Terror’s Advocate

A weirdly nonjudgmental movie about a lawyer who never met a terrorist he wouldn’t defend.

Omar Radad and Jacques Vergès in Terror’s Advocate

Terror’s Advocate, Barbet Schroeder’s film about Jacques Vergès—the lawyer on every terrorist’s speed dial—is ostensibly about the difference between representing mass murderers and believing in their causes. Many good lawyers justify representing bad people as a commitment to legal principles that transcends the crime at hand. Jacques Vergès seems to do it out of love. In fact, the movie, which opens this week in Washington, D.C., begins as a smoky love story starring Vergès and Djamila Bouhired—the Algerian woman who planted the infamous “Milk Bar” bomb during the Battle of Algiers in 1956, killing 11 people and wounding five. Not only did the newly licensed Vergès save her life by flying in from France to represent her with an operatic defense that turned Bouhired into La Pasionaria—the face of Algerian freedom—he also fell madly in love with and married her. For a while.

Terror’s Advocate would have been problematic enough had Schroeder limited his inquiry to Vergès’ moral transition from Bouhired’s starry-eyed counsel to the hired gun of seemingly every terrorist and despot on the planet: Vergès has maintained an international network of friends and clients ranging from Pol Pot (responsible for the slaughter of 1.5 million Cambodians) to Klaus Barbie (the “Butcher of Lyon”) to Carlos “the Jackal.” But this is not really a movie that asks the question, “Why do good lawyers defend bad people?” Schroeder doesn’t seem to much care. To the great frustration of some viewers, Schroeder largely declines to judge Vergès’ ethical choices, and with the exception of a few platitudes about the need for a vigorous defense, Vergès does little to reveal his moral world. But that’s because Terror’s Advocate is less a film about ethical choices than it is about the theater of ethical choices.

Schroeder’s movie is not an indictment of the man who famously offered to defend Saddam Hussein, though it’s not a tribute, either. Like any good love story, it’s more complicated than that. The real arc of this narrative follows Vergès from his first love—of the Algerian resistance movement as personified by Djamila Bouhired—to his increasingly hollow efforts to replicate that love affair with his successive clients. Schroeder offers us a Vergès  who wants only to recapture the glory of 1957, in which he single-handedly saved his client from a death sentence with a theatrical trial and a publicity blitz that turned her into “the Joan of Arc of Algeria.”

But as he aligns himself with one terrorist after another, Vergès stops asking whether they are truly noble freedom fighters and begins simply insisting upon it in the courtroom. He stages endless revivals of Djamila’s trial and falls in love with each client and each cause without any real regard for what they have done or why. By the end of his career, he is defending the world’s most despicable killers, lovingly casting them as new and improved Djamilas, absurdly describing even Pol Pot as a misunderstood victim of colonial aggression.

It’s tempting to line Vergès up next to Alan Dershowitz (whose work Schroeder explored in Reversal of Fortune), Lynn Stewart, or even the lawyers currently defending detainees at Guantanamo, in an effort to find some unifying principle or characteristic of people who defend criminals and terrorists. But Vergès stands for no principle, he never speaks loftily of the law (“not an odious profession”) or of the truth-seeking function of an adversarial system. The legal principle he appears to cherish is ambiguous, but it may be no more complicated than “the show must go on.” A master of the so-called “rupture strategy”—a defense in which Vergès accuses the prosecution of the same offense as the defendant—it may look like he’s profoundly devoted to the oppressed or the abused. But what he’s really devoted to is the thrill of upending the moral universe. He isn’t committed to representing the oppressed and the abused. But he does delight in finding a way to cast each of his increasingly vile clients in that light.

“In every trial, we’d say torture was used,” he smiles. But it’s a mistake to ascribe this strategy to some sophisticated strain of moral relativism; the notion that every wrong is itself a product of an earlier wrong. The charm of the rupture strategy for Vergès lies in the gorgeous theater such ironies can produce. Our protagonist talks little of justice or law, and focuses on staging. Describing his Klaus Barbie defense, he grins slyly: “It was up to us, within their set, to improvise our play.” Vergès is all about showmanship: Shift some props, re-drape a costume, and presto! Yesterday’s terrorist is today’s freedom fighter.

But if Vergès’ eyes are dead when he talks about justice or truth, they light up when he talks about women. And food. Vergès left Djamila Bouhired and their two children in 1970, disappearing for eight years that are still unaccounted for today. After his reappearance, he fell in love with Magdalena Kopp, member of the German RZ and lover of Carlos. Vergès seems rather uninterested in her radical cause but recalls with delight the “smoked country ham” and ice cream with Armagnac he snuck into prison during his visits with Kopp. And each of his stories seems to contain at least one pit stop for cheese.

This seems almost trivial until a friend describes Vergès as someone who would have probably been a terrorist himself, were it not for the fact that he liked good food and books too much. “If he could have pressed a button and blown things up, he’d have done it,” observes his buddy. But Vergès was not one to sleep in cellars and eat out of tins. Becoming terror’s advocate allowed Vergès to blow up his cake and eat it, too.

Vergès should have learned the same lesson eventually understood by romantics everywhere: No love is perfect, no cause is pure, and even fine foods go rancid. Schroeder’s movie reminds us of this fact constantly, as he parades one paunchy, balding, ‘60’s-era European bomb-thrower after another for interviews about their gory glory days. The once-smoldering Magdalena Kopp looks exhausted and ill-used as she struggles to explain her participation in a Paris bombing attempt in 1982. H.J. Klein, an operative in the hostage-taking at a Vienna meeting of OPEC ministers in 1975, looks to be both insane and on death’s door as he describes his decision to renounce terrorism. Even Carlos himself—interviewed via telephone from Clairvaux prison, where he is serving a life sentence—sounds old and bitter; less jackal than mutt. As it turns out, yesterday’s freedom fighter is today’s bitter, elderly ex-con.

Unlike his famous clients, Vergès  himself seems to have aged little and changed not at all in the 50 years since he fell in love with Djamila, Algeria, and people who blow up other people in the name of some cause. Now 82, but looking 20 years younger, the devil’s advocate sits through most of his interviews behind a plush desk, waving a cigar, and looking for all the world like a smug Bond villain, stroking his invisible cat. Chuckling his way through one old war story after another, Jacques Vergès (that’s “Uncle Jacques” to Carlos’ children) could, at first, be any old lawyer, reliving his finest closing arguments and cross examinations. You have to listen closely to really register that this particular old lawyer thinks Pol Pot was guilty only of “unintentional genocide”; that Pot’s victims could not possibly have numbered in the millions; and that even if his client did some rotten things, wasn’t the American bombardment of Cambodia really to blame?

Terror’s Advocate has little to tell us about the moral universe of those who defend the horribly evil, simply because Vergès has little to say about morality. But in introducing us to a lawyer who thinks of the law simply as great theater—something to be enjoyed with a good cognac and a cigar—the film is devastating. Jacques Vergès’ clients may be sad and wrinkled, dead or on death row, and his Djamila long-forgotten. But their attorney ends the movie with an offer to defend anyone, “even George Bush.” Not because everyone deserves a zealous defense, but because it’s amusing to win cases by insulting the justice system. Unencumbered by any lofty ideas about justice and law, Vergès believes only in putting on a great production, in winning, and in his own infallibility. He is every ethical lawyer’s worst nightmare. And every terrorist’s dream.