Barbet Schroeder is one of those brainiac filmmakers, like Werner Herzog, who moves effortlessly between docs (General Idi Amin Dada), features (Reversal of Fortune), studios (Murder by Numbers) and indies (Barfly), in whatever country (Maitresse) or language (Our Lady of the Assassins) that suits him. He's a global opportunist. And like Herzog he's not a bad actor; he does a memorable cameo in Darjeeling Limited as a bemused auto mechanic.
When I saw his ambitious new documentary Terror's Advocate in Cannes, I knew nothing about it. I sat in the huge 4000-seat Lumiere crammed with journalists from all over the world, entranced by this stranger-than-fiction tale of a French lawyer, Jacques Verges, who starts out championing the Algerian war for independence and winds up defending the world's nastiest criminals, from Nazi Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, to Carlos the Jackal. He also had fascinating relationships with Algerian resistance fighter Djamila Bouhirid, whom he married after he rescued her from prison, and Carlos's gorgeous revolutionary wife Magdalena Kopp. And he completely disappeared from view for eight years. Talk about dropping out! The movie speculates about whether he was hanging with his old school chum Pol Pot in Cambodia.
Every documentary is as compelling as its central character, and Schroeder did well by picking the charismatic and complex Verges, who offers the filmmaker a great vehicle for navigating the global network of world terror. Verges is a familiar figure in France, which may explain why the audience seemed to like him so much, laughing heartily when he suggests he'd even be willing to defend George Bush--if he pleaded guilty. I was more uncomfortable with this guy. He is not on the side of the angels. But like someone who has made a pact with the Devil, he is entertaining as hell. And through him we meet some of the crazier criminal characters in the world.
Schroeder suggested that we do our interview via video Skype. So I signed up my MacBook at home and we tuned in at 5:30 PM my time in L.A., 9:30 AM his time in Japan. It worked well: my only regret is that I didn't realize that I could have taken a screen grab of our conversation. Just for illustration's sake.
What are you doing in Japan?
I'm doing the craziest project I have ever attempted since Our lady of the Assassins, Inju, by the famous Japanese writer Rampo Edogawa, the Edgar Allen Poe of Japan, who died in 1965. It's a very extreme and perverse kind of thriller. It's a rivalry between two writers. A French writer comes to Japan. He is copying a very famous Japanese writer. It's psychic plagiarism. His book is doing better than the mysterious Japanese writer. Some crimes have been committed using his book. This one is quite special, with Japanese actors. Only I am French. I'm doing it with a crew of 90 people; less than 10% are from Europe. We're shooting in about two weeks. The French and the Japanese are funding. I use Skype a lot in Tokyo for casting.
Like Werner Herzog, you seem to believe that fiction and documentary are much the same thing?
Obviously there is an exciting part of reality that feels like fiction. There is no reason not to go with it. I consider the movie as much a documentary as fiction. I want to treat it as if it's some sort of mystery unfolding and you don't know 'til the end. This movie suffers as much from spoilers as a thriller.
How well-known is Verges in Europe?
Verges is well-known in France. He goes on TV shows and writes one book a year. Often he takes cases that are very publicized, Barbie being the thing that made him famous in France.
Do you know where he went during those eight missing years?
Yes, I think I do. While we question where he was, the movie comes out clearly where he was. At the same time, there is no absolute proof. You can't be sure of something people are telling you.
Are you attracted to characters who are monsters?
Obviously that's the idea. Idi Amin Dada is a seductive monster, a petty tyrant, full of humor and charming-- and he was terrifying. It's clear that we're dealing here with someone more brilliant than Amin.
You seem to like your subject.
It is not easy to make a movie without being manipulated by them. You can't make a movie against somebody. We try to understand the real reason why he behaves as he does. I was using Verges as a way to tell the history of terrorism, using him to lead us into the world of terrorism. It all started with the war in Algiers. It ended with the two towers in New York. But it didn't end with the two towers, unfortunately. Never before Algiers did you have blind terrorism attacking people in cafes who were guilty of being part of a race or group. The Palestinians after that took their lead from the Algerians. This was the story of the film, to see how terrorism evolved from the very beginning, when it was more beautiful and heroic and got corrupted rapidly.
I think I understand Verges, how he is. The thing about the movie, you can't apply the usual poltically correct left and right to it. It forces you to face the fact that a Nazi could be helping a revolutionary independence movement. It is very disturbing. It's quite incredible. All the story lines are reflecting the theme of the movie which is, if you have one very strong experience in your life, like helping a country to achieve independence during their fight for justice, at the same time you are seeking for the rest of your life that combination of something extraordinary. My thesis is he wanted to relive that story all his life, one way or another, like the story of Vertigo. It becomes pathetic. Verges would say that was untrue. He objects to that.
How long did the movie take to make?
Two and a half years. The big challenge of this movie was not to use voiceover. That was stylistically dictating the whole movie for me, forcing me to say everything in a cinematic way and through editing. This becomes more exciting, rich, subtle and poetic. It creates a resonance between different shots and stories. Different people cross each other in a Guillermo Arriaga-like way. [The writer of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel.] Everyone finds his style. Mine is to disappear as much as possible. Let the people speak for themselves without a voiceover telling you what to think and give your POV. It's something very hard but very exciting. With Amin Dada I found a way of doing things that becomes a form of expression that hopefully ends up being unique.
How did the movie perform in France, where it opened in July?
It's still playing, it's very big.
What is your current relationship with the Hollywood studios?
It depends if something comes along. I'm always interested. I like to do psychological thrillers. But now there are so many supernatural thirllers around. I'm not interested in the supernatural. Next year I will be doing A Very Simple Crime, a great screenplay written by Nick Kazan, that we've been working on for a few years, trying to put together for some time, with the same company, UGC, with producer Said Ben Said, the same system I'm using for Inju.
Magnolia is releasing Terror's Advocate on October 12. For much more material on the film, check out the info-packed Terror's Advocate website. Eventually four or five hours of material will be on the DVD. The site has many scenes cut from the movie. And here's Variety's review.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]