My media cravings lately have been the audiovisual equivalent of Elvis’s peanut butter and banana sandwiches, stupefying comfort food. A kind friend actually sat next to me for the entire length of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—Part 2!—on TV. So I gulped hard when my forgetfulness in updating my Netflix queue brought me Terror’s Advocate, Barbet Schroeder’s 137-minute 2007 documentary on Jacques Vergès, the French lawyer who has made his name and fortune defending freedom fighters, despots, Nazis and terrorists (I leave it to you to assign the correct label to each).
This film should be required viewing for all sentient beings seeking to comprehend the grievances that suffuse our world and the acts committed in their name.
Vergès was born to a French diplomat father and a Vietnamese mother on the tropical island of Réunion, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, a French colony that remains an overseas department of that nation. Réunion is a Creole island, once prized for its sugar crop, now living on tourism. (As long as we’re talking about movies, rent Gillo Pontecorvo’s great Burn! of 1969, which tells the colonial sugar story from a place much like Haiti, with Marlon Brando as a kind of secret agent.)
In Terror’s Advocate, the fastidiously groomed and self-regarding Vergès puffs on an enormous cigar as he describes the early glimpses of discrimination and colonialism that set him on his life-path as advocate—not so much for his friends as for the enemies of his enemy, colonial power, especially French power.
At 17, he joined the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle, opposing the Nazis. Studying law in Paris as a charismatic student militant, he became president of the Association for Colonial Students. He moved to Prague to head a communist youth group, returning to France after four years to practice law. There he made common cause with the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), fighting for freedom from France. (Clips from Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers are intercut in Terror’s Advocate with contemporary interviews with some of the FLN revolutionaries it depicts placing bombs in coffee bars, now wearing the professorial clothes and sturdy bodies of solid survivors, as they tour the dank prison that housed them in the fifties.)
Vergès married a heroine of that revolution, Djamila Bouhired, had two children with her, then disappeared from the known world for eight years, re-emerging mysteriously in 1978 to defend…just about everyone: Gestapo head Klaus Barbie, international terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (“Carlos the Jackal”), former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan and a whole raft of corrupt heads of state, including Gabon’s ferociously tenacious leader for life, Omar Bongo. Vergès seems to have been friends with nearly everyone whose name symbolizes violence in the service of a cause; indeed, Terror’s Advocate begins with a genial endorsement of Vergès from Pol Pot, who was his friend from college days in Paris, almost rendering the rest of the film redundant.
The common thread of all Vergès’ associations seems to be the strategy he invented: “the rupture defense,” which entails refusing to recognize the authority of the court, disrupting proceedings and accusing prosecutors of the same crimes—torture, terror—for which the defendant has been brought to trial. Indeed, Vergès’ rationale for defending Klaus Barbie is that the French in Algeria committed the same offenses the Nazis perpetrated, just in a different locale and on a different scale. Defending Barbie offered an opportunity to make that point. His desire to expose hypocrisy was potent and consuming.
I was going to write “all-consuming,” but he seems to have been absolutely blind to his own hypocrisy, so that wouldn’t be accurate. Vergès is moved to tears remembering the suffering of his comrades, but remains dry-eyed contemplating the legions of Cambodian dead. One telling moment has the French cartoonist Siné, defended by Vergès against suits triggered by his opposition to French colonial action in Algeria, saying that Vergès loved good food, wine and luxuries too much to sacrifice it all as a hands-on freedom fighter. Within those parameters, Vergès made do with accumulating vast sums of money from sources like Swiss Nazi François Genoud, who got rich publishing Joseph Goebbels’ diaries and used his money to finance the FLN, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Ayatollah Khomeini in exile, among others. This film depicts exactly how “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” documenting shocking partnerships of left and right, so close they leave no room for moral distinction.
Terror’s Advocate is full of true believers who see reflected in Vergès’ eyes an image of their own rightness. Never mind that in the course of time they betrayed each other, renounced the causes for which they had earlier sacrificed others’ lives (if not their own). In the light of Vergès’ Mona Lisa smile, one after another feels truly seen. Often the device that enables this is a small, personal point of convergence: on first meeting, a defendant tells Vergès he was inspired in childhood by a poster of Djamila Bouhired. When Vergès says he was her lawyer and later her husband, the bond is sealed.
Schroeder shoots Vergès in courtrooms or in his opulent study surrounded by fine tapestries and Asian art, underscoring the attorney’s satisfaction with his own brilliance and success. Almost every interviewee sits or stands calmly, most in a neutral setting of this type. One of the most remarkable moments comes in an interview with the supremely dour Magdalena Kopp, formerly of the German terrorist group Revolutionary Cells. Her famously magnetic attraction does not translate to film, but we do see Vergès describing how he stood in line for hours on Christmas at the prison where she was held, bringing her Westphalian ham and pain de campagne and ice cream, flouting the prison’s no-alcohol rules by pouring Armagnac on top.
There’s a little interview with Kopp in the Financial Times that has the same flavor: she went to the revolution more or less as others spend a junior year abroad, falling from the arms of one comrade into another, sleeping her way to the top of the terrorist heap, eventually having a daughter with Carlos. In Terror’s Advocate, she describes going back to Carlos after Vergès helped gain her release from prison, because she thought that if she didn’t, more bombs would be planted in retaliation—or pique, anyway, on a really grand and blood-soaked scale.
Nothing has one meaning. The intense desires for self-determination, the ideologies of world revolution, left and right, that have animated the movements depicted in Terror’s Advocate, these ideas of how the world changes have undoubtedly exercised tremendous influence in shaping events. But also, how much force has been exerted by a child’s wish to repay the insults he observed in his earliest days, to punish the perpetrators? How much force by a man’s wish to have the woman he wants, and if he can’t get her, to spill enough innocent blood to relieve his frustration? All the analysis, reams of it spilling off the printing presses every day, and how much comes down to the sort of grievance that craters every life, but in a certain personality becomes distorted and magnified beyond imagining?
And if you see the film and your head starts to hurt from the incessant banging of these questions around your brain, you can always make a peanut butter and banana sandwich and watch He’s Just Not That Into You, and in a little while, it will all fade away.