“Terror’s Advocate” (“L’Avocat de la Terreur” in French) by Barbet Schroeder is not for everyone. This documentary about the infamous French lawyer, Jacques Vergés, who defended Klaus Barbie could be unsettling for anyone who believes a character study should reach a definitive conclusion about its subject. Is this friend of the deservedly friendless (like Pol Pot, Carlos the Jackal and other charmers) a fellow traveller of evildoers, a misguided fool, an unscrupulous lawyer who could justify anything, an egomaniac, an agent of the French secret police, a fortune hunter? This meticulously researched and subtle documentary lets you decide. Vergés comes across as a highly intelligent, engaging character whose inner motivation remains mysterious.
He begins his career defending an Algerian woman accused of bombing a cafe during Algeria’s struggle for independence. His sympathy for the Algerian cause and love for his client (they later married) immediately engages the viewer. Through interviews with Verges and several long-time friends his sincerity is obvious.
Matters then become murkier. An old friend insists that he is “sentimental, very sentimental”. She repeats the word several times. Then we learn that Verges abruptly abandoned his family and “disappeared” for seven years. The gap is not completely explained but it appears that he spent some time in Cambodia with his good friend Pol Pot and then returned to Paris and became involved in the Palestinian cause.
He’s broke and then suddenly not at all broke. He’s throwing cash around, buying furniture, paying with small bills. His defense of his celebrated Algerian wife has endeared him to Palestinian terrorists, or freedom fighters, depending on your point of view. He becomes involved in the defense of Palestinians accused of attacking an El Al plane in Athens. Vergés has a taste for the good life and the terrorists pay well.
Or do they? In an odd interview, a former member of the French secret police comes close to stating outright that Vergés was working for the French government. How else to explain the fact that he’s allowed to live and work in Paris undisturbed despite nearly irrefutable evidence of his long friendship with Carlos the Jackal?
In addition to probing the character of this enigmatic man, the film traces the development of pre-911 international terrorism with its links between Algerians, Palestinians, Iranians, Swiss Nazis and the Bader-Meinhof gang. I don’t know how Schroeder got interviews with three decades worth of bomb-throwing radicals (“Yes I was in charge of recruiting pretty Algerian girls to plant bombs”) but it makes a fascinating story even if the links become increasingly tangled and tricky to follow. Certainly the film runs too long.
I chose the film because, as a former defense lawyer, I was curious how Jacques Vergés approached his work and how the director would approach him. Having known radical lawyer Lynne Stewart in New York, I sympathized with her legal predicament, if not her politics. And how often had people asked me how I could defend those horrible people (i.e. muggers and dope dealers)! At the end, Vergés gives the standard defense lawyer reply about how you must give your heart and soul to the client without “crossing the white line”, as he put it.
Yet the truth lies more in the obvious relish with which he approached trial work. “There’s 40 lawyers against me. That must mean they are worth 1/40th of me! And every day they come to court worrying–what is the little bastard going to do today!” In defending Klaus Barbie he put the French on trial for their crimes in Algeria. The “Butcher of Lyon” tortured the French resistance just as the French occupiers tortured the Algerian resistance was Vergés’ defense. I don’t know if I buy it, but for the courtroom it would be the only plausible line of defense.
This is an intelligent, provocative film that deserves a wider release than it will probably get.