This week I downloaded the short version of Carlos from IFC movies on demand. I should add that is long in comparison to most films (2 hours, 45 minutes) but half the length of the original version shown at the IFC Theater. It was originally a television miniseries on Canal +, a premium cable station in France. I decided that there was just not enough there for me to sit in a movie theater for 5 ½ hours. In fact, it was a chore to sit through the short version since I detest “exemplary actions” of the sort that made Carlos infamous.
As dessert, I watched The Baader-Meinhof Complex on my computer courtesy of Netflix, another bloated effort coming in at 2 ½ hours. I now have the dubious distinction of having endured three movies about 1970s terrorism, the first being the 2007 United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun), another marathon (190 minute) semi-documentary (actors re-enact real historical events) about the group formed through the fusion of two of Japan’s most notorious terrorist organizations in the early 1970s, the Red Army Faction and the Revolutionary Left Faction. (Unfortunately, the movie is not available from Netflix but can be downloaded from bittorrent.)
Director Koji Wakamatsu made the film in an effort to humanize and possibly redeem the United Red Army (URA), an almost an impossible task. It begins by setting the context for an ultraleft development in the student left in Japan-not that different from what occurred everywhere else. Frustration over the inability of mass demonstrations, even those incorporating “exemplary” physical confrontations with the cops, to end the war led a segment of the movement to opt for Narodnik type tactics, but in the name of “Marxism-Leninism”, and Maoism more specifically.
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, such students were encouraged to use violence against their opponents on the left. Since the Red Guards were encouraged by Mao, who was ostensibly the world’s greatest revolutionist, to beat their rivals into submission, why not do it at places like the University of Tokyo?
After the URA decides to train itself in guerrilla warfare techniques, several dozen of its key members go up to a large mountainside shack where they spend their time in nearby woods and fields marching or taking target practice. In the evenings there are “self-critique” sessions in which members beat their breasts for one inadequacy or another.
When they are deemed to be inadequate self-critics by the cult leader Tsuneo Mori, who is given to exclamatory rants about the need to become “true communists”, other members take turns beating them in the face and stomach, or even stabbing them. Fourteen members of the small group died as a result of this kind of violence.
Eventually the cops found out about their location and pursued them to a ski resort near Karuizawa and laid siege to the heavily fortified lodge from February 19, 1972 to February 28, 1972. The film describes the confrontation in dramatic and convincing detail. So repugnant are the URA activists that I almost found myself cheering the cops, despite my long-standing socialist convictions.
Japan was so shocked by the behavior of the URA that the left was put on the defensive for a number of years. Although I am no expert on Japanese politics, I do have to wonder if the weakness (non-existence, almost) of the Japanese left is the price paid for the stupidity of the URA.
Carlos has the same kind of lurid fascination as United Red Army. It documents the rise of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez to the top ranks of world terrorism in the 1970s, culminating in the spectacular attack on an OPEC meeting in Vienna on December 22, 1975 and the eventual flight to Algiers with 22 hostages.
Ilich was named after Vladimir Ilich Lenin, while his two brothers were named Lenin and Vladimir. This was the bright idea of their father, a Venezuelan lawyer and CP’er. He received the nom de guerre Carlos from by Bassam Abu-Sharif, a top official in the PFLP. This was turned into “Carlos the Jackal” when cops discovered Frederick Forsyth’s spy novel Day of the Jackal at one of his hideouts. It turns out that the book belonged to the guy who had put Carlos up there.
Carlos is played by Édgar Ramírez, a Venezuelan actor with typical movie star features. I think it would have been far more realistic if he had been played by someone as unpleasantly plump as the real life Carlos but that probably would have undercut the real goal of the film which is to make Carlos “sexy” even if repellent.
As head man of the operation sponsored by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as being fiercely independent-minded in general, Carlos took it upon himself to strike a deal with the Algerians. In exchange for $20 million put up presumably by the Saudis, the hostages would be released.
When PFLP Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour) discovers that Carlos has not killed the hostages and has taken money instead, he is expelled from the movement. In the film, Haddad is a slogan-spouting cardboard figure just as you might expect. Carlos appears relatively more reasonable insofar as he is not ready to commit suicide for the movement.
Of course, it becomes almost inevitable that his career path develops in a mercenary direction given the decline of terrorism internationally in the 1980s. The last hour or so of the film depicts Carlos wandering from country to country trying to ingratiate himself with one “rogue state” or another as either a provider of goods and services or as an instructor in the fine arts of urban guerrilla warfare—or terrorism to be more accurate. In Khartoum, his last residence before being kidnapped and taken to France to stand trial, he is seen as a slatternly, overweight and decadent figure. One imagines that there is some kind of moral to this movie but I couldn’t detect it.
