Over the course of the last decade in America, the rise in the popularity of left politics and the fall in the allergy to subtitled cinema seem to be working in tandem. Considering that, along with the ascension of streaming platforms, it seems as if Olivier Assayas’ epic Carlos arrived a decade ahead of its time. The film functions on multiple levels, both as a character study of Carlos the Jackal as well as a history of the end of the Cold War, using Carlos as a vehicle to explore the zeitgeist and frustration among the far left after their efforts to resist the influence of capitalism had been foiled by the west.
The 6-hour piece was largely bankrolled by television producers–a medium loathed by Assayas–so he went to great lengths to make the film/miniseries as cinematic as possible. Shot on 35mm film, with widescreen formatting and a trend towards long, theatrical cuts as opposed to the more intimate shots with quicker edits in his more recent work, it is equally suited for theatrical presentation as it is streaming. An equally compelling aspect of Carlos is its soundtrack, which is entirely of its era. Assayas initially intended to use The Feelies almost exclusively for the soundtrack, but the band didn’t want their music to be associated with the leftist terrorist plot elements. Instead, the film is balanced with features from the British band The Wire, whose post punk Cold War attitude pays perfect compliment to the film’s stylistic sensibilities.
More of a revolutionary in rhetoric and playboy mercenary in practice, Carlos saw himself as a freedom fighter for the third world like those he emulated. Like many egotists before him, he wanted to mark his place in history, and his concern became his own mythology, his infamy in the press. Assayas described Carlos as “a creature of the media more so than a creature of politics.” However, once he adorned the costume of Carlos, he could never take it off. His fate was sealed after murdering two Parisian police officers and a former comrade of his cause.
Cast to helm the daunting part with lines in 5 languages, Edgar Ramirez — a Venezeulan actor best known before Carlos for his supporting role in Stephen Soderberg’s leftist epic Che — was a dream cast. Carlos conducted his business all throughout Europe and the Arab world, and the role demanded someone who could convincingly interact with actors from countries on multiple continents. Ramirez’s childhood as a military brat bouncing around Europe prepared him impeccably for the role; he is fluent in Spanish, English, German, French, and Italian. He also quickly learned to speak Arabic phonetically for the film, as it was imperative to Assayas that he sound fluent to a native Arabic speaker, as Carlos was known for his excellent Arabic.
The role required Ramirez to undergo extreme physical transformation. Throughout his life, whenever Carlos was forced to sit on his hands for a prolonged period of time, he was prone to spells of Orson Wells-level indulgence. As he notes in the film, idleness does not suit him well. Ramirez’s weight balloons as time passess and Carlos lets himself go almost in direct correlation to the abandonment of his leftist principles. The more his ethics deteriorated, the more he deteriorated physically, ballooning in size in the film’s latter acts.
In the opening act, we are introduced to Ilich Ramirez Sanches, a young, fit, and sharply dressed Venezuelan Marxist. In direct contrast with the leftist norms of the time, when anything opulent or flamboyant was criticized as “petit bourgeois,” his appearance was more playboy socialite than revolutionary, in silk shirts with big bold designer sunglasses. He arrived in Beirut, Libya fed up with the protesting and picketing that dominated the left; he was primed and ready for militance.
It is there he builds his relationship with Waddie Haddad, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization. After gaining the trust and respect of Haddad, Ilich sets out to assemble his own commando of communist revolutionaries in London and carry out attacks on behalf of the PFLP, initially with the goal of discouraging peace agreements between Israel and Palestine. It was during this time Ilich adopted the alias Carlos in honor of the Venezuelan President at the time, Carlos Andres Perez, who famously nationalized the Venezuelan oil industry in the wake of the oil boom of 1974.
Carlos earned the respect of the PFLP orchestrating operations throughout Europe and was tasked with carrying out perhaps the most audacious terrorist act of the 1970’s. In the aftermath of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, tensions were high and the Palestinian cause was in dire straits. Carlos enlisted his team of revolutionaries to take a stand as an act of rebellion for lifting the oil embargo, and to pursue peace talks in the Middle East. But in reality, this was an act of political revenge for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Hussein was allied with the PFLP and offered to pay them handsomely for the deal. Waddie Haddad then hired Carlos and his squadron to execute the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers as an act of retaliation for their country’s support for the Kurtish uprising in Baathist, Iraq.
