By Yun-hua Chen.
Thriller is a way to tell a story about society. Political thrillers are movies about people in a particular situation…. Everything is political.”
To celebrate the Greek-French auteur Costa-Gavras’ nearly 60 years of filmmaking, the Locarno Film Festival awarded him with the lifetime achievement award of 2022 and screened his debut films The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartiment Tueurs, 1965) and Shock Troops (Un Homme de Trop, 1967). With Simone Signoret, Catherine Allégret, and Yves Montand, three members of the Sigoret family, taking the lead roles, The Sleeping Car Murder is a very mature debut whose skillfully orchestrated cinematography generates suspense all the while each character is portrayed in a well-observed manner. In Shock Troops that is adapted from Jean-Pierre Chabrol’s novel, the French resistance fighters who set out to liberate twelve prisoners captured by the German troops during the Second World War found out that there is a thirteenth man. These two films are lesser-known works of Costa-Gavras’, made prior to 1969’s Z about the coup d’état in Greece that won him the Oscar’s foreign film award, but they already displayed Costa-Gavras’ mastery of the pace and complexity of historic and political thrillers.
His career, spanning two continents and nearly six decades, is openly political; as he famously reiterated, everything is political. From Z (1969) to Missing (1982), from The Axe (2005) to Capital (2012) and Adults in the Room (2019), his variegated range of subject matters stays contemporary, relevant, human-centered, and brilliantly entertaining at the same time.
In Locarno, he talks to Film International about The Sleeping Car Murders, spectacles, and all things political.
A lot of your films are understood as political thrillers. How do you think this genre has changed over time?
The crime movies are always extraordinary spectacles because of their possibility to speak about our society, through the acting, characters, and the script, whether directly or indirectly. The film The Sleeping Car Murders has been an opportunity for me. The original French title “Compartiment Tueurs” comes from “compartement fumeur”, which used to be in the train for smokers, so the title is a kind of an exercise for adaptation. When I was waiting for the next film to be made, I read that book and thought that I had time to do the adaptation. I did some handwritten notes and gave it to the studio. The director of the studio contacted me and said that, it’s a good story and we want to make this into a movie. The film had an amazing cast, which for me was both success and a source of anguish. If the movie was a flop, it would have been a catastrophe. Fortunately, the movie did very well, particularly in the US. There was an extraordinary article saying the movie is among the ten best movies of the year. I started having propositions since then to make films in the US, which I refused because I did not want to emigrate another time.
Thriller is a way to tell a story about society. Political thrillers are movies about people in a particular situation. We call them thrillers because they are thrilling. It has the same construction that we use today: first part, second part, third part. It’s a spectacle in a different way. It gives us another possibility. Everything is political. What we do here is political. Political is not whom you vote for, but rather your relationship with “polis”, which means “town” in Greek. I used to talk about political movies, and the distributor would say, don’t talk about “political”, but since then, everything is political. We mixed the understanding of “political” with “political power”, but everything is political.
Your films always have a humane dimension in the context of political. In the last few years, you have tackled refugee crisis and Greek crisis. Now we see democracy in crisis in Hungary, Brazil etc. I wonder if this is a concern for you, and if it is something that is in your mind or can be dealt with today…
Of course, these are important themes to be made into a spectacle and to talk about through spectacles. We are not doing a declaration about politicians, but rather spectacles like the story of Oedipus in ancient Greece, with feelings and emotions. With these emotions, you do something in your life. Today there are a lot of things out there. Today we encounter difficulties with “democracy”, and we see what is happening to democracy in the US. It’s the primal to see society in a different way, and cinema can do it. The difficulties that we have in cinema is to find the right story, a real story as much as possible. I did The Confession (1970), for example, about the Communist system. As The Confession is a real story, the Communists started asking questions about their own party. There is a big deal for discussion.
You started to work in the US with your film Missing. How was the experience working in the US for you?
After my first movie that was a big success in the US and Z that was a big success, they wanted me to make five movies with five writers and so forth and stay there. I refused it because I did not think that it was the right way of making movies, and I felt that it was nice to live in France. For the three or four movies that I did in the US, I did the post-production in France. They were some extraordinary experiments because I got to do exactly what I would like to do in the US and particularly with Missing. Today, this kind of films cannot be done in the US anymore.
You mentioned The Confession and the impact it had on Communists. What’s your view on communists versus capitalists nowadays?
There has never been a communist world. We never reached a communist system. There were some attempts and then it became dictatorship, in a very aggressive form and with huge success, in China for example. It is in a way a capitalist system within a communist system.
Greece is a democracy, but since a week there is a huge problem. The government was spying to politicians of other parties and journalists and tried to control them. Under the pretext of national security. That’s a kind of dictatorship. Democracy with a dictatorship direction.
Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with the Spanish writer Jorge Semprún?
We became friends before we started working together. Jorge was a communist, one of the leaders there, and then he changed completely. That was a very friendly and personal relationship between us till the end. For the first film, I got some problems, so I asked Jorge if he wanted to help me. He said that he hated police stories, so I had to finish it by myself. For Z, he said that we could do it together, so we did two movies together. We could have done more, but then he was writing his book. He was a great writer.
Right now, you are going to do a TV series. Is it a political choice?
I am working on the script of the series, which is a new way of making spectacles. I have a lot of questions since I started working on that. Is series a piece of artwork? A movie is an artwork with a beginning and an end. You watch it, you might like it or not, and you talk about it. With the series, you finish it, you go for another one, and then another one. On the other hand, with series, you can be on the platforms that can reach out to thousands of millions of people, who can watch films on those platforms without having to pay much money especially when you don’t have a theatre to go to. While I am still asking myself these questions, I will see how I end up with that project.
Is it possible to have the kind of freedom that you need on streaming platforms?
Some platforms offer the opportunities to millions of people to watch movies that would otherwise be impossible because of economic problems or problems with movie theatres. On the other hand, little by little they could completely control the moviemaking and show-making’s direction to reach a bigger audience. They are interested in the number of subscribers instead of the amount of people who actually watch movies. They are not concerned with culture but rather try to have more subscribers. Like some television, they would lower the quality of spectacles to attract more people. That’s a big problem. It’s important for each country to save their national cinema.