Blow It Up

How Jean-Luc Godard made history when French intellectuals ruled the world

Thirty-plus years after his docu-shocker Idi Amin Dada, Schroeder portrays another manifestation of political evil—rogue lawyer Jacques Vergés. A sometime communist most notorious for defending Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, a/k/a the Butcher of Lyons, Vergés claims to identify with the France of Montaigne and Diderot—but though he is the suave embodiment of Third World rage, there is a particular, awful logic to his career.

The son of a French father and an Indo-Chinese mother, Vergés was an anticolonial activist whose student comrades included the future butcher of Cambodia, Pol Pot. As a young lawyer, Vergés was immersed in the struggle for Algerian independence—most prominently as the defense attorney for Djamila Bouhired, the real-life prototype for the female bombers in Battle of Algiers. (Francis Jeanson, who ran a clandestine Algerian National Liberation Front support group in France, was another client; confronted in La Chinoise with the Anne Wiazemsky character's plan to bomb the Sorbonne, Jeanson is in effect debating a would-be Djamila.) Not altogether unromantic, Vergés married Algeria's revolutionary heroine, then disappeared into the underground, only to re-emerge in the violent aftermath of the '60s as an attorney for the West German zealots of the Red Army Faction and the world's most wanted man, terror ist Carlos the Jackal.

An integral part of the ’68 juggernaut: Juliet Berto in Godard’s La Chinoise.
Film Forum/Koch Lorber
An integral part of the ’68 juggernaut: Juliet Berto in Godard’s La Chinoise.

Details

La Chinoise
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Koch Lorber
At Film Forum, October 10-18

Terror's Advocate
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Magnolia Pictures
Opens October 12

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Terror's Advocate is largely a mix of talking heads and archival footage, but as Vergés's connections to Swiss neo-Nazis and Congo secessionists are explored, the movie becomes a fantastic international thriller. Schroeder doesn't put his urbane, cigar-puffing subject on trial; there are no tough questions, and barely an allusion to Vergés's evident anti-Semitism. Context is all, as well as overweening vanity. This smiling bon vivant projects total self-satisfaction. Terror works: No client is so vile that Vergés cannot use the case to avenge his humiliation at the hands of the French and mock their vaunted enlightenment.

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