Swans Commentary » swans.com June 1, 2009  



Costa-Gavras And The Z-To-Amen Of Political Cinema


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - June 1, 2009)   Constantin Costa-Gavras is a long-jawed Greek, gaunt and gray now at seventy-six. In April he came along with seventeen of his films to Lecce in Italy and the Tenth Festival of European Cinema.* His face lit up with surprise and pleasure when a fan told him of the entry in Wikepedia for the Greek military junta of 1967-1974. The French poster for Costa-Gavras's 1969 film Z serves as illustration for the article. His take on the colonels and their coup d'état has apparently achieved wide acceptance. Cinema has, in a sense, made history.

In further genial conversation, it became clear that Costa-Gavras wasn't going to answer in depth the question that his very name brings up: Can movie dramas still be made that turn upon political events of weight and enshrine historical memory? He begged the question, it seemed, by insisting that anyone's least action, whether to work, to propagate, to age -- in short, to live -- was political. He delighted in Roland Barthes's saying that all movies were political. That was not something you could gainsay or argue with, no more than with the virtue of your grandmother or the goodness of her apple pie. "Living" or poor man's behavioralism, however, was not the kind of politics that brought the first viewers of Z to their feet in rousing applause.

At one point in his long and eminent career as a filmmaker, Costa-Gavras felt the need to change direction. In the early 1990s he decided, "After many full-blooded dramas, it's time to turn the page and let oneself go to lightness, irony, entertainment and the rhythms of comedy." No one should challenge an artist's right to choose his own path. But any viewer has his own right to pass judgment on the new work. Costa-Gavras's turning away from public drama has not been a success. Only his technical competence, thorough professionalism, and excellent collaborators have kept his detour from being one long wild goose chase.

The essential Costa-Gavras film begins with a startling public event. It may be a killing, a breathtaking accusation, or a sudden jolt of awareness. The important thing is that the raw fact is laid out before us and thereby excludes cliff-hanging capers. The thrust of the story is not in its suspense but in its unraveling of the original event to show the whys and wherefores. Not that there isn't excitement in learning how it all came about and was arranged in detail. On a less conscious level there are recurring situations. Parents and children in conflict keep reappearing, and so does the particular figure of a père de famille. He's ultra respectable and completely devoted to his family. But in another country or another context he's capable of villainy.

Costa-Gavras was born in a Greek village but gravitated to Paris at eighteen and would become a French citizen. After studies at the Sorbonne and the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, he served his apprenticeship with the directors Yves Allégret, René Clair, René Clement, Jacques Demy, and Henri Verneuil. In 1962 he met Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, whose circle would define his own political outlook. In 1964 the couple, along with a bevy of coming names in French cinema, would appear in his first film. The Sleeping Car Murders was a very Parisian noir, wordy, actorish, riding a far-fetched script. It had no more politics than a Raymond Chandler story.

In the French Resistance drama, Shock Troops, Costa-Gavras's special talents burst through. He handles long action scenes with a steady narrative clarity. The politico-moral aspect of the film turns on the different attitudes of the Resistance fighters, which range from a ruthlessness equal to the German enemy's, through a reckless pleasure in adventure, to a self-doubting humaneness. The version of existentialism popular in post-war France comes through in the character who strives to avoid taking sides and remain detached. Costa-Gavras is again served by the fine flower of young French actors.

With Z he got the dosage of action to analysis right. The story begins with the political assassination of a charismatic opposition leader. The authority of Costa-Gavras's bird's eye camera is evident from the outset. The film couldn't be made in the colonels' Greece and was shot in Algeria and France. This gives it a Kafkaesque quality, with real names unnamed and places left floating on the map. The account proceeds by flashback and soon undoes any prejudice we might have against that directorial short-cut. Each re-examination of the crime uncovers another facet of the conspiracy that has subverted democracy and will soon result in a dictatorship. The network of complicities is so interesting in itself -- the situations so full of savory characters and visual twists -- that we forget we already know the truth. In the end we have to sober up and listen to the talking head who tells us that though the authoritarian government did fall and the opposition won the election, it was soon sent packing by the colonels' coup. It was a defeat, however, that brought Costa-Gavras and the music of Mikis Theodorakis an Oscar and fame.

