My interview with Costa-Gavras (above) took place in November, 2005, at Le Meurice, a luxurious hotel in Paris, directly opposite the Tuileries and near the Louvre. The Ax (Le couperet) had been released earlier in the year. I was there as a member of a small team of Australian journalists invited by Unifrance as part of a promotional exercise for French cinema. I guess you’d call it a junket, although all interviews (aside from a couple I did with Stephanie Bunbury and Philippa Hawker) were done on a one-to-one basis.
Now 88, he was in his early 70s then. Born Konstantinos Gavras on February 12, 1933, in Loutra-Iraias in Greece, he moved to Paris in 1954 and is still there. After studying at the Sorbonne, he worked as an assistant director during the 1960s with the likes of Rene Clair (on Tout l’or du monde), Jacques Demy (La baie des anges), Jean Becker (Échappement libre), and Rene Clement (Les félins and Le jour et l’heure).
His first feature was Compartiment tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murders), released in 1965. He’s probably best known internationally for films such as Z (1969), L’aveu/The Confession (1970), État de siège/ State of Siege (1972), Missing (1982), Betrayed (1988), Music Box (1989), Mad City (1997), Amen (2002) and The Ax (2005). Much of his work has been politically confronting, meaning that controversies have followed him everywhere he has gone.
Since I spoke with him, he’s made three features. The first, Eden à l’Ouest/Eden is West (2009) concerns itself with the plight of the world’s refugees. Dumped off the coast of France by people smugglers, Elias (Riccardo Scamarcio) heads for Paris, his journey introducing him to, and providing a scathing critique of, the myopic ways of the West. There are many snakes waiting to strike in this Eden.
I haven’t seen the other two – Le Capital (2012), about the international money market, with Gad Elmaleh and Gabriel Byrne, and Adults in the Room (2019), dealing with Greece’s money crisis in 2015 and based on a memoir by then Finance Minister Yanus Varoufakis – and they don’t appear to have been released in Australia.
In addition to his filmmaking work, Costa-Gavras has been an active participant in the wider film culture. Described by the Institut français as “an icon of activist cinema”, he was the president of the Société des Réalisateurs de Films for three years during the 1970s, and the president of the Cinémathèque française (near the Sorbonne) for six years during the 1980s, and then again from 2007 to the present day.
In person, I found him affable and forthright, a man with a good heart and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The fire was still burning bright.
Your films all seem to pose the same question, and it’s there in Jack Lemmon’s line in Missing when he asks, “What kind of world is this?”
|Jack Lemmon, Missing|
Yes. I want them to ask why the world is like this, because all the possibilities are here to have a better world. I mean, the technology, the money. They say, ‘There’s no money,’ but there is money, so much money being spent in Iraq today doing stupid things. And in other places too, even sometimes sending rockets to other planets…
So why is the world like this? A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, we didn’t have education, we didn’t have the communication that we have today. We didn’t have all the necessary things to enable people to communicate with each other. Today we can communicate with everybody. It’s possible to have friends in Australia, in Chile, in China… So it’s a permanent question, unfortunately. But it has to be asked again and again if we want to change something.
Does America have something to do with the way the things you’re talking about have come to be?
Without falling into easy anti-Americanism, it can be said that today that they would like to be, and they are, the leader of the world. They are an important civilization, central to our culture, and the political pressures they apply here and there are very important. So, yes, a lot of things come from America, there’s no doubt.
Then there’s the imitation. Here in France, the kind of blind admiration for everything that happens in the United States and the attempts to imitate the same system is a mistake. This is a different country with a different past, different traditions. But essentially I think the problem is the greed that we have in our society.
But humankind has always been greedy.
Yes. For more and more things. Absolutely. A few weeks ago, we had a scandal here about an old man who was 75 years old stealing money. What do you do with the money you steal when you’re 75 years old. It’s amazing. Companies are now throwing out thousands of people, even when they’re making lots of money. You know what happened? When we were shooting The Ax on the first day here in Paris, Figaro’s front page in big print said that never had French companies made so much money in a year. Then the next day, it said that never had stockholders in France made so much money. And we know that in France at the moment, never have we had so many unemployed people. Ten per cent of the population, which is just enormous.
