Terror Advocate's Barbet Schroeder

Cannes Film Fest 2007–Interview with director Barbet Schroeder

Return to Docu 30 Years after General Idi Amin Dada

I never abandoned the documentary. After Amin Dada, I made a real documentary, KoKo, a Talking Gorilla, a philosphical movie starring a gorilla who had a real presence at all times. Next came another monster, Charles Bukowski, who had loved the Amin Dada film. With him, I tried to make something like a series of fifty aphorisms, little monologues: The Charles Bukowski Tapes. Another real documentary. But in any case I approach all my fiction films as documentaries. I am a great believer in the oft-repeated phrase: Every great film is a documentary.

In the case of Reversal of Fortune, we had a documentary obligation to follow the interviews that were on file, in other words, what Von Blow and others had declared to the police. We were obliged to respect, not the letter but the spirit of what was described in the depositions. These scenes werent invented; they are reality, somewhat reinterpreted. But even when youre making a documentary, you interpret, you fabricate a reality. So conversely, I always approach documentaries as if they were fictions.

Fictional Elements in Docu

Vergs is definitely a character from a novel. When youre dealing with the life of such a character, its always incredible. An avalanche of questions arise, certainly more than those surrounding his disappearance… Are you dealing with a great figure of historic importance or an infamous conman An innocent man wrongly presumed guilty, or a guilty man presumed innocent

Choice of Vergs as Subject

This film exists thanks to the fierce determination of my producer Rita Dagher. But my connection to Vergs is very strong: a link through life and political memories. When I was 14, 15 years old, I followed exactly the same political path as Vergs. I was some 20 years younger than him, I joined the communists even though they didnt really want me, then left them to align myself more closely with the movement in support of Algeria, while criticizing the communists for not doing enough for that cause. Exactly like Vergs. I followed everything he said or did, assiduously: I was a real fan! And of Sins drawings too.

Following Vergs Path

I felt very close to the Algerian cause, but shortly after independence, Ben Bella made a speech saying that, now, they were going to take care of Israel and I was shocked. At that time, I knew a lot about the Holocaust, and nothing about the Palestinian cause, and for me it was a crushing disappointment, seeing this great struggle ending up in one countrys waging war against another.

Vergs trajectory grew ever more incomprehensible to me, but I always dreamt of knowing more about this character, whom I viewed also as a perverse and decadent aesthete.
While we were filming Reversal of Fortune, the lawyer Alan Dershovitz (who also declared that he would be prepared to defend Hitler), reawakened my curiosity by talking to me of his great admiration for Vergs, the inventor of the rupture strategy.

A Mystery

While at the beginning he was a heroic figure for me, he became a somewhat repulsive mystery. But as I love monsters, I wasnt going to look a gift horse in the mouth! But really, what thrilled me most was the opportunity, through Vergs, of making a film about contemporary history, about our experience of the last 50 years, about what I too have lived through since the age of 13. So its also a film about my own political history, a look at my own life. Certainly, its not the same view I had while I was living through these events… The angle of blind terrorism allows us a new perspective that reveals a great deal about the last fifty years. And, unfortunately, about the decades to come.

Cinema or Inquiry

I didnt want a direct connection between what is said and what is shown. I wanted ricochets, short cuts, reflections, interior echoes. Thus when I talk about a love story, Im in fact talking about terrorism, and when I speak of terrorism, its from the perspective of a love story. Its these ricochets, these echoes that thrill me, because thats how the cinema I love works. You dont embark on some journalistic discourse in order to prove a proposition; you adopt a fictional, poetic approach. But this is also a detective movie. I was the chief detective, aided by my accomplice Eugnie Grandval who led the enquiry and filmed the interviews armed only with a little high-definition camera. I truly wanted this film to be as gripping as any thriller or spy movie.

Avoiding Voice-Over

Its a bit like with Amin Dada, the idea is to allow things to speak for themselves; the films discourse must be a cinematic discourse, conveyed through the editing. We understand the discourse through the editing, theres no voice-over explaining everything, just images that suggest: the viewer is left to do some of the work. My collaboration with the editor Nelly Quettier was essential in this respect. We had to find a narrative and to remain always within this narrative, with the characters. And above all, never miss an opportunity to highlight conflict, suspense, and those moments when something could really happen.

