As is flatly stated prior to each of the three episodes, many of the events depicted in this 20-year span of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez’s (a.k.a. Carlos, later The Phantom) life are fictionalized and all of his relationships with the other characters—necessarily—have been invented to weave the epic-length storyline between the frequently grisly, documented facts. (One of the best components of Olivier Assayas’ film is the inter-cutting of archival footage with the back-story to the murderous acts of violence.)
Playing the notorious Carlos, Venezuelan Édgar Ramírez turns in a bravura, multilingual performance of his countryman’s alleged life. Whether chubbing up for the “gone to seed” years or shamelessly admiring his buff body in his fittest days, it’s not hard to believe that this man, oozing Latino charm, could be boldly ruthless and devastatingly calculating.
His passion for causes is aptly captured: there’s “an idea behind every bullet we fire.” Yet his disdain for capitalism and declaration that we are “at war” on behalf of downtrodden socialists doesn’t quite mesh with his voracious appetite for Johnny Walker, up-scale accommodations and even a Mercedes to celebrate a birthday. The only false note is an extra bullet for a clearly dead informant—real pros never waste time or lead.
Personal loyalties also seem to belie the camaraderie of comrades. If the “fictions” are to believed, his actual wives (notably Magdelana Kopp, who is rendered with great intensity as she moves from head-over-heels rebel to “I can’t take this anymore” mother by Nora von Waldstätten) are just the regular meals between frequent side dishes of prostitutes—some of whom may not be all that they seem ….
Naturally, loyalty from his employers (Syria, Iraq, Sudan) or those prepared to look the other way for “the cause” (France, Hungary) is as fickle as public opinion. Famously, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Carlos soon becomes persona non grata as the socialist block disintegrated into much more autonomous states. Soon they were able to make their own arrangements with the U.S. to their advantage; in time, those new alliances would send Carlos to jail in France (where he remains to this day).
Seeing the renegade without a uniform intermingle with powerful leaders and their minions reminds one and all that—for a price—any government (no matter what its ideology) can find surrogates to remove apparent roadblocks to their stated goals of improving the lot of the people. One especially telling piece of footage was Yasser Arafat’s famous line “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hands” at the United Nations (November 1974) inspiring others to ferociously discredit his apparent weakness. At the time, Carlos was working for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, only to be fired from it when he failed to kill hostages during the infamous OPEC attack in Vienna, 1975. (As his commander-in-chief Wadie Haddad, Ahmad Kaabour is perfectly conniving and unforgiving.)
Yet how different was Carlos and his own “Armed Wing of the Arab Revolution” from the covert operations of the CIA?
As his ever-faithful second-in-command, Johannes (Alexander Scheer gives a fine descent into despair) says just prior to his departure to hide out (but not for long) in Yemen, “It’s over, we’ve lost.” From a personal level that’s true enough. Yet throughout the entire film, it’s never made clear what victory would ever look like.
With so many years and terrain to cover, one of the reasons the time flies by is the music. With era-inspired rock and roll (the lyric “Don’t crash” is so apt) for the many travel scenes and the upbeat, indigenous party charts (especially in Budapest and Khartoum), the ear is pleasantly assuaged before the next attack (many of which fail, giving further insight into the life and times of professional havoc-wreakers) is attempted, whether killing the “enemy” or “disciplining” one’s own. JWR