Birgitt Haas Must Be Killed
State terrorism

by Hal W. Peat

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 17-18
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

IL FAUT TUER BIRGITT HAAS (BIRGITT HAAS MUST BE KILLED) is a dark, unflinchingly hard look at one of the most troubling phenomena of the international political scene. It is the growing use by many governments, whether "democratic" or "authoritarian," of sophisticated, illicit, and frequently violent counterterrorist methods. Director Laurent Heynemann distinguishes his film from the usual tales of the print and visual media by a highly personalized examination of the characters and motivations of the people in one rather minor affair, the kind which inevitably appears as another distorted and sensationalized story in the newspapers or on television. In this sense, Heynemann's effort here gives us a prelude, a revelation of faces, facts, contradictions, and events leading up to the headlines and clichés which insidiously bury the truth.

The film's premise is simple. Various European intelligence and counterterrorist organizations have decided it is time to "eliminate" and "close the case on" one German revolutionary, Birgitt Haas. But Haas has been inactive and in hiding for some time. In fact, the authorities have simply continued to use her name and identity in their versions of recent confrontations with underground groups. Having built her "terrorist" stature to monstrous proportions by blaming her for masterminding these incidents, they are now ready to score a major "victory" for law and order by having her killed. This operation is left to the planning of Athanase (Philippe Noiret), head of a clandestine French antiterrorist unit.

Athanase's strategy is to use an innocent and unwitting citizen, Charles Bauman (Jean Rochefort), a man otherwise totally unconnected with the matter, as a pawn to lure Haas into a situation where she will become the apparent victim of a "crime of passion." A double of Bauman will actually kill her and be observed leaving the scene. Then Bauman, and not the authorities, will be accused of the deed. Bauman, after all, is separated from his wife and adrift in his life. Haas, in the male viewpoint of Athanase's group, is a woman whose liberated sexuality can only be understood as a promiscuous sensuality they can easily exploit in order to eliminate her.

This plot is much like Claude Chabrol's NADA, in which the state does not hesitate to sacrifice one of its own members when expedient to do so and in which the mythic dimensions of the terrorist must be upheld and enhanced to justify the state's own illegal violence. The mechanics of counterterrorism in BIRGITT HAAS are used with even more terrifying expertise by the employees of the state than by their revolutionary opponents. As in Chabrol's film, we ultimately find that the tactics of terror become their own trap for whoever employs them, for whatever reason.

Thus, in several starkly ironic scenes, Birgitt listens in amazed disbelief to radio reports of terrorist operations attributed to her leadership. It is as though, once she assumed the public identity of "terrorist" by using revolutionary violence, the identity has gone on to grow an existence of its own. At the opening of the film, she faces the unreality of a self which has been cleverly taken over and fostered by the state for its own ends. Basically an intellectual and until now a quick-witted survivor, she understands at this point the necessity of no longer surviving — of surrendering or dying in order to silence the weapon her foes have created.

While they are practiced manipulators of events, Athanase and his second-in-command, Richard Colonna (Bernard LeCoq) discover their cleverness cannot always control events. Things begin to run awry when Colonna himself, characterized by his superior as "cold, mean, and ambitious," receives command of the mission to kill Haas. Athanase soon learns that Colonna has made the fatal error of mixing personal and professional convenience. As the lover of Bauman's estranged wife, Colonna uses the Haas assignment to frame Bauman.

But Athanase cannot change pawns: Bauman is already on his way to Germany for the job the unemployment department has just "found" for him. Athanase allows the plan to proceed to the point of the chance meeting between Birgitt and Bauman. On the surface, events now seem to go according to plan, but another miscalculation contributes to the failure of the scheme. Birgitt Haas feels genuine emotion for Bauman; she is not the uncontrolled nymphomaniac her enemies have assumed her to be. Haas kills Colonna after Bauman interrupts his double about to kill Haas in her hotel room.

But Colonna's death also proves convenient for Athanase and the authorities: it rectifies his initial mistake. Athanase, the more "humane" yet sinister member of the state apparatus, remains to tie up the loose ends.

