Terrorism as a sub-species of warfare, civil insurrection, and as an apparatus of state oppression has existed for millennia. The slaughter of high status officials, combatants, civilians as well as the destruction of property, is a weapon which is purposefully calibrated so as to effect a result in which the level of psychological damage exceeds the attendant human and material destruction.
As a tool of liberation, there is some evidence of its success. The terror tactics utilised by the Kenyan Mau Mau, although a largely defeated group, created the circumstances in which the British will to continue to govern Kenya was sapped as was the will of the French to continue their war with the FLN of Algeria.
The assassination of Admiral Carrero Blanco in 1973 by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque separatist group, is seen as one of the pivotal moments in the dismantling of the Francoist state and the transition to the democratization of Spanish society.
The 1970s saw an upsurge in ideologically motivated domestic terrorism in many European capital cities. The West German Baader-Meinhoff group rebelled against the post-World War economic order which they interpreted as being merely a reincarnation of the Third Reich, while Italy saw the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigade trade bombings and assassinations with the sinister forces of the extreme right in the era of Strategia della tensione. In other countries, nationalism and separatist aims motivated the actions of the Irish Republican Army in Britain and E.T.A. in Spain.
Concomitant to this, from the late 1960s and on to the next decade was the development of terrorism as an international instrument for revolutionary warfare.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (P.F.L.P.) in combination with groups like the German Revolutionary Cells (G.R.C.) and the Japanese Red Army Faction traversed national borders wreaking havoc through a succession of high profile airline hijackings, kidnappings and assassinations.
In the midst of a lot of these happenings was Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, who would become better known by his media cognomen of ‘Carlos the Jackal’, the subject of a biopic by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas.
Carlos, the son of a Venezuelan Marxist lawyer, was born into upper middle class privilege and would become a superstar terrorist subject to a macabre form of celebrity interest; so effectively becoming a poster boy for 1970s terrorism in the manner that the Argentine Che Guevara had been for 1960s guerrilla movements.
Already the subject of a number of books as well as investigatory documentaries, it was perhaps something of an inevitability that he would at some point become the focus of a film given the alchemy of violence, personal mystery and international intrigue that surrounded his life.
Carlos did not fit the mould of the anonymous ‘soldier’ acting selflessly for a cause. It appeared that he was a buccaneering figure, somewhat a mercenary, and certainly a maverick.
Truth can be an elusive commodity when dealing with a character like Carlos whose role, ironically given his public notoriety, made him well-practised in the dark arts of stealth and deception.
The director does well to warn of the grey areas in the various renditions of Carlos’s life and exploits, and to inform viewers that the depictions of personal relations are fictionalised. Assayas is also prudent in only depicting the murders attributed by Carlos for which he has been formally tried and convicted.
Although made largely under the auspices of the French Canal Plus cable company, Carlos has the feel and quality of a motion picture. Assayas, shot the scenes in cinemascope format; favouring a documentary-like mode by which events unfold and avoiding the heavily stylised visual cadences of a Paolo Sorrentino.
And it works. The movie is well-paced and possesses a sense of realism that is heightened with the interspersing of original news report footage of relevant events with the scripted reconstructions of the intrigues within which Carlos was involved.
As a period piece, it successfully depicts the era: from the cars parked on the streets of Paris and London, the clothes worn, right down to the sideburns cultivated by lead actor, Edgar Ramirez.
The eclecticism of the soundtrack which has music by artists ranging from purveyors of post-punk like The Wire and Deadboys to the Malian songstress Oumou Sangare, is matched by the international scope of location shooting which included London, Paris, The Hague, Vienna, Lebanon and Yemen.
Another refreshingly multi-dimensional aspect of the movie contributing to its realism, are the languages spoken in scenes: English, Spanish, French, German and Arabic.
Ably portrayed by Ramirez, who like Carlos is of Venezuelan nationality, the anti-hero turns out to be passionate about his beliefs, but also vain and something of a cad in his use of women. Assayas's scripted dialogue refers to and offers explanations on a number of previously underexplored areas of Carlos’s career notably in regard to the reason why he decided to cast his lot with the Palestinian cause under the aegis of Wadi Haddad’s P.F.L.P. in a largely European ‘theatre of war.’
There were after all, during this period of time a plethora of violently suppressive right wing regimes across Latin America from the Tierra del Fuego to the jungles of Central America.
Would his ideological pretentions, it is worth asking, have been better served if he had honed his freedom fighting instincts by combating the dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina, Chile or fought alongside the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or hunted the Salvadorian death squads of Major D’Aubuisson?
It is left to the viewer to make something of an informed appraisal of Carlos. Did he remain true to the Marxist principles instilled in him from an early age by his father? And did his actions achieve his goals?
Regarding the latter, the film depicts several failures including the attempt to shoot down an El Al aeroplane at Orly Airport, such that Carlos’s cohorts could have been monikered as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight”.
Certainly, the acts of terrorism perpetrated, while bringing attention to the Palestinian cause arguably did little to further it. Palestine is still not liberated, and it was Yasir Arafat’s ‘olive branch in one hand and the gun in the other’ approach (along with help of the Intifada) which led to the minimal concessions to date by the Israeli side.
Much of Carlos’s legend has been demystified over the years and Assayas’s portrait is not far from what several believe he became, if he had not already been that way in the first place: a suave, cravat wearing fop who was bourgeois rather than proletarian in his image and in his preferred style of living.
His motivations were seemingly geared towards high living; consuming fine food, fine drink and fine women in almost equal measure.
Carlos, of course, is not the only idealistic revolutionary to be scrutinized and found to be wanting.
Among the secular, radical Marxist-Leninists found in the ranks of the young Palestinian militants who daubed Mosques with Lenin’s sayings and who denounced materialism from the microphones used by the muezzins, were many charlatans who while professing to confiscate luxury items such as Mercedes cars “in the name of the Proleteriat”; were actually indulging in thievery disguised as ideological conviction.
The ending of the Cold War proved to be Carlos’s undoing as indeed it did for the remnant-survivor terrorists of his era. And although not referred to in the film, the change in the world order since the fall of the Berlin Wall reveals Carlos’s opportunism and his principles.
Ever the contrarian, he now professes radical Islam to be the only valid means of unshackling nations from the grasp of capitalist subservience; once announcing himself as being an admirer of the secular Saddam Hussein who he described as “the last Arab knight” and also Osama Bin Laden, the chief symbol of Jihadist terror.
Assayas’s film faithfully chronicles the known circumstances of Carlos’s downfall, first as an outcast in the post-Cold War world, and then his capture as a middle-aged, paunchy, inactive figure largely insignificant to a world which had once revelled in his infamy.
It was always going to be too much to live up to the legend that was Carlos.
Adeyinka Makinde (2010)