence used against governments, rather than violence directed by them, unless it was to prove that enemies of the West were engaging in ‘state-sponsored terrorism.’”

In the 1970s, a handful of filmmakers began to chronicle the intersection of freelance terrorism and the machinations of the State. Claude Chabrol’s Nada (1974), based on Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Série Noire novel, explored what Situationists such as Gianfranco Sanguinetti termed “the spectacle of terrorism.” Citing examples like 1969’s notorious Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan, which many dispassionate individuals now believe to be the work of Italian intelligence instead of the anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, Sanguinetti charted the collusion of the government with right-wing provocateurs. (Pinelli supposedly “leapt” to his death during a routine police investigation; the incident inspired Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist.) Nada gives ample screen time to a cynical Spanish anarchist named Diaz (Fabio Testi), whose musings are uncannily reminiscent of aspects of the Situationist analysis: “The State hates terrorism, but prefers it to revolution. When each man realizes the desire to destroy the State, he tries to destroy all….Thus, the assassin becomes a type consumable by society….Terrorism is a trap for revolutionaries.” In a similar vein, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979) portrayed a group of hapless German terrorists who found themselves manipulated by wily government operatives.

During a post-9/11 era when many of the clichés concerning dastardly Arab terrorists that flourished 20 years ago are being recycled, Olivier Assayas’s three-part television drama Carlos revamps the image of the cinematic terrorist in a rigorous and innovative fashion. (It premiered last May in Cannes, screens next week at the New York Film Festival, and opens theatrically in the U.S. next month.) While superficially a biopic devoted to the escapades of the most feared and notorious terrorist of the 1970s, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos—labeled “the Jackal” by journalists, although imdb notes correctly that this nickname is not mentioned once in the film’s entire five-and-a-half-hour running time—Assayas’s epic thriller is a subtle piece of political analysis that shrewdly appropriates genre conventions. A director who both acknowledges Guy Debord as his primary intellectual influence and displays affection for quirky twists on Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema in films like Boarding Gate (2007), Assayas is aiming his critique at both the mass audience and the cognoscenti.

Although Assayas clearly finds the oily Carlos (Edgar Ramírez) a repellent figure, the trilogy (made for television with the help of Canal Plus—a standard, feature-length version was recently released in French cinemas; IFC is releasing both versions in the U.S.) treats the Venezuelan-born playboy terrorist as the product of a late ’60s-early ’70s milieu indebted to the influence of the New Left and a romantic, thirdworldist ideology. The son of a wealthy Marxist, he, like many bohemian dilettantes, donned a beret and modeled his appearance and attitudes on Che Guevara. If Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008), compared by J. Hoberman to Rossellini's history films, resembles a sober treatise on guerrilla warfare, Carlos often verges on black comedy—particularly since the protagonist proves to be more of an ineffectual bungler than the brilliant mastermind enshrined in journalistic folklore.

In an early scene, he responds to accusations that he’s a bourgeois poseur by insisting on the label of “revolutionary internationalist.” But like so many of Carlos’s assertions, this claim is little more than empty sloganeering. Despite priding himself on his service to the Palestinian cause, when Carlos is finally told by Wadie Haddad of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that he no longer needs his services as a freelance mercenary, the smug revolutionary is dismissed as a “star.” Even though his given name was a nod to Lenin, Lenin himself would certainly have deemed him an “infantile leftist.” When he shoots himself out of a bind in Paris by killing several members of the DST (French internal security), he comes off more as an off-the-cuff version of Clyde Barrow than as a soured idealist.

Part of the ingenuity of Assayas’s concept is his emphasis on Carlos’s sexual charisma, a factor that is impossible to overlook when dealing with many self-styled urban guerrillas, whether Latin American bon viveurs (Assayas never lets us forget that Carlos was something of an epicurean with a taste for good food), the Baader-Meinhof gang, or the American-bred members of the Weather Underground. Ramírez’s masterful performance helps immeasurably in conveying Carlos’s skill with women, as well as his macho posturing. Whether preening naked in private or titillating his Latin American girlfriend by convincing her to suck on a grenade clip (“Weapons are an extension of my body,” he boldly exclaims) as part of their foreplay, he is as much mack daddy as humble soldier of the revolution. His romance and eventual marriage to Magdalena Kopp, a member of Germany’s notorious Revolutionary Cells (a group known for their hijacking of an Air France jet that ended with a raid on Entebbe), exemplifies his talent for combining romantic and political manipulation. Luring Kopp away from his colleague Johannes Weinrich, he grows tired of her after she bears him a child and becomes enamored with a younger, even more fetching woman. Women prove as disposable as revolutionary causes.

Much of the second installment is devoted to one of Carlos’s most intricate operations: his seizure of OPEC headquarters in Vienna, which resulted in a protracted siege after many of the ministers and their delegates were held as hostages. A bravura set piece, the OPEC imbroglio is a tragic farce that highlights how Carlos, supposedly a radical renegade, is actually fatally compromised by his status as an assassin-for-hire. Sponsored by Saddam Hussein, he impetuously brokers a deal to release the hostages to Algerian authorities. Disappointing both his backers and Wadie Haddad, his putative mentor, the assault on a bastion of establishment privilege is little more than a vacuous coup de théâtre.

By the end of the film, it’s clear that Carlos has become a pawn of both Cold War tensions and a terrorist media spectacle that he helped to construct. A series of authoritarian countries—Syria, East Germany, Hungary, and Sudan—accept his services as a mercenary—but are forced to summarily expel him when he becomes a loose cannon and outlives his usefulness. Assayas avoids facile attempts to psychologize Carlos—his personal and moral failures are more the result of a flawed worldview than, say, a troubled childhood or overbearing parents. Nevertheless, there is something pathetic, although not poignant, about Carlos’s plight in Sudan, his final, pre-arrest port of call. Seeking out liposuction as a cure for an expanding paunch, and excoriated by the Muslim government for his dalliances with women, the once cocky operative has become a bloated shadow of his former self. According to Matthew Carr, Carlos’s “status as the iconic international terrorist of the media age owed as much to what was said and written about him as it did to his actual deeds.” Assayas’s film is, appropriately enough, as much of a profile of an image as one of the man himself—a narcissistic cipher who owed his career to the society of the spectacle.

Unnameable Books (600 Vanderbilt Ave. Brooklyn) will sponsor a screening and book party for Richard Porton's Film and the Anarchist Imagination (1999) on Friday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. Gordon Carr's 1973 documentary, The Angry Brigade: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Britain's First Urban Guerilla Group, will be screened


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MK2 Diffusion
Édgar Ramírez in Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas


Olivier Assayas  |  Carlos  |  violence  |  anarchist film  |  Cold War


Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste in New York. He is the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso) and the editor of two forthcoming anthologies, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press) and Arena 1: Cinema and Anarchism (PM Press).

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