Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray editions: The Confession d. Costa-Gavras (1970) Spine: #759 Blu-ray Release Date: May 26, 2015 State of Siege d. Costa-Gavras (1972) Spine: #760 Blu-ray Release Date: May 26, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray discs, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
In 1969, Costa-Gavras burst onto the world cinema scene with his third feature film, Z, a political thriller based on the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis that begins with this provocation:
Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental.
It is INTENTIONAL
Z is a fantastic film, a favorite of mine, and yet I’d never done my homework to learn much about Costa-Gavras’s two political thrillers that followed it: The Confession (1970) and State of Siege (1972), each also based on true events, each starring Yves Montand. This week, The Criterion Collection is releasing The Confession and State of Siege on DVD and Blu-ray, and I was shocked: they are exceptional films as well. I’m not sure why I doubted (probably because I’ve heard so much about Z over the years but not much to nothing about these), but I now have been presented credible evidence that Costa-Gavras is indeed the master of the political thriller. Pick up these two films as soon as possible.
The Confession takes us to Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, not long after it began its nearly half century as a communist nation and part of the Warsaw Pact. In 1951, a leading figure in the Communist Party and deputy of foreign affairs, named Artur London in real life and Anton Ludvik in the film, was arrested with no explanation, only to eventually suffer as a defendant in a show trial, known as the Slánský trial, with thirteen other leading party members. Of the fourteen defendants, eleven were executed. London and two others were sentenced to life imprisonment, though London was released in 1955. The Confession not only takes us through that story but it also makes us feel, if only to a minor but important degree, the terror of the psychological games the prosecutors were playing in order to get the prisoners to participate in a scripted trial that would result in their doom.
Costa-Gavras doesn’t waste time at the beginning of The Confession. Yves Montand’s Anton Ludvik, known by his alias Gerard, exits the government building where he sees a scary, though for him by now sadly familiar sight: a bunch of men are waiting for him so they can follow him home and keep track of his whereabouts at all times. They do not even try to remain inconspicuous.
Eventually, Gerard is arrested, though he, as a faithful Party member and leader in the government, has no idea why and is shocked when he isn’t given any degree of what we might consider to be due process.
Instead, he finds himself humiliated as guards and interrogators deprive him of sleep and food in an effort to get him to confess to crimes against the state. Montand’s performance is excruciating and excellent. Any pride we might see on Gerard’s face at the film’s beginning is washed away completely, especially in the rare moments when he is given a chance to sleep on the floor in regulation position.
Because he is never given a moment to collect his thoughts, he eventually becomes quite docile, and we can see the weariness on his face as he accepts the multitude of horrors his tormentors have come up with.
The film is composed in such a way that we feel the disorientation, though the film is never confusing. We feel Gerard’s weariness every time he is told to walk around his cell, though the film is fast-paced and invigorating.
The end goal, though, is not to torture Gerard to death or even to get any intelligence from him. No, he is a performer in a role his oppressors have invented, and they intend he become the part completely. Eventually he finds himself being groomed for public appearance. It wouldn’t do to let the world see a man who looks deprived of anything, even the sun:
And the world will be watching the show.
And so will Gerard’s wife, played by Yves Montand’s real wife Simone Signoret. We see her struggling with the possibility that her husband is a traitor, something that becomes more and more likely as she listens to his confession in the sound of his own voice. Their marriage is being destroyed. But, regardless of whether her husband is truly guilty, what is she going to do in a society that may wonder what part she played in all of this?
It’s a terrifying mockery, where tears and laughter come close together.
State of Siege takes us to Uruguay in the early 1970s, meaning that when the film came out the events it depicted were very recent. Here Yves Montand plays Philip Michael Santore, a U.S. Aid official who is kidnapped by a revolutionary group devoted to subverting the country’s oppressive conservative government. Montand’s character is based on the real life kidnapping and execution of Dan Mitrione.
When the film begins we see exactly what the title is referring to:
Police officers are everywhere, searching everyone they can. Their goal is to find any of three kidnapping victims, one of which is Yves Montand’s Santore.
Perhaps surprisingly, in the first few minutes of the film they find Santore. He’s dead. There’s our star, executed just after the opening credits have dissipated.
