Thursday, October 04, 2007

Opening Soon: Terror’s Advocate

What do Pol Pot, Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal, the Red Army Faction, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have in common, besides violent ideologies? They had the same attorney: Jacques Vergès, the subject of a new documentary, Terror’s Advocate.

Directed by Barbet Schroeder, Advocate includes extensive interview footage with its cooperative subject and many of his past associates. Vergès gained worldwide notoriety for his defense of the Nazi war criminal Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, essentially using the proceedings to establish a moral equivalence between Barbie’s crimes and those of French colonialists in Algiers. However, Vergès is a Zelig of evil, turning up with nearly every violent extremist group of the last fifty years.

Advocate presents the framework of a unified theory of collectivist evil, tracing connections between German National Socialism, Communism, and Islamic Fascism. The film sketches out links between Vergès and François Genoud, a Swiss Nazi who became a champion of Palestinian causes, Waddi Haddad of the Maoist PFLP, Johannes Weinrich of the Red Army Faction, and the KGB recruited Carlos the Jackal.

The interrelations between the various factions of terror are fascinating. It is clear from voluminous STASI records that East Germany authorities allowed Carlos and his PFLP and Red Army Faction allies to operate within their country, where Vergès would visit them. They were under constant STASI surveillance, but their operations were not disrupted.

Genoud was converted to the Palestinian cause through his dealings with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on behalf of the National Socialists. In 1969 he picked up the tab for Vergès’ defense of the notorious PFLP Zurich El-Al hijackers. Years later, he would underwrite Vergès’ defense of Barbie.

Advocate is strongest when illustrating these alliances between the malignant ideologies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It certainly does no favors for the image of France. On one hand, Vergès and his allies pillory France’s record on Algerian, while from the other perspective, we see a feckless Mitterand government kick loose Anis Naccache, a Vergès client convicted of an attempted assassination of a former Shah minister at the Ayatollah’s bequest, for political expediency, in an episode the film dubs the birth of Islamic terrorism against the west (and Vergès was there). (The film’s website is quite helpful providing some crib notes on the various satellites of terror in orbit around Vergès.)

However, the film’s approach to Vergès as an interview subject is not as successful. Schroeder follows the same strategy he employed with his 1969 film on Idi Amin, relying on his subject to damn himself with his own words. What may have worked with a dictator of questionable sanity is far less successful with an experienced (one might say deceptive) trial attorney.

To be sure, Vergès’ words can be absolutely chilling, as when he minimizes the extent of the mass murders committed by his friend Pol Pot. Unfortunately, Vergès is never directly challenged by Schroeder in any of his assertions. Those unfamiliar with the crimes of the Khmer Rouge or the Butcher of Lyon might find his slick evasions convincing, as a result. Consider how many have fallen for Ahmadinejad’s media campaign (and Vergès even gives that audience a variation on the “Bush-is-worse-than-Hitler” line, which of course, the studio put in the trailer).

Vergès is not just deceptive in interview segments, he is also dull. Granted, the advocate may be slick, sophisticated, and smart to be sure, but he is also the personification of the banality of evil. Advocate is fascinating when exposing the world of terror Vergès faithfully serves, but less so when recording his unquestioned dissembling. (It opens October 12 in New York at the Lincoln Plaza.)