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The Hollow Men

Olivier Assayas’ filmed essay about the icon of 1970s terrorist chic shows us a man who needs to kill in order to prove he exists

David Mikics
October 19, 2023

From ‘Carlos,’ directed by Olivier Assayas, 2010

From ‘Carlos,’ directed by Olivier Assayas, 2010

Carlos the Jackal, born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, was the most notorious terrorist of a terror-ridden age, the 1970s. Addicted to weaponry and ravenous for action, his causes were the liberation of Palestine and the destruction of capitalism. In the time-honored way of terrorists, he accomplished nothing but the slaughter of innocents. France has put Carlos behind bars for life for murdering two policemen, and for a series of explosions that killed 11 people and injured over a hundred, the capstone to his long series of violent deeds.

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The recent Hamas attack on Israel proclaimed that terrorism and its champions are resurgent. Carlos, a founding father of Jew-hating terror, is more relevant than ever before.

In Olivier Assayas’ masterful biopic Carlos, released in 2010, Edgar Ramirez plays the terrorist as a cipher. He looks remarkably anonymous behind his mustache, sideburns, and aviator glasses, whether speaking English, French, German, Spanish, or Arabic. There’s simply not much to Carlos, which ought to make him a dull character, but actually makes him fascinating. He needs shooting and kidnapping to sustain the illusion that he exists; otherwise, he has no reason for being. Assayas’ film in its original, three-part form, designed as a TV miniseries, is well over 5 hours long. The shorter theatrical version runs 2 hours and 40 minutes. Whichever way you see it, you won’t be bored.

Though he says he speaks for the revolution, Carlos has no clear motive for the bloody mayhem he creates except a wish to disrupt the world as it is. He rebels against whatever is “bourgeois,” which is, in his world, the ultimate slur, along with “Zionist.” He and his associate “Angie” (Hans-Joachim Klein, played by Christoph Bach) pingpong across Arab capitals: Algiers, Damascus, Tripoli, Khartoum. They repeatedly find themselves expelled by one Middle Eastern patron and shuffled off to another. Far from revolutionaries, they are mere tools used by the Arab regimes to cement their power.

Terrorists have always been hollow devils, just as Conrad and Dostoyevsky depicted them. Their goals are nihilistic. They aim to cause as much suffering as possible, to derange the world without reason. The excited wish to strike one’s enemies tramples over all restraint. The identity of the victim is of no importance to the terrorist. The damage done to our humanity, which the terrorist derisively calls mere bourgeois ethics, is the real point, as barbarity becomes valued for its own sake.

Assayas is well-attuned to the hollowness that is Carlos the Jackal. Listening to the BBC denounce his terror attacks as “vicious and bestial,” Carlos preens naked in front of a mirror. He flips his penis idly. He is not vain, just mildly curious about the oddly empty person that he is. But there is nothing to see. His body, slightly pudgy and prematurely middle-aged, is as blank as his mind.

Carlos explains to a girlfriend that weapons are an extension of his body. She sticks her tongue through the detonator of a hand grenade, a turn-on for both of them. The scene is neither salacious nor bizarre, but instead a realistic sign of how sexual thrill intertwines with the tools of death in Carlos’ world.

Though he says he speaks for the revolution, Carlos has no clear motive for the bloody mayhem he creates except a wish to disrupt the world as it is.

Carlos’ father was a wealthy Marxist, a lawyer in his native Venezuela. He named his three children Ilich, Lenin, and Vladimir, after the Bolshevik dictator. Ilich studied at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, then joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which gave him the code name Carlos. He was a fan of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, the source of his nickname. In 1970 he participated in the Black September uprising against King Hussein of Jordan. Five years later he tried to attack two El Al planes at Orly airport and took a number of hostages, leading to a siege that lasted for 17 hours, with grenades thrown inside the airport terminal.

