Nationality: French. Born: Konstantinos Gavras in Athens, Greece, on February 13, 1933 (naturalized French citizen, 1956). Education: The Sorbonne, Paris, and Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques. Family: Married Michèle Ray, 1968, one son, one daughter. Career: Ballet dancer in Greece, then moved to Paris, 1952; assistant to Yves Allegret, René Clair, René Clément, Henri Verneuil, and Jacques Demy, 1958–65; became naturalized French citizen, 1956; directed first film, Compartiment tueurs, 1966; became president of the Cinematheque Francais, 1982. Awards: Moscow Film Festival Prize for Un Homme de trop; Best Director, New York Film Critics Award, and Jury Prize, Cannes Festival, for Z, 1970; Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay, for Z, 1970; Louis Delluc Prize for State of Siege, 1973; Best Director Award, Cannes Festival, for Special Section, 1975; Palme d'or, Cannes Festival, 1982, and Oscar for Best Screenplay (with Donald Stewart), for Missing, 1983; ACLUF Award for Betrayed, 1988. Agent: John Ptak, William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.
Films as Director and Scriptwriter:
Compartiment tueurs (The Sleeping Car Murders)
Un Homme de trop (Shock Troops)
L'Aveu (The Confession)
Etat de siège (State of Siege) (co-sc)
Section speciale (Special Section) (co-sc)
Clair de femme (Womanlight)
Hanna K (co-sc, + pr)
Summer Lightning (Sundown); Betrayed (d only)
Music Box (d only)
La Petite Apocalypse (The Minor Apocalypse) (co-sc)
Les kankobals, episode in A propos de Nice, la suite; Lumière et compagnie
La Vie devant soi (Madame Rosa) (Mizrahi) (role as Ramon)
Spies like Us (Landis) (role as Tadzhik); Thé au harem d'Archimede (Tea in the Harem) (sc)
The Stupids (Landis) (role as Gas Station Guy)
Enredando sombras (as himself)
By COSTA-GAVRAS: articles—
"Costa-Gavras Talks," an interview with Dan Georgakas and Gary Crowdus, in Take One (Montreal), July/August 1969.
Interview with David Austen, in Films and Filming (London), June 1970.
"A Film Is like a Match: You Can Make a Big Fire or Nothing at All," an interview with H. Kalishman and Gary Crowdus, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 1, 1973.
"Constantin Costa-Gavras: An American Film Institute Seminar on His Work," 1977.
Interview with F. Guerif and S. Levy-Klein, in Cahiers de laCinémathèque (Perpignan), Spring/Summer 1978.
Interview with John Pilger, in Time Out (London), 8 December 1983.
"There's Always a Point of View," an interview with Dan Georgakas, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 16, no. 4, 1988.
Interview in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1988.
"Direct Action," an interview with Andrew Kopkind, in Interview (New York), September 1988.
"Constantin Costa-Gavras: Politics at the Box Office," an interview with Claudia Dreifus, in The Progressive, September 1988.
Interview in La Revue du Cinéma (Paris), November 1988.
"Keeping Alive the Memory of the Holocaust," an interview with Gary Crowdus, in Cineaste (New York), February 1990.
"Black and White Movies," an interview with Sheila Johnston, in Independent (London), 31 May 1990.
Interview with Claude-Marie Trémois, in Télérama (Paris), 10 February 1993.
"Fini les émigrés," an interview with Freddy Sartor, in Film enTelevisie + Video (Brussels), no. 432, May 1993.
"La vie des hommes," an interview with Jackie Viruega, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 474, July 1998.
On COSTA-GAVRAS: books—
Solinas, Franco, State of Siege, (includes articles), New York, 1973.
Michalczyk, John J., Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film, Philadelphia, 1984.
On COSTA-GAVRAS: articles—
Sauvaget, D., and others, "A propos de Costa-Gavras," in Image etSon (Paris), December 1977.
Crowdus, G., and L. Rubenstein, "The Missing Dossier," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 12, no. 1, 1982.
Wood, M., "In Search of the Missing," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1982.
Yakir, Dan, "Missing in Action," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1982.
