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Classic Movie Blogathon, Politics and Unrest in Cinema in the Vietnam Era, Part 2: Costa-Gavras, Godard, and the Others

June 28, 2015

This is part 2 of my entry in this year’s Classic Movie History Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi (Movies Silently), Ruth (Silver Screenings), and Aurora (Once Upon a Screen). Enjoy!

As I mentioned in my introductory post, while Hollywood films, with some exceptions, dealt with the unrest of the Vietnam era mostly through the indirect means of genre and period pieces (having the past comment on the present), films from the rest of the world were often more pointed in their political content. Of course, they had their stumbling blocks as well. Whereas the primary obstacle to getting political films made in America was financial – the Production Code having been replaced by a more relaxed (if still highly flawed) system – with studios afraid of any film that wouldn’t make a lot of money, films from other parts of the world had to deal with government censors, especially if they were being ruled by a dictator. Therefore, like their American counterparts, filmmakers from Europe, the Soviet bloc, and other parts of the world also had to smuggle their political statements through disguised means, such as genre. Nevertheless, there were a few filmmakers who managed to make the statements they wanted to make clearly in their films, without that much interference. Once again, because of availability issues, I’ve only been able to watch a limited amount of films. Therefore, I’m devoting myself mostly to two of the most well-remembered political filmmakers of the time, Jean-Luc Godard and Constantin Costa-Gavras, not just because of their influence, but also because their styles are so different (though they’ve worked with the same actors and technicians) that they set up a useful dialectic to consider what a political film is and can be, and how it should be made. The Costa-Gavras part will also deal briefly with The Battle of Algiers, which, along with Costa-Gavras’ Z, is considered the father of the modern-day political thriller, while the last part will also consider a few other political films from Italy (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), Germany (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), and back to France (Mr. Freedom).


Costa-Gavras: ZThe Confession and State of Siege.

“Some people sign petitions, others go to the streets – I do something as a filmmaker.” – on why he made Z.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is probably considered the father of the modern political thriller, as well as the modern political docudrama. In telling the tale of the Algierian revolt against the French in the 1950’s and 60’s, Pontecorvo sets himself firmly on the side of the Algierians while still humanizing the French (even the French colonel (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) is presented as a person instead of a monster), and creates some tense scenes (particularly when several Algierian women go to plant bombs at various public places). But what Pontecorvo started with his film, arguably Constantin Costa-Gavras went even further with Z, the other most influential political thriller of the last 40-50 years or so. Costa-Gavras, who was born in Greece, had gone to France to study (his father had been a member of the Communist Party, which got him blackballed from Greece universities), but was still wanting to do something about what had been done to the country, especially after Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek left-wing politician, was murdered by right-wing extremists linked to the army in 1963. When Vasilis Vasilikos wrote a novel based on Lambrakis’ assassination, Costa-Gavras found his method of, as he put it, doing something as a filmmaker. Though it sticks close to the novel and the events themselves, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Jorge Semprum change all the names (Yves Montand plays the president, Irene Papas plays his wife, Marcel Bozzufi plays one of the assassins, and Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the investigating magistrate) and set in an unnamed country (as Costa-Gavras has explained in interviews, doing so makes the audience work for the information, and also reminds them what they see could be happening anywhere).

Jean-Louis conducts a bedside interrogation in “Z”.

Unlike Godard, who (as I touch on briefly below) was trying to move beyond what was considered the usual “political” movie, Costa-Gavras has admitted he was trying to reach as wide an audience as possible without talking down to them. To that end, even more so than Pontecorvo, he used suspense techniques such as quick editing, a fast-moving camera, flashbacks from several different points of view, and both villainous and heroic characters (in addition to Trintignant’s character, Jacques Perrin, who also co-produced, plays an investigative journalist). This did not endear him to the leftist critics at the time, especially at Cahiers du Cinema, who attacked Costa-Gavras for being more interested in entertainment than in being truly political.* Even Pauline Kael, a big fan of the film, while pointing out Costa-Gavras’ technique was similar to the muckraking movies produced at Warner Brothers in the 1930’s, fretted over what would happen if a less responsible filmmaker made a film the same way (in her review, she wrote, “when it’s over and you’ve caught your breath you know perfectly well that its techniques of excitation could as easily be used by a smart Fascist filmmaker, if there were one (fortunately, there isn’t), against the left or the center”). However, even though the film is certainly a suspense thriller as much as a political movie (and docudrama), Costa-Gavras doesn’t ignore politics. We see that with the black comedy of the opening, where a general gives a lecture about gardens, and it takes us a while to realize he’s speaking in metaphor in how to crush what he and the others see as the Communist threat (it’s almost like a scene from The Manchurian Candidate, though without the hypnotism, and not quite as surreal). And even though Costa-Gavras uses a lot of well-known actors (at least in Europe) for the parts, the actors disappear into the roles, so it doesn’t overwhelm the story.

