After his celebrated “return to form” signaled in 2008’s Summer Hours, a delicate chamber drama set amid the shaded gardens of a French countryside estate, Olivier Assayas’s latest, Carlos, explodes any such expectations of what form an Assayas film might take. Though the restless, handheld camerawork, tuned to a nervy post-punk score, is still present, here he spreads his canvas wider, covering much of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East over the course of three decades, or in viewing time, roughly five and a half hours, depending on the film’s various theatrical and television releases. The film tracks the rise and fall of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal,” a terrorist active during the 1970s and 1980s. Venezuelan-born, educated in Moscow, an instrumental figure in a number of militant leftist causes and later a mercenary-for-hire working from behind the Iron Curtain, Carlos, as Edgar Ramírez portrays him, is a dizzying, media-savvy, shape-shifting blur, as much a product of the Cold War politics as one of its most visible agents. With Carlos, the global trajectories expressed in Irma Vep (1996), demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), and Boarding Gate (2007) –and treated peripherally in Summer Hours and Les Destineés (2000) – accelerate and multiply, and, for the first time treating a non-fiction subject, Assayas also draws these currents into historical relief. While the film ostensibly focuses on the exploits of the enigmatic man at its center, it’s arguably more concerned with the dramatically shifting world around him, and more broadly the reorganization of European leftism after the heady days of May 1968, the disintegration of unified international struggle, and the way that generation, which is also Assayas’s, grappled with the revolution that never came.
I want to dive into this history you’re constructing with Carlos. When you were at the New York Film Festival a couple years back, you were introducing a film by Guy Debord, and I know that represents a specific and important moment of history in your life, the period of fallout after 1968. It’s a time that you came of age, as you describe in your book, Une adolescence dans l’après-Mai: Lettre à Alice Debord (Adolescence after May). How is that history threaded through the conceiving of this project, and what did it mean to revisit that history?
Well it’s very much about history, how you deal with history in the movies and how I personally deal with recent history. In terms of how I’ve always read 1970s politics, Debord has been essential in the sense that his writing and what he published in the Situationist International was an anti-totalitarian notion of the revolutionary politics of those times. It was a very modern, radical reading of where society was heading, and simultaneously it absolutely dismissed the totalitarian states in China, in Russia, in the Eastern Bloc or Cuba. In that sense it’s kind of interesting because the writing of Debord, of course, was perceived as ultra-radical, ultra-revolutionary at the time, and it was. But at the same time that kind of writing also preserved a moral compass in terms of what any kind of revolutionary re-imagination of society could be about, and somehow protected it in many ways. This happened really at the darkest hour, when leftist politics in France were pretty much what Carlos is about: a dreadful mixture of half-baked Marxism and fake Third World rhetoric and ultimately secret service work.
So when I am making a film about the 1970s, it has to do simultaneously with yes, of course, my own perception of that world, how I perceived it at the time and how I perceive it now, but of course defined by my own sensations. You know it was striking for me when I was writing the film or working on the film, how familiar that world was, how familiar the way of speaking was, and how recreating the period came effortlessly. And also simultaneously, of course, the political view I have, in terms of how I can be involved in the politics of those times, is defined by the influence of Debord. When I’m talking about the influence of Debord it means also the writers he championed like George Orwell. So it certainly, for me, establishes some kind of ground, something I can build on. And in that sense I can expose the reality of the politics of Carlos, not from the point of view of someone who would be defending reactionary values, to put it bluntly, but ultimately from the point of view of someone who, in the same way as Debord, is concerned with establishing facts and also in unmasking the fake versions of what the revolutionary, radical politics were about. Just show that ultimately the compromises of the politics of militants like Carlos, who became involved with totalitarian states, were not, exactly, representative of the ideas of those times.