Lately Assayas has been giving us spooky, gaslit psychodramas like Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, both starring the tough gamine Kristen Stewart. Earlier, Assayas echoed Eric Rohmer with his poignant comedies Summer Hours and Non-Fiction. Demonlover and Boarding Gate were intricate small masterpieces blending chaotic action with a paranoid twist, exploring the mind games that high-pressured characters play. Often Assayas depicts a young woman getting the better of an older man or woman, and pushing her edge with sadistic pleasure.

In Carlos, as in Demonlover, action sequences unfold with a savage intimacy born of Assayas’ unique way with a hand-held camera. His camera sways with the actors, tumbling when they fall and shaking when their blood spatters.

Assayas co-wrote Carlos with Dan Franck, and they did a mountain of research. Assayas and Franck focus meticulously on Carlos’ most large-scale action, his attack on OPEC headquarters in 1975. The OPEC raid was ordered by Saddam Hussein, who needed the price of oil to rise so that he would have enough money to wage war against the Kurds. Carlos was supposed to kill the Saudi and Iranian ministers who were reluctant to raise the price of oil, but instead he released them for a substantial ransom. When he depicts the OPEC operation, Assayas orchestrates a fast-moving chaos. Gunmen crouch and then spring into brutal action, while hostages sweat, their eyes full of fear.

In Carlos’ world, “Zionist” is the ultimate dirty word, as it still is today in many quarters of the academy. The radical leftists of the 1970s favored Middle Eastern authoritarians, with Algeria and Libya the equivalent of today’s Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Decimating the Jewish oppressor was the goal.

Angie, Carlos’ German comrade, balks at their fellow terrorists’ separation of Jews from non-Jews during the Entebbe raid, so that Jews, those guilty Zionist imperialists, could remain as hostages while others were freed. Such a separation smacks of Auschwitz, Angie protests. Carlos disagrees: The terrorists are on the right side, and so whatever they do must be legitimate. Brigitte Kuhlmann, who abused Entebbe’s Jewish hostages with antisemitic diatribes, and Wilfried Böse, both Carlos’ comrades, were killed during Operation Entebbe. Angie, by contrast, renounced terrorism. In 1977 he sent his gun to Der Spiegel, signaling his change of heart, and warned the magazine that his revolutionary cell would be targeting members of the German Jewish community.

“The fight I propose will lead us to glory,” Carlos proclaims—“true glory, not what the Zionist media talks about.” Carlos’ companion Nydia accuses him of “bourgeois arrogance,” but he says he’s interested only in “the pleasure of doing one’s duty in silence.” He adds that “behind every bullet will be an idea.” These are empty words. There are no ideas behind Carlos’ bullets, and no pleasure in his duty. He simply acts without meaning or consequence, like Camus’ Meursault. Obsessed with betrayal, he shoots one of his men in the back of the head while his little daughter is in the next room. When his wife, Magdalena Kopp (Nora Waldstätten), complains tearfully about this execution, Carlos tells her that her role is to be silent and follow him. Violence, unreal and abrupt, cannot be questioned—it has a life and logic of its own.

Assayas avoids ideological discussions. Carlos doesn’t know and doesn’t care why he does what he does. His revolutionary credo is pro forma. Instead of a mind or a heart, he has only a slogan—he stands for “the armed wing of the Arab revolution.” Assayas’ soundtrack leans heavily on “Dreams Never End,” the hyperactive 1980s track by New Order, underscoring the shallow excitement of it all.

Carlos is tragically more relevant than ever in 2023, at a time when politics has become mere noise—and nothing makes more noise than terrorism. The terrorist’s actions have no meaning, Assayas reminds us, and can only lead to misery. “Resistance” and “decolonization” are merely elaborate labels for a mindless bloodbath. His film calls for close attention today because the nihilism that haunted 1970s radicalism has once again returned to the center of our lives. It will not be exorcised until—no matter our place on the political spectrum—we denounce the murders and the murderers, and see through the emptiness of their slogans.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.