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A FILMMAKER WHOSE GREAT PASSION IS POLITICS

I got a sense of the depth of Costa-Gavras' moral and political intensity when I interviewed the director for the New York Times in 1970. That's why it wouldn't surprise me if he decided to set his next movie in Iraq, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. --Guy Flatley

 

Calling "Z" a good thriller is like calling "Easy Rider" a pleasant travelogue. According to Costa-Gavras, at any rate. Gavras is the earnest, Greek-born director of "Z," the hit French movie about political corruption in Greece that currently has New Yorkers standing on foot-freezing line at the Beekman Theater. Recently--a few days before he was named best director and "Z" was named best film by the New York Film Critics--Gavras sat in his unfancy suite at the Algonquin, patiently answering questions. And in his own charming, well-mannered way, he was quite angry. He simply could not comprehend how Vincent Canby could deny the film's political motivation, choosing to see it as nothing more than a crackling suspense yarn.

"I never intended 'Z' to be sheer entertainment," Gavras says in a gently exasperated voice. He is pale, broad-shouldered and handsome--in the offbeat, melancholy manner of his favorite leading man, Yves Montand. "I always meant the film as a political act. And the proof that it succeeds is that everyone recognizes the situation as the one in Greece, even though Greece is never once mentioned."

Gavras grins and shrugs a very French shrug. "Well, I was not too surprised by Canby's review. The critic for Figaro said something similar. I suppose there are certain people who just do not wish to believe that things are the way I have shown them in my film."

His smile suddenly vanishes. "But I really cannot understand how your Mr. Canby can compare the peace sign carried by the people in 'Z' with the swastika. What would he say, I wonder, if, instead, they had carried a cross?

"The story of 'Z' is a true story," he says, relaxing. "We did not give the name of the country because when people think of Greece, they think of beautiful vacations in the sun, and they would have been distracted from the movie's purpose. At the end, with the military coup d'etat and the long list of censored works, the audience recognizes that the country is Greece. And they realize then that what we have been showing them throughout the entire film are real facts."

The "real facts" that inspired "Z"--and the novel by Vassili Vassilikos upon which Gavras and Jorge Semprun based their screenplay--are the assassination in 1963 in Salonika of pacifist leader Gregorios Lambrakis; the sinister attempt by government officials to conceal the true circumstances of the killing; the painstaking investigation of the crime by an uncompromising magistrate; the tyrannizing of witnesses by the police; the sensational trial and conviction of the murderers--and the ultimate coup d'etat that brought the guilty parties back to positions of power in the Greek government. Even those who maintain that "Z" is effective only on the thriller level are not totally shocked to learn that the movie has been banned in Greece, that Gavras' parents have been subjected to menacing scrutiny and that Gavras, now a French citizen, does not dare return to the land of his birth.

Constantin Gavras--Costa is short for Constantin and the hyphen has been added to "create confusion"--was born in Athens 36 years ago, one of three sons in a middle-class family. His father, an atheist, held a drab administration job in the government. His mother, an obsessive Orthodox Catholic, kept an unblinking eye on the spiritual welfare of her children. "I was plunged into religion," Gavras recalls. "Completely suffocated by it. The sort of training that made it much easier for me to finally break away from the church."

When he turned 18, Gavras broke away from both his Catholic boyhood and his repressive homeland, fleeing to Paris, where, with the aid of family and friends, he was able to enroll at the Sorbonne. At 21, he graduated with a degree in literature and then went on to study filmmaking at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques. Even as a youngster in Athens, caught up in the capers and calamities of Charlie Chaplin, he had felt an insatiable cinematic urge, and now, in Paris, when he was not developing his technique at the Institut, he could be discovered in some dark cinema cellar, mesmerized by the visual glories of his new idols--Rene Clement, John Huston, Raoul Walsh.

Before long, he was working as assistant director to other idols, men like Yves Allegret, Rene Clair and Jacques Demy. Finally, in 1966, he manned his first solo directorial flight, "The Sleeping Car Murders"--a nerve-tingling, nonpolitical, highly commercial film starring Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Jean-Louis Trintignant (poster at right). The success of that movie, for which Gavras also wrote the screenplay, has turned out to be a mixed blessing. He feels that it may have prompted at least one critic to dismiss him as an "escape" artist. He much prefers talking about his second, not-so-popular film, "One Man Too Many," which United Artists dubbed and dumped onto 42nd Street last year, calling it--for reasons that leave its director baffled--"Shock Troops." Michel Piccoli played the hero, a French pacifist who displays great courage during the Nazi Occupation.

Gavras insists that he does not want to be labeled a director of thrillers or political films. "Movies are passions," he says, "and just now my great passion happens to be politics. Tomorrow I may decide to do a musical."

That musical may have to wait until the day after tomorrow. Gavras will be busy for some time with "The Confession," his new movie which is now shooting in France (poster at left). Set in Czechoslovakia during the early fifties, it stars Simone Signoret--and, almost inevitably, Yves Montand, this time playing a dedicated journalist investigating a political crime. "It will be a very political film," Gavras laughs, leaning back in his chair.

There is a buzz at the door, and suddenly a cool, stunning redhead in a smart black and white pants suit sweeps into the room. She is Mrs. Gavras, the Frenchwoman who put an end to Costa's man--about-town days a year and a half ago. They are now the boastful parents of a 4-month-old boy who, regrettably, had to be left at home in Paris. Mrs. Gavras, who was married once before--at the age of 16--also has a 14-year-old son.