                         Yves Montand is imprisoned in “The Confession”.

For his next film, Costa-Gavras switched gears, this time going after Communist oppression. The Confession (1970) is another docudrama, this time about Artur London (Montand), a Czech official who, without warning, was arrested with 13 other high-ranking Czech officials (like London, most of them Jewish), and interrogated for several months and put on trial on the accusation they were all secretly rebelling against the government and were in the pay of the West. Though Costa-Gavras is working with the some of the same people – in addition to Semprum writing the screenplay again (adapting the book London wrote with his wife Lise) and Montand playing a central role, Raoul Coutard returned as cinematographer – the movie doesn’t fly by as fast as Z did. For one, it’s a longer film (by over ten minutes), but more importantly, while the earlier film was trying to whip through events as they happened, The Confession aims to immerse you in what it was like to be imprisoned during Stalinist times, and while this takes place in the early 50’s (though once again, we aren’t told the exact period or location), it’s likely everyone involved was thinking about how the Soviet government crushed the Czech revolt in 1968. While we do see some scenes outside of prison, as the Lise figure (played by Montand’s real-life wife Simone Signoret) tries in vain to free her husband, and then is forced to move and work in a factory, we mostly stay inside the prison, and through the interrogations, with the officers playing both good and bad cop to Montand. Since this isn’t designed to be as fast as Z, the film does drag a bit, and I think the movie makes a mistake in the flash-forward sequences with Montand (one of only three prisoners who wasn’t executed) now living safely in exile and talking with people about the book he wants to write about the experience. Still, it excels, like Z, as a portrait of totalitarian governments (we also get a cruel irony; one of the officials who interrogates Montand is later himself arrested).

The car containing the dead Yves Montand at the beginning of “State of Siege”.

Though U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the prime area of contention between the U.S. and the rest of the world’s leftist population, they also protested U.S. involvement in other areas of the world, particularly Latin America. Costa-Gavras took on this as well in 1972 with State of Siege. Inspired by the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Mitrione (Montand again), a U.S. official, in Uruguay, the film begins with the discovery of his body, and then from his funeral we flashback to his kidnapping and the attempts by his kidnappers (once again, never named, nor is the country), who, while attempting to bargain with the government to get them to release political prisoners in exchange for the Mitrione figure and another official, also try to get Mitrione to admit he helped the government out with their oppressive techniques. Meanwhile, a journalist (O.E. Hesse) also challenges the official government position of Mitrione (though unlike in Z, he isn’t as successful). While Costa-Gavras is clearly sympathetic to the kidnappers (and there’s also the unintended irony of the fact the film was shot in Chile a year before they were taken over by a military coup), he presents both sides humanely, just as in Battle of Algiers (Franco Solinas, who wrote that film, was the screenwriter of this film). Yet at the same time, this doesn’t dampen the critique of how the U.S. props up dictatorships in other countries while pretending to be helping the country. And even though, once again, Costa-Gavras is using the techniques of the suspense thriller, the most gripping sequence is just one of the rebels taking a poll of other leaders individually while on a bus as to whether Mitrione should be killed (you get the feeling he’s hoping one of them will vote no, which makes it all the more powerful). Costa-Gavras hasn’t quite approached the level of these three films since (though Missing, his 1982 film about the disappearance and murder of an American citizen during that coup in Chile, and Capital, his most recent film (2012) about the CEO of a European bank trying to keep an American hedge fund from taking over, both come close), but these films alone show him to be a political filmmaker of the highest order.

*-Interestingly enough, according to an interview Coutard gave that’s included on the Criterion edition of Weekend, Godard was enough of a fan of Costa-Gavras that he gave Coutard some information that he thought would be useful to him for The Confession.


Jean-Luc Godard: La ChinoiseWeekend and Tout Va Bien.

“I don’t think you should *feel* about a movie. You should feel about a woman. You can’t kiss a movie.”

When talking about A Christmas Carol, arguably Charles Dickens’ most famous work, my father always used to remind me the most important line of the story was the very first line; “Marley was dead; to begin with.” This was to remind me, and anyone else who might have been talking about the story, that it was, above all, a ghost story. Similarly, the first principle in talking about Jean-Luc Godard is that he started out as a critic. As Godard himself has said, he has remained a critic his entire career, he just has used film as his medium the last 50+ years to continue his work as a critic. What few people talk about is the fact he has been a critic even when not talking about other films; Godard is a cultural and political critic as well.

