I first came across ‘Carlos the Jackal’ in Robert Ludlum’s most famous novel, The Bourne Identity (published in 1980) which I read in my early teens. Ludlum successfully popularized the image of a suave, almost superhuman assassin with exotic and mysterious origins. Of course, by the time the novel came out, Carlos was already the face of political terrorism which had infected Europe through the ‘70s and was the subject of a biography titled Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist published by veteran war correspondent Colin Smith in 1976.
Since then, Carlos has been featured or referenced in a number of books, movies, TV shows and documentaries.
The latest such production is the 3-part mini-series Carlos directed by French film critic turned writer-director Oliver Assayas and broadcast on Canal+ in 2010. The 3 episodes which add up to an intimidating 330 minutes, won the Golden Globe for Best Mini-series besides getting Assayas a Best Director nomination at the French Cesar Awards.
I particularly loved reading this interview with Assayas by American film critic Glenn Kenny (who was the editor of my dear departed favourite film magazine Premiere)
When I started watching Carlos, I was reminded of that other recent biopic of a Latin American revolutionary/ terrorist (depending on which side of the ideological and moral fence you belong to), Steven Soderbergh’s Che.
Of course, Assayas’ film making style is much more accessible and linear than Soderberg’s. Also, Che Guevara was considered by many to be a genuine revolutionary and freedom fighter, so it was possible for Soderbergh to portray Che’s character in a sympathetic, almost mythic tone. On the other hand, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez is a convicted criminal and terrorist and therefore Assayas has to adopt a more documentary-like storytelling style without idolizing the character.
The casting is perfect, with Venezuelan Edgar Ramirez charismatic and magnetic in the award-winning title role. In an early scene, a finely muscled Carlos stands before a mirror in his apartment in Europe, naked, admiring himself like a modern day Narcissus as sets out confidently on his reign of terror. Towards the end of the episode, we again see a naked Carlos, but this time disheveled and pot-bellied, emerging from under a mosquito net while hiding out in a dirty apartment in Yemen. It is an impressive way to book-end his first 2 years as a terrorist. As a viewer, one is struck as much by the physical transformation of Edgar Ramirez the actor as by the change of fortunes of Carlos the terrorist.
The sets and outdoor locales are meticulously reconstructed to depict Europe and the Middle East of the ‘70s and ’80s. The editing and the camera work are not flashy, nevertheless, there are fun tricks like temporal jump cuts and changes in depth of field which make the viewing experience supremely rewarding.
What strikes me when I watch this film is the sheer absurdity of the situation in the ‘70s. The Palestinian and Socialist causes were able to influence a wide range of people in the Western world (and Japan) into taking up arms and helping to murder innocents…many of these so-called revolutionaries were artists, intellectuals and ideologists, naively and amateurishly hatching their plots in cafés (plastered ironically with posters of Che) across Europe. But the lax security environment of the ‘70s allowed them to get away with murder and mayhem in spite of their ineptitude.
The scenes in episode 2 depicting the infamous terrorist attack on the OPEC conference in Vienna are truly terrifying. The sense of fear of the hostages is palpable. Carlos comes across as a bit of a megalomaniac, as interested building his personal brand name (“My name is Carlos…you may have heard of me”, he says to the hostages in the OPEC conference room), as in fighting for the cause. At the end of the OPEC hostage operation, Carlos loses the support of the Palestinians and is forced to become a free agent, no longer operating in the service of an ideology, but as a mercenary backed by the Soviet Bloc.
Episode 3 starts with Carlos setting up base in Eastern Europe and ends with his capture. As the winds of change sweep the world towards the end of the ‘80s, Carlos loses the support of his sponsors and becomes a fugitive even among his own kind. He is tossed about like a hot potato across Easter Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. He is eventually captured by the French secret service in Sudan…ignominiously carted away in his pajamas, while suffering severe pain following an operation on his testicles!
What is remarkable about Carlos the man is that he ‘achieved’ so much on such a large scale while still in his ‘20s. Although many of his operations were either bungled or failed to achieve the goal of his backers, his brazenness and force of personality helped him rise above his own shortcomings and become one of the most feared names in the world for almost two decades.
In some ways, one could say that Carlos is the typical life story of so many famous (or infamous) men, starting from the days of their belligerent youth to the peak of acclaim from their peers to their eventual neglect and decline, as the clock ticks past their sell-by date.