Barbet Schroeder: "This was the most dangerous movie for me to make."

By David D'Arcy

Barbet SchroederThey say that you can judge a man by the company he keeps. If that's the case, you could conclude that, with friends and clients like Algerian terrorists, Palestinian assassins, dicatatorial mass murderers and the Nazi Klaus Barbie, the lawyer Jacques Verges is, as the jurors judging Max Bialystock in The Producers would say, incredibly guilty.

Not that Verges would dispute that conclusion. He would just say that it didn't matter.

The orotund Verges says that, and much more, in Terror's Advocate, the documentary by Barbet Schroeder that traces Verges's career as a lawyer defending Algerian anti-French bombers to his support of German terrorists in the late 1970s, to his undisputed position as the advocate for the practioners of genocide in the 1980s and beyond.

Schroeder knows monsters when he sees them. He has made films about Idi Amin and Klaus von Bulow, and the director admits that Verges's clients are even more monstrous. His film is an interview with Verges, who can talk his way into and around any subject, in a French that seems to have been refined in the best schools. Verges is a product of the best education that France could provide, and he has used it against France ever since.

In this case he couldn't be more different than the earnest Robert McNamara, the subject of Errol Morris's feature-length interview in The Fog of War. McNamara has given himself a mission - to warn anyone who will listen about the dangers of nuclear weapons. In the course of that impassioned warning, Morris gets him to detail atrocities in Japan and Vietnam in which he played a role that, McNamra assures us, were far less horrific than any version of nuclear war would be. McNamara admits with confessional ardor that if the Allies had not won World War II, he and his commander, General Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay, could have been tried for war crimes for the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the bombings of Japan. Verges would have agreed on McNamara's guilt. He just might have kept him from hanging if that trial had ever taken place.

Terror's Advocate

Intercut into Terror's Advocate is footage of the conflicts that have defined terror since the 1950s - Algeria, the Middle East, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the Red Army Faction in Europe - and reminiscences from comrades and peers, from admirers and former friends. What we don't get is commentary from omniscient experts who tell you what it all means. How could they? Verges is certainly not giving us the whole story. Verges is a mysterious man who cultivates an air of mystery in a dark office decorated as such a lair might have been one hundred years ago, with African sculpture and a serene Chinese Buddhist head, clearly an object that he cherishes, that moves in and out of the frame as the camera scrutinizes the lawyer. The fastidiously groomed Verges (son of a Vietnamese mother and a French diplomat from the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion) says he doesn't know how old he is, which seems to be a tactic to avoid telling us the truth, but he must be in his 80s, every inch the icon of inscrutability, an impression that he has been refining for six decades.

Terror's Advocate is a forum for Verges to proclaim, as he has always done, that the governments who express respect for human rights are the greatest violators. Schroeder begins the film with rare footage of the massacre of Algerians at Setif by the French in 1945, just as the Nazis were surrendering to the Allies. The reason: demonstrators were flying the Algerian flag. Estimates of the number of Algerians killed run as high as 45,000 - historians say about 6000. Verges's point (and the point made by Algerian witnesses) is clear - the governments who tried Nazis in Nuremberg have no monopoly on morality. More troubling than the fact that he's making this argument is that people believe it.

His famed trial strategy - the rupture defense (defense de rupture) - has involved denying the authority of the court to judge his client. It couldn't be more different than the approach taken by his obvious counterparts in the US like William Kunstler or Johnnie Cochran, who relied on technicalities and reasonable doubt to free their clients (remember OJ's glove), even though the broader picture tended to be framed by politics and race. Verges, in effect, pleads guilty for his clients. But he also reverses the tables and accuses the court and the government that it represents comparable crimes. And it tends to work. He claims to Schroeder that not a single one of his clients who is condemned to death has ever been executed. Given the people whom he has represented, that's quite an achievement.

Reviews out of Cannes, where the film premiered, described Verges as charismatic. I don't share that view, nor do I find him persuasive when he's arguing to minimize the horror of the Holocaust, the genocide of Pol Pot, or the massacres and mass rapes that took place in the former Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic (another criminal whom Vergews advised.)