So the plot-line of the Donald Westlake novel on which The Ax is based must have seemed to you like a gift from above?
Well, yes. As you know, it takes place in the United States, but it fits so well with France and Europe. So I immediately tried to get the rights, although there were some difficulties because Paramount had them and a director was already attached to it. But my wife said, ‘Don’t worry. They’ll never make the movie.’ So we waited for two years and then the rights became free and I called Westlake.
What happens in it is so close to what’s happening now for professionals who lose their jobs when they’re 40 or 45 years old. Suddenly they don’t have work anymore, and it’s forever. Some of them completely lose respect for themselves because they have to work in lesser jobs which they hate. They’re not paid as much either, so it’s a huge humiliation for them. It’s this that our character refuses from the beginning. So that was the attraction.
|José Garcia, Costa-Gavras on set, The Ax|
The producer told me that we should do it in the United States. I refused because I thought we had to do it here.
You made other changes as well.
Yes. Before everything, I changed the end. Because at the end of the book, the character has his job and he’s happy.
|The Ax/Le Couperet|
Really? Without any irony?
No irony whatsoever.
His relationship with his family was not so strong either. I worked on making it much closer. And what happens in the book is that after a while he starts to get pleasure from killing. He becomes a real serial killer. To me it was important to have a character whom you hate at the beginning and then, little by little, you come to sympathise with him. And when the police arrive, you find yourself hoping that they don’t arrest him. Which is insane, but exactly what I wanted to achieve. Because I think the audience identify with him as a human being, not as a killer.
I felt like the man in the garage shop who laughs when Bruno says, ‘You should kill them.’ I felt that was me.
In almost all of your films that I’ve seen, the protagonist starts out naïve – like Jessica Lange in Music Box, the father in Missing, the FBI agent in Betrayed, and the scientist and the priest in Amen. But they end up learning something. Does Bruno learn anything?
Oh, yes. Bruno learns something too at the end. He discovers that he has been a predator and that there’s another predator waiting for him that he has to deal with. You cannot fight alone in a society. It’s not possible. Which is what he learns when he’s confronted by that girl who can destroy him also.
Normally at the end of the story about the knight who has a mission to complete, he rides off after conquering the enemy and so it’s Mission Accomplished. Except Bruno does all that, accidentally, and then somebody says ‘No. There’s something you didn’t see'.
It’s like a battlefield.
It’s a war. And he says, ‘My father fought a war to save his country from the Nazis, and I’m fighting a war to save my family.’ So he doesn’t care if the people he kills are good people or not. He’s an ordinary person but his problem is he becomes pragmatic. He says, ‘I have to win that war, whatever the enemy is.’ Like his father, who’d killed for a cause. He had to do it, so his son does the same thing.
|Karen Viard, José Garcia, The Ax|
We’re more and more isolated in our societies and it’s so hard to find ourselves. Societies are our way of getting together just to help each other.
I’m struck by the similarity in terms of subject between your film and Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (L’emploi du temps), even though that film takes a completely different route.
Why do you think so?
They’re similar in the way that the main character finds himself in the same situation and then leads a double-life. But Cantet’s character doesn’t kill anybody.
No, certainly not…
Although, now that I say it, there’s a moment when his character goes home and he’s looking in from the outside and, as a viewer, I thought, ‘Is he going to kill his family?’ And it’s based on a story where the man does kill his family.
So maybe they’re even more alike than I’d thought…
When I create a character, I try to find in the character things coming from myself, things I know or that I’m familiar with from people who are close to me. All of us have at one point or another had the desire to kill somebody, but we don’t do it. That’s the big difference. But here we are in a movie, so we can kill in a movie…
(Laughter) Yes that’s true.
In The Ax, you use advertisements in the streets a lot, billboards. And you did that in Missing as well. Are they part of the enemy?
