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