The first frames of Terror's Advocate—director Barbet Schroeder's engrossing, dispassionate study of Jacques Vergès, France's infamous lawyer-to-the-beastly—are ceded to a fragile Cambodian pensioner wearing the high-cropped haircut of a 1950's-era American teenager. With calm conviction, Saloth Sar—better known by his nom-de-genocide Pol Pot—sets the tone of the document to follow: Monsieur Vergès, Saloth assures his interlocutor, is indeed a decent man, a man he holds in high esteem. So within minutes of reclining into their seats, viewers will sense that Jacques Vergès, friend of Mao and Carlos the Jackal, is already drowning; his Khmer character witness, with whom he studied at the Sorbonne and, rumor has it, conspired to take over Cambodia, graciously throws him a life preserver made of stone.
Cut back to Vergès, sitting in his opulent Paris office, puffing on a Cuban cigar, enveloped in smoke and tacky objects d'art bequeathed to him by various African tyrants. In the style of David Irving, he gently concedes that while some bad things happened during the evacuation of Phnom Penh, there was certainly no deliberate genocide by Pol Pot's cadres. Flashing a crooked grin, he assures the audience that under scholarly scrutiny the number of deaths commonly attributed to the communist Khmer Rouge—estimated at 1.7 million—just "doesn't tally." In the film's only deliberate repudiation of Vergès, Schroeder's camera rebuts this absurdity with a quick tracking shot across a row of fractured skulls, neatly stacked.
Terror's Advocate is a rambling, two-and-a-half hour recapitulation of Jacques Vergès' moral, intellectual and legal defense of various post-war terrorist movements, beginning with a detailed explication of his involvement in the FLN struggle to free Algeria from French occupation. Schroeder scrupulously avoids passing judgment on his subject, instead shepherding the viewer on a gruesome terror tour with Vergès—the Zelig of far-left revolutionary violence—as guide. Along the way, we discover a formidable legal tactician who has proffered his considerable courtroom talent to thuggish leaders like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein and the both clumsy and brutal Baader-Meinhof terrorists; a terrorist supporter, if not direct participant, who went underground for eight unexplained years; a fulminating anti-Zionist with uncomfortable ties to the European Nazi movement.
Born to a Vietnamese mother and French father, Jacques Vergès, it seems beyond dispute, was regularly treated as a second-class citizen upon returning to his father's native country; the French colonial presence in his mother's native country too had a galvanizing effect on his political worldview. Schroeder cites Vergès's reaction to the Sétif massacre, during which his countrymen killed thousands of Algerians on the day of Nazi Germany's surrender, as the pivotal moment in his political development-though his ideological path was likely foreordained, as Vergès joined the Communist Party before the Second World War.
Writing at his Atlantic Monthly blog, Andrew Sullivan posited that what Vergès's background "reveals is that terrorism itself—especially in its modern variety—is rooted in the deepest sense of indignity and dishonor that afflicts many cultures reduced to servility by colonialism or indigenous pathologies. Vergès' profound anger from growing up in the developing world and righteous resistance to the French occupation of Algeria fuels his career of defending evil in the courtroom. You can see in this movie how violence begets more violence, how evil propels more evil, and how easy it is in advancing a cause to become morally corrupted by anger." A friend interviewed by Schroeder agrees, arguing that Vergès development was "born angry, born colonized."
But this argument can't satisfactorily explain why Vergès, son of a diplomat and beneficiary of France's most prestigious university education, accepted the murder of civilians as a precondition of colonial liberation. Neither does it explain why so many other, less-fortunate victims of colonial France—or colonial wherever—avoided colluding with terrorists like Carlos to attack civilian targets in Western Europe. And rather than a presenting a stultifying, implausible morality play—in which the colonized asks the foreboding Leninist question "What is to be done?"—Schroeder's film adds a disruptive wrinkle, ignored by Sullivan and most other critics: Vergès seemingly incongruous defense of Klaus Barbie, the Vichy-based Gestapo officer known as the "Butcher of Lyon." It is at this point that the screen fills with friends and colleagues who, while previously exculpating those who engage in revolutionary violence, now question Vergès moral seriousness, for it was his friend François Genoud, a Swiss Nazi and funder of Arab terrorism, that enlisted him to Barbie's defense.
Because of the Barbie case, Los Angeles Times reviewer Kenneth Turan sees Vergès as a "complex and contradictory character"—an allusion to both his leftist ideology and his close relationship with Josef Goebbels' old chum Genoud. The Barbie/Genoud saga, when considered next to his hard leftism, qualifies Vergès as "bottomlessly enigmatic," says Variety's review.
But there is nothing complex, contradictory, or enigmatic about it. Without a hand-holding narrator, one can be forgiven for missing the obvious: Rather than being motivated solely by the righteous anger of the oppressed, as Sullivan suggests, or politically conflicted, as many others have argued, it is not difficult to ascribe to Vergès a virulent strain of anti-Semitism that transcends traditional political labels. It is one thing to believe, as he argues throughout the film, that every loathsome despot deserves a fair trial (though one gets the sense that Vergès would decline to defend a tyrant like Augusto Pinochet), and quite another to accept the case of Klaus Barbie on the advice of an outspoken Nazi who is a "brother" in the struggle against Israel.
To believe that Vergès's political views are "contradictory," one must believe the argument of Vergès client and former lover, Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist Magdalena Kopp. When interviewed by Schroeder, the dour Kopp reaches for her generation's Nuremberg defense: They were merely ordinary Germans, radicalized by the crimes of their parents' generation, though she fails to recognize her single degree of separation, via Vergès and Carlos, to those very murderers.
Rather, if one looks at the ideological meeting points of the European radical left and right, it is increasingly evident that there exist more commonalities than differences. (It should be explicitly noted that such ideological confluence affects only the extreme left and right, not those, say, critical of Israeli policy in general.) In Germany, former hard-left student leader Bernd Rabehl now inhabits the fringes of nationalist right-wing politics. Klaus Reiner Roehl, ex-husband of terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, too has migrated from the radical left to the radical right, contributing to the "post-fascist" newspaper Junge Freiheit. Former Baader-Meinhof terrorist Horst Mahler now acts as legal counsel for the neo-Nazi political party NPD, whose views on Israel and the United States are nearly identical to those put forth by his comrades in the RAF. (In one scene in Terror's Advocate, repentant RAF terrorist Hans Joachim Klein describes being spirited to Libya after the 1975 attack on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Upon discovering that Klein was German, one Libyan comrade expressed his fondness for Adolf Hitler.) In an online diary entry, Holocaust denier David Irving describes his shock at discovering this convergence: "I like more and more of what The Guardian, this left-wing liberal British newspaper has to say; and its Sunday sister, The Observer. Perhaps I am really left-wing after all, a socialist, as was the aforementioned artist and statesman [Adolf Hitler]." It's worth noting here what is not mentioned in Terror's Advocate, that Vergès also defended Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, himself an ex-Marxist revolutionary.
And yet, Jacques Vergès supposed straddling of ideologies is Terror's Advocate's hook; gasping audiences wonder how a man who believes in the liberation struggle of Third World can sidle up with those who believe in Hitlerian fascism.
But the skillful lawyer, the defender of the indefensible, is no match for the skillful documentarian, and Vergès unwittingly—and persuasively—argues for the prosecution.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.