Costa-Gavras: Return of the Barbarians

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Source: Luzes

Translated from Galician by Danica Jorden

Interview by José Manuel Sande

As personable as he is renowned, filmmaker Costa-Gavras (Athens, 1933) came to Santiago de Compostela to receive a Special Career Tribute from the Cineuropa Festival. An extroverted polyglot, the ebullient and insightful French-Greek auteur of “Z” (1969) and “Missing” (1982) encapsulates a life of passion in this interview, a look at his productive career and his perspective on Spain and the world today.

Costa-Gavras arrived in France in the beginning of the 1950s, where he trained at the prestigious School for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (Institut des hautes études cinématographiques – IDHEC). His career is composed of a multitude of iconic films that stand out for their ability to transcend genres, from thrillers to drama, from courtroom stories to social commentary, in which politics and society are essential elements. Opposed to totalitarianism and committed to the truth, Costa-Gavras went against the grain of most filmmaking of the time, creating a fruitful and revealing period in European socio-political and artistic history, bolstered by public, critical and professional support, ultimately winning the industry’s major awards (Oscars, Golden Globes and triumphs at Cannes and Berlin).

How did you get your start in cinema? 

Cinema at the time in France didn’t interest me. I had seen it in Greece, it was just generic action films, comedies, etc. However, despite studying literature in France, I discovered the Cinemathèque, where they showed the classics. It was a very important discovery and affected me greatly. First, I learned to write, and I went to the film school, the IDHEC, studied there for two years, and then, with an extraordinary stroke of good luck, was asked to work on my first film for a few days. The first assistant was Claude Pinoteau, who later became a director. This is how I got my start in French cinema, which was quite difficult, especially for a foreigner. Even more so as an assistant. At the time it was possible to work with people like René Clair, Jean Cocteau, René Clément, Henri Verneuil, Jacques Demy, Clouzot… I was assistant for some of them. I also go to know all the great actors of the period, as at the time, assistants did the casting and had a close relationship with them. I got to know Montand, Piccoli, Trintignant… The first film was like a school exercise, starting with writing the script. The studio head read the script and then it was made. Since I had a script, a thriller, that was attractive, it gained interest and had a great cast. The film did very well.

That was “The Sleeping Car Murders” (Compartiment tueurs, 1965).

Yes, and the second one, “One Man Too Many” (Un homme de trop, 1967), about the French Resistance, was a failure. But curiously, now that it’s come out for the first time on DVD, it was a success, it got some great reviews. Then I made “Z” (1969), where I found what has always interested me in film. When my first film was a success in the United States, Harry Saltzman made me an offer. He asked me, “What film do you want to make?” I told him “The Human Condition” by André Malraux. He said, “What? That would take too many Chinese, can’t do it.” [laughs]

What cinema lacked were films about the human condition, about revolutions, daily struggles, labor as well as political struggles. There weren’t any at the time. The New Wave was happening in France, and we were interested in another type of film after the big films of the 50s and 60s. I wanted to go back to this type of cinema, possibly influenced by American films like “The Grapes of Wrath” and certain social films that were very interesting.

What type of films do you like or interest you? In one interview, you said that Stroheim’s “Greed” (1924) was a revelation for you. 

“Greed” is a several hour long film that appears to be a tragedy, like an ancient Greek tragedy. It was possible to make that type of film in the cinema, not just movies for enjoyment, like football.

From Latin America to Europe, the corporations, the banks, companies, every day struggles and totalitarian systems… Somehow your films tell the entire story of their time, from those political systems to the reality occurring around them. Do you start off in your films with the desire to tell socially relevant stories or is it something that occurs as you work?

Fundamentally, I’ve always been interested in resistance and power and how in our society power plays a repressive role in our daily lives. Besides that, power is something that we all possess. It’s not just political power, or ecclesiastical or economic, we all have power over some other people, and there are people who have it over us. This relationship with power interests me greatly because happiness and unhappiness depends upon it. From that comes resistance. How we resist the negative. Resistance is the most important, because without it, we become slaves. These are the themes in my films and what interests me.

