Archive for Section Speciale

Closing In

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2019 by dcairns

I hope to finish off all of Costa-Gavras’ work shortly, apart from I guess LA PETITE APOCALYPSE (1993) which seems to be totally unavailable, and ADULTS IN THE ROOM, the new one, which I don’t have any way of seeing right now. I should try and find the distributor actually, I might be able to write a more sympathetic review than Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. No guarantees are possible, of course.

MISSING holds up remarkably well — Fiona was bored by it as a teenager and cried this time, was terrified, moved in all the right ways. I had flashbacks, there were moments, like the white horse running down the street at night, which I suddenly recalled from 1984 or whenever I last saw it. And the sense of Jack Lemmon’s character being politically awakened, opening his eyes at last, and being shocked and hurt by what he sees.

HANNA K. is my least favourite so far. C-G followed MISSING with a look at the Israel-Palestine question through one woman’s complicated love life, and the lens doesn’t seem adequate to the problem. MISSING is more cinematically inventive and unusual than I remembered, but C-G’s own story doesn’t seem to excite him in the follow-up. And then we get three more rather uninspiring US movies.

It seems to me that Mr. Gavras’ best movies are adaptations: THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS is Sebastien Japrisot, UN HOMME DE TROP is from a novel based fairly closely on fact (the role model for the Bruno Cremer didn’t like the movie), Z and L’AVEAU are based on factual books, I’ve still to catch up with STATE OF SIEGE but it’s factual, SECTION SPECIALE is distilled from a huge history, CLAIR DE FEMME is a novel, MISSING is from the last 65 pages of a fat true story, then we get four originals that aren’t as good as the rest, but in there is LA PETITE APOCALYPSE which sounds intriguing and is from a novel and is French. Since there’s (nearly) always a big topic, this one is about the fall of communism. But I’m not paying 40 Euros for an unsubtitled DVD from eBay.

AMEN. (the Vatican and the Nazis) is from a gigantic play and from history, LE COUPERET is from a Donald Westlake and is just brilliant (big topic: what the job market does to people), and I’ve still to watch EDEN IS WEST (on migration, an original) and LE CAPITAL (on global capitalism, from a novel).

The new one is from former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s book. The title needs a THE in front of it. People underrate the importance of the definite article. But the lousy reviews don’t put me off at all, I am THERE for this. It’s got a dance number!

People talk about the issues in C-G’s work, and I get that, but they don’t talk about his genius with camera and editing, or about his use of humour, which to me is dazzling. Z is very, very funny, but the laughs are balanced on the edge of an abyss. LE COUPERET is hilarious about the decay of the moral sense. Costa-Gavras says his chief concern is human dignity which sounds very earnest, and it is, but his best stuff isn’t ploddingly worthy, it’s CUTTING.

Kill and Pray

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 16, 2019 by dcairns

For fifty years or so, Costa-Gavras has been warning about the slow decay of democratic norms and the moral sense. We must not have been listening, or something.

Z (1969) depicted the state-sponsored murder that led to the overthrow of democracy in the director’s native Greece.

SECTION SPECIALE (1975) was the first film to show how the French justice system under the Nazi occupation curried favor with the occupying forces by passing obscene “retroactive” laws that saw communists and Jews executed for crimes committed before the existence of the law they were prosecuted under.

AMEN. (2002) is about the church and the Nazis.

It’s actually a very fair, even-handed work, showing the real efforts made by the Catholic church to protect Jews from deportation. The trouble is, those efforts focussed largely on rescuing Jews in the immediate vicinity of the Vatican, including converts to Christianity. Pope Pius XII declined to ever condemn the death camps where millions were being murdered.

The character of the Pope is allowed to explain why he believes he can’t risk the church’s very existence by taking a stand against Hitler. But one suspects cowardice.

The film has two heroes. First is the conflicted Kurt Gerstein, a real historical figure, movingly played by Ulrich Tukur (a CG favourite, he’s also in the new one), sweaty, neurotic and a bit messianic. He’s an SS officer, as antisemitic as the next man, you’d think I (which, in the SS, is pretty damned antisemitic) recruited to provide technical assistance in the extermination of “subjects.” And he finds he’s reached the moral limit beyond which he can’t go: any prejudice he has against Jews is not enough to allow him to countenance this. But his actions thereafter are strange: he carries out the work. All the while, he’s clandestinely attempting to get church leaders to expose the genocide to the world. He tries his own German protestant church, and when that proves fruitless (the thing seems too big to believe, but people just don’t want to believe), he tries to go right to the top, to the Pope.

Meanwhile he attends meetings where he’s asked how to make gas chambers more efficient, and he gives sound advice based on his technical expertise in fumigation and disease control. And this advice allows many many more people to be exterminated rapidly. Their suffering is less protracted. But also a lot more people can be killed in a day.

