Carlos: Olivier Assayas Stunning Epic, Starring Charismatic Edgar Ramirez as the Famous Terrorist

At five and a half hours, Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is an epic film by any definition of the term: ambition, scope, number of locales, speaking parts and languages spoken.

A very talented, handsome, and charismatic actor, Edgar Ramirez, plays the real life terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, in a massive tale spanning a crucial era of two decades.

Born in Venezuela, educated in Cuba and Moscow (and thus informed by Marxism), Carlos starts out as idealist, committed to the cause of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP),  He believes it’s the best way to fight the growing power of Western Imperialism, which he perceives as a threat to all of humanity.  When a car bomb kills a PELP office in Paris in 1973, Carlos becomes all the more politically committed.

A title card informs that Carlos is largely a fiction work, but when it comes to attention to detail and rigorous methodology, the film approximates the feel of a documentary, especially in the sequences that detail how grassroots terrorism functions on a daily basis, including the recruitment of criminals, the strategy of kidnapping raids.

The film describes the famous assassinations, bombings and crimes, such as Carlos siege on the OPEC delegation in 1975 Vienna, following orders of his PFLP commander Wadid Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). This raid and the hostage standoff, which was well covered by the international media, is the longest sequence in the film, occupying three reels of the lengthy narrative.

There are other impressive sequences, based on reenactments of places and reconstruction of events, all of which are tautly staged. There is a particularly tense and intense scene, set on an airport runway, when the terrorists negotiate but then realize that their demands are not going to be met.

The movie also doesn’t neglect Carlos’ personal life, his romantic relationships and sexual encounters.  At one point, he was married to Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldsatten), a German revolutionary who proves to be as stubborn and as independent as he is.

Ramirez, in a stunning performance, doesn’t go for sympathy or humanity, instead emphasizing the monstrous man’s vanity and confidence. In a hold-up sequence, set in Vienna, December 21, 1975, he introduces himself as, “My name is Carlos, you may have heard of me,” before proceeding to the task at hand.

Crime-gangster films are often adept at describing action, but they seldom able to dig deep into the mind set and philosophical view of their volatile protagonists–the precise way they think, feel, plan, and execute their schemes, including complicated negotiations with high-level politicians

When the KGB head meets with Carlos and his group, vowing “unlimited financial support” if they can assassinate Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat, we get to see the other side of the terrorism: How top criminals are exploited, manipulated, used and abused to their own advantage.

It’s not always clear what precisely motivates Carlos to accepts risky deals and offers.  He joins German terrorist cells and even the Japanese Red Army, while continuing to express his ideological beliefs, but we sense all kinds of hatred and animosities underneath (including strong anti-Semitism).

When we left the press screening, a colleague of mine remarked, “That’s exactly what Steven Soderberg’s Che (longer than Carlos and also world-premiering in the Cannes film Fest) should have been, but was not; a wannabe epic that was both artistic and commercial flop.

A good deal of Carlos emotional power derives from the cumulative effect of its details about the mindset and lifestyle of a terrorist, who begins as a self-aggrandizing narcissist (he stands in front of the mirror admiring himself), proud of his power, magnitude, and skills, only to be reduced by forces bigger than himself to a pawn, a fat, unappealing and ill man (suffering from a testicular condition).  In the end, in a peculiar way, the film is the tragic tale of a man who wanted to be (and was for a while) a “somebody,” only to fall down to s state of “nobody.”

A former film critic for “Cahiers du Cinema,” and assistant director to Andre Techine and others, Assayas is one of the most versatile filmmakers working in French cinema (he previously made Irma Vep, with his wife at the time, Maggie Cheung, Demonlover, and Summer Hours, with Juliette Binoche).

The pop music heard during certain acts, from The Feelies to New Order, are part of the soundtrack playing inside Carlos’ head.

Made as a French TV miniseries, to be shown in three parts, Carlos world premiered at the Cannes Film Fest to great acclaim.  IC will release the picture in the US as one long and uninterrupted feature.  A shorter cut of the movie, of 2 hours and 45 minutes, is also available, but I recommend watching the longer version.


Edgar Ramirez,

Alexander Scheer

Alejandro Arroyo

Christoph Bach

Ahmad Kaabour

Nora von Waldsatten

Juana Acosta



IFC Films release.

Director: Olivier Assayas

Screenwriters: Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck

Producer: Daniel Leconte

Running time: 330 minutes.