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“I remember one day, we were doing camera tests,” Édgar Ramírez said of Olivier Assayas’s five-and-a-half-hour Carlos, a political travelogue, an on-the-run biography of the terrorist—born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in Venezuela in 1949, now serving life in Clairvaux Prison in France—who, from his murder of French police in Paris in 1975 to his kidnapping of OPEC oil ministers later that year in Vienna, from his hideouts in Syria, Yemen, and Hungary to his capture in Sudan in 1994, was a one-man specter haunting Europe. “And then we’re having lunch: Alexander Scheer,” the German actor who plays Carlos’s almost obscenely loyal terrorist comrade Weinrich, “and then Nora von Waldstätten,” the Austrian actress who plays Magdalena Kopp, Carlos’s wife, “Olivier, and myself. And suddenly, Alexander, who’s the most spontaneous one, he goes”—and Ramírez, participating in a public conversation with Assayas and myself at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2010, adopted a serious, considered, almost abstractly intellectual tone—“‘Like, guys, I’m not sure if you feel the same thing, but, really, I have no idea how to play this character.’ And then I froze, and then Nora goes, ‘Yes, quite honestly, I have no idea how to play this character.’ And then it’s me, and I say, ‘You know what, I have no idea how I’m going to play Carlos.’ And a pause, and Olivier: ‘Actually, I feel very relieved—because I have no idea how I’m going to shoot this movie.’ That set the tone for what was going to happen. Everybody just relaxed. We said, ‘We’re here, it’s just like soccer—it’s just, score.’”
With all of the movie’s blindingly fast action sequences, which capture the confusion and fright of an act of violence from a half dozen perspectives simultaneously—terrorists firing on an Israeli airplane at Orly and then fleeing police through crowds, in a panic belied only by their guns and grenades—with all of its flashes of instant murder and summary execution, with its dozens of moments during which, not after, the person watching says, “What? Did that happen? Is it over? So fast?” Ramírez’s story captures the heart of Carlos: its improvisational spirit, its openness to twists and turns occurring when it grasps the story it means to tell, and when the story pushes back.
“I had no preconception of Carlos,” Assayas said at Telluride. “I did not want to interpret Carlos. I did not want to try to figure out motives . . . I always thought the image of Carlos would come out of the accumulation of facts. He would take life in front of us.” He was presenting a view of personality and history: “I’ve always believed there are different chapters in lives, that people can be transformed as history is being transformed around them—and also that individuals are defined by the way that they adapt to changing times. In the case of Carlos, it’s particularly interesting in that we are talking about an individual who is caught up in history with a major H. He is within the fabric of the history of his times. So I thought, in the end, the facts speak much more precisely of who Carlos is than anything that would have to do with melodrama, with psychology, with some fake human texture. I think, in the end, Carlos has a lot of human believability. And it’s not brought by what I wrote in the screenplay. It’s simply brought by the presence of an actor, the physical presence of an actor.”
Édgar Ramírez’s presence is so strong that the other actors revolve around him as if he were a star and they planets helpless in the face of his gravity—especially Scheer as the finally apostate Weinrich, von Waldstätten as the inexorably emptying Kopp, Julia Hummer as the bloodthirsty Nada, Katharina Schüttler as the terrorist Brigitte Kuhlmann, who takes more pride in following orders than she ever could in giving them. And the same process—the same shared spirit—took countless other forms as well.
“We didn’t rehearse at all,” Olivier said. “We didn’t rehearse for the camera, we didn’t rehearse for the sound. What I was telling my cameraman was, ‘I think he’s going to do this, but he may also do that. If he does this, do that; if he does this other thing, try this other thing—but in any case, try to end up where he does this other thing, and then there’s this other guy who will be coming, and he has a grenade, so try to get the grenade when he throws it and it rolls on the ground. And okay, we’re shooting.’” You can see this on the screen: it’s a lot of the reason the viewer is caught up, suspended in the action, in the historical moment it defines, with past and future sucked into the immediacy of what’s-happening-now.
Visually, perhaps the most striking instance of the shuffling of perspectives inherent in this kind of process, where discovery trumps intent, comes with the transfer of the OPEC ministers from their meeting place in Vienna to a bus that will take them to the airport from which they’ll fly to an unknown fate. The viewer knows this happened. The viewer probably knows what happened next—how, for the terrorists, the whole spectacular enterprise, capturing the attention of the world, came to nothing. That is not how it plays. It starts with 16 mm black-and-white documentary footage of a press conference given by the Austrian chancellor, Bruno Kreisky—but Assayas inserts the actor who plays Kreisky into the footage. He then cuts to his own footage of the bus coming to receive the hostages, but still in black and white, as if the documentary footage is continuing. As the bus arrives, the film gradually shifts from black and white to color, from apparent history into its artistic reconstruction—and the result is that the modified or corrupted documentary footage dissolves the sense of artifice in the fictionalized film we’re actually watching, and the presence of the actors dissolves the in-the-past nature of the documentary footage, so that, regardless of what we may know of the actual events being portrayed, we don’t know what is going to happen.
There is a sense of the filmmaker’s humility before his subject here—and nothing more completely asserts Assayas’s confidence that the subject was itself a kind of collaborator in the infinitely complex enterprise of filmmaking than the approach he took to scoring the movie, though scoring is not the right word.
From scene to scene—Carlos preening naked in front of a mirror, the takeover of the OPEC conference, the shooting of a military policeman at a Swiss checkpoint, a weapons delivery, a breakdown in communications—the movie is less scored to than invaded by postpunk songs so romantic and tough they create empathy for situations even as the film withholds it from its characters. We hear, almost see, numbers by the Feelies and New Order, the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” and, most viscerally, Wire’s “Dot Dash,” a song that seems to terrorize itself. Not in any way keyed to the scenes with chronological, soundtrack-of-our-lives banality, the songs raise the question of whether the best and most adventurous music of the late 1970s and early 1980s was itself as animated by international terrorism, by the specter of a world where, at times, it could seem that only a few armed gnostics were in control, as by anything else.
The use of this music is an interesting choice, but even more interesting is what Assayas didn’t use—what didn’t work, and why. “I had absolutely no notion when I was making this film of the kind of music I would be using,” he said. “I never use scores; I use songs that I like. In the case of Carlos, I didn’t have a clue. I tried a lot of stuff, and the film did not want it. I thought that this movie needed classic movie music, which is something I never do, I never use—still, maybe the length of the film, the epic pace, maybe I could use some kind of orchestral movie music. The film laughed in my face when I tried it. It rejected a lot of stuff. At one point, I was just desperate. I thought, Maybe no music at all—why not? I started trying stuff—I was just shooting in the dark. And then—I had this Feelies track. It was perfect. All of a sudden, it gave me the right note.” Then, he said, “I knew what the film wanted.”
What Assayas is talking about is the imperative, the momentum, of a film itself thinking. If you are open to the world you are attempting to depict and the means by which you might do so, once you begin the enterprise of filmmaking, the thing you are making will tell you what is and what is not possible, what will violate its personality and what will light it up. Over its great length, crisscrossing the map like a tribe lost in the desert, Carlos retains that spirit of a movie making its own choices.
Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces, The Shape of Things to Come, and The Manchurian Candidate in the BFI Film Classics series. With Werner Sollors, he is the editor of A New Literary History of America (Harvard, 2009). He currently teaches at the New School in New York and lives in Oakland, California.