Liberty’s Ghosts

Bingeing on Costa-Gavras! Something I resolved to do a few years ago (I’m sluggish) when I caught up with LE COUPERET, a riveting film which was a big hit in France but not hugely seen elsewhere. Maybe the best Donald Westlake adaptation, in a sense? It’s more faithful that POINT BLANK, which is maybe a bit greater as a film, and even invents material that feels incredibly Westlakean (Westlakish? Westlakoid?), even while hewing to a sensibility, Boorman’s, that’s pretty far removed from the author’s. Costa-Gavras’ film is pure Westlake, and at the same time pure Costa-Gavras.

SECTION SPECIALE deals with the special courts set up by the Vichy regime with the seeming intention of placating the Nazis by executing “subversives.” The beginning of the film is a thriller — some young communists decide to kill members of the occupying German forces. Even here, the film pays surprising attention to the arguments these kids engage in to determine whether murder is permissable under these circumstances. The fine logic arrives at the conclusion that a German soldier might be part of the proletariat of his homeland and therefore personally a poetential ally to the cause, but as a presence in France in his official capacity he’s an enemy and can be shot in the back. Seems reasonable.

More logic: the Vichy cabinet is terrified of reprisals — not entirely foolishly, given the Nazis’ response to the killing of Heidrich in Czechoslovakia. But they hype the threat up hysterically, persuading the courts to go along with their plans by muttering darkly of hundreds of executions of celebrities and prominent citizens including judges, by guillotine in the Place de la Concorde, something the Germans (embodied by the great Heinz Bennent) explicitly ruled out.

Basically the plan is to set up a retroactive law under which suspects or previously convicted persons can be charged and executed. Six executions are promised to the Germans, so regardless of the facts, six convictions must be obtained — under a law that hadn’t been written at the time the “offences” were (maybe) committed.

By now, action scenes of assassination are far behind, but the sense of this being a thriller is continued by other means, through a series of dialogues where, yes, human lives are in the balance, but so are the concept of justice and the consciences of the judges — a third-rate bunch of careerists, mostly.

Costa-Gavras had already gotten into Kafkaesque territory in L’AVEAU and to some extent Z (where, after all, a letter of the alphabet is outlawed). Here, the fact that several of the starry French cast had just appeared in Bunuel’s THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY seems apt, or prophetic — these two movies would make a terrific double-bill, each illuminating the other. Michael Lonsdale’s chilly presence inhabits both films like a lump of ice in the stomach, and Julien Bertheau’s querulous police chief in the Bunuel is promoted to querulous judge here (never trust a man who dyes his hair and wears face powder — and no, I wouldn’t like Gustav Von Aschenback as a judge either).

Costa-Gavras’ black comedy is at times startling, as when a meeting between cabinet ministers and judges takes place with the chasing of a chicken as background action. History is tragedy and farce AT THE SAME TIME.

SECTION SPECIALE stars Monsieur Klein’s dad; Hugo Drax; Ragueneau; Jim; Hans Vergerus; Cagliostro; Napoleon; Victor Manzon / ‘Serrano’; and Prince Charming.

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