There is a singular element in your films which is that analysis or criticism of power that is directed at all forms of power. Be it the Tupamaros, the story of Arthur London in “The Confessio” (L’aveau, 1970), the German Occupation, Nazism, the Pinochet coup… I remember in “Betrayed” (1988), where they also talk about the banality and normality of evil. How beneath an ordinary man there may be hiding disturbing types of power. 

Because power is like a drug, when you get a little, you want more and more. And what does one do to get it? Sometimes it’s done legitimately, or one can choose to take other paths. Like the Greek dictator in “Z”, Papadopoulos, who was not a general, he was a colonel who attained great power. Power is the most important human characteristic.

Did the success of “Z” give you creative freedom to make your films?

Absolutely. That’s the advantage of having a successful film. “The Confession” was an impossibly enormous book, 500 pages, when people saw it they couldn’t believe it. Semprún and I spoke a lot and, ultimately, it ended up being easy to make.

From then on, all the films begin to have international dimensions. 

Yes, having good actors is decisive. We call them stars because they are good actors. Even though there are stars who aren’t good.

Some of them are United States productions. Do you notice any difference besides the cultural one?

My first films, the ones that most interest me, were made in the United States. I was offered “The Godfather” but it didn’t interest me at all. I personally don’t think the book was very good. Coppola made an extraordinary film that I couldn’t have made because I’m not American. Yes, I did agree to make “Missing” in exchange for also controlling the casting. They agreed. I also did the post-production in France. Those were my conditions and they gave me the freedom to do that.

There is almost always a debate about cinema and politics, about the form and how the stories are told. With you, Ken Loach, and other filmmakers, there is always this discussion about how you stay close to popular forms, which let your films be more accessible. What do you think about this?

This is a very potent debate, especially amongst the New Wave. The traditional way to build a script is of Greek origin. Greek theatre is a thriller, all the Greek tragedies are to some extent. In this construct, interest builds in order to reach the end. For me, this is essential. It’s not always possible to do it with such simplicity, but generally that’s the direction I have taken since my first film.

I always wonder what projects were left by the wayside, which ones were frustrating and ended up not being made.

There was a project we wrote the script for, “The Cormorant”, the story of a big international company that changed the politics of a country, such as what happened at a certain time in Portugal. We couldn’t name the country, dropped everything and left for another country. Days past and I couldn’t get the money to make that project. Nobody wanted to do it. William Holden had agreed to make it, but we couldn’t find the funding. The Americans agreed to do it, I spoke with actors like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, but I said it had to be made in China. I went there, first they wanted to do it, but then they wanted to change the whole script. We specified the Chinese countryside. We tried to get it made in other countries and the Americans offered to reproduce everything in Hollywood, but it was impossible. They approved it financially but not the location.

Did you ever have difficulties or interference from producers because of your political audacity, or because they weren’t interested in the subjects? 

Yes, with some projects. With “Z”, for example, they said it would never work. But we had to insist, and finally it was made, the actors agreed to it and the film was made because Jacques Perrin fought so hard for it, as well as the Algerians, because it was filmed in Algeria.

Some of your films, such as “Arcadia” (Le couperet, 2005) and “The Capital” (2012), examine the economic structures alongside the sociopolitical. Is this your vision of society and is it linked to all of your earlier films? 

Society has changed. Everyone today talks about democracy, but another power has arrived, that exists today, and that’s money, hyper capitalism. The themes of power in the cinema are here now in the economy. Nobody talks about anything else. The whole world knows the Dow Jones.

Other types of totalitarianism, Stalin, Nazism and now this capitalism… 

Exactly, it’s another type of totalitarianism.

I’d like you to talk now about Semprún, who was the scriptwriter on three of your films (“Z”, “The Confession” and “Special Section”) and what you think of Spain, a country with a tumultuous history in the 20th century and up to the present day. You came to have a project with Semprún about Yoyes, the assassinated Basque separatist… 

He wasn’t able to do it at the time because he was a minister, and I didn’t want to do a Spanish subject about someone I didn’t know. But later, with Jorge, we made films about true stories, but we always had a problem choosing the characters and situations. Because a film like “The Confession” or “Z” could last for hours. I talked with Jorge about making a film about Malraux, an opportunity to talk about Spain and how cinema is made in Spain. How Malraux changed completely, how he learned about the Communist Party, came to France and said: “It’s over”, that extraordinary declaration he made when he arrived in France. Also, there was a very interesting love story. We talked and did a very long preliminary work. First we worked on the book and then on the script. When it was finished, Jorge went to the hospital with back pain and was diagnosed with cancer. He lasted weeks. We thought we could go on permanently and do something together, something that had interested both of us, about France and Spain.

