"Carlos" is an ambitious project undertaken by director Olivier Assayas, who also co-wrote the film for French television, that spans about 20 years in the life of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, otherwise known as "Carlos", the infamous leftist terrorist from Venezuela who made a name for himself in the 1970s by leading a raid on an OPEC conference in Vienna in which several delegates were killed. The film ran about 5 1/2 hours on French TV, but Assayas shot this as if for the big screen, in widescreen on 35mm film. It has a sweep and a beauty, thanks in part to cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir, not associated with television. The lighting is beautiful. I love the way "Carlos" looks.
The film follows Carlos' life in England, France, Germany, Hungary, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan from 1973 to 1994, when he was captured by a French intelligence operation in Khartoum. He's currently serving a life sentence in a French prison for the 1975 murders of 2 DST agents. Carlos wanted to join an armed struggle against what he saw as capitalist imperialist powers determined to disenfranchise or oppress the masses. He didn't think that toppling the odd dictator in South America accomplished very much. He wanted an internationalist revolution against the Western powers that be. That did bring him fame, but, predictably, he was manipulated more than he was manipulator.
In a way, it seems inappropriate to dedicate so much of the screen to a man whose celebrity was created by a press looking for an obvious villain with whom to tar the law-abiding leftist activists in Europe. A narcissist who was more than happy to believe his own press, Carlos fit the bill perfectly. But Carlos was a character who could not have existed in any other time. He claimed to represent the "Armed Wing of the Arab Revolution". He worked for Wadie Haddad of the PFLP for a while, who in turn worked for the KGB, after Haddad had broken with George Habash and, disastrously, decided to take the fight for Palestine to Europe. Later, Carlos became outright mercenary.
Carlos was able to get away with so much, because he found protection in Yemen, Eastern Europe, and East Germany during the Cold War. He was useful to the Soviets and tolerated by the Eastern Bloc. Once the Cold War ended, he was not even safe in Sudan. Before the OPEC raid in 1975, Carlos needed the support of militant groups or anti-Western governments to provide him with arms and training, but he had some control over his destiny. After the OPEC raid, he could only find refuge by outright selling his services to governments friendly with the Soviet Bloc. He could only react to his circumstances and wheel and deal to survive; he could not longer be proactive.
"Carlos" aired in 3 parts, which Criterion has put on 3 separate discs. The first part covers the events leading to the shootout on rue Toullier in Paris, which killed the 2 DST agents. The second part covers the OPEC raid and its aftermath. The third part spans the years 1979-1994, when Carlos and his group, consisting of German Johannes Weinrich (Alexander Scheer), Syrian Kamal al-Issawi (Talal el-Jurdi), and Carlos' wife Magdalena Kopp (Nora Von Waldstatten), were always looking for a country to shelter them and jobs that would pay well. The first part feels longer than it is. The second part is well-paced. I felt the third part contained too much extraneous material.
So the pacing is uneven. "Carlos" is part character study, part action movie, part political history. Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez was a godsend. He effectively projects Carlos' energy that is at the same time charismatic, destructive, and self-destructive. He embodies Carlos' narcissism, his darkness, and his lust for life. And Ramírez, son of a diplomat, speaks Spanish, English, French, German, and Italian. Carlos was similarly gifted with languages and spoke fluent Arabic as well. Ramírez has done the Arabic phonetically. The film is in English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic, with a little Russian and Hungarian. Subtitles are in English.
Ilich Ramírez Sánchez has challenged the accuracy of the film, in particular of the guns blazing during the OPEC raid. I wondered about that myself. Did these people really waste bullets and make as much noise as possible? Some conversations that took place in Europe are realistic, because they were recorded by intelligence services at the time. But I wonder what Wadie Haddad actually said about Carlos, or if he is being made to articulate the writers' observations. "Carlos" is an accomplishment, but there are some pacing problems in the first part, editing problems in the third, and I wish it said more about Carlos' image in the press and been more explicit about the powers that used him.
The DVDs (Criterion Collection 2011 4-disc set): The film is in 3 parts on discs 1-3. Disc 4 is bonus features, and there are some bonus features on discs 2 & 3 as well. Bonus features on Disc 2 are: "Shooting the OPEC Sequence" (20 min), which takes us behind the scenes and offers some commentary by director Olivier Assayas (in English & French with English subtitles), and "Denis Lenoir" (13 min), which is an interview with one of the film's cinematographers. Lenoir talks about shooting the film quickly, lighting, and working with director (in English). There is also a "Selected Scene Commentary" (9 min) by Denis Lenoir in which he describes how he shot 6 scenes.
The bonus features on Disc 3 are interviews with Olivier Assayas (43 min) and with actor Édgar Ramírez (20 min). The interview with Assayas, filmed April 2011, is very worthwhile. He speaks about Carlos' media image and place in Cold War politics, as well as how the project came together. Ramírez offers his observations of Carlos' character and tells us how he prepared for the role. These interviews are in English.
Disc 4 contains two documentaries and one interview. "Carlos: Terrorist without Borders" (1 hour) is a 1997 French television documentary that follows Carlos' life from his youth until 1994. All of his major activity is covered, and it fills in some gaps in the feature film, so this is worthwhile (in French with English subtitles). "Hans-Joachim Klein" (40 min) excerpts a 1995 interview with the man who left Carlos' group, made while he was still in hiding. His discussion of his political life, decisions, and Carlos is articulate and interesting (in German with English subtitles). "Maison de France" (1 hr, 28 min) is a documentary about the 1983 bombing of the French consulate in West Berlin by Johannes Weinrich. It focuses on 2 people: the single fatality, a man named Michael Haritz who was at the consulate to deliver an anti-nuclear petition, and the perpetrator, Weinrich. In German with English subtitles.