Costa-Gavras is arguably the world’s greatest living political filmmaker.
Born in Arcadia, Greece, in 1933, to the son of a blacklisted father, Costa-Gavras immigrated to France when he was a student. Like others of his generation, including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Costa-Gavras fell in love with film at Paris’s renowned Cinematheque and studied movies at France’s national film school, IDHEC. After serving as René Clair’s assistant director, Costa-Gavras began directing stylish films known for their dissident sensibility.
His 1969 fact-based film Z, about police repression and the colonels’ coup in Greece, won a Cannes Jury Prize and is one of the rare subtitled movies nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Zwas also nominated for Best Writing and Best Director Oscars. It scored Oscars for Best Editing and Best Foreign Language Film, in addition to winning a Golden Globe.
Aside fromZ, Costa-Gavras’s oeuvre includes: 1973’s State of Siege, about urban guerrilla warfare in South America; 1982’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Missing in which Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek play Americans searching for a loved one in Chile after General Pinochet’s bloody coup; 1983’s pro-Palestinian Hannah K.; 1988’s Betrayed, co-starring Debra Winger and Tom Berenger as a member of a rightwing militia; 1989’s Music Box, with Jessica Lange scoring an Oscar nomination as a lawyer defending her father charged with committing Nazi war crimes; 1997’s Mad City, co-starring John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman in a drama about media sensationalism; and 2002’s heartbreaking Amen, wherein a German officer and priest try to save the Jews by informing Pope Pius XII about the Holocaust.
His latest film, Capital, is about the financial crisis and the power of banks.
In person, Costa-Gavras looks much younger than his eighty years. He is thoughtful and philosophical and speaks in lightly accented English. I interviewed him in a West Hollywood hotel and reminded him that we had met once before, in 1975, when as a Hunter College film student and aspiring journalist, I wrote my first paid article. It was about him.
Q: Why did you make your new film, Capital?
Costa-Gavras: I decided more than ten years ago now to make a movie about money. I saw money becoming more and more important everywhere. It’s one of the most abstract and important inventions by human beings. At the same time, money is capable of extraordinary corruption in every kind of relationship. I tried to see how and why, more and more, money is becoming a religion. That was the initial idea.
Q: Capital touches upon the economic crisis. Under President Obama, the Department of Justice hasn’t locked up a single banker.
Costa-Gavras: No one anywhere has. This crisis started probably due to the freedom they gave to the banks. First President Reagan and then President Clinton. So, for Obama it is extremely difficult to change now, to find a way to organize this banking system [differently]. In the U.S. more than any other place, the banking system is insane. Millions of Americans lost their houses. Because of what? Because of the banking system. This American banking system is also coming to Europe. We can say today that the banks and high financiers run the world.
Q: One point you’re making in Capital is that there’s a difference between American and European-style capitalism.
Costa-Gavras: The difference used to be very strong. It’s less and less now. When I was preparing the script, I met with some of the most important bankers in Paris. I was told that the American banks became completely free, without any control or any rules, and that they had to imitate them little by little. If not, they would be swallowed by the American banks.
Q: Capital moves very briskly.
Costa-Gavras: Thank you. It’s a story about a part of our society where everything goes very fast. Every morning you have the economic news from all over the world, from television, radio, the Internet, and an hour later the news changes and the numbers change. People run fast from one place to another, which is very risky because they don’t have enough time to think.
Aggressive capitalism leads the world, and we can see the results, especially in Europe: more poverty for the vast majority, and more riches for a few.
Q: Describe your politics today.
Costa-Gavras: It’s a tough question because I’m catalogued as leftwing. What does “leftwing” mean? Because the term is very vague. Sometimes there are leftwing governments I’m very critical of. For me, being leftwing is to live in a society where there’s permanent change. It also means to respect the freedom of everybody, and to not accept big organizations or rich, powerful people holding power. So, it’s to have real democracy and freedom. And, of course, giving everyone a chance at the ballot box. But essentially being leftwing for me means fighting for the dignity of the people.
Q: Your father was in the Greek resistance.
Costa-Gavras: My life in Greece influenced what I am. My father was in the left because he was against the king and his family, who had created a war against the Turks at the beginning of the last century to revive the Byzantine Empire. For three years, there was fighting, and all my father’s friends died. So he hated the royal family. After the war, the king came back, and all the people like my father lost their jobs. Worse, their kids had to furnish a certificate that the family was pro-king. The kids of these people could not pursue studies, so I had to run away to France to study.
I initially studied literature, and then I went to cinema school. I discovered the Cinematheque, and saw not only action movies and westerns, but also lots of serious movies.
Q: Who are some of your biggest cinematic influences?
Costa-Gavras: The first movie I saw at the Cinematheque was [Erich von Stroheim’s] Greed, and I was astonished to see you could do long movies with no happy ending.
