On the verge

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The title of Barbet Schroeder’s new documentary, Terror’s Advocate, evokes Keanu Reeves’s role as Kevin Lomax, a lawyer seduced by Satan (Al Pacino) in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate. Reeves’s character crosses the line into evil when he gets a child molester off on a technicality; next thing you know, he’s living in Manhattan, making big bucks, and being seduced by the lesbian minions of Satan in an elevator while his wife (Charlize Theron) has her womb ripped out. In Terror’s Advocate we follow the equally colorful career of lawyer Jacques Vergès, which begins with ideological and erotic clarity — defending gorgeous Algerian bombers during their struggle for independence from France — but spirals into mystery and monstrosity.

The point where Vergès crosses the line that leads him into relationships with dictators, Nazis, and Carlos the Jackal is less distinct than the line crossed by Reeves’s lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate. Schroeder frames Vergès’s story as a mirror of the recent history of terrorism in Europe, with attention to all of the ambiguity that term implies. If one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and the term itself a strategy to disparage the warfare of those without governments, it doesn’t follow that every act of terror is ethically equivalent. "There’s a magnificent, heroic heart, which is Algeria," Schroeder has said, discussing the film. "This is the matrix, the place where our lead character finds himself, reveals himself, and experiences the most intense moments of his life…. All of this is something very beautiful, very pure: an ideal."

On Armistice Day in 1945, the French massacred 10,000 to 45,000 Algerians for waving their flags. During the years that followed, Algerian attempts to purge their boorish occupiers would include blowing up European establishments in the African capital. In 1957, Djamila Bouhired was found guilty of placing a bomb in the Milk Bar and condemned to death. She became an international sensation, partially through the inspired efforts of her lawyer — Vergès. He developed what became known as the rupture defense — instead of having his clients apologize or plead for mercy, he provoked the opposition and used the trial to redefine the terms of the debate, calling attention to the French use of torture.

His tactics paid off. Bouhired was pardoned and released from prison, after which she returned to Algeria and married Vergès. But in the ’70s he abandoned her and his children and vanished for eight years under circumstances that remain unclear, despite Terror’s Advocate‘s sometimes tedious examination of that narrative gap. By the time Vergès finally reappeared, the lines had begun to blur — between political action and sociopathic adventuring, between terrorism and foreplay. One of Schroeder’s most inspired subtexts is that organized violence, whether state sponsored or revolutionary, offers an arena for unconventional erotic pleasures, such as rape, torture, or simply rescuing sexy women involved in the deaths of others — like Bouhired or Vergès’s other great love, Magdalena Kopp, girlfriend of Carlos the Jackal.

In Reversal of Fortune (1990), Schroeder fictionalized the relationship between Claus von Bülow and Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer who defended him against charges that he’d lethally poisoned his wife. Did von Bülow get away with murder or was he innocent and akin to Frankenstein’s monster at the hands of the lynch mob? Schroeder has always been interested in monsters — his documentary subjects include Idi Amin, Charles Bukowski, and Koko the gorilla — and drawn to moral ambiguity, the seductive power of evil, and the erotic appeal of violence. Combine Before and After (1995), Our Lady of the Assassins (2000) and Murder by Numbers (2002), and you have an oeuvre with more murderous teenage boys than anything this side of William Burroughs. In his Single White Female (1992), Kiss of Death (1994), and Desperate Measures (1997) there is a twinship between monsters and heroes and a surprising sympathy for the violently unhinged. Consistently, Schroeder examines people of conscience who are seduced into doing evil’s bidding, and he lets them speak for themselves. Even Vergès’s defense of Nazi butcher Klaus Barbie is framed as an opportunity to attack French hypocrisy, imperialism, and butchery. Asked if he’d defend Hitler, Vergès says, "I’d even agree to defend [George W.] Bush. But only if he agrees to plead guilty."

Terror’s Advocate is dense with information. Its structure is complex and indirect and requires unfaltering attention. Yet Schroeder succeeds at creating a surprising amount of suspense, especially considering the amount of screen time given over to talking heads. Meanwhile, he quietly explores what must be one of the central enigmas for our tortured planet, the human relationship to violence. Violence and money, violence and sex, violence and political change, senseless violence and goal-oriented violence — Schroeder nimbly navigates all of the above, creating a visceral ethical disquiet. *

TERROR’S ADVOCATE

Opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters