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Experiments in terror

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Special to The Times

Barbet Schroeder loves monsters. Especially when examined from the vantage point of their lair.

Not the monsters of horror films such as “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” Schroeder’s monsters are very real: Socialite Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune,” or the drug-dealing teenage hit men of “Our Lady of the Assassins,” or most memorably the late and unlamented Ugandan dictator and mass-murderer Idi Amin. Schroeder spent many anxiety-ridden months in 1974 filming the man whose life was re-created last year in dramatic form in “The Last King of Scotland.” But Schroeder’s bio/documentary, “General Idi Amin Dada” (now available on DVD,) doesn’t have the filter of Forest Whitaker’s performance to keep horror at bay. When his camera points at Amin, it’s the real deal.

And so is his latest film, “Terror’s Advocate.”

While it’s obvious throughout “General Idi Amin Dada” that Schroeder was inches away from incurring the monster’s displeasure -- thus risking his life -- no such danger looms in “Terror’s Advocate.” For its subject, the wildly controversial lawyer Jacques Verges, is the soul of the “civilized” -- witty, urbane, convivial -- a lover of “the good life” in the best French bourgeois tradition. The monstrousness seeps through this discreet charm in the form of the clients Verges has defended over the years: Seventies-era leftist bomber Magdalena Kopp, Nazi Klaus Barbie, genocidal ex-Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic among others.

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And that’s not to mention the monsters Verges knew in his personal life -- like Cambodian despot Pol Pot (whom we learn in “Terror’s Advocate” he went to school with as a boy) and freelance quasi-political psychopath Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known and feared throughout the world as “Carlos the Jackal.”

“Verges was a hero to me when I was very young, for defending the Algerian cause,” said Schroeder, speaking by phone from Japan where he’s in the midst of his latest production, “Inju.”

“Like many people of my generation I supported the Algerians in their struggle against the French. But after a time he turned into someone out of a Balzac novel. He vanished for eight years and when he returned as Klaus Barbie’s lawyer -- well, he was really pretty disgusting. The end credits show that his clients are now all African dictators with lots of blood on their hands.”

Schroeder -- who has been a towering force in international filmmaking both in France and the U.S. for close to 50 years -- does not ease us into this heart of darkness. The first person we see speaking on screen in “Terror’s Advocate” is Pol Pot, an exceedingly rare piece of footage Schroeder managed to shoot just before the dictator’s 1998 death. But it’s typical of the filmmaker who goes where even the darkest of angels fear to tread.

“I always think ‘Who are the characters? What are their stories?,’ ” said the 66-year-old Schroeder, who began his career producing the markedly low-key and exceptionally droll comedies of Eric Rohmer before moving on to direct works as varied as the 1976 romantic drama “Maitresse,” the gritty alcoholic dissolution of Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke in “Barfly” (1987), and the 1992 psychological thriller “Single White Female,” with a chilling turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

This time out new elements entered the picture, for there was no difficulty in getting a showboat like Verges before the camera, who certainly didn’t need any prodding to talk about himself and his life. The film’s opening credits say “Terror’s Advocate” represents “the director’s point of view” on Verges. But Schroeder doesn’t do so in an openly derisive manner.

“The great decision I took was not to make a voice-over. Whatever I had to say had to be done subtly though the editing. At the same time, I want the audience to be able to come to their own conclusions.” All of this is engineered through massive amounts of information neatly compressed into a brisk 132 minutes, aided by Jorge Arriagada’s lush score.

“I wasn’t afraid to use music the way you would in a fictional film. The important figures have their own musical themes -- like in Hitchcock. It’s so exciting to be work on a documentary film this way. I’m not afraid of the fictional elements.”

We learn that Verges was born of a Vietnamese mother and a French colonialist father, thus an “outsider/insider” from the start. His first triumph was defending Djamila Bouhired, the Algerian “Milk Bar Bomber,” whose actions, memorialized in Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers,” jump-started that ‘60s-era “war of liberation.” Schroeder shows that her actions sprang from retaliation for years of French government-sponsored terror including a mass killing of Algerian civilians on the day World War II ended. After winning her freedom, Verges married her. They had two children.