                                                          Poster for Godard’s first politically-oriented movie.

As early as Le Petit Soldat (made in 1960, but not released in France until 1963 because of censorship), Godard took on the Algierian struggle for independence against France. However, while Godard includes a torture scene that might make viewers blanch even today, he also place primary emphasis on the love story between members of opposite sides (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife and muse at the time, plays a representative of one side; it was the first of seven feature films he directed her in), and takes a rather confused attitude towards the conflict (to be fair, his political views hadn’t been fully formed by then). Still, cultural and political criticism popped up in his later work; though Vivre Sa Vie (aka My Life to Live) (1962) is more a character study than a societal critique, it does show how Karina’s character becomes a prostitute to make a living (a theme Godard returned to often), Les Carabiniers (1963) deals with the madness of war from the point of view of two grunt soldiers, Alphaville (1965) is a sci-fi film about a totalitarian society, Masculin Feminin (1966) is, of course, about “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” (with scenes such as a journalist asking a pop star about politics, and a man trying to light himself on fire in protest, though he needs to borrow a match first), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) returns Godard to the subject of prostitution, and while Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Made in USA (1966) are both deconstructions on genre films (the former a lovers-on-the-run film, the latter the film noir/private eye film) both of them had cultural and political critiques woven throughout the narrative (the latter film in particular was inspired in part by the Ben Barka affair). Nevertheless, Godard had, by 1967, become increasingly disgusted not only with American foreign policy but also America, period, and had swung radically left in his thinking, towards Maoism. This also led, not surprisingly to a new direction in his films.

Anna Wiazemsky, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto as revolutionaries in “La Chinoise”.

La Chinoise (1967) was the first film indicating this new direction. For starters, it features politics and social philosophy right up front, as during one summer in parents, while her parents are away on vacation, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who by this time had become Godard’s second wife, and was a big influence on his political thinking) and her fellow students – among them Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud), her boyfriend, and Yvonne (Juliet Berto) – hole up in her parents’ apartment and study and debate Marx and Mao, and how to strike against what they see as the fascism of Western society. Also, while Godard had always played around with plot (as per his famous response to Henri-Georges Clouzot; when Clouzot had wondered whether films shouldn’t have a beginning, middle and end, Godard allowed they should, but not necessarily in that order), there was no real plot or story here until the last third or so, when Veronique goes on the train to plant a bomb and kill a liberal professor in order to radicalize the students (Chris Morris would later send this attitude up brilliantly over 40 years later in his terrorist comedy Four Lions (2010)). Finally, while Godard does have a few pop-cultural images here (most notably a rock-n-roll type song extolling the virtues of Mao), most of the references here are to political or philosophical figures such as Rosa Luxemburg and Andre Malraux (as the five would-be revolutionaries are studying Mao’s little red book, Godard and his frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard use a lot of red, though that is a carry-over from Godard’s other color films). As militant as Godard was becoming in his thinking, however, he allows himself room for other ways of thinking. While he is wholly sympathetic to the students, and to a call to revolution (specifically through Maoism, which Godard was more sympathetic to than the Soviet version of communism), he also shows how much the dilettante all of these characters are, especially when they turn out one of the members for not being revolutionary enough. Also, during a long segment in the last third, Veronique goes on a train ride with Francois Jeanson (a real-life French revolutionary, playing himself more or less), and while she explains her thinking of why she’s planning to kill this professor, he gently but firmly takes apart her thinking by essentially asking, “After you do this, then what?” Finally, the film doesn’t end on a moment of triumph, but of hollow victory. Those who consider Godard akin to one of those dilettantes that he portrays here often seem to forget the ambiguity in which he portrays the characters here.

                                 Mireille Darc being held at gunpoint in “Weekend”.

