Barbet Schroeder takes us down history's darkest paths in his attempt to illuminate the mystery behind an enigmatic figure, Jacques Vergès.
At the height of an illustrious career, Vergès disappeared without trace for eight years. When he returned, Vergès defended unpopular figures from all political fronts and monsters like Nazi criminal Klaus Barbie and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy.
In a free society, even the baddest of the bad are entitled to their day in court. Just ask French attorney Jacques Verges, the central figure in director Barbet Schroeder's Terror's Advocate
and a fellow who has befriended and defended, with varying degrees of success, a lengthy list of terrorist bombers, serial killers, mass murderers, dictators, Nazis, and other villains. Born in 1925 in Thailand, the offspring of a French father and Vietnamese mother, he came to prominence in mid-1950s Algeria, when he agreed to represent accused bomber and anti-French militant Djamila Bouhired (after helping to get her death sentence repealed, Verges married her). Verges' style and tactics were established early on; viewed by his own government as a mercenary, traitor, and provocateur, he specialized in what he called the "rupture defense," in which he and his associates essentially refused to participate in the court proceedings. His clientele since then has included some of the most notorious scoundrels in 20th Century human history, among them Nazi war criminal Klaus "Butcher of Lyon" Barbie, the leftist revolutionary known as "Carlos the Jackal," Serbian dictator Slobodan Miloević, and an array of Palestinian hijackers and "freedom fighters," Islamic terrorists, African dictators, and so on. The Verges interviewed extensively in Schroeder's documentary is a smug, cigar-smoking, and utterly unapologetic man; as passionately as he may believe in the causes he's espoused, and there's little doubt of that, he's clearly quite comfortable with the notoriety, too. As for the documentary itself, what could have been fairly riveting at, say, 90 minutes is laborious, if edifying, at 137. Schroeder (whose previous credits include the likes of Reversal of Fortune
) uses considerable file footage to provide background and context for Verges' various cases, but with much of the running time occupied by static interviews with long-winded talking heads, Terror's Advocate
too often makes your average PBS doc look like an episode of 24
. --Sam Graham