Olivier Assayas, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dan Franck, directed. In an interview on lead actor Edgar Ramirez’s website, Assayas tries to establish his leftist bona fides:
I lived in the 70s. I was a teenager. At that time it was hard not being involved in this great movement that wanted to transform the world. I also participated, without adhering to the Maoist ideas.
Somewhere along the line, Assayas dumped these “great movement” ideas overboard, at least when it comes to a defining issue of our day. He is asked about the BDS movement and Israel’s response to the Gaza humanitarian flotilla. His reply:
It’s terrible. Such is the simplification of the problems of the world today. Some find that there are other truths that the media. People are deceived. This boycott is ridiculous, in general, the incursion of politics, the simplification in the film. This is the same as saying that “it is political theater,” while it is more often social cinema.
Whatever else you might think about Carlos, he at least understood the justice of the Palestinian cause.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex has exactly the same approach as Carlos. The film studiously avoids any kind of obvious moralizing and prefers to allow the main characters to hoist themselves on their own petard, especially the awful Andreas Baader, a vile sexist who routinely refers to women as “bitches” and “cunts”. Played by Moritz Bleibtreu as a kind of charismatic street person in the style of Charles Manson, he says not a single intelligent thing throughout the film. Next to him, Carlos is Leon Trotsky.
Stefan Aust wrote the screenplay based on his 2008 book. Aust was actually part of Ulrike Meinhof’s social set back in the 1970s and even helped retrieve her daughters from a Palestinian orphanage after she had abandoned the kids in favor of the “cause”, an act that was not unheard of in the American Trotskyist movement. From 1994 to 2008 Aust was editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, a rancid newsweekly in the Time Magazine mold. Given this background, you can imagine that Aust was capable of supplying just the sort of lurid detail that will keep the reader or movie audience glued to their seats. The movie is one long string of bank robberies, bombings, kidnappings and murders punctuated by members of the Red Army Faction mouthing revolutionary jargon.
Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) was much more cultured and accomplished than others in the RAF. Early on in the film, we see her and her husband at a nude beach with their two daughters, a sign that they were part of the freethinking middle class. At a garden party, she is asked to read an open letter to the Shah of Iran’s wife on the occasion of their visit to Germany that will appear in her husband’s newspaper, where she is a regular contributor. It makes many excellent points and reminds us of what a loss it is to our movement when someone like that gets sidetracked into terrorism.
There are even less politics in this film than there are in Carlos. The dialog consists nearly entirely of discussions about how their next bloody adventure will be carried out, punctuated by accusations against each other for lacking revolutionary principles or courage. Baader is the worst, heaping invective on the members of the RAF on the slightest offense.
As someone who is two years younger than the late Andreas Baader, who committed suicide in Stammheim prison in 1977, and four years older than Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, now serving a life sentence in France, and who shares some of their motivations, I cannot help but reflect on how differently we interpreted our duty to humanity.
Carlos in particular appears not that far removed from the urban guerrillas of Latin America, who thought in their own misguided way that they were following in the footsteps of Che Guevara. Indeed, Carlos wore a beret to the OPEC meeting in 1977. Even Hugo Chavez was moved to say some kind words about his fellow Venezuelan as the Guardian reported last November:
Ramírez Sánchez, the son of a wealthy Venezuelan Marxist, gained notoriety in the 70s and 80s as the mastermind behind a series of bombings, killings and kidnappings. He teamed up with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and West Germany’s Red Army Faction.
French agents abducted him from his villa near Khartoum in 1994. He was trussed up in a sack and spirited back to Paris, where now, aged 60, he is serving a life sentence for the 1975 murders of two French secret agents and a Lebanese alleged informant.
“They accuse him of being a terrorist, but Carlos really was a revolutionary fighter,” Chávez said during a televised speech on Friday.
The president has been a strong critic of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, which he has termed “genocide”. Earlier this year he expelled the Israeli ambassador and broke off relations.
Without putting too much stock in Chavez’s off-the-cuff remarks, one must say that the left really has to get this “revolutionary fighter” business straightened out since it continues to be a problem. The frustration and moral outrage of a young person like Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Ilich Ramirez Sanchez forced them to substitute themselves for the masses. They hoped that bold actions would somehow changes the relationship of class forces internationally so that the Palestinians and other oppressed people might get a better deal. Unfortunately, there is little doubt that such actions helped to isolate Palestinians just as suicide bombings did in the most recent uprising.
In the final analysis, the only way that imperialism can be stopped in its tracks is by the massive intervention of the working class internationally. Mass actions such as longshoremen refusing to unload Israeli goods will have a lot more impact than any bomb set off by a commando.
This work, however, is not easy. Getting the labor movement and academia to mobilize against Israeli apartheid requires breaking down ideological habits that are rooted in the experience of WWII. Fortunately, the Israeli state is acting as a battering ram against its own long-term interests, just as happens inevitably when an ultranationalist bourgeois government thinks that it accountable to nobody.