La Chinoise, however, was just a warm-up compared to Weekend (1967, though not released in the U.S. until 1968). This film, probably Godard’s most sustained attack on Western civilization, is generally scene as the end of Godard’s 60’s period, not just because he declares “the end of cinema” at the end of the movie, but also because for most of the decade, he worked in a more experimental and abstract kind of cinema, whereas Weekend still has a semblance of a plot. An adulterous married couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) go on a road trip to murder her mother for the inheritance (after which, since they each have lovers, they each are plotting to murder each other), only to get sidetracked by society as they know it breaking down on them. They run into a huge traffic jam (portrayed in an epic tracking shot that takes up almost 10 minutes), and encounter, among other figures, a man who sings his entire dialogue (Leaud), literary figures such as Emily Bronte (Blandine Jeanson), a piano player who plays Beethoven (Wiazemsky can be glimpsed here as one of the people listening), two garbage workers (Omar Diop – who appeared in La Chinoise – and Laszlo Szabo, a frequent collaborator with Godard) who lecture the couple about western politics, particularly U.S. (in one of Godard’s usual touches, Coutard holds the camera on one of them while we hear the other speak off-screen), and a group of revolutionaries (including Berto) who take the couple hostage. This is basically Godard’s Bunuel film, a savage satire containing his vision of Western civilization destroying itself (making the final scene of the film, an act of cannibalism, very much on-the-nose – if you’ll pardon the expression – but also appropriate). It’s appropriate then that Godard uses the road movie as a way to portray that satire, as even now, the automobile functions as both a middle-class status symbol and a symbol of freedom (or at least the illusion of it), and the way cars get used, wrecked, and fought over shows the middle-class and upper-class, as seen through Godard’s eyes, in microcosm (of course, it isn’t the only material goods Godard lays waste to here; when the couple get into an accident, Darc is less worried about her possible injuries than about the fact she’s ruined a Hermes bag). It’s as if Godard is saying all of western civilization has dropped through the rabbit hole, and there’s no getting out.

Of course, Godard was wrong; western civilization has gone on, and so has cinema, and while Weekend definitely made an impact with critics, it wasn’t as well received by the public (Godard always thought if the movie had come out after the events in Paris of May 1968, it would have made more money). And as i mentioned above, Godard retreated to more explicitly and abstract films, with mixed results. Sympathy for the Devil (1968: also known as One Plus One) attempted to be a look at the revolutionaries springing up, and also shows the Rolling Stones in the studio recording “Sympathy for the Devil”, but while you’d guess Godard was trying to set up a dialectic between the two, nothing comes of it. Berto and Leaud reunited in 1969 for Le Gai Savoir (aka The Joy of Learning), playing two people discussing language and the events of the day; it’s not as successful as La Chinoise, but interesting regardless. And One P.M., a film he co-directed with D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, which features people such as Tom Hayden talking about the Chicago 8 trial, feels like a blueprint rather than a finished film. So, in 1972, after a motorcycle accident, when Godard and his new collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin were asked to get big stars for their next movie, Godard reluctantly agreed, and tried to make something that was more of a throwback to his 60’s films (in the way the story was told) and still keep his political direction. The result was Tout Va Bien (1972).

                         Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in “Tout Va Bien”.

Inspired by the events of May 1968, Godard and Gorin’s film is about a revolt at a meatpacking plant, as well as being about Suzanne (Jane Fonda), an American correspondent for a French radio station, and her somewhat estranged husband Jacques (Yves Montand), a former filmmaker (with the French New Wave) who now shoots commercials. They visit the plant so Suzanne can do a story, but they happen to come on the day the workers have revolted against both the plant manager (Vittorio Caprioli) and the union officials and taken over the factory. As the workers want Suzanne to go beyond the traditional story told about them, so too Godard and Gorin (as Gorin points out in an interview on the Criterion DVD edition) want the film to go beyond what they saw as the usual political film preaching to the converted, or telling them what they already knew. For starters, they make it clear from the beginning this is a film, and Fonda and Montand are actors playing roles. And even though we go through a familiar story arc – both Suzanne and Jacques are radicalized by what they hear and what they see, enough so Suzanne looks for better stories to report and Jacques goes back to making “meaningful” films – Godard and Gorin try to make sure we see it differently. For example, the factory is set up almost like a dollhouse, with the camera tracking back and forth over it (just as, in La Chinoise, we saw the would-be revolutionaries from the outside through the apartment windows), and there are scenes of Jacques and Suzanne as if they were workers at the factory. Also, Godard and Gorin show a perfect illustration of just how much the Communist Party had fallen in favor with the French left with a scene at a giant supermarket (with another long tracking shot back and forth), where a Communist Party worker is selling his book along with all the other products (and gets into a fight with those who can’t understand why he can’t explain a phrase in his book). However, while we hear about the workers plenty in the first half of the movie, we don’t hear from them again (though we can guess what happened to them), and that’s a shame.


Other VoicesMr. FreedomInvestigation of a Citizen Above SuspicionThe Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.

                                   John Abbey as “Mr. Freedom”.