Curiously, Semprún is a respected figure in Spain but his work is not well know, as happens with other important people in the resistance and in exile. 

Yes, it is curious.

Over the last few years, there have been attempts at democratic revolutions, for example in Greece.

That’s a very particular case. Greece has always been a laboratory throughout history. Tsipras was very young when he began, and had an enormous debt problem that was impossible to pay. He had to find solutions. Also he didn’t have all the power. He had 36% of the votes. So he goes to Europe without any experience with Europeans, who are economic monsters. He had Varoufakis close to him and this relationship was important. But what do the Europeans do? Everything they could to separate them. And they were successful. Merkel, who had promised everything to Tsipras, took part in the separation, thinking at first that there were some gestures toward improving the situation in Greece. But 300,000 young people left the country, an enormous loss for the future. Salaries declined 40 %. All this came back against Tsipras and Germany didn’t even make the smallest gesture. On the contrary, they asked for more and more and more. The Greeks voted a second and third time for Tsipras because there wasn’t anyone else.

The story moves really fast and Tsipras was almost forgotten. What’s left is an aborted political movement entering the conventions. What do you think about some of the things that are happening today? Brexit, Trump, the ultra-right in France?

We’re entering a period of barbarism. The ultra-right has made a comeback in Greece. Golden Dawn celebrates the birth of Hitler. They used to be few, but now with the Greek economic drama they are already at 13% or 15%. And it’s not just in Greece. In France, it’s the old Le Pen story, but also in Austria, in Germany… The barbarians are coming back. And the worst of all is America. I remember one detail, when I made “Betrayed”…

Betrayed seemed to foretell this.

Yes. And many Americans told me, “Where have you seen this? This doesn’t exist in the United States”. But I saw it when I toured the country. They called us Communists coming from Europe.

What’s your relationship over the last few years with Greece? You arrived in France during the 1950s, and sometimes you are referred to more as French, forgetting your origins. 

I am a bigamist [laughs]. I spent nearly twenty years in Greece, and Greece is something you don’t forget. But France gave me everything. I never dreamed I would be able to have the life I do in France. Not just professionally, but also how I’m asked to take part politically and culturally. Greece didn’t give me that. On the contrary, I escaped from there. My roots are Greek, but culturally I am more French than Greek.

In Spain, we’re interested in how we are seen abroad. What do you think about what’s happening in this country? How do you see our society? Do you think the ultra-right could rise here as well?

It’s a very difficult situation, and also a dangerous one, because if they use violence and not democratic means to resolve the problem in Catalonia, it may have very serious consequences. It’s not a question of taking sides, it’s a Spanish issue. Europe must be saved as well. I truly believe in Europe, and these things are important for the Spanish problem as well. I don’t know what’s going to happen after the elections, but the use of violence is very, very negative for me. The problems with humanity must be solved through dialogue and through both parties giving in to arrive at a solution that can make everybody happy, because if not, we could end up in civil war, as already happened here and in Greece.

Regarding the United States, do you think Trump has demonstrated an overly comfortable or dependent attitude, as Europe had with the United States in many ways?

America is not what people want it to be. It is also this. Worst of all is the environmental problem. We don’t talk about it much, but the population is increasing and we are a cancer to the earth. We destroy everything. Today while riding in the plane, I was thinking how we are like animals devouring the substance of the earth. What is going to happen when everything is utterly depleted? Nobody thinks about it. It won’t happen during my generation, but I have grandchildren, what are they going to do here? How are they going to live? They say that some small islands, in Tahiti for example, people are thinking of building walls to protect themselves from the rising waters. Then there is the colossal problem of emigration. It is a problem that is not going to end, look at what is happening in some countries, the situation is terrible and people want a better life. But this problem does not seem to interest heads of state. They don’t care about it, they only think about the next elections.

Danica Jorden is a writer and translator of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and other languages.

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