In a certain way. But they’re organically linked to the story. We have people who don’t have enough money to buy all these good things that advertising proposes to us on the streets, on television, in newspapers and magazines and everywhere. So it’s a kind of permanent aggression directed against my character and those like him who see that they cannot buy the things they’re supposed to want, and so on.
As well as that, I put women who are more or less naked in the advertising because they’re a permanent part of it. And I believe that in our society the people who do the advertising have created a new model of woman which is there just to feed our sexual obsessions. She doesn’t have a head, just a body, or she’s very young, under 25 – the age of 45 doesn’t exist anymore.
And this is linked to the family in the film in the way that the young daughter, when the police come to their home, gets half naked because she knows. She’s seen it on the street, how men can be influenced and taken by that. I tried not to do it gratuitously, but to organically link it to the story.
|José Garcia, The Ax|
Despite the persona he’s established, José Garcia doesn’t smile at all in The Ax. What kinds of discussions did you have with him about playing Bruno?
Look, he’s a comedian. In France, he goes down the street and everybody loves him. He’s very funny. So I told him we should play it serious. If there are moments of comedy in the movie, they must come from the situation. People will laugh at that, but you don’t have to use your skills at making people laugh by pulling faces or whatever. So we kept to that line all the time.
So he wasn’t really happy to do that at first?
At first, he was a little bit scared and he kept switching in the wrong direction all the time. But finally he got over that because he’s a clever man and he’s also very ambitious in the right way.
I’ve always believed he is an extraordinary actor. You know why? Because I saw him doing a kind of slapstick show on television with a live audience and he was imitating Lady Diana and actors like Pacino and De Niro. He would never play to the audience. He was always playing the character, from the beginning to the end. And that was very strong because, you know, when there’s an audience there’s always the temptation to try to make them laugh a bit more by overplaying. He never did that. And I’ve also seen him in a couple of serious movies which showed that he had a huge range.
He’s very strong in the film. When I saw him on television, I didn’t recognize him. He’s a different character altogether.
Sentimentally, I like him also because he looks a bit like Jack Lemmon. Because I had a really nice relationship with Jack.
That brings up working in America, where you’ve worked a lot. Did you find it fascinating or frustrating?
You know, I worked in America under certain conditions. I always had final cut, and final approval of the casting and the script, and then I used my French crew and did the post-production in Paris. Everything I did, I did that way. I remember meeting George Miller in Hollywood. He spoke to me in Greek and I was very surprised. We talked about how to beat Hollywood and he said to me what a difficult place it was for people like us, coming from outside. And he was right. It’s something that doesn’t fit with our way of living, with our everyday relations with other people. So I insisted on doing the movies on those specific conditions. And I did all of them like this.
That’s very interesting. And in France, you’ve always worked under the same conditions?
Nobody’s come to you and said, ‘We have to have a happy ending here,’ or…
We have discussions. Always. We have meetings with executives about this and that and it can become very heated. We had huge discussions, for example, at Universal about my wanting to use Jack Lemmon [for Missing]. ‘Why Jack Lemmon?’ they asked. They were proposing other actors to me. I tried to explain that I wanted someone who represented middle America. They said, ‘But he does comedies. He doesn’t play serious characters.’ The discussion went on and on up to the point where I said to the producer that I wasn’t going to do the movie. The other actors being proposed weren’t suitable. He said, ‘OK. I’ll take care of that.’ He told them and came back and said, ‘OK. Do it the way you like it.’
I think also that the Americans like that kind of relationship. Or they used to. I’m not sure about today. I think it might be much different. I was speaking two days ago with my friend John Landis who was passing through Paris [and who makes a cameo appearance in The Ax] and we were talking about Missing. I told him that I didn’t sign the contract for the movie until just before I went to present the movie to the press. ‘That was normal,’ he said. Because the studio heads gave their word and that was it. Today the companies belong to whom? Nobody knows who’s running them anymore. So you have to sign beforehand. I think Hollywood today has drastically changed, there’s no doubt.
How does Hollywood see you? As a troublemaker because you demand your own way and because you make films that are very political?