The Confession again exposed a totalitarian regime. The Greek junta had outlawed the letter "Z." Stalin, more sophisticated, exacted preposterous confessions from purged Czech Party officials. Artur London's book told how he was brainwashed in preparation for the Prague show-trials of 1951, and Jorge Semprun's script dramatizes his ordeal. Costa-Gavras will create a claustrophobic world occasionally broken open by his wide overall camera views. The presence of both Yves Montand and Simone Signoret reminds us that the politics of Costa-Gavras's Parisian circle were now publically anti-Stalinist. The Artur London character returns from exile to Prague just as Soviet tanks arrive in 1968. Costa-Gavras will henceforth only deal with the Cold War outside of Europe, as reflected in the American continent.

State of Siege, filmed in Allende's Chile, reconstructs the Tupamaros' action in Montevideo, Uruguay. They execute a US official, played by Montand. He's father of what an advertising agency would consider the perfect American family. But his job as a development expert is only a cover for his real activity, already exercised in Brazil and the Dominican Republic, as an advisor to the police in torture techniques. In flashbacks that are especially devoted to the interrogation of the American, his nefarious side will be revealed, even to himself, as he learns that technical competence cannot be separated from the social situation in which it operates. The Tupamaros end up in a familiar trap of hostage takers. When the government refuses to grant their request, they can only commit a cruel murder or back down and show their weakness. Costa-Gavras sheds light on the intricate organization of the revolutionaries. He's at his best in his sweeping visual surveys of the city in turmoil.

In Special Section, which goes back to 1941 in Vichy during the German occupation of France, Costa Gavras is knee-deep in politics, those of official collaboration with the invaders. The Semprun script gets bogged down in period detail as legal authorities snipe at one another and Costa-Gavras strains to get out of the courthouse to do panorama shots of the Vichy opera house and the Paris streets. With Clair de femme both he and Montand stray far from what they do best. The Romain Gary-based script, touched up by the subtle Milan Kundera, has poor Montand spouting Czech drawing room paradoxes opposite Romy Schneider in a film designed to showcase everyone but Costa-Gavras. He labors to give the story movement by taking it out of Parisian apartments into the wider world.

Costa-Gavras returns to his best vein and to South America in Missing. A superb Jack Lemmon, conservative upper-class American, comes to the Chile of the Pinochet putsch to look for his vanished son. The father's stay will be a revelation for him of how Washington is implicated at every turn in the takeover by the Chilean military. Often at loggerheads with his son in the past, he will be reconciled with him, as it were, after the boy's execution by the army. Costa-Gavras once again masters space as he makes sense of the city's chaos under armed repression. Scenes of the stadium full of political prisoners and of a vast, many-floored morgue are unforgettable.

Hannah K., set in Jerusalem in 1983, was a great opportunity botched. The Franco Solinas script pertinently shows the non-Jewish inhabitants being pushed out by new settlers. But the woman lawyer, dividing her affections between three men and her child, puts the political situation in the shade, and belongs in another movie if anywhere at all. Costa-Gavras is reduced to travelogue photography, which is stunning but a waste of his talent for drama. In Family Business, he marks time in France directing on automatic pilot a vehicle for rock-veteran Johnny Hallyday and the numinous Fanny Ardant. It's sad to see Costa-Gavras's camera, capable of bursting all walls, confined to domestic comedy.

In the American-made Betrayed, he's back on thematic track exposing white supremacists in the Midwest. No one has better portrayed the wheat fields of the plains or Chicago's architecture. However, Joe Eszterhas's script goes all out for suspense, forsaking Costa-Gavras's usual preference for explanation. It so focuses on the evil that might befall the beautiful F.B.I. agent that it doesn't get around to placing the evil white bigots in a credible social and political context.

Music Box is an Eszterhas script that takes Costa-Gavras away from his strengths and into a close one-on-one drama. It succeeds because of sterling performances by Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl. A respected father has been a monster in another time and place. His daughter, a lawyer, first defends him and then, learning the truth, denounces him. The man carries his racism and anti-Communism like a wound, but before all else he has been a sadistic killer. Courtroom scenes replace the director's usual physical action. Costa-Gavras lets his camera play over an immigrant's snow-covered Chicago, ignoring its modern architecture in favor of a neighborhood that looks like Warsaw or Budapest.

