In the 1970s Ulrike Schaz was young, politicised and idealistic. But when she entered the Paris building where, two hours before, Carlos the Jackal had murdered two policemen, her life was to change for ever.
Almost half a century ago, Europe was under a different type of lockdown. Highly radical terrorist organisations, some with a Marxist agenda, sought to hold governments both to ransom (and to account), and the authorities reacted with, some argue, overly draconian measures.
Italy had the Red Brigade. The UK and Northern Ireland had the IRA. And Germany had the Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
But, as has been attested to on regular occasions, emergency police response to their activities lacked both guile and nuance, and swathes of people were suspected of terrorist crimes, kept under surveillance, or detained for lengthy bouts of questioning, or worse.
Filmmaker Ulrike Schaz recalls this period vividly in her DOK.fest Munich film Paris Forever, centring on her chilling tale of incarceration and interrogation by the French Secret Services after finding herself at the wrong place at the wrong time, and for choosing to look the way she did.
She was dating the Parisian Jean-Marie (the man in the picture above) who had previously been dating a Venezuelan woman called Nancy Sanchez. After a night out, Schaz and Jean-Marie decided to go to a party at Nancy’s place, but when they arrived at the building the hallway was teeming with police.
It transpired that two hours before two policemen and a third person were murdered by Ilich Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal.
The pair were summarily arrested and taken to the headquarters of the French Domestic Intelligence Services and detained for 6 days in solitary confinement. After she was deported she was further detained in a German institution before it was decided that there was no evidence to warrant her continued incarceration.
But this did not stop negative coverage of her in the German press, and even as she sought to clear her name and strike all erroneous charges from the record, she could not guarantee that other authorities across the world would apply the same degree of diligence. As she found to her cost when entering the US some years later…
“The newspapers were happy that they found a young German woman that was attractive for their stories, but it was horrible the way they misused [me],” Says Schaz. “They didn’t check the information, they just wrote things that were untrue. It was really amazing.”
“The most important thing was that I really wanted to live in Paris and I was quite clear that I wanted to study filmmaking. I had really very concrete plans, so that was gone, from one second to the other, when I was expelled from France,” she adds of her deportation. “That really had tragic consequences for my career. After there was no direct way to realise my ideas or my plans, so I had to try become a filmmaker in a different way, but all the time I had this story with me. That story never left me.”
Schaz never tires of telling her account (in contrast to Jean-Marie who finds the subject difficult to talk about, she points out). “I am teaching in Myanmar in a documentary film school and I also told these students about what happened to me, because they live in a military dictatorship and they know how it is to have a secret service around, and they couldn’t believe that something like that could happen in Europe.”
She was determined, she says, not to make a “normal” documentary, the type which seeks to transport the audience back to the location of events, allowing talking heads to tell the story “in front of all their books”. The film, instead, tells the tale through puppetry, conversation and the application of objects associated with her life, as well as photographs. In one touching moment the filmmaker and Jean-Marie read over their old (and very intimate) love letters, which are themselves miniature works of art. In another sequence designed to reflect her sense of mystification after her arrest, the journey to the Secret Services headquarters is shot upside down, which makes for a truly discombobulating ride.
“I wanted to use all the material that I have, and make a very personal and artistic poetical presentation,” comments Schaz. “In my life, in order to overcome the trauma, I used painting, drawing and also filmmaking. I think that in the end I tried to use art to conquer violence. That is somehow the summary of my approach.”