Terror’s Advocate: "A documentary directed by Barbet Schroeder French w/ English subtitles
When I saw The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker seemed almost cartoonish to me. Not that it was a bad performance. It wasn’t. There were problems with the film for sure, but there was a different reason. Thirty years prior I had seen another film, General Idi Amin Dada, the groundbreaking documentary from French director Barbet Schroeder. It successfully captured the personification of evil on celluloid. For years I was haunted by its stark brutal revelations.
Barbet Schroeder can do that to the viewer. Born in Teheran, Iran in 1946 to a Swiss geologist father, he spent time in Central Africa and Columbia as a child but was raised in France where he has done the bulk of his work. American viewers probably know him for his feature films, Barfly (1987), Reversal of Fortune (1990), and Single White Female (1992), but these are just three small windows to his overall worldview.
Schroeder’s feature films have always had a documentary feel to them while his documentaries more often feel like fictional cinema. This is not accidental. His feature films often have their roots in non-fiction events while his documentaries are so fantastical in their narrative that they feel like works of dramatic fiction.
Terror’s Advocate, Schroeder’s latest adventure, has themes similar to those found in his Oscar nominated, Reversal of Fortune. In the latter, Claus von Bulow, a lawyer of European descent who comes from a family which had close ties to the Nazis finds himself embroiled in a sensational court case. The lawyer featured in Terror’s Advocate is of European descent, has close ties to a Nazi and finds himself embroiled in numerous sensational court cases.
The advocate in Terror’s Advocate is the controversial French lawyer Jacques Verges. Verges began his career as an idealistic anti-colonialist crusader who made his political bones defending Djamila Bouhired, the stunning Algerian woman, who in 1956, planted the Milk Bar bomb that killed eleven people in Algiers.
The bombing launched the legendary “Battle of Algiers” which eventually led to the independence of Algeria from France in 1962. Bouhired became an international symbol and a role model for all future “freedom fighters” that would use terror as a weapon. Verges married Bouhired which ensured his fame throughout revolutionary inner circles.
In the late Sixties, Verges became linked to the infamous Palestinian terrorists Waddi Haddad and Georges Habbache, founders of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Inspired by Maoist ideology, the organization moved beyond the scope of the Palestinian struggle, recruiting revolutionaries worldwide. This lead to numerous plane hijackings, hostage taking of OPEC members, airport massacres, and eventually the murder of Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich.
In their line of work they always seemed to need a lawyer. Apparently, they never lost Verges’s phone number.
Long about here the film takes on the tone of a fascinating thriller.
We are suddenly taken on a roller coaster via Verges and other historic figures, down through the shadowy underground of world terror of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Strap yourself in folks, it gets to be a bumpy ride.
When we finally get off we are deeply shaken.
Through interviews with ex-terror group members, police officials and historians, we can now see the connecting threads that link groups like the FLN, to the PFLP, to the PLO, to the Red Brigade, to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, to the Red Army Faction, to Carlos The Jackal, and eventually yes, even to Al-Queda.
We learn that the financing for many of these infamous terror operations and their legal defenses were carried out with the help of an unrepentant Swiss Nazi named Francois Genoud.
Genoud, a financier of fascism and the manager of the hidden Swiss treasure of the Third Reich, was also instrumental in Odessa – the project that helped the SS flee post-war Germany. During the war he befriended the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the pro-Nazi religious/political leader of the Palestinian Muslims. The Grand Mufti, after receiving a promise from Hitler that he would wipe out the Jews in the Middle East, recruited tens of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia and Albania and was even given ceremonial command of his own SS regiment comprised of these troops.
After the war, Genoud acquired, from the families of Hitler, Borman and Goebells all posthumous rights to the writings of the three men. These agreements made him an immense fortune in royalty payments.
Beginning in the 1960’s, Genoud helped finance and orchestrate numerous Palestinian terror projects. Schroeder makes clear, as does Verges, that the lawyer and the Nazi had a symbiotic relationship for many years. (Genoud committed suicide in 1996.)
In 1970, Jacques Verges himself disappeared.
His disappearance lasted until 1978. Rumors of his whereabouts fueled the political rumor mills of Paris. During that time the world saw the rise of European terrorism. Many experts in the film feel Verges was instrumental in its successful growth.
Upon his return from “exile” Verges takes a radical departure from his career track and begins defending those responsible for the banality of evil. Clients of the so-called “Devil’s Advocate” included Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, Carlos The Jackal, Slobodan Milosevic, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, various brutal African dictators and even a recently deposed dictator named Saddam Hussein.
“What I wanted to do was portray an extraordinarily ambiguous person,” Schroeder explained to the New York Times, “but also to tell the story of blind terrorism which started in Algeria and is with us now and unfortunately will stay for a few more years.”
Remarkably, throughout the film, Schroeder does not judge Verges, whom he admits in interviews was originally one of his early heroes. Schroeder’s style is to let Verges talk to us.
To try and convince us.
To seduce us.
To coerce us.
Frighteningly, he almost does.
A screenwriter/producer/journalist based in Hollywood, California, Mark Groubert is the Senior Film and Book Reviewer for CrooksandLiars.com. As a filmmaker he has produced numerous documentaries for HBO. Groubert is also the former editor of National Lampoon Magazine, MTV Magazine and The Weekly World News. In addition, he has written for the L.A. Weekly, L.A. City Beat, Penthouse, High Times and other publications. He is currently at work on his memoirs…or so he says.