Probably. They would sometimes take photographs of me and label them ‘Troublemaker’. [Laughter] Charlie Chaplin was a much bigger troublemaker when he made Modern Times and The Great Dictator.
I understand there was a scandal in Paris about the poster for Amen (merging a cross and a swastika, above)…
Oh, yes. Some Catholics felt that I was insulting the cross. But the cross was insulted by the Nazis at the time, and everybody accepted it.
It’s a terrific poster, because it contains the themes of the film. For once the promotion is being honest.
Yes. And I had photos from Catholic and Protestant churches of the time in Germany where you had flags with the swastika alongside the cross. Here most of the church people were pro-German, pro-Nazis. But with our poster we had to go one, two, three times to court and we won three times.
It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the Holocaust. And for me it’s such a brilliant idea: you don’t show it. You show the people looking at the horrors but you don’t actually see what they see. Because to represent the Holocaust…
Is impossible. How do you put in a chamber men, women and children, naked. How do you get actors to play them? And being gassed? Nobody can do that, nobody can play that. It’s insane to try. But you also have to trust the audience. You have to trust the viewers who have their own sense of history and who can make their own movie in their heads.
There have been many films made on this subject. Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog is wonderful.
It’s a documentary. So it’s the real thing. I saw it when I was at senior school, and it was a real shock.
Are there other films on that subject that have impressed you? Because your film seems to be a reaction against many of the ones that actually try to show the horror. Whereas you say, ‘No.’
Yes. I believe strongly that I cannot do it. For other people, maybe it’s possible. But for me, most of the movies trying to deal with it simply can’t get the actors to play the parts. For a start, you can’t find actors with no fat… We eat normally. But the people in the camps were very thin.
Are there other filmmakers you admire for various reasons or that you feel are somehow soul-mates?
Generally, I admire movies and I know that all directors can make mistakes. Yes, today there are a lot of directors I like. Sometimes there are films that are meaningless to me. But I believe also that there are young directors today who keep a very sharp eye on our society. Right now there are two young directors in France. Ozon is one of them, [Xavier] Beauvois is the other. Ozon’s last movie, Le temps qui reste, you can like it or not, but it gives you an insight into a certain part of society. Beavouis’ Le petit lieutenant just came out a week ago. I believe these young people have freed themselves from the nouvelle vague, and are part of a new generation of filmmakers who’ve been able to find their own way of looking at the world. They don’t see things through their own problems, but they see the problems. Le petit lieutenant is about the difficulties faced by policemen today and it’s amazing. It’s like a documentary.
It’s interesting that you say that about the nouvelle vague because it was a reaction against the cinema du papa and now you have…
Yes. Because, you know, every school, every ideology, every philosophy gets old and needs changing. And I believe the influence of the nouvelle vague has lasted too long and has created some victims…
That’s interesting you should say that because I saw Anne Fontaine’s film, Entre ses mains, the other day and it seemed to me like Le Boucher many years on… I felt I was home. I felt safe. I really admire the film, but it doesn’t challenge us.
Are there filmmakers who influenced you when you were a younger man… Of course, you’re still a younger man…
Oh yes. 62, no 72, going on 73. Oh, yes. I remember, of course. I came from Greece after the civil war there. It was impossible to see good movies then and I came here and I saw Greed. It was my first movie. And then I kept going to the Cinémathèque and other small cinemas where I discovered the films of the time. And then later I discovered Kurosawa and the classic French directors like René Clair, Renoir, Duvivier and Clouzot. It was amazing. Then there were the Americans, of course: John Ford, Kazan. And I saw that every time these directors touched a human problem, a social problem, they made great movies.
I’m reminded of the time, during the German Occupation, when we were little boys living in a small house in a village. We were sleeping next to the fire and listening to my father’s friends who were there telling stories. And I couldn’t sleep. I was fighting to stay awake so as I could listen. And, really, it’s the cinema that can give us that pleasure. Sometimes the stories are disappointing, but I think that in most movies there are some moments, some miraculous moments. And I like to discover them.