Athanase is an interesting study of a kind of shadow-world version of the corporate man. As portrayed by Philippe Noiret, so often the amiable, agreeable man of French cinema, the character of Athanase has a resonance we might not expect in a man whose career is built on the literal destruction of whomever the state decrees. Noiret projects something between the world-weariness of a Graham Greene exile and the hopeless obedience of a Kafka civil servant. "Should I get out now?" he wonders aloud to his wife one night in bed. "After this job," she replies, unperturbed. Of course, it will always go on being after the next "job." Heynemann never permits us to become so caught up in this complexity of characterization, however, that we lose critical insight into the meaning of Athanase's actions. Athanase fully represents a bourgeois political culture able to comfortably (for the most part) rationalize its resort to illicit activities against not only its declared enemies but also its own citizenry.

In a wider sense, Heynemann reveals the deceptiveness and danger of roles and role playing — whether intentional, unconscious, or unwilling — in a politically bankrupt society. Athanase eagerly acts out the role of friendly acquaintance and confidante to Bauman; it placates a part of his conscience to treat his chosen puppet in the most civilized fashion. Colonna, in turn, willingly acts as unappreciated henchman to Athanase one more time so he can be rid of his lover's husband. Bauman stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the fact that his wife has left him forever. Finally he transforms his manipulated situation by deciding to remain near Haas while she awaits sentencing. But in between, Bauman's larger manipulation by the state machinery makes him as much a victim as Haas. The very routine and precise way in which the counter-terror group carries this out, in fact, points him out as only one among many such victims.

Birgitt Haas herself, nevertheless, faces the most terrible of role situations. The other, fictive, being whom the state accuses of bombings and hijackings now overshadows her actual movements and choices. It has been as useful to the authorities that she should live as that she now should die. Realizing this, she opts to end the game as quickly as possible by running no farther. The extraordinary acts she hears attributed to herself and her lack of meaningful support from her former comrades underscore her present isolation. Everything conforms beautifully to the design of those who hold her within a narrowing circle. Even her private, sensual self has been probed and examined (if inaccurately) by Athanase's squad, who neatly insert one of their number among her lovers.

The deceit both Haas and Bauman undergo becomes the true terror of this tale in the viewer's eyes. Heynemann has put the intrusiveness of the camera eye to stunning use by creating a composite picture of a hunter, his bait, and his prey. In this sense, the film's narrative structure, while employing some classic Hollywood thriller codes, manages to work all its elements at a level that engages us in a more participative and troublesome manner than the passive, purely entertaining stance most thrillers usually allow.

The covert activities of the state, as demonstrated by Athanase and his employees, are symptomatic of an organism which not only attacks its foes by any means possible while maintaining a facade of legitimacy and normalcy, but also is paranoid to the point of turning in upon itself in distrust and fear. Athanase and Colonna thus cannot ever really trust one another. Moreover, the visible branches of law enforcement do not want too close an association with Athanase's type or to know the sordid details of his actions on their behalf. (In this respect, their attitude isn't so different from that shown during the Watergate cover-up when the presidential office contrived to put itself at one remove from the mischief of its own "operatives.")

Perhaps the ultimate surprise of BIRGITT HAAS is that Athanase and his assistants, for all their omniscient power, fail miserably in their mission. Because of a final accident of mistiming, Bauman interrupts the planned murder of Haas. The secret agents must withdraw. Haas forces the German police to arrest her — the one thing they wanted to avoid.

Bauman reacts with dignified outrage to the revelation of his own manipulation. The most natural exit from the situation for him is one which Athanase has not counted on: he refuses to return home, even at gunpoint. In the face of such unexpected defiance, Athanase relinquishes his erstwhile pawn. Insofar as it makes clear to us the inward motives and events leading to one more headline, one more quickly forgotten chapter in the twilight world of "state" versus "terrorism," BIRGITI HAAS is an unnerving look into that closed file we cannot so easily forget — or want to forget.