Yet Verges's life is an irresistible itinerary. He falls in love with Djamila Bouhired, the beautiful Algerian terrorist who kills dozens of innocent Frenchmen when she bombs a café in downtown Algiers in 1957. She is tortured by the French in prison, but unrepentant, and Verges as her lawyer keeps her from going to the guillotine. She's released in 1962, and becomes the Marianne of Arab anti-colonialism. Verges then marries her, converting to Islam - no small feat for a man who loves wine and women, says the arnarchist cartoonist Sine (from the magazine Charlie Hebdo), an old friend who offers running irreverent commentary on Verges's adventures and self-promotion like Falstaff on a barstool.

In 1970, Verges disappears, and much of the film involves speculation as to where he spent the next eight years. We'll never really know, although he was a friend of Pol Pot from their university days in Paris. When he resurfaces permanently, Verges defends the new generation of German terrorists and their Palestinian allies (with whom he might have been in the 70s), and falls for another woman - Magdalena Kopp, a West German comrade of the notorious Venezuelan killer, Carlos, who goes to prison for possession of explosives. He visits her in jail with ardent resolve, but she deserts him for Carlos as soon as she gets out. So much for the notion of honor among terrorists. Yet Verges does achieve one honor for which he's understandably proud. The French Secret Service orders him to be killed - perhaps even twice, we're told. Like his clients, he somehow escapes death. It's amazing that this walking résumé is still walking.

For all his venom for France, Verges seems to be the prototype of the Frenchman - a man who knows the art de vivre and who can't fight off the coup de foudre when love strikes him. He has another weakness. Verges can't really speak English, which keeps him from cracking the huge market for English-speaking defendants accused of crimes against humanity. I wonder what he would have thought of Scott Peterson or Scooter Libby or Jack Abramoff or Larry Craig.

Schroeder would like to see his film as a portrait of vanity, and it certainly is. And vanity gets the upper hand here. Verges can't stop talking, which is the worst thing for a witness to do, even a virtuoso speaker like Verges. Ultimately, the only person whom he persuades is himself. Or could I be wrong ? Perhaps the public is the jury here, and we all know how juries can be swayed by a man who knows how to say the right things.

Terror's Advocate is not a guide to the terror of our time, even though Barbet Schroeder calls it a history of terror. These are yesterday's terrorists, no less intriguing, but either dead, or in prison, or at gatherings here and there which must be reminiscent of the waxworks in Sunset Boulevard - they are "retired" performers, after all. The terrorists whom we're told are trying to kill us today are a different group, although they do creep into the picture - as Islamist victims of torture by the old terrorists in power in Algeria. How will Verges defend that pratice? We don't know yet, although he'll probably begin by accusing the accusers of something comparable.

Verges was cheated out of a chance to defend Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders. Now he says he'll defend George W. Bush, as long as Bush pleads guilty.

I spoke to Barbet Schroeder when he was in Telluride presenting his film. He won't be in Toronto, since his schedule forces him to return to shoot in Japan.

 


 

You had trouble financing this film. Why?

No television wanted to put money into a film that might portray Verges in a positive way. They were all afraid of their viewers being seduced by my subject.

Who finally made a commitment to it?

I got a government grant that was based on quality. It was subsidized.

Did Verges agree immediately to cooperate with the film?

Yes, of course, yes. He was very excited at the idea.

Had anybody tried to make a film of this length about him before?

No. He goes on television all the time, but that's one of the secrets of the movie, why I was able to do it. It's his vanity. He doesn't resist putting himself in the limelight.

Had anybody tried to write a serious systematic biography of him?

No, there are two books that are very much against him, that dig into his past, and are very negative. You couldn't call them serious biographies. They're cheap biographies, very negative. And, frankly, to do a real biography, I imagine that you would have to wait another twenty years, because so much of the stuff is still hidden. The information held by the French Secret Service will be revealed only after his death.

How did you decide on the look of the film?

I'm enamoured of the high-definition image, so I wanted it to be lit as much as possible as a fiction movie. I selected the locations very carefully, and the framing, because I was trying to have frames that would say something about the character. So, for example, when you have Bachir Boumaza, the former Algerian minister in the frame, there are bars on the windows behind him. It shows that, although he's a man who was in the government of Algeria, they're ready to jump on him at the first occasion if he says something they don't like. I put Verges in the darkness of his office, like an animal waiting to jump from the dark, like the beast in the dark.

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