Costa-Gavras, the father of the political thriller, is honored for his life’s work. The Greek-French filmmaker in the spotlight of Ticino, talks about his first films – and tells us why cinema has lost its magic.
Congratulations on the “Pardo alla carriera Ascona-Locarno”. What was your first thought when you learned that you were being honored for your life’s work in Locarno?
I was very surprised. Positively surprised, because Locarno is one of the most important festivals, which does not only include the big ones like Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Locarno is also a very special festival in terms of film selection.
Why were you surprised? You can look back on a long career.
Surprised as I’ve never been invited before. I have never been to the Locarno Film Festival. But I know it’s a beautiful area and I can’t wait to get there and receive the award.
Your first two films are represented in the retrospective: “Sleeping Car Murders” (“Killers compartment”, 1965) and “Shock Troops” (“One man too many”, 1967). What comes to mind when you think of these two films?
With ‘Sleeping Car Murders’ it occurs to me that I wrote the screenplay purely as a school exercise. I didn’t own the rights to the novel, nor did I know the author. And it turned out to be a really good movie. The fact that well-known actors like Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Michel Piccoli worked on the first film of a young director was of course very important for my career.
And what memory do you keep of “Shock Troops”?
Thanks to the first movie, I didn’t have to worry about money on the second. Famed producer Harry Saltzman asked me what movie I wanted to do next. I had a story in mind about the Cultural Revolution in China, but he said a movie with mostly Chinese actors wouldn’t work and that I should read this book about the French Resistance during WWII. I did and it became “Shock Troops”. Today they say it’s a good movie, but at the time it failed both critics and audiences. It was a big shock – and now he is honored at Locarno…
What do the rewards mean to you?
Recognition is certainly a good thing, but in the end, I always look ahead. The past is the past. I can’t change anything in the movies afterwards. Some like them, some don’t. That’s why I always looked ahead from the start, tried to learn from my mistakes and do better next time.
You are known for your politically inspired films…
… It’s not correct. My films are inspired by narration. Ultimately, all films are political. Thousands or even millions of people see a film and react to it, it’s political. It’s not just leaders who are political. Every daily action is political. Of course, I have my political philosophies which I cannot deny. When “Z” came out, the producers warned me not to talk about politics. Today, it is almost expected.
How do you see the current situation in the world?
Like a very dangerous mess. And no one knows where all this will lead and what will happen next. When the Soviet Union collapsed, my generation thought everything would be better. But that was not the case. It got worse every year. Maybe we need great Western, Eastern and Southern powers for a balance. There is currently a lack of grand visions for society.
Could this be good material for a film?
It is currently very difficult to follow a subject because everything slips like sand between the hands. Something worse happens every day. Starting with Ukraine: No one would have thought that we would be at war again in Europe, with many casualties and cities destroyed every day. Then I see how right-wing extremists in France are getting stronger. I must remain optimistic, but we truly live in dangerous times.
You yourself experienced World War II as a child. How did it go for you?
My father sent us to the countryside because the people of Athens didn’t have enough to eat and were starving. I lived it well, far from the action, living like a farm boy. I learned a lot back then about how to survive: how much firewood you need for winter, how much oil for lamps, and how much grain for bread. We were poor but free. I only found out later what happened during the war.
And finally you emigrated to France and went to film school…
Yes, and I ended up becoming an assistant director. I loved the job and thought I had found my place. A foreigner could never make films himself in France! All the directors were French. But here it is… France is a country of cinema apart. Still today.
Among other things, you shot “Missing” with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon, and the war crimes legal drama “Music Box” with Jessica Lange and Armin Müller-Stahl for Hollywood. But you didn’t want to tie yourself to the metropolis of American cinema. Why not?
Yes, I could have signed a contract with a Hollywood studio after my first film, but I refused. And after “Z” there were even more offers. But I stayed in France because two things are important to me: I have to be able to determine the script and I have to know the society. I didn’t really know the Americans.
“Missing” happened because they accepted my adaptation of the screenplay and also because they let me edit the film in Paris. It was very unusual at the time, but they were able to enjoy the city and the good food when they had to come to Paris for the first cut.
You are currently working on a series. Does cinema no longer have a future, in your opinion?
With more and more content online, cinema is losing its magic. We also no longer have actors who embody a myth. This is a problem, but also a normal evolution of our society. On the other hand, as president of the Cinémathèque française, I see that young people also like old films.
However, I believe that after the COVID-19 closures, cinema will never be the same. I will try the serial format now. I have four episodes, so half. It’s a different structure than writing screenplays for the movies – and quite excruciating. We’ll see if I succeed.
#live #dangerous #times