Kurosawa, no doubt, was a big influence. Movies sometimes more than directors have influenced me: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Ford, was an extraordinary discovery. Sergei Eisenstein, of course. Later on, [Ingmar] Bergman.
Q: Do you believe cinema can change the world?
Costa-Gavras: Cinema has changed the world. If you go to the beginning of the cinema, you can see that the world started meeting other worlds. It was extraordinary. We saw how other people were living and thinking. How they were sad or happy. We also saw the body—naked or half-naked people, which was prohibited everywhere by religions. This was extremely important. Essentially, filmmakers have to be free and not directed by power or politicians.
Q: Z is arguably the most successful political film ever made, and it seemed to isolate the Greek junta.
Costa-Gavras: The movie in a certain way helped to show what the colonels were, how stupid they were. Some of the traditional, conservative newspapers spoke very well about the junta at the beginning. When Z came out, they saw they were not such good guys.
Q: You’ve directed a number of movies about Nazis (Special Section, Music Box, and Amen) and neo-Nazis (Betrayed). Do you fear Greece’s Golden Dawn party could take over there and that neo-fascist parties can rise to power in other European countries?
Costa-Gavras: Every time you have a crisis in a country you have an extreme wing coming up and proposing solutions. In Z, the Golden Dawn is there already, if you remember—those Christian, rightwing people. The way to fight them is by doing lots of work teaching people that every time these fascist systems gained power they ended up with big tragedies—lots of blood, lots of police, and lots of misery.
Q: On the other extreme, do you think there’s a possibility of a socialist revolution in Greece and/or any of the other European countries?
Costa-Gavras: It depends what you call “socialist revolution.”
Q: In the Bolshevik sense?
Costa-Gavras: No, we saw what happens with Bolsheviks. It was another catastrophe. I don’t have the solution. The moviemaker can ask questions but not give solutions.
Q: You made The Confession in the 1970s. In the end, when the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia, somebody paints graffiti: “Lenin wake up; they’ve gone mad.”
Costa-Gavras: Yes, because it was exactly what the students wrote on the walls of Czechoslovakia at that time.
Q: Having made such a great movie about Eastern European regimes, how do you feel about the collapse of these Stalinist-type states?
Costa-Gavras: It was a normal conclusion. Because they used to make extraordinary promises about the happiness of the people and so forth, but the policies they implemented were completely contrary to that. So those systems collapsed.
Q: State of Siege and Missing are harshly critical of U.S. policy toward Latin America. Were you ever banned from the United States for these portrayals?
Costa-Gavras: No, never. Missing was entirely financed by the Americans, by Universal. And State of Siege, half the money came from the U.S. People say “the Americans” or “the United States,” as if it was a kind of bloc. It’s not. There’s a lot of people thinking differently from other people in the U.S. This is very interesting to me and very important.
Q: What’s the difference between working in Hollywood and Europe in terms of making political movies?
Costa-Gavras: After the success of Z in the U.S., I was asked to come here and make lots of movies. I refused because I had to make The Confession and other movies in Paris, and I didn’t feel comfortable because I didn’t know American society enough to make movies about here.
I finally decided to make Missing for several reasons. One is because I knew the Chilean system. The story did not take place in the U.S. but outside. It was a story of a father looking for his son, which I knew also. So I made it. I also asked the American producers to do it with my French crew and to do post-production in France.
All the American films I have done under those conditions, and it was a good thing because I also had full freedom. If they hadn’t given me full freedom, I would have stayed away.
Q: Is it easier making political films in France than in the U.S.?
Costa-Gavras: In the U.S., some extraordinary movies have been made on politics and social issues. We learned lots of things from American cinema. But in the last ten or fifteen years, this has changed drastically. Today, that kind of movie is much easier to make in Europe.
I was talking with one of the producers of Missing, and he said, “It would be impossible to make Missing today here in the U.S.”
Q: What do you think of the new left-leaning governments in Latin America?
Costa-Gavras: Oh, I think there has been a major change compared to what Latin America used to be thirty-forty years ago.
The American influence is not so aggressive anymore. The American big business influence in Latin America is not as strong, so people can vote and they can have a different life than before. They can have more liberal, more interesting, and more democratic governments.
Q: What are your reflections upon turning eighty?
Costa-Gavras: You know every time you change a decade, it’s a problem, because you approach the end little by little. But my decision is to keep going. The problem is always to know when the head doesn’t work well. Someone has to tell you. I hope my children will tell me.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and the author of “Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States.” The new book he has co-authored about Hawaii’s movies and TV shows will be published by Honolulu’s Mutual Publishing in September. Rampell has interviewed many artists for The Progressive, including Oliver Stone, Ken Burns, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Ed Asner, W. S. Merwin, Cenk Uygur, and Michael Apted.