The mission was foiled after the crew was unable to find asylum in Algeria or any nearby friendly countries and the DC-9 jet they demanded could not reach Iraq. Instead of following the instructions from Haddad, Carlos negotiated with Saudi Arabia and Iran who convinced the Algerians to accept the militant’s demands, along with financial dealings to negotiate the release of Saudi and Iranian ministers that they’d set out to execute. He and his team were then granted cover in South Yemen.
It is at this point in the film that it becomes clear to the audience that Carlos is not an idealogue, but a mercenary willing to do the dirty work of any nation willing to cut him a check. Banished from the PFLP after disobeying Haddad, Carlos formed the Organization of Armed Struggle in Budapest, and began doing mercenary work for Iraq, then Syria who provides him and his team with cover until he loses his use to them. Expelled from Syria, he seeks shelter in Sudan, where inevitably he is nabbed by French authorities.
Fellow member of his commando “Arm of the Arab Revolution” Hans Joachim Klein told a French reporter years later that “[Carlos] may have had political motives in the beginning, over time I realized that there were hardly any political motives at all,” he would continue. It was all about building his own mythology, embodied by the media creation of Carlos the Jackal. The more violent an active of terror, the better for his image, thought Carlos. In the same interview, Klein explained Carlos’ theory of massacre: “Violence should be horrible the more violence comes from me [Carlos], the more I am respected and the more they leave me alone.”
Just like Kanye West when he said, “Me found bravery in my bravado,” Ilich too found bravery in the confidence he drew from the character Carlos. The more infamous the legend of Carlos grew, the more it fed Ilich the confidence to fearlessly carry out his homicidal ploys. Also like Kanye, Carlos devolved into a figure of style over substance. He was more preoccupied pursuing the glory of martyr and wealth of a mercenary through progressing the Palestinian cause he paid lip service to. Ilich created Carlos with the idea that he would be more than an alias but an alter ego, a character to be played. Perhaps he set out as Ilich, a soldier without a country, and returned Carlos, a killer without a cause. He adorned the adopted costume of a revolutionary, emulating the aesthetic of world renowned freedom fighter Che Guevara, adorning herself in a beret, leather jacket, and growing a goatee.
The contradictions that defined Carlos were endless. He constantly maintained that he was a freedom fighter against capitalist imperialism, declaring early in the film that his only religion was Marxism. However, not only did he eventually convert to Islam, he constantly abused prostitutes and his wife, and ultimately, he spent his life transporting arms and committing acts of terror to enrich himself, not progress a cause, regardless of the story he told himself. It’s these inconsistencies and elements of Carlos’ life Assayas is most interested in.
In spite of this however, the film is presented almost as a line by line attempt at recreating the events that occurred. As a result there is no hand holding for the audience — the film spares no time explaining the geopolitics of the moment and expects the viewer to be familiar with the politics of the Arab Israeli peace process.
After aging a decade, Carlos feels just as cutting edge and exciting as when it first premiered. Because of the explosive nature of the story, there was no need to alter the events from the way they unfolded, they were gripping enough. Assayas pieced much of the film’s dialogue together from transcripts of conversations, which is why at the beginning of each of the films’ three parts he includes a note that reads “this film is the result of historical and journalistic research.” Specifically because Assayas chooses to present the events as closely as he could to the way they occurred in history, all of the nuances in the tangled web of geopolitics are transferred in a way that could have never been woven into an original screenplay.
The story is one that is entirely unfamiliar to the American audience and it’s not hard to imagine another reality where the nearly 6-hour feature had been cut into 50 minute episodes and would be thriving on Netflix. While it asks a lot of an audience who may not be familiar with the nuances of the politics of the time, the film functions just as well as an exhilarating ride alongside one of the most notorious international terrorists of the Cold War: Carlos the Jackal.