Truth vs. power, 40 years later

Costa-Gavras talks about "Z," the electrifying Cold War political thriller that unmasked the Greek dictatorship, and shaped movie history.

Published March 13, 2009 11:03AM (EDT)

Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras'"Z." Courtesy Rialto Pictures

Listen to the interview with Costa-Gavras

Costa-Gavras may have invented the modern political thriller, but like so many great inventions it was largely a question of accident and expediency. When he shot "Z" in 1968, the director born in Greece as Konstantinos Gavras was simply trying to tell a true story, the story of the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a left-wing opposition leader, by shadowy forces close to the Greek military and royal family. (The film's screenplay was based on a documentary novel by journalist Vasilis Vasilikos, but both stick closely to the historical record.)

Making the film in Greece was completely out of the question, thanks to the military coup that provides a final, bitter sting to the tale of murder, coverup and investigation in "Z." Like most other Greek artists and intellectuals who could get out, Costa-Gavras had fled the country and was living in Paris (where he has lived, off and on, ever since). He hoped to shoot the film in Italy with French backing, using Trieste and Palermo as plausible stand-ins for Greek locations. But money was tight in the near-apocalyptic political climate of 1968, and his French producer backed out after reading the script, probably expecting a film that would be perceived as left-wing propaganda.

So Costa-Gavras wound up shooting "Z" in Algeria, using a cast of French actors and Algerian extras to play characters who either go unnamed or have unplaceable, Beckett-like single names. The Lambrakis character, played by Gallic style-hound Yves Montand, is simply called "the Deputy." The stone-faced, sunglass-wearing judge who refuses to abandon his investigation as it goes ever deeper into the corridors of power is "the Examining Magistrate" (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who won the best-actor prize at Cannes). Two of the thugs who carry out the assassination are called Vago (Marcel Bozzufi) and Yago (Renato Salvatori).

Despite a few clues dropped in, almost as gags -- a bottle of Greek beer, a Greek-alphabet typewriter -- "Z" could be set in almost any warm-climate country in the world where the guys with the guns and funny uniforms have gotten a bit too big for their britches. It's a strangely displaced movie, and this sense of postmodern dislocation, even if it was unintentional, is central to its power.

As Costa-Gavras told me when I met him recently in New York, Algiers proved to be a relaxed and hospitable environment. Authorities there were accustomed to sheltering international left-wing fugitives -- Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver would live there for several years -- and hosting an anti-authoritarian film made by dissident Europeans was an opportunity not to miss. Without much money, much time or access to first-rate equipment, Costa-Gavras had to improvise his style on the fly. Drawing on the films that had influenced him, the result was a striking combination of tightly plotted, American-style thriller with the location shooting, hand-held camerawork and fluid editing of the French New Wave.

"Z" begins with confrontational on-screen text -- "Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental. IT IS INTENTIONAL" -- and ends with an absurd litany of things banned by the Greek military junta, including miniskirts, the study of Russian or Bulgarian, books by Dostoevsky and Sartre, virtually all pop music and the letter Z, which can be read as "he lives" in ancient Greek. In between, it remains a vital, breathlessly exciting and increasingly claustrophobic thriller, in which Trintignant's implacable magistrate meticulously unwraps the conspiracy, while we sit there with the growing suspicion that his integrity will not quite be enough to redeem this situation of total corruption. He's like a John Ford hero, transported into Godard's universe.

Although "Z" was pilloried as anti-American in some circles, it broke United States box-office records for foreign films and piled up five Oscar nominations in 1970, including best picture and best direction. (It won the foreign-language and editing awards.) To commemorate the film's 40th anniversary, Rialto Pictures is releasing a spectacular new 35mm print, which also ought to mean that a Criterion Collection DVD edition lies somewhere in the near future.

I think "Z" stands on its own as a cinematic accomplishment, but its political significance seems murkier, so many years removed from the white-hot Cold War climate in which it was created. Who better to ask about that than Costa-Gavras himself? The director was in New York both for the Film Forum premiere of "Z" and for the American premiere of his new film, "Eden Is West," in Lincoln Center's Rendez-Vous With French Cinema.

