Director-in-Focus: Costa-Gavras

Z (1969) was director Costa-Gavras’ third feature following stints as an assistant to influential directors such as René Clair, Henri Verneuil and Jean Becker. He had made his directorial debut in 1965 with Compartiment tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murder) and during that film’s production solidified his friendship with cast members Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, both at the time doyens of the French left. Once in these circles Costa-Gavras began to work on films that reflected his humanitarian, anti-authoritarian and left-leaning political perspectives. His work also revealed a deep-rooted desire to engage with audiences, a commitment that led him to turn to the political thriller with Z.

Z was inspired by events in Greece, notably the assassination of politician Gregorios Lambrakis in 1963, and focuses on the investigation that follows the death of a charismatic politician leading the opposition to an increasingly dictatorial government in an unnamed state. Whilst it was planned well in advance of the events of May ’68 in Paris, Z’s release in Europe in early 1969 was able to intersect with audiences’ growing desire for films with political themes. The political nature of Z itself is reflected in its opening where a statement appears: ‘Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is intentional’.

After casting Yves Montand in his first feature, Costa-Gavras had become a close associate of the actor and his friend the scriptwriter Jorge Semprún. Together the three would work on another two landmark political thrillers of the 1970s, The Confession (1970) and Special Section (1975). The Confession is an adaptation of Artur London’s account of how he, a former resistance fighter who became a Czech Communist Party official, fell foul of the regime and was eventually sentenced to life in prison. The resulting film is a tough condemnation of totalitarianism and brought Montand in particular into conflict with the French Communist Party with whom he had long had close links.

Montand’s next collaboration with Costa-Gavras, State of Siege, did not involve Semprún but drew on the talents of Battle of Algiers screenwriter Franco Solinas. In this instance their attention turned to the United States’ interventions in Latin America, using Uruguay as a model. Montand here plays a CIA operative – covertly ‘advising’ the pro-American government on things like torture – who is kidnapped by left-wing guerrillas. As his captors question him about his activities in the country, the government unleashes death squads to counter their influence.

Following State of Siege Costa-Gavras turned his attention to the issue of collaboration during the German occupation of France with Special Section. Once again utilising a tension-building narrative, the film focuses on a group of judges set up to select six people to be killed in response to the Resistance’s killing of a German officer.

Costa-Gavras’ work in the 1970s represents some of the highest achievements within the cycle of political thrillers produced in Europe during this period. Later he would continue to make political thrillers in the USA with the award-winning Missing (1982), Betrayed (1988) and Music Box (1989) before returning to Europe to make films such as Amen (2002) which explored the possible links between the Vatican and Nazi Germany.

State of Siege screens as part of our States of Danger & Deceit: European Political Thrillers of the 1970s film season.

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