Use of Symphonic Score

The film is conceived entirely as a work of fiction. Jorge Arriagadas music is there to reinforce every fictional element: it indicates to us the love stories about which are characters do not wish to speak. So we have Djamilas theme, a similar, if less elevated theme for Magdalena, themes for the Palestinian freedom fighters, to help us understand the ideals for which they were fighting at the time. The entire score acts as in a fiction film, to underline moments of tension, drama and heightened emotion.

Choices of Imagery

I was one of the first to shoot high-definition, on Our Lady of the Assassins, and I was champing at the bit to return to it. For this film, we used two cameras, which allowed us to achieve everything we wanted with the image. I wanted to go straight to what was essential, and not to waste time filming characters outside the interview situations. That was my narrative thread. So I insisted on eloquence in the framing and the locations. With first Caroline Champetier and later Jean-Luc Perreard we spent a long time finding resonances between the settings and the characters.

Films Structure

The entire film takes place as follows: theres a magnificent, heroic heart, which is Algeria. This is the matrix, the place where our lead character finds himself, reveals himself, experiences the most intense moments of his life. Here is also where he lives out the most beautiful love story imaginable. All of this is something very beautiful, very pure: an ideal. Then, with Algerian independence, everything stops and our protagonist finds himself, in my view, without the possibility of carrying on. But for the rest of his life he yearns to recapture these moments, or something very close to them, whatever the price. Often in our lives, theres something very pure, and then later things are corrupted. But whats interesting is that these things become corrupted when they are desired to remain pure. Its almost paradoxical, because in fact, its by wanting to relive this extraordinary love story he shared with Djamila that he goes on to live something entirely ridiculous in comparison with his first love. The story repeats itself as a grotesque caricature.

This is the theme of Hitchcocks Vertigo (and one which I explored in Our Lady of the Assassins) where the main character yearns to relive that which has absolutely not the same quality the second time. Its pathetic and painful at the same time. Thus we discover that terrorism itself follows a similar evolutionary path to that of our protagonist.

Carlos' Relationship with Vergs

Again we are in the midst of a truly fictional richness. On paper, its an extraordinary situation. A lawyer falls in love with a prisoner, but the prisoner is the wife of a major terrorist who has set about drowning Europe in blood to free her, while the lawyer has clandestine meetings with the terrorist group in order to secure her escape. Then, once shes free, she tells him: No, I cant stay with you, I absolutely have to go back to him!. Thats a somewhat interpreted description, but theres amazing dramatic material here! The relationship between Carlos and Vergs is absolutely a passionate one; we see that at the beginning there was a great sympathy, a grand camaraderie. Their relationship must have been of a similar order as the one with Anis Naccache, who said they were in absolute accord with each other, that they understood each other perfectly. The betrayals, real or imagined, came later.

Hans Joachim Klein

Hes an incredible character, a bit removed from Vergs story, but I wanted to put him in the film as a vessel of hope. Klein made the decision to send back his gun, to take an enormous risk by renouncing violence and disappearing. For me its the happy ending which comes before the films finished and which we keep with us, a ray of hope. Without it, the film would be entirely despairing.

Approach to Vergs–For or Against

I dont take a position! My whole idea is to allow the characters to speak. I want to allow things to unfold, to follow the thread which allows me to trace the history of contemporary terrorism through the destinies of many interlinked characters whose paths cross again and again. Thats it! And really, the film isnt a portrait of Vergs. His life remains unexplored except in so far as it is directly linked with terrorism.

Relationship with Vergs

Our relationship has always been extremely cordial. From the beginning he accepted something Ive always insisted on in my Hollywood films: final cut, meaning choosing those interviewed and the right to decide the final edit. This was essential for me; I told him moreover that I thought it very brave of him. He asked me why and I replied that personally I would never allow such a film to be made about me… too many skeletons in the closet! He laughed. Now, he has seen the film, I visit him from time to time and he always manages to avoid truly telling me how badly he thinks of the film and of me. Anyway, he says that I am treacherous and that he is my victim.