William Klein is probably best known as a photographer, but he was also a filmmaker. Born in the U.S. but living in Paris (after falling in love with a woman, he’s stayed there ever since), he was never formally aligned with the French New Wave, but did copy many of their techniques while combining them with his own penchant for comic strip images. All of that comes firmly into play with his attempted satire on American imperialism, Mr. Freedom (1969). John Abbey plays the title character, a superhero-type soldier who’s sent by his father (Donald Pleasance) to France to help bring freedom to them, while fighting the forces of Moujik Man (Phillipe Noiret), who’s opposed to “freedom”. Other than his documentary on Eldridge Cleaver (which I discuss in the following post), I’ve never seen any other Klein films (though I’m a fan of his photos), but it looks like he’s trying to make a satire and an exploitation film. Unfortunately, the latter wins out, making the satire annoying after a while. Not only that, but by shooting in English, many of the actors (Abbey and Pleasance are the only non-French actors among the main cast) seem distinctly uncomfortable, even though they’re game for what Klein is trying (Delphine Seyrig, who plays Mr. Freedom’s close ally – or maybe not – comes off especially awkward). Finally, Abbey himself is simply flat and annoying as well, Only Pleasance comes off well, and he’s only in the film at the beginning and end. Klein shows good intentions aren’t enough for a film; if it’s satirical, it should take its target seriously even if the film itself is trying to be funny.

Gian Maria Volonte in “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”.

Pontecorvo, of course, wasn’t the only political filmmaker in Italy during the 60’s and 70’s, as Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi, and Lina Wertmuller also emerged during that time. Less well known, but well-regarded at the time, was Elio Petri. Influenced as much by Kafka as Communist politics, Petri, inspired by a story about the police murdering two people, got the idea to make Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). The movie tells the tale of Il Dottore (Gian Maria Volonte), who, on the eve of his promotion from head of the homicide squad to head of the political squad (cracking down on dissidents), kills his mistress Augusta (Florinda Bolkan) by cutting her throat, and then practically dares his former colleagues in homicide to implicate him in the murder. The theme here is those in power who think they’re above the law, especially among the police (and with the rise of police-related shootings, that makes this particularly relevant here), and Volonte (who played a character completely different from this in Petri’s previous film We Still Kill the Old Way) does an excellent job at playing his character’s arrogance, and yet the same time his guilt. I only wish Petri and cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller hadn’t used so many close-ups throughout the film. They make sense later in the film, as the net starts to tighten around Volonte, but used throughout the film not only makes them lose their power, it also gives you the sense Petri is trying to work us over as well. As it stands, it is a queasily effective film showing how absolute power corrupts absolutely.

         Angela Winkler in “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”.

When talking about the filmmakers that emerged from Germany in the 70’s, like Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders, one name that doesn’t get mentioned much anymore is Volker Schlondorff. This is too bad, as I think at its best, his filmography stands up very well, and he hasn’t been afraid to engage in the politics of the country. This especially comes out in his 1975 movie The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which he co-directed and co-wrote with his then-wife Margarethe von Trotta (adapting the novel by Heinrich Boll). Angela Winkler stars in the title role, a maid and former prostitute who becomes infatuated with Ludwig (Jurgen Prochnow), who turns out to be a member of the Baader-Meinhof group, which had been terrorizing Germany at the time. Because of this, the police ruthlessly interrogate Blum, demanding to know if she knows where Ludwig is, and not believing her when she insists she doesn’t. While the police could be seen as just doing their jobs, the media, in the form of Werner (Dieter Laser), a right-wing journalist who begins a smear campaign against Blum, are seen as monstrous.  Even though this is long after the time of the Baader-Meinhof group (as well as such similar organizations as the Red Army Faction in Italy), given we live in the age of the War on Terror and of even worse tabloid journalism in the form of Fox News, this movie is especially relevant today. If there’s one quibble, the movie doesn’t really develop Ludwig, so we never know if he’s as dangerous as everyone says he is, or more importantly, we never quite see the extent of his relationship with Blum which makes her want to protect him so much. Still, the movie does work as a stinging indictment of yellow journalism and an overreaching police, and in the end, we see Blum has been turned into what everyone in the police and press thinks of her anyway.

From → Movies

  1. Man, you have listed some of the most intriguing movies here – most of which I’ve never even heard of. *face palm*

    Fortunately, I have your posts as reference for when I’m watching these films. These posts are like a Bonus Extra on a DVD!

    • Thanks, Ruth! Yes, that was part of the point of this; to try and pick films off the beaten track. Fortunately, all the films I wrote about are available on DVD (I’m particularly glad THE CONFESSION and STATE OF SIEGE came out on DVD in time for me to write this, as I’ve been clamoring for them to come out for a long time!).

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