The point of the film, then, is not to build the audience’s anxiety and uncertainty about the fate of Montand’s character. Rather, it is to examine several power relationships: one between the state and the urban guerillas, one between Uruguay and the international community, and one between Santore and his captors. So the film steps back in time to the kidnapping, a marvelous feat of filmmaking in which Costa-Gavras edits together a flurry of activity that is nicely coordinated amidst chaos, and builds to Santore’s execution as a foregone conclusion, the result of a mess of politics.
The international community is represented by the journalists, bystanders who offer commentary on the reasons why a group of revolutionaries — or terrorists, depending on the perspective — would kidnap a U.S. Aid employee. An older journalist, in particular, who is critical of the government and the United States, maintains some balance and it isn’t long before we see that Santore is not as innocent as Montand’s star billing might have us think.
The most fascinating aspect of State of Siege, though, is the dynamic relationship between Santore and his captors. For their part, the captors sound reasonable and controlled. When hijacking all of the vehicles in the first half hour, they tote guns, but they do not kill. Instead, they tell the people whose vehicles they’ve stolen to take a half hour walk and then call the police so they can get their vehicles back. As they interrogate Santore, they are soft-spoken and intelligent. They have done their homework, so there is no way for Santore to hide behind his innocuous title.
As we watch these interrogations, Costa-Gavras directs the actors superbly, giving us a sense of who’s in control in any given scene by their dominance in the frame:
This last screen shot is particularly telling. It’s the first time they’ve shown their faces to Santore, and Santore knows just what this means. We do too; after all, we saw Santore’s body at the start of the film.
However, though we know that Santore is going to die, the film’s power is in portraying how we get to that point. His captors do not want to kill him. Indeed, they understand that one reason the populace sympathizes with them is because they are relatively peaceful, especially when compared to their brutal government (and Santore) who considers the activists such a dangerous plague they are to be fought by any means necessary. If the group loses that virtue that distinguishes them from the government they are fighting, they stand to lose a lot more. Santore understands this as well, and so he also understands that his death, probably more than his life, will serve to strengthen the position of the government. It’s a fascinating look at how power is attained, maintained, and abused.
The Confession comes with a load of supplements, all worth digging into:
- You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London. One of the strongest features from either disc, this is a 31-minute on-set, creative documentary by the great Chris Marker.
- Costa-Gavras at the Midnight Sun Film Festival. This is an hour-long conversation between Costa-Gavras and Peter von Bagh from 1998. It provides a nice overview of the director’s life and work.
- Portrait London. This is an 11-minute series of segments from a program that aired on French television in January 1981, when American hostages in Iran were released. London and his wife talk about their time as prisoners and their experiences since release.
- The set also features a 7-minute interview with Yves Montand from 1970, in which he talks about the role (an agonizing one), a 17-minute interview from 2015 with François Bonnot, the editor of many of Costa-Gravras’s films, including the three mentioned in this post, and a 7-minute interview from 2014 with John Michalcyk, the author of Costa-Gravras: The Political Fiction Film.
In contrast, State of Siege comes with only two on-disc supplements. On the one hand, this is too bad as the film seems to beg for more context and analysis, but on the other hand the two supplements we get are excellent:
- Costa-Gavras and Peter Cowie on State of Siege. This is a fantastic 31-minute conversation between Costa-Gavras and the eminent Peter Cowie. Interestingly, Costa-Gavras discusses his purpose in making these films: to entertain, not to deliver a political message. Of course, a political message comes across, but he’s right that his films are also wonderfully visceral forms of sophisticated entertainment.
- The disc’s only other feature is a 7-minute series of segments from NBC news coverage of the kidnapping and execution of Dan Mitrione.
Each disc also comes with a fold-out poster, featuring essays that nicely round out the editions. The Confession comes with an essay by scholar Dina Iordanova, which she wrote after meeting Costa-Gavras following the attacks on Charlie hebdo. State of Siege comes with an essay from journalist Mark Danner, nicely comparing the film to the actual incident. Both essays are strong and highly recommended reading.
All in all, the weeks I’ve spent going over these films and their supplements have been fruitful and fascinating, especially given how relevant the films are to contemporary politics. Now that they are available to purchase, I highly recommend you get your hands on them.