Carlos: Criterion Collection
October 3, 2011
Notorious international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal came to prominence in the 1970’s and 1980’s with several politically-motivated bombings, kidnappings and hijackings in Europe and the Middle East. He eventually became a popular culture icon with thinly-disguised depictions in films like Nighthawks (1981) and gracing the cover of Black Grape’s debut album. His image was used as a cultural touchstone rather than an accurate depiction. Incredibly, it wasn’t until Olivier Assayas’ ambitious five-and-a-half hour miniseries Carlos (2010) that the man and his times were finally done justice. Assayas wisely doesn’t pass judgment on Carlos but rather depicts how he influenced the political climate and how it, in turn, influenced him. Far from a stuffy history lesson, Carlos is an epic political thriller with a charismatic performance by Edgar Ramirez as the infamous terrorist.
Carlos is presented in three, feature-length episodes that track his rise to power and notoriety; the man at the peak of his powers and his greatest triumph; and his inevitable decline and capture. Early on, Assayas establishes his take on Carlos (Ramirez), presenting him as a vain man who, at one point, is seen admiring his own naked body in a mirror to the strains of “Dreams Never End” by New Order. We also see him espouse his personal philosophy, that true glory is “doing one’s duty in silence. Behind every bullet we fire, there will be an idea because we act in harmony in our conscience.” And initially, he seems to adhere to this but once he becomes a superstar among international terrorists, he embraces and cultivates his inflated reputation.
In the first episode, Assayas shows Carlos’ clumsy attempts to impress Wadie Haddad (Kaabour), co-founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), with a bungled assassination and a failed bombing. This segment builds towards an intense showdown between French domestic intelligence agents and Carlos at one of his girlfriends’ apartment in Paris where we see just how dangerous he is when cornered. The second episode starts off literally with a bang as Carlos and his group arrives at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna and takes oil ministers from all over the world hostage in 1975. This was his highest profile operation done at the height of his powers.
By the end of the second episode, Carlos has been kicked out of the PFLP and he starts up his own terrorist organization, effectively becoming a mercenary. The third episode tracks his inevitable decline as he wages a war of terror on France in the early to mid-‘80s after they arrest his wife and a close associate. It’s costly battle for both sides but more so for Carlos who can no longer rely on his reputation to get jobs or find safe haven in countries that used to be sympathetic towards him. He becomes more vulnerable to attacks because he has more to lose, chief among them a family.
Edgar Ramirez’s magnetic presence really comes across early on as he exudes the cocky confidence of the man and conveys his complete commitment to the cause he espouses so brazenly. The actor has Carlo’s terrorist swagger down cold, showing us the smooth ladies man with his perfectly coifed looks and stylish attire. Known prior to Carlos mostly for his strong supporting turn in Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), he finally gets to be front and center, playing the role of a lifetime: a larger than life historical figure in a sprawling epic. Assayas and Ramirez’s fascinating take on Carlos is that he viewed himself as a kind of rock star, a charismatic personality who clearly saw himself as someone of importance, destined to do great things. This is evident in the way Carlos idolized and emulated Che Guevara during the OPEC raid, sporting the iconic revolutionary’s trademark beret and scruffy facial hair look as if making a statement. Also, the rock star analogy is further explored in the use of post-punk music along with the third episode, which could be seen as Carlos’ “fat Elvis” period of decline. Ramirez commands every scene he’s in, especially the OPEC raid where he prowls around rooms and hallways, expertly orchestrating this attack in order to get what he wants.
In an intriguing break from tradition, Assayas eschews a traditional orchestral score for source music, predominately post-punk rock. The opening track is “Loveless Love” by the Feelies, which sets the tone of the film. As the song builds so does the tension of the scene it play over – that of Carlos attempting to assassinate a pro-Israeli businessman in England. Assayas also uses a few tracks by Wire, one by A Certain Ratio and a memorable action sequence scored to “Sonic Reducer” by the Dead Boys. The attention to period detail and architecture is also excellent as Assayas takes us on a perverse travelogue through Europe and the Middle East with Carlos as our guide.
With its color-coded sequences and its objective direction that is slick and confident, Carlos resembles Traffic (2000) and Syriana (2005). These films are all ambitious and expansive in scope as they expertly blend personal politics with bigger political movements. Carlos is a towering achievement, a fascinating study of a man who was a reflection of the times in which he lived in and is embodied by Ramirez’s powerful performance spanning several decades. Assayas’ film is very relevant to our times as it examines the complex machinations of international terrorism with the agendas of terrorist groups clashing with that of the governments of countries all over the world. Carlos sees the struggle of the oppressed against imperialist regimes as a war that he helps fight. With the end of the Cold War, he is marginalized and considered a relic from a bygone era. Assayas has crafted an incredible film that is smartly written, well-acted and masterfully directed.
The first disc includes a theatrical trailer.
The second disc starts off with “Shooting the OPEC Sequence,” a 22-minute featurette examining how Olivier Assayas shot Carlos and his team’s raid on the OPEC headquarters on December 21, 1975. The director offers his thoughts on what he hoped to achieve with the film over footage of the cast and crew working on location. This extra provides some insight into his working methods.
There is an interview with Denis Lenoir, one of the film’s two cinematographers. He shot the second half of Carlos and talks about his approach towards the job. He didn’t prepare much for the film because he came in halfway through and goes into some of the technical aspects (i.e. film stock, lighting, etc.). Lenoir also talks about how Assayas works.
Lenoir also provides a selected-scene commentary, going into detail about the technical aspects of six scenes from the film. For example, he mentions the kinds of lenses he used, the lighting scheme and whether he used hand-held cameras or not.
The third disc features a 43-minute interview with director Olivier Assayas. He gives his take on Carlos and the times that shaped the man. The filmmaker talks about his intentions for the film. He admits that it did not originate with him because he would’ve considered too complicated a task to undertake and was actually approached to direct. Assayas talks about growing up during Carlos’ heyday and also about making the film itself.
There is also a 20-minute interview with actor Edgar Ramirez. He was drawn to the film because it dealt with the mechanics of terrorism and politics. The actor speaks eloquently about his take on Carlos and how the OPEC raid defined him. Ramirez also speaks about how he prepared for the role, including all kinds of research he conducted as well as gaining and then losing weight for the various periods of Carlos’ life.
The fourth and last disc starts off with “Carlos: Terrorist without Borders,” an hour-long documentary that aired on French television in 1997. It fleshes out many of the events depicted in the film and provides some background into Carlos’ politics as well as his rise to prominence. The doc mixes compelling news footage (including actual footage of Carlos) with talking head soundbites to paint a fascinating portrait of the man.
Also included is a 1995 interview with Hans-Joachim Klein, the German left-wing militant that was conducted by Daniel Laconte who went on to help produce Carlos. Most interesting, Klein wears a disguise and talks about how he must lie on a daily basis lest he be discovered by those who want to get him. At times, he comes across as more than a little eccentric.
Finally, there is “Maison de France,” an 88-minute documentary about the 1983 bombing of the Maison de France in West Berlin that was orchestrated by Johannes Weinrich for Carlos. It puts the incident in context with the political climate at the time. There is pretty gripping news footage of the bombing and the location is revisited in recent years to see how it has changed.