I'll have more to say about "Eden Is West" when American audiences get a chance to see it. It's a nearly wordless road movie about an immigrant from an unnamed country, probably in Eastern Europe, who makes his way across Greece, Italy and Germany en route to Paris. As Costa-Gavras says, it's quite different from the rest of his work (which includes "State of Siege" and such American-made films as "Missing," "Hanna K" and "Music Box"). When I suggest that "Eden Is West" is a less obviously political film than "Z," he says, in his courtly but imperfect English, "I like very much the word you use. It's not obviously political. The French philosopher Roland Barthes says that all movies are political. It's exactly that, I think."

What are your emotions about the rerelease of "Z," 40 years after it was made?

Well, it's an amazing thing. To learn that 40 years later they are showing my movie again. I was very moved to learn that the Rialto people decided to release it again, and I'm very curious to see how the audience will react.

That's an interesting question. At least in some ways, "Z" is very specific to its time and place. You were reacting to a very specific situation in Greece.

Right, it was about the assassination of a deputy. I suppose it's the same thing as a senator here, a representative of the people. There was a long investigation to find out who did it, and we discovered little by little that it was the officials, it was the government itself. Because his political ideas did not support the government of the time, and so some elements of the king's family, with the help of the military, killed him. Then they manipulated the military and the police and the justice system to hide it. But thanks to a particular judge, the truth comes out. The end of the movie is also very particular, because in the meantime the military coup took place, and the judge went to prison along with many other people. [Laughter.] It's very funny, but finally it's not so funny. It's a comical-tragedy ending.

Many people have observed that the film had broader, more universal implications, that it isn't just about a particular situation in Greece. Were you consciously trying to do that?

No, not at the time. The only thing I did, I tried not to show that it was taking place in Greece. After a while everyone understood that it was taking place in Greece, but I did not use the Greek names. We just used the function of each person: We said "the lawyer," "the judge," "the doctor." We never said their names. That made the film, you could say, more international. What was important was the idea of power, the power used by the main forces in society, the police, the army and the justice system, to do what they have done. That was the idea -- that mechanism.

Of course, many countries around the world have faced that problem.

Yeah, absolutely. One of the themes I like very much in my movies is that you have one person, the judge, who resists all of that system. He says, "No, I will go on, even if it jeopardizes my life and my job, I will do it." He accuses the military and puts generals in prison, which caused a huge turmoil in prison. Then of course the coup happened, and the judge himself went to prison.

You used French actors and shot in Algeria, so there is something abstract, sort of general, about the setting. The viewer can't figure out exactly where this story is happening.

[Laughter.] We were obliged to do so. I wished to do it with French people in France, but it was impossible. Algiers was the only Mediterranean city we could find that looked a little bit like a Greek city. We had to change a few things here and there. Also, the Algerians accepted us, they wanted us to shoot the movie there. Without that help, it would have been impossible.

OK, it was totally impossible in Greece, because by that time the colonels were running the country. But why couldn't you make it in France?

Because it would have been twice or three times more expensive, and we didn't have the money. It was as simple as that. Sometimes difficulties bring up good things.

What was so striking about this film at the time was the way it blended the American thriller, especially the detective movie, with the French New Wave film, which feels looser and more spontaneous.

It was that simple. It was taking the good parts of American movies and the good parts of the new wave! We didn't have cranes and railroads for traveling shots, so we had to use hand-held camera. I had to put blankets around the camera to keep the sound out. It was a very poor production, but we did it with enthusiasm, and the movie came out very well. It was easy to shoot in Algeria, because everybody speaks French and we were very well received everywhere we went. We didn't have any problems.

This story is bound to seem different to the contemporary viewer. Europe is a very different place than it was in 1968. Greece is completely different.

Everyplace is different. There are not so many dictatorships around the world. There used to be a lot of them, in Latin America and many other places. What is permanent, I think, is how someone can use the police, the justice system and the army to have all the power. There's still the possibility that a man, or a group of men, can control these three forces in a society and compel millions of people to obey you. That's the whole system of a dictatorship.

Some people saw this as an anti-American film or a left-wing screed. In spite of that -- or maybe because of that -- it did very well in the U.S.

It was amazing how well it did. At that time, it was the foreign movie, and the French movie, that did the best-ever box office in the United States. It was amazing for everybody. It didn't just play in the big cities, it played in small towns, it played everywhere. We were nominated for best picture, for best directing, for best script. Five or six Oscar nominations. It was a completely unique thing for a foreign-language movie.

