Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 22, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

Time constraints prevented me from attending a press screening for Jessica Yu’s documentary “Protagonist” last November but I finally got around to ordering it from Netflix last week. I strongly recommend this fascinating study of four extremely driven men whose interviews make up virtually the entire film, with the exception of some stock footage and home movies. By allowing them to basically tell their life story (and carefully including only what is most riveting), Yu reconfirms something that I have long believed, namely that the lives of real people are far more interesting than the fiction cooked up by Hollywood studios.

From left to right: Joe Loya, Mark Pierpont, Hans-Joachim Klein, Mark Salzman

Wu interviews these four subjects whose stories overlap in significant ways:

Hans-Joachim Klein: Klein was the son of a German cop with Nazi sympathies and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a concentration camp. He was radicalized during the Vietnam War and eventually joined the Revolutionary Cells (RZ), an offshoot of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. He joined Carlos the Jackal in the 1975 kidnapping of eleven OPEC ministers that led to the death of three innocent bystanders and nearly his own death by a bullet in the stomach.

Mark Pierpont: Pierpont came from a strict Christian family in New Jersey. Around the same time he decided to become a missionary, he discovered that he was gay. Most of his career in the ministry involved going to gay bars and handing out tracts intended to save souls. He eventually got married and fathered the son, believing that he had “cured” himself of homosexuality.

Joe Loya: Like Pierpont, this Mexican-American also came from a strict Christian household. After his mother died, his father’s grief turned into rage against his sons who were beaten to the point of breaking their bones on a regular basis. One day, Joe stabs his father in the neck after a particularly bad beating, which gives him a feeling of liberation. To sustain that exhilarating feeling, he soon begins a career as a bank robber. He compares the feeling of control he experiences with a gun in his hand to that of Nietzsche’s Superman.

Mark Salzman: As the smallest boy in his high school class, he was the target of bullies. After seeing the television show “Kung Fu”, he was struck like Paul on the road to Damascus and devoted his life to the martial arts. His commitment to the nonviolent Eastern Philosophy that underpinned Kung Fu was tested when he discovered that his instructor was a sadist.

The film is structured like a Greek tragedy with each of the men experiencing a catharsis as they discover that their life’s mission was based on a lie. For Klein, it was what he saw at Entebbe that made him renounce terrorism. When the airplane hijackers segregated passengers on the basis of whether they were Jewish or not, Klein could not help but think about how his mother had been treated. He soon became a police informant and began identifying terrorist cells throughout Europe. This did not help him escape prosecution and he would be sentenced to 9 years in prison for the OPEC kidnapping.

Jessica Yu got the idea for “Protagonist” in 2003 when she was approached with the idea of making a documentary about Euripides, the ancient Greek playwright. From Euripides, she got the idea of making a movie about her anti-heroes. Like the characters in one of his tragedies, her subjects are all guilty of “hubris” (the Greek word for pride) that inevitably leads to disaster. Unlike a Euripides tragedy, however, all of her subjects step back from the precipice and arrive at a deeper understanding of life.

“Protagonist” does retain some of Euripides’s powerful speeches that are spoken by puppets who serve as a kind of Greek chorus in the movie as it moves through the different passages of the characters’ lives. It is a testament to Yu’s skills as both director and writer that your attention remains riveted even though there is no action as such in the film. As the four men sit in their chairs recounting their experiences, your mind fills in the images of some truly mind-boggling incidents just as it would as if you were reading a novel. The puppets are also called upon to reenact some of these incidents, including Joe Loya’s stabbing of his father.

Yu directing her puppeteers

Euripides was the most modern of Greek dramatists, both in terms of chronology and his ability to speak to the modern condition. Yu’s puppets quote most frequently from “The Bacche”, a play about the arrival of the god Dionysus. Although I can’t be sure if the puppets repeated these words from Euripides’s last play, they surely convey the sense of the drama in Jessica Yu’s exceptional documentary:

Unbridled tongues and lawless folly
come to an end only in disaster.
A peaceful life of wisdom
maintains tranquillity.
It keeps the home united.
Though gods live in the sky,
from far away in heaven
they gaze upon the deeds of men.
But being clever isn’t wisdom.
And thinking deeply about things
isn’t suitable for mortal men.
Our life is brief-that’s why
the man who chases greatness
fails to grasp what’s near at hand.
That’s what madmen do,
men who’ve lost their wits.
That’s what I believe.

Official Film Website

Joe Loya Website


  1. I like this review because it doesn’t force the material into any preconceived agenda. The question of if, when and how fiction can make us feel more about similar experience is worth debating.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — April 23, 2008 @ 7:39 am

  2. Thanks for this, slight correction: the film is directed by Jessica Yu.

    Comment by Avent — April 24, 2008 @ 1:50 am

  3. “[Hans-Joachim Klein] joined Carlos the Jackal in the 1975 kidnapping of eleven OPEC ministers that led to the death of three innocent bystanders and nearly his own death by a bullet in the stomach. … He soon became a police informant and began identifying terrorist [sic!] cells throughout Europe.”

    It’s too bad the bullet in the stomach DIDN’T kill him before he could become a police informant against urban guerrillas!

    Comment by Aaron Aarons — April 26, 2008 @ 4:52 am

  4. […] watching Klein’s exchanges with Carlos over these matters in the uncut version, I realized that I had reviewed a documentary in which he had a leading role. Directed by Jessica Yu, “Protagonist” (available from Netflix) […]

    Pingback by Carlos (uncut version); My Life as a Terrorist « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 24, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

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