But working as common divorce lawyer in free Algiers was not for Verges, who left her for parts unknown. Both the film and the website dedicated to it -- www.terrorsadvocate.com -- explore what might have gone on during those missing years. For the fast-talking Verges is wilier than any fox, and clearly won’t reveal everything he knows about anything.

“I think Verges’ goal is to relive what he experienced during the Algeria war, when he was such a respected figure,” said Schroeder. “But now everything to do with him has become pathetic and corrupted.”

Through interviews with radicals both active and retired, Schroeder examines not only Verges, but the history of late 20th Century terrorism in all its many faces including the West German “Red Army Faction” and Arab terrorist leader Waddi Haddad

His own rogue’s gallery

There are a dizzying series of alliances that brought extreme left figures such as Klaus Croissant together with unrepentant Nazis including Francois Genoud, with Verges as the common connecting thread either as legal counsel or personal acquaintance. As with Pol Pot, “Carlos the Jackal” (now safely in prison) is an actual friend of Verges, though at one point in the film Verges denies having any ties to him.

Schroeder’s interest in letting his subjects -- as the saying goes -- “hoist themselves by their own petard” sets the filmmaker apart from such far less playful filmmakers as Marcel Ophuls (“Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie”) -- a documentarian whose work he greatly admires.

But then Schroeder isn’t like the typical documentarian, veering wildly as he does between fiction and documentary, Hollywood and France, “mainstream” and avant-garde.

Born in Tehran to a family of geologists, Schroeder spent his childhood on the other side of world in Central America.

“Between the ages of 7 and 11 I lived in Colombia. It was one of the happiest times of my life,” Schroeder recalled. “That’s why it was so interesting to go back to Medellin and make ‘Our Lady of the Assassins,’ which is about something that isn’t happy.”

Shot on high-definition video with a no-star cast, this fast-paced and grimly amusing drama was markedly different from the mainstream-minded Schroeder features that preceded it, such as his David Caruso-starring remake of “Kiss of Death.” However it bears some relation to the film that followed it -- Ryan Gosling’s dramatic debut as one of a pair of Leopold and Loeb-styled killers in “Murder by Numbers.”

The macabre is never far from Schroeder’s mind, whether it be Glenn Close’s narration as a comatose Sunny von Bulow speaking to us from the beyond or his performance as a suavely menacing ghost in Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” In fact Schroeder has lent his acting skills to a number of noteworthy films including “Queen Margot,” “Mars Attacks!” and just recently “The Darjeeling Limited.”

In short, he’s all over the cinematic map. And that map is set to expand even further with his new film “Inju,” based on a story by Rampo Edogawa. The Edgar Allan Poe-derived pen name of one Hirai Taro, Edogawa was a Japanese writer who turned out scores of detective thrillers and mystery stories.

“Rampo was quite an amazing writer with a very perverse streak. Serial killers have used his books as reference,” noted Schroeder, whose film will be “a Japanese movie, an American thriller and a French movie all in one -- with a super twist at the end. It was written in the ‘30s and is about the revenge of a Japanese writer against a foreigner who copies his work. Benoit Magimel [a rising young French leading man] is starring with a number of young Japanese actors.”

“We’re working in Kurosawa’s studio,” Schroeder said. “Shinto priests are coming to bless our movie, which is something I’ve never had before. We have a crew of over 100 and there are some action sequences, which are new to me. In fact this is the hardest movie I’ve ever done.”

But at the moment, “Terror’s Advocate” may provide Schroeder greater fame. The world it examines calls to mind another film about terrorism, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s wildly controversial 1978 dark comedy “The Third Generation” -- which concerns a terrorist cell operating in a state of total, and quite deliberate, confusion.

“I didn’t produce that one for some reason, but I was involved because Bulle [Ogier, Schroeder’s wife] was one of the stars. It was reviled by the left. At the time Fassbinder’s view of terrorism seemed so extravagant. Now it’s completely realistic. He created those characters because he really knew those people. It was fiction, but it was true.”

In other words it was a film Schroeder might have made. But in 1978 he was in the U.S. shooting a documentary about his one truly benign monster, “Koko -- A Talking Gorilla.” Taught sign language by Stanford University researcher Penny Patterson and seemingly able to communicate with humans, Koko is, in Schroeder’s words, “just so charming.”

More charming than Verges, not to mention Idi Amin, but, as always with Schroeder, ever-so-slightly disturbing.


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