One of the things that's hardest to recapture about that historical moment, I think, is what the political movement led by Yves Montand's character is supposed to represent. It's a very specific Cold War thing. He's anti-American, or highly critical of American policy anyway, but he's not communist or pro-communist.

No, absolutely not. The main political movements at the time in Greece were the communist movement or the conservative, right-wing movement. You could say the pro-Soviet movement and the pro-American movement. The Montand character tries to find a new way, to say, "We don't have to be against one or against the other, for one or for the other. We can be critical of both or friendly with both. We have to establish a national line." That made him an enemy, really, to both sides. But particularly to the palace, to the king's family, who were extremely pro-American and pro-British. It was for that they killed him, assassinated him.

Maybe that describes you too. You've been described as a left-wing political filmmaker, but right after "Z" you made another movie with Montand, "The Confession," which was very critical of Soviet communism.

And for that I was hated by all the European communists! And then other people said I must be a communist because I made movies that criticized American actions. But "Missing" and "State of Siege" were made with American money. One of them, "Missing," was made by Universal Pictures, with American actors and an American writer. Sometimes the Americans make anti-American movies, which I like very much. It's one of the very few countries in the world to be able to criticize itself through the cinema.

There are elements in "Z," from the hand-held camera to the quasi-documentary elements, that profoundly influenced thrillers for years to come. You made this movie before Francis Coppola made "The Conversation," and before Friedkin made "French Connection."

People say so. It's difficult for me to say. You know, we were all influenced by American cinema -- all the European filmmakers of my generation. We try to do very personal movies, but we can't get rid of American cinema. Maybe this is less true in the era of special-effects movies, but really it's the major cinema in the world. American cinema and French cinema, which was very influential for us.

What American filmmakers were especially important to you?

I mean, there were lots of them, but I will just mention one. Everybody says he was an extreme right-winger, but I will say John Ford. He did the movie of "Grapes of Wrath," and it's an extraordinary movie, I believe. I think his position, in all his movies -- he plays with the individualism you always see in American cinema and American authors. He always puts people together. He doesn't say that one man can save the world, no. He says that several men, together, can do something. Which goes generally against what American movies are saying.

Criterion recently released "Missing" on DVD, just a few months ago. Watching that again I was wondering whether that project could get green-lighted in Hollywood today.

No. No, no. I was talking with one of the executive producers recently, and he told me there would be no way to make a movie like that today. You know, it depends also, in Hollywood, on whether a major actor is willing to make a controversial movie, like Clooney sometimes does. Then it can happen. But if the initiative is coming from a major studio? I don't think so.

Yeah, I would say that Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" is a film very much in your tradition. Is there any way you could work in the U.S. again?

Oh yes, with pleasure. If it's a story I would like to make, and they accept it, I will do it. Or if they send me a good story, yes. But for the moment, nothing like this exists. In France, we don't have so much money, but we have freedom. Here it's the contrary.

"Z," "State of Siege" and "Missing" -- all your early films, in fact -- were concerned with the Cold War or its fallout. Is it more difficult to make political films since the end of the superpower conflict?

It's different. In that period you have two blocs, the Soviet bloc and the Western bloc. Everybody has to take a position, to be for one and against the other. It was automatic, and today that doesn't exist anymore. My generation wished to think that when the day came that we didn't have two blocs, and the communists would be out -- because it's a dictatorial, antisocial system -- then the world would be paradise. And instead we have discovered that it's definitely not paradise. The world is even worse than before! Everything is different. And the positions today -- when Mr. Bush was here, we could no longer say we were pro-American. Now we can be pro-American again, thanks to Obama. Everyone says everything will be great. We will see.

Even if it's totally out of its political context -- and I'm not sure that it is, but if it is -- I still think "Z" is a very exciting film.

Sure, I hope so. I mean, it's a thriller. You have an assassination, and you have to find the killer. And there is the judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who fights all the way for the truth.

It's a conflict between power and truth, and it seems like sometimes one is stronger and sometimes the other. Is there a conflict between idealism and its opposite -- skepticism, maybe -- that runs all through your work?

I wouldn't say skepticism. I would say realism. What happens in society? You have people who fight, who are idealists. But unfortunately some of the time -- I would say most of the time -- it doesn't have a happy ending.

"Z" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens April 3 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles and May 1 at the Music Box in Chicago, with more engagements (and probable DVD release) to follow.







By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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