It strikes me that your films, if we can look at them as a body of work, have a structure similar to a Situationist dérive in their way of moving against or breaking out of whatever’s considered ordinary or habitual. So you often see individuals that have to break out or break away from a family, a film crew, or a terrorist cell, or whatever the case may be. In Boarding Gate, for example, the word “disappear” is used a lot; overall, your characters escape in a certain sense, and create alternative itineraries.
Yes, I’ve always had this notion that my characters were defined by their trajectories. And trajectory meaning: involving something that is not pre-designed. It’s really like they’re moved by their own energy in many ways, and whatever they encounter, wherever they end up, it’s never part of the plan, it’s never mapped out. That’s the way I describe my characters, but ultimately it could also be the way I describe my writing. In Carlos it’s again something else but in general, I have a sense of inventing my movies as I’m writing them, so it’s also the movement of my own writing that defines wherever I’m heading. Which has to do with the fact that I don’t believe at all in the rules of screenwriting, of narrative, etc. because there’s nothing more boring than that. It’s what makes everything predictable and ultimately tedious. For me, movie narration has to be constantly surprising. It has to take you places where you don’t expect to be taken. It’s what keeps the art alive inside the film. So again, I think it’s something that does involve simultaneously the character, the protagonist of the film, myself, and the viewer, in a certain way.
But Carlos is different?
Carlos is different because Carlos is defined by fact. Somehow, the story of Carlos is the verification in reality of my theories of what characters are about. There’s hardly anything I’ve invented, and I kind of toned down the crazy travelling of Carlos.
Oh, yes. Specifically in the 1980s, it’s absurd, he’s everywhere at the same time. He’s constantly moving between the capitals of the few Arab states that would accept him and the capitals of the Eastern Bloc states. But what I am saying is that the trajectory of Carlos I did not design; he designed it himself.
There’s a letter Carlos receives in the film from Saddam Hussein, who says, “You can bear the weight of history on your shoulders.” I was interested in the way Carlos is in some senses an actor, as he seems autonomous and he’s unpredictable and all over the place. But the irony that slowly reveals itself is that he’s actually outpaced by the forces that he’s agitating against. And in many ways he seems almost more a historical symptom, or a pawn, as it’s said in the film.
Yes, he’s a soldier. He keeps on repeating this in the film, but it’s a very important point. That’s the major point in which what we are describing in this film differs from the image we have of Carlos. Carlos is stereotyped as this mastermind of terrorism. Actually, what he has done is execute operations that were designed by others. And often, he hardly had a notion of the geopolitical implications of what he was doing. He is a man of actions. And, of course, from the moment he is fired by Wadie Haddad, not just from the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] but really from the Palestinian cause, he’s lost. The only thing he can do is get hired by this or that secret service that is going to pay him to do what he does, meaning, organise specific operations. But he’s always commissioned by someone else, and very rarely connected to any kind of solid revolutionary theory. There’s nothing in whatever Carlos has done that honestly has to do, in one way or another, with the politics of those times, in the sense of the broader picture of Western leftism. What he did had everything to do with the Middle Eastern part of Cold War politics.
You brought up earlier his image and the media depiction of him as a terrorist mastermind, and his image is also constantly changing within the film, in terms of his dramatic costumes and the physical changes that happen to Edgar Ramírez. And it makes me wonder about this connection between his terrorist activities and this mythology or image that he creates. And on top of that, what the stakes are in recreating this nexus of things in a film?
That’s where the hard facts aspect of the film really matters. I built the film in big chapters that are specific moments in the history of Carlos, and then within those chapters I gathered as many facts as I could. So what it means is that you get kind of precise images of Carlos at different moments, and you realise that he is a different person at different moments in his life, like we all are in one way or another. That’s what makes him kind of universal in a sense: that people do adapt to changing times, that’s what life is about. And so that’s Carlos.