As Mrs. Gavras, she is relatively unknown, but as Michele Ray, fearless freelance journalist, she has an avid international following. Once a high fashion model with the House of Chanel, Michele seems to view the world of journalism as a 50-50 blend of politics and thrills. She made headlines a while back with her ingenious efforts to outwit the Americans in the race to gain possession of Che Guevara's diary in Bolivia. But the summit of her fame was reached in 1967 in Vietnam, where her beauty, bravery and bullheadedness appear to have bowled over just about everyone, from the Green Berets to the Vietcong. What happened was that she jumped into her Renault one sunny day, armed with nothing but her notebooks, camera and nerve, and, starting at the southern tip of Vietnam, set out for the demilitarized zone in the North. She didn't quite make it--having been forced to pull over to the side of the bumpy road by three members of the Vietcong. And for the next three weeks Michele got to know firsthand what the Vietcong are really like, while Time and Life and the rest of the world speculated on her whereabouts and howabouts.

"I was stopped by the Vietcong because there was a war going on," says Michele, who is now sitting beside her husband. Her eyes are deep brown, her mouth slightly pouting, and as she brushes back her long red hair, she reminds you of the smoldering Rita Hayworth of the forties. "It was fantastic to be on the other side of the American bombs and to see the Vietcong struggling for their existence. They are not killers, you know. To the Americans, Vietcong means North Vietnamese Communist. They don't want to know the truth, that this is a war of liberation, and not an aggression from the North."

Perhaps we will learn the truth about the Vietcong in the form of a political thriller from Costa-Gavras?

"No," says Gavras. "You cannot make a movie about Vietnam. We are all so directly involved. In 'Z' we showed a situation that until then was not widely known. But we see so much of what is really happening in Vietnam. Everyone is too impregnated with real facts, from television, from newspapers. . ."

"The American public will never support a film about the Vietnam War," Michele asserts. "Look what happened with 'The Anderson Platoon.' And that was a generous movie--the Americans were the wounded ones, the Americans gave out all the candy. The Vietcong were never even shown. You see, the Americans don't really want to know what's going on. Three years ago, when pictures were shown of a G.I. calmly setting fire to a peasant family's hut with a cigarette lighter, nobody really cared. And next year Americans won't care about what happened at Songmy."

Husband and wife share a sigh and the conversation is shifted to less painful areas. Like New York, which they both find fascinating; Yves Montand, whom they consider a fine actor and a fine human being; "Easy Rider," which Gavras sees as a poem and Michele apparently accepts as straight reportage; and their wonderful children, whom they miss immeasurably. Then, smiling prettily, Michele offers her hand and says that she really must dash for her plane. She kisses her husband and moves to the door. Standing there, tall and model-thin, she watches--with a look that is tender and sweetly possessive--as a photographer takes closeups of the rising young director. And then, quickly, she breezes away to cover the trial of the Chicago Eight.

Gavras smiles one final smile for the photographer and then sits back and begins to retrace the steps of his movie, from A to "Z." "I never met Lambrakis. I was in France when I heard that he had died. Like all Greeks, I knew that it could not have been a simple accident, that it had been plotted. Then, three years ago, when I read Vassilikos's book, I knew immediately that I would have to make it into a film."

The road between the knowing and the making was not always smooth. United Artists, with whom Gavras had a contract, turned "Z" down because "it was too political, and they were afraid that if they made it, all United Artists pictures would be banned in Greece."

Nor was any other American company willing to take the risk. Finally, thanks largely to the energy and persuasiveness of co-producer Jacques Perrin, the young actor who plays the unfeeling reporter in the film, the necessary money--approximately $750,00--was raised in France. All of the shooting, however, was done in Algiers, not for political reasons, but because the Algerians came through with facilities and equipment. In fact, "Z" is the first French-Algerian co-production.

Most of the actors in "Z" worked for considerably less than their usual star-salaries. "I knew from the beginning that Montand was the only one in France who could play Lambrakis," Gavras says. "Today political figures are as well known as stars, and we had to have someone with whom audiences could immediately identify. Neither Montand nor I was bothered by the fact that he would have to be killed early in the movie.

"It was also tremendously important for me to have Irene Papas in 'Z.' She is the only Greek in the cast, you know, and she is used as a symbol of Greek suffering. Irene is passionately opposed to the military regime. She was at the funeral of Lambrakis. And she is a great friend of Mikis Theodorakis."

The seething, swelling raging music of Mikis Theodorakis lends an almost unbearable tension to "Z." The composer, who was being held under house arrest in Greece, was unable to do an original score for the film, so adaptations of music he had already written were used. "We needed something very special for the scene in which Montand, who has been struck a blow on the head, manages to weave his way through the screaming crowd and pull himself up the steps to where he is to make his speech. What we did, finally, was take the music we already had used in another scene and use it again--only backwards."

Jacques Perrin flew to Greece in an effort to discuss the score with Theodorakis. "He met with Theodorakis's wife and lawyer secretly, in a hotel near the house where Theodorakis was being held. Afterward, outside the hotel, Jacques was stopped by the police, put into a car and driven to the airport. 'It would be better for you not to come back to Greece,' they told him. And that was before they knew anything about the movie having been made."

Gavras looks as weary as the doomed hero of "Z." Each day brings new reports of restrictions and atrocities. Is there no hope for Greece? "The day America understands that the people of Greece must be free is the day there will be hope for Greece. Because on that day America will stop helping the military government--a government that could not stand for one week without her help. But Mr. Agnew has been saying that Greece has been saved by the military government, that he considers it the best government Greece could have. A strange concept of democracy."

In the meantime, there is one ray of hope, Gavras feels: the young people, in all parts of the world, who drop out from corrupt societies, who take to the streets and protest rather than fight in unjust wars. "I am happy to say that I was never in military service."

His eyes brighten and for a moment Costa-Gavras looks almost boyish. "If I were 18," he says, "I too would be in the streets."