Packed with courtroom drama, mystery and international intrigue, Barbet Schroeder's fascinating documentary portrait of the notorious French attorney Jacques Verges is as good, if not better, than anything Robert Ludlum or even the most creative conspiracy theorist could have imagined.
Born in Thailand to a Vietnamese mother and French diplomat father, Verges grew up in the tiny French colony on Reunion Island with a deep hatred of imperialism in all forms that would drive him throughout his career as a lawyer. Verges first made an international name for himself in 1957 when, as a relatively inexperienced, 30-year-old advocate, he traveled to Algeria to defend the National Liberation Front (FLN) guerrilla Djamila Bouhired who, along with six of her comrades in arms, were about to stand trial for the 1956 bombing of an Algiers milk bar that killed 11 people. (Their story is partially dramatized in Gillo Pontecorvo's THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS.) Doe-eyed and angelic, Bouhired became the face of Algeria's struggle for independence from France, but instead of playing on the court's sympathy for his freedom-fighter client, Verges mounted an offensive defense, insulting the court and introducing his so-called "rupture defense," which rendered dialogue with the prosecution impossible by simply refusing to acknowledge the terms of his clients' "guilt" and the court's authority. Arguing that since the French had tortured Bouhired, they were no longer in a position to judge. Bouhired was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to death, but thanks to Verges' efforts, she was released three years later when it became clear that international opinion was largely in her favor. Still smitten by his client, Verges converted to Islam and married her, but after fathering two of her children, he suddenly disappeared in 1970 for eight long years. Was he, as some suspected, in Cambodia with his old school acquaintance Pol Pot? Did he travel to the Middle East to aid the Palestinian terrorists of the FPLP? Was he somehow involved in the 1976 OPEC hostage debacle in Vienna? Or was he simply hiding in plain sight in Paris, indulging in the wine and haute cuisine he loved but had foresworn when he became a Muslim? Whatever the truth of these underground years — Verges isn't talking — he emerged in 1978 to embroil himself in a whole new string of controversial cases, including the defense of Magdalena Kopp, the alluring wife of notorious terrorist-for-hire Carlos the Jackal (who insists from prison that he had become such close friends with Verges that his children called him "Uncle Jacques," something Verges denies); Anis Naccache, who had been sent to Paris by the Ayatollah Khomeini to murder a former Iranian minister; and most disturbingly, the notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyons."
Schroeder, who has made documentaries about everyone from Koko the talking gorilla to Charles Bukowski and Idi Amin, seizes upon his subject with relish. He playfully teases out the surprising connections between seemingly disparate historical personages, and veers off-topic into a labyrinth of names, dates and alias only to discover that all threads lead back to the mysterious Verges. And who, exactly, is Verges? At the end of the day — and the film — he remains a mystery. At once a man whose ideals led him to fearlessly take on unpopular cases in the face of a lynch-mob mentality, Verges is also a man whose sense of justice could be clouded by deep-rooted personal hatreds (the ley lines Schroeder is able to map connecting radical Arab terrorist groups and anti-Semites of the Nazi variety are particularly disturbing) and whose tendency to draw a disproportionate moral equivalency between the tortures Bouhired endured at the hands of her French captors and the millions of murders committed by Nazis could lead him to cheerfully defend a human monster like Barbie. Schroeder's film is a fascinating character study in contradictions and in the end Verges remains loathsome, oddly charismatic and willfully enigmatic. leave a comment --Ken Fox