Terror’s Advocate

| October 14, 2007

Director Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female, Reversal of Fortune, Barfly) has long concerned himself with capturing “Human Monsters” – both fictional and real. In his earlier documentary work, his subjects ranged from Idi Amin to Klaus Von Bulow and Charles Bukowski. With Terror’s Advocate, he returns to non-fiction for the first time in nearly twenty years, with one of his most complex and haunting portraits of a “Human Monster” to date, devil’s advocate Jacques Verges.
Jacques Verges is a lawyer best known for defending some of the world’s most terrible criminals. His client list has included Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, Carlos The Jackal, Nazi lieutenant Klaus Barbie, Magdalena Kopp, and Anis Naccache. He’s a man despised for his courtroom tactics and professional successes, not to mention his choice of friends and his severe anti-colonial beliefs. His life is a stockpile of divisive material. Schroeder doesn’t shy away from a thorough portrait of the man. Instead, he weaves Verges story into an intellectually sprawling treatise on the evolution of modern terrorism.
Verges was born in Thailand in 1925 to a Vietnamese mother and a Reunion Island father. It’s this racially and culturally diverse background that provides the fertile ground for the development of his anti-colonial beliefs, which define his life and form the basis for his illustrious career. Verges rise to prominence begins in Algiers in 1957 shortly after the Battle of Algiers. There he takes on the case of Algerian terrorist, Djamila Bouhired, who planted the infamous Milk-Bar bomb, one of several attacks that serve as key turning points in Algiers battle for independence from France.
Held and tortured for seventeen days, Bouhired became a symbol of her country’s quest for freedom from colonial France. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. Verges was assigned her defense and immediately orchestrated an international media campaign that transformed her into an international symbol of oppression. Then with a relentless and combative defense in the courtroom he won a highly improbable pardon for her. After Bouhired was released, she married him and had two children with him. The marriage led to the brief demise of his legal career and, then, in an even stranger twist, his eventual disappearance for ten years.
When Verges surfaces after ten years in France, he takes on the defense of Magdalena Kopp, Carlos the Jackal, Klaus Barbie and many more. It’s the most public and vilified portion of his career. He also repeats old tendencies and becomes involved in client’s lives – most notably Magdalena Kopp who was married at the time to Carlos the Jackal. They have an affair, but unlike before, Kopp rebukes Verges after he wins her release from prison.
The disappearance is crucial to Terror’s Advocate. It’s hard to avoid the question: where did Verges go? There are many theories, but no answers. Verges, for one, is definitely not saying which only heightens the mystery considering his connections. Some say he went to Cambodia to be with Pol Pot, or Russia, or PLO camps, but no one knows for sure. Schroeder uses the question, in a subtle way, as an intellectual leaping off point. He investigates, but doesn’t force a conclusion from his subject. Instead, he’s content to let the possibilities hang in the air – which serve as a rundown of every extremist political movement in the 70’s, the time of the disappearance. Schroeder’s point is clear. It’s a chilling thought that this one man, this lawyer, largely connects these key movements, and the figures at the head of them, in the evolution of modern terrorism. In effect all terrible roads converge on him and Schroeder is confident enough to let you decide to what degree Verges was involved, or served these different terrorists and movements beyond the courtroom.
Terror’s Advocate is classical in its construction. It’s mainly talking heads, interviews with Verges (who amazingly consented to the documentary) and other key players in his life and work. The documentary is devoid of narration or title cards to provide context or organization. This has a strange, but welcomed side effect in creating a deeper emotional resonance to the story. Removed from the immediate context of their political movements, some of the aging terrorist’s, and even Verges at times, speak almost nostalgically of days gone by, the passion of youth and the involvement they had in each other’s lives. It’s most notable in the section on Verges defense of Djamila Bouhired and his defense of Magdalena Kopp, where personal feelings run the deepest.
One complaint, though, is the sprawling nature of the subject matter. In many ways, Terror’s Advocate could have been split into two documentaries. It is vast in scope and thick with facts and history. This is a double-edged sword for Schroeder. On the one hand it gives the film a complex and intellectually challenging thrust, welcomed in regard to the subject that’s depicted. On the other hand, at times, it seems like the documentary suffers under the weight of too much information. Certain portions of Verges life felt skimmed over, touched by only brief glimpses of potentially intriguing experiences. Overall, though, Schroeder presents a compelling portrait of a difficult man. Verges never relents or breaks down through the course of his interview, determined to keep control on his public persona, and to stand by his political views and actions. Yet, in the end, Schroeder captures the monster within and crafts a chilling depiction of his life and times, that educates and enlightens on every level.

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