One thing is the stereotype—of course the subject of the film is not the Carlos stereotype but still you need to have, inside the film, the reasons why he became this kind of media figure. And the reason why he becomes a media figure is because he has it built in. He thinks in terms of his image. Like when he stages the Vienna operation: he puts on a costume. He’s never dressed like that before. All of a sudden he has the beret and he has the leather jacket and he uses this kind of Che Guevara look, but it’s a costume. In that sense he’s absolutely like an actor who dresses up before going on stage. We had the famous pictures of Carlos during the operation—I mean, there’s many of them—and really the question for us was, did he already dress like that before the operation, or did he just put on his stage clothes? It’s not like we had a hard time with his image, but we had to face it and deal with it. So there were really two options. We could have shown his usual self, his kind of sharp suits, and so on and so forth, and then putting on the costume just for the operation, but we chose the option of having him look like that, including when he’s preparing it. But the making of the film raises those questions. And they are interesting questions; they are relevant in terms of the broader arc of who the guy is. And so to me the thing was really about showing how he’s defined by circumstances, and again, he has to reinvent himself as his world is shrinking.
It seems, for all his inconsistencies as a political revolutionary, the most salient thing about him is his orchestration of his image. He understands himself better as a pop star than a political agent.
Yes, at a specific moment. He doesn’t have many opportunities. He has one moment, which is when he somehow survives the Vienna operation. And it’s his big media moment. After that, not so much… Also, because, obviously the branch of activity he has chosen is not something that sits well with any kind of media presence. The reason why Haddad fires him, basically, is because he’s too visible. He’s way too visible for his own good, for the good of the organisation, and so on and so forth. So yes, he has his media moment, but it’s also about his downfall. After that, he goes back into the shade. And comes out only in a crazy way when his wife is arrested in France. And even then you don’t have many images of him during those years. He sends letters, and kind of boasts of his Carlos persona, but at that stage he’s already getting pathetic.
It’s a kind of paradox that once he achieves obscurity, he’s no longer relevant.
Yes, he’s no longer relevant because he’s absolutely a creature of the Cold War, and once the Cold War is over he makes no sense. They don’t need him in the Middle East. Once he’s stuck in the Middle East and can’t really travel to the West, even if it’s to Europe, even if it was on the other side of the Iron Curtain, what exactly can his status be? You have a lot of militants, activists who are ready to organise this or that operation. The relevance of Carlos was absolutely the way he connected some international notion of revolutionary activity. Once he’s stuck in the Middle East, he loses this internationalism and means nothing.
On this question of internationalism—is this film being billed as a French film? It hardly takes place in France, and has only a few French actors, and by and large it’s an international co-production.
Technically it’s a French-German co-production, but the thing is that it has some kind of weird status, really. Because in France, it’s a TV movie. Abroad, it’s a movie that does have a longer version which you can either screen or watch on TV or do whatever you want. But it does shift once you cross the French border, strangely. And it’s a movie that could never have been made—well, it could not have been made as a movie, because you don’t really make five and a half hour movies, you don’t get them financed. But beyond that, it doesn’t even play by the rules of French cinema. Meaning, to be legally a French film you have to have fifty percent of French dialogue, you need to have French actors. The interesting thing is that the story of Carlos is pretty much a French story. I mean it’s an international story, but it’s also a French story in the sense that his most visible operations —and he has spent very little time in France, ultimately—have been in France: the drugstore bombing, the rue Toullier shootout, and then the “Magdalena Kopp” bombings. And so he’s extremely visible in France, but then he had hardly any connection with French radicals at the time, zero connection, and he did not use the language much, and all the individuals he was involved with were either German or Lebanese or Latin. So we also knew we’d only shoot a part of this movie in France. The interesting thing is that French TV doesn’t have those rules for some reason, I don’t know why. So in terms of French TV—because Canal +, French pay TV actually, financed the film—we could get away with those things. We could get away with shooting in every single possible language except French, we could get away with having a main cast that was international, we could get away with a shoot that took us outside from France for most of the time. It’s kind of interesting that this space of freedom does exist within the logic of French TV financing, and basically no one has ever used it. It’s really like some kind of treasure trove. Technically you can have that freedom within French TV, but they just don’t use it. Ever.