The second protagonist is Matthieu Kassovitz as a young Jesuit who tries to help him. This character combines more than one historical figure, including a priest who voluntarily went into the death camps.

It IS a bit of a problem for the film, this divided focus. It’s based on a controversial play that was about nine hours long and seems never to have actually been performed in its entirety. Highly cinematic passages are interrupted by sudden irruptions of PLAY, where even the style of dialogue seems to become a bit stodgier, more orotund and unnatural. The difficulty is that Gerstein, the real man, is more interesting than the fictional/compound priest, who’s right about everything. Gerstein is only sort of right, and also a lot wrong.

He had been anti-Nazi, and then he joined the S.S. He clearly spent a lot of time, at great personal risk, trying to get the word out about the Holocaust. At the same time, he was deeply involved in it. Some of his contributions may have been a covert, deniable form of sabotage. Some of his contributions contributed materially to industrialized mass murder.

People still disagree about his culpability. He himself seems to have had conflicting ideas about it.

A classic bit of Costa-Gavras text onscreen ~

I recommend the film — it’s very good, if unbalanced and imperfect. The director’s discretion is admirable — we come as close to a gas chamber as you can get, but never see inside. We see Nazis looking through spyholes, we see their (various) reactions, and we see the wooden shutter-type door bulging as unseen victims hammer on it. That, surely, is enough.

And we see freight trains going back and forth throughout the film. The ones going left to right are empty.

Not the Sunday Intertitle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2019 by dcairns
From Z: “Any resemblance to real events or persons living or dead is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.”

No intertitles in Costa-Gavras’ films, that I’ve been able to find. Plenty of writing on the screen, though.

Since the stories he tells are often based on true ones, or set in real historical situations, the use of text is sort of genre-appropriate. Although I don’t think we can really argue that it’s a technique taken from documentary — the history of fiction films starting with a superimposed crawl stating the time and place and what’s happening politically is a very long one — it’s true that this approach literally turns the film into a document for the duration of the text.

C-G can begin a film with a scene-setting graphic, as in UN HOMME DE TROP ~

Since this is a Harry Saltzman production, this MIGHT be the work of an uncredited Maurice Binder. I do hope so!

He can use a superimposed date to get over a jump in time, as in L’AVEAU, which cheekily identifies its first flash-forward as a hallucination, then treats the later ones as real ~

I like C-G’s experimental side. The relentlessly brutal L’AVEAU might be unwatchable without this ludic spirit.

The movie ends with Czech graffiti, subtitled. Does that constitute a kind of intertitle?


In C-G’s endings we sometimes learn about what happened after the events of the movie itself. Z has perhaps the best example of this ever, and it helps that the explanation of the title has been held back until the very end (spoiler alert, I guess) ~

It’s just a list of things banned by the Greek generals, culminating in the letter Z, which was forbidden because it could be used to say “He still lives.”

Where a Hollywood true story might tend to reassure us that the story we’ve just watched resulted in wrongs being righted (I’m generalising massively here), C-G tends to tell darker stories and he wants to send his audience out angry or determined, not reassured.

From SECTION SPECIALE — devastating in context.

I’m not usually crazy about the textual “future re-cap” ending. It can signify a failure on the scenarist’s part to effectively condense the true story into a cinematic narrative. And I usually find it a colossal cheat when it’s used in fiction films. I don’t like it in AMERICAN GRAFFITI *at all*. ANIMAL HOUSE, directed by C-G’s pal John Landis (who put C-G in three of his films as an actor, a record for this director-casting maniac) is OK because it’s parodying the form and the jokes are pretty good. MAGDALENE SISTERS is just confusing because the characters aren’t real, but they’re based on real stories… so are the hackneyed captions telling us about real people or fictional ones? It’s supposed to be devastating, but I found it irritating because I’m a pedant and a bad person, I suppose.

AMEN. (note the full stop) is a dicier example. It has two protagnists. One was a real person, Kurt Gerstein, a Nazi whistle-blower who tried to warn the world about the Holocaust while being deeply involved in it (it’s a fascinating and terrible story), the other is a compound character signifying various people in the Catholic Church who did various things to get the Pope to act (unsuccessfully). The film solves this conundrum by summing up Gerstein’s post-movie fate and remaining silent about the quasi-fictional Jesuit.

I would say that just as I slightly prefer Costa-Gavras’ more playful and quirky early work, where the nouvelle vague tricks in no way take away from the seriousness — in fact, they point it up — I prefer the use of text early on, because it has a similar wit. Playing with the docudrama conventions rather than subscribing wholeheartedly. Likewise, the two freeze-frames in UN HOMME DE TROP, capturing the moment of death for two characters, are much more striking than the standard-issue freeze endings of MUSIC BOX and BETRAYED, even though the latter, with the action actually juddering to a halt, is rather haunting ~