It may come as quite a shock to most people that if Hitler were alive today and needed a lawyer, he would have no trouble finding one. In fact he would have to look no further than his neighboring country of France, where he could find a well-spoken lawyer with a cigar in his mouth by the name of Jacques Vergès. This is how we come to know Jacques Vergès, the infamous French defender of terrorists in Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate. He is witty, relaxed, and always willing to talk.
Even before formally introducing him, Terror’s Advocate opens with Vergès sitting in his office casually talking about the “exaggeration” that is the Cambodian genocide. Sure, people were murdered, he explains, but not in the magnitude that we are so inclined to believe. This, Schroeder argues, is Jacques Vergès.
So how did Jacques Vergès, a French lawyer who once fought in de Gaulle’s resistance, come to defend Pol Pot, the man who orchestrated the Cambodian genocide? Through a series of interviews with Vergès, his defendants, friends, and his lovers, Schroeder attempts to answer that. We soon learn that his first big name client was Djamila Bouhired, a woman who later became the symbol of Algerian resistance. After that, Vergès became grossly fascinated with terrorist acts and the people who commit them.
At times, even more interesting than Vergès himself are the historical side notes that coincide with the interviews. In documenting Vergès’ life, Schroeder ends up documenting the historical rise of terrorism in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The definitional tension between freedom fighters and terrorists pervades the sequences, and in a world plagued by terrorism and wars on terrorism, this is a relevant and provocative ambiguity.
At times Terror’s Advocate can be frustrating. Schroeder fails to solve the mystery of Vergès’ seven year disappearance, and he never bluntly attacks Vergès. But thanks to Schroeder’s mastery, through his own interviews, Vergès slowly destroys his own case. His argument relies on the notion that his defendants are freedom fighters resisting equally guilty imperial governments. Perhaps in some cases, particularly Djamila’s, people might agree, but in the end Schroeder brings his audience back to that opening scene. His defense of clients such as Klaus Barbie and Slobodan Milosevic makes it hard to sympathize with Vergès’ case. Ultimately, Vergès proves to be more inclined to defend genocidal dictators than “freedom fighters,” leaving the audience with chilling answers about Jacques Vergès.
Towards the end of the film Schroeder finally poses the question that everyone has been waiting for; “Would you have defended Hitler?” Slyly, Vergès responds by saying he would even defend Bush. But it would have been more appropriate to ask whether Vergès would have defended Jewish resistance fighters had they been put on trial by the Nazi regime. Terror’s Advocate argues maybe not.