Giving monsters a strong defense

Times Staff Writer

Jacques Verges is such a compelling, complex and contradictory character that if he didn't exist someone would be obliged to invent him. It is the gift of "Terror's Advocate," Barbet Schroeder's riveting new documentary, to simply present Verges as is, to say "here is the man" and let things speak for themselves. Do they ever.

Though he's all but unknown in this country, French attorney Verges is familiar in Europe for defending the indefensible, for serving as the lawyer for those whom society, with reason, considers to be monsters: notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Khmer Rouge leader and architect of genocide Pol Pot, fugitive Nazi Klaus Barbie and many, many more.

Yet whatever image this list conjures up, the sybaritic, cigar-smoking Verges likely confounds it. Formidably intelligent, effortlessly articulate, a witty raconteur, Verges is not only the smartest guy in the room, he knows it. His arrogance is the real thing, not the store-bought kind, and his contempt for the "mindless fools" with "tiny brains" who oppose him is as understandable as it is completely mesmerizing.

Sure of his ability to control any situation, Verges cooperated completely with the film but allowed Schroeder final cut, and, with a lesser director, that strategy would have been effective. But Schroeder, who has a documentary on Idi Amin as well as the Oscar-winning "Reversal of Fortune" among his credits, is a savvy, fearless director who is not so easily manipulated. "He's a combination of Alan Dershowitz and Claus von Bulow," said Schroeder of his subject at Cannes, where the film was the talk of the festival. "You get two for the price of one."

Schroeder not only gives us Verges' fascinating personal history, he understands that in telling it he is also conveying the spellbinding half-secret, half-forgotten history of revolutionary terrorism in the 20th century, a movement Verges was present at the creation of and knows intimately.

So "Terror's Advocate" shows us the stranger-than-fiction inner workings of what sometimes plays like an especially deadly political soap opera, complete with romance, bullets and blood. It's enough to make you wonder if people like Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum simply took notes on reality when they wrote their thrillers.

Though the film utilizes newsreels and other footage, it makes its points largely through a series of interviews with a wealth of eloquent, involving individuals, people like the legendary French cartoonist Sine, former terrorists H.J. Klein and Magdalena Kopp, and Carlos the Jackal himself, speaking by phone from a French prison. This may sound like a parade of talking heads, but when the talk is as smart and focused as it is here, when it's intricately cut together by editor Nelly Quettier to Jorge Arriagada's persuasive score, the result is completely exhilarating.

Verges was born on the island of Reunion off the coast of Africa to a French father and a Vietnamese mother. He grew up both loving the intellectual ideals of France and feeling like an outsider in a colony where people of color had to step aside for French settlers. As a friend says, it's as if "he was born angry, born at war."

Verges first enters the stage of history during Algeria's fight for independence in the 1950s. As a French lawyer in Algiers who was sympathetic to the cause, he became the attorney for the beautiful 21-year-old Djamila Bouhired, a convicted terrorist who had been tortured and then sentenced to death for planting a bomb that had killed 11 people.

Rather than taking the expected route of pleading for sympathy for his client, Verges tried to provoke the French into incidents that would play well on the international stage. This "rupture defense," the refusal to consider any kind of dialogue with the prosecution, turned Bouhired into the embodiment of Algeria worldwide and saved her life.

Though it doesn't say so explicitly, it is the thesis of "Terror's Advocate" that Verges has in effect spent the rest of his life trying to recapture the heady feeling he had in Algeria of being in the forefront of a heroic, idealistic revolutionary struggle. It's a drive that has led him to some strange companions in arms, and none stranger than Carlos the Jackal and Magdalena Kopp.

As "Terror's Advocate" relates in fascinating detail, these two, kind of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor of violent revolution, were at the heart of waves of deadly attacks across Europe. When Kopp was captured in France, Verges became her attorney, and the resulting psychological dynamics have to be seen and heard to be believed.

Is there nothing Jacques Verges wouldn't do? Would he defend Hitler? "I'd even defend Bush," the attorney replies, perfectly in character, wreathed in enigmatic cigar smoke. "But only if he pleaded guilty."

MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes. Playing Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500.

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