In The Minor Apocalypse Costa-Gavras shared Eastern Europe's confusion after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a script fashioned with Jean-Claude Grumberg from a Polish novel by Tadeusz Konwicki, the director drags by force a story set a decade or so before into the new Europe that's a political-no-man's land. The Poles in Paris and Rome, where one of them sits on St. Peter's throne, have had their fill of politics and conclude that only making money has meaning. The Westerners nurse nostalgia for their past flirtations with the Left. Konwicki's novel is doubtless full of pungent East European ironies. But the film is a crude, stale satire on Western marketing methods.

Mad City, with John Travolta as a bumbling hostage-taker and Dustin Hoffman as a not-so-cynical-as-we-assumed TV journalist, extracts a good deal out of the tired but still kicking theme of manipulation by the media. Costa-Gavras again masters a teeming set with aplomb, and there's a very watchable battle of wills between Hoffman and Alan Alda. The coolness of Mad City's reception might be explained by the light-hearted way it exposed the rot of a system.

Rolf Hochhuth's play about Pius XII's hesitation to call out Hitler on the persecution of the Jews has been produced time and time again. But Costa-Gavras's film, Amen, does much more than simply transpose the play. In its sobriety, Amen is among the best films about the Holocaust, evoking the horrors without bludgeoning us to insensibility. Hochhuth doesn't deal in subtleties but in clear motivations, which suits Costa-Gavras to a T. The glimpses he gives us of the camps are usually from the outside as he passes by. This is true to his talents and no less poignant than the empty freight trains he shows continually circulating. We know what they carried.

In The Ax, Costa-Gavras has dispelled any confusion he felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has definitely "turned a page" and settled comfortably into "lightness," "irony" and "entertainment." But the film, based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake, tells us he's made the wrong decision. The premise is promising: An economic downturn hits prosperous France and middle-class professionals lose their jobs. One of them (the excellent actor José Garcia) decides to get himself hired again by killing off all the other applicants. We are ready for the darkest of black comedies à la Luis Buñuel. But Costa-Gavras stops short at the pinkish-gray. The Garcia character, once again a good family man leading a double life, is altogether too appealing. (Even Chaplin gave up being likeable in Monsieur Verdoux playing a serial killer.) Blackness is brightened in the cause of innocuous "entertainment." Could it be, then, that The Ax has a cutting edge as social commentary? Hardly. Unemployment seems to have affected only the well-heeled who continue to live in their cute houses and suffer only mentally in their macho pride.

That Costa-Gavras has lost his bite is borne out by his latest film, Eden is West, of 2009. It manages only a diffident embrace for the subject of illegal immigration, the urgent issue presently perturbing Europe and much of the world. The Grumberg script does have a couple of dead immigrants washed up on a Mediterranean beach in the opening scenes. But such devastating realities are soon tidied away as we skip through a road movie that follows a pretty-boy migrant across Italy to Paris. Much is made of his "exploitation" in bed by Western women. But instances of genuine exploitation of immigrants unblessed with a handsome face merit only a passing glance. In conversation Costa-Gavras offers a weak defense of his choice of his immigrant protagonist: A less personable leading man or one that was black or Asian would have loaded the dice in the pro-immigrant case he was making. But his description of Eden is West as a "fable" and "a metaphor" is suspect. He even hints that it has something to do with the myth of Ulysses. All art is, of course, metaphor. But when an artist puts that label on his own work we can be sure that something is fishy. The Costa-Gavras of Z, State of Siege, or Missing did not have to justify his films by calling them "fables."



*  The films of Costa-Gavras with their original and English titles:

1. 1965 Compartiment tueurs (France) The Sleeping Car Murders

2. 1967 Un homme de trop (France, Italy) Shock Troops

3. 1969 Z (France, Algeria) Z

4. 1970 L'aveu(France) The Confession

5. 1973 État de siège (France, Germany, Italy) State of Siege

6. 1975 Section spécial (France) Special Section

7. 1979 Clair de femme (France, Germany, Italy) Clair de femme, sometimes titled Womanlight

8. 1982 Missing (USA)

9. 1983 Hanna K. (France, Israel) Hannah K.

10. 1986 Conseil de famille (France) Family Business

11. 1988 Betrayed (USA)

12. 1989 Music Box (USA)

13. 1993 La petite apocalypse (France, Poland, Italy) The Minor Apocalypse

14. 1997 Mad City (USA)

15. 2002 Amen (France) Amen

16. 2004 Le Couperet (France, Belgium, Spain) The Ax

17. 2009 Eden à l'ouest (France, Greece, Italy) Eden is West  (back)


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Published June 1, 2009