Camy, G., "Costa-Gavras: Pour un certain cinéma politique," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November 1983.
Johnston, Sheila, "Costa-Gavras," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1984.
Clark, T., "Cinematheque Broadens Its Horizons," in Variety (New York), 1 October 1986.
"Colleagues Attack Costa-Gavras for Pic Archive Stand," in Variety (New York), 4 February 1987.
"Four Who've Made It," in Variety (New York), 25 October 1989.
Dargis, M., "Crimes of the Heart," in Village Voice (New York), 17 April 1990.
Crawley, T., "A Hellene in Gaul and a U.S. Favorite," in Variety (New York), 2 May 1990.
Lubelski, T., "Trzy dni Costy-Gavrasa," in Kino (Warsaw), December 1993.
"Costa-Gavras Strikes a Match," in New Yorker (New York), 19 June 1995.
"L'aveu," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 474, July 1998.
* * *
The films of Constantin Costa-Gavras are exciting, enthralling, superior examples of dramatic moviemaking, but the filmmaker is far from being solely concerned with keeping the viewer in suspense. A Greek exile when he made Z, set in the country of his birth, Costa-Gavras is most interested in the motivations and misuses of power: politically, he may be best described as an anti-fascist, a humanist. As such, his films are as overtly political as any above-ground, internationally popular and respected filmmaker in history.
Costa-Gavras's scenarios are often based on actual events in which citizens are deprived of human rights and expose the hypocrisies of governments to both the left and right of center. In Z, Greek pacifist leader Yves Montand is killed by a speeding truck, a death ruled accidental by the police. Journalist Jean-Louis Trintignant's investigation leads to a right-wing reign of terror against witnesses and friends of the deceased, and to revelations of a government scandal. The Confession is the story of a Communist bureaucrat (Montand) who is unjustifiably tortured and coerced into giving false testimony against other guiltless comrades. State of Siege is based on the political kidnapping of a United States official in Latin America (Montand); the revolutionaries slowly discover the discreetly hidden function of this "special advisor"—to train native police in the intricacies of torture. In Special Section, a quartet of young Frenchmen are tried and condemned by an opportunistic Vichy government for the killing of a German naval officer in occupied Paris. In Missing, an idealistic young American writer (John Shea) is arrested, tortured, and killed in a fascist takeover of a Latin American country. His father, salt-of-the-earth businessman Jack Lemmon, first feels it's all a simple misunderstanding. After he realizes that he has been manipulated and lied to by the American embassy, he applies enough pressure and embarrasses enough people so that he can finally bring home the body of his son. Despite these sobering, decidedly noncommercial storylines, Costa-Gavras has received popular as well as critical success, particularly with Z and Missing, because the filmmaker does not bore his audience by structuring his films in a manner that will appeal only to intellectuals. Instead, he casts popular actors with significant box office appeal. Apart from a collective message—that fascism and corruption may occur in any society anywhere in the world—Costa-Gavras's films also work as mysteries and thrillers. He has realized that he must first entertain in order to bring his point of view to a wider, more diversified audience, as well as exist and even thrive within the boundaries of motion picture economics in the Western world. As Pauline Kael so aptly noted, Z is "something very unusual in European films—a political film with a purpose and, at the same time, a thoroughly commercial film." Costa-Gavras, however, is not without controversy: State of Siege caused a furor when it was cancelled for political reasons from the opening program of the American Film Institute theater in Washington.
Not all of Costa-Gavras's features are "political": The Sleeping Car Murders is a well-made, atmospheric murder mystery, while Clair de femme is the dreary tale of a widower and a woman scarred by the death of her young daughter. Both of these films star Yves Montand. But while Costa-Gavras's most characteristic works do indeed condemn governments that control other governments or suppress human rights, his concerns as a filmmaker have perhaps shifted towards the more personal. The two features made with scriptwriter Joe Eszterhaus, Betrayed and Music Box, focused on the relationship between the central female character and a man (a lover in Betrayed, a father in Music Box) who is subsequently revealed as a fascist.
On further review, both Betrayed and Music Box prove to be deeply flawed films. Both are set in America, and spotlight quintessentially American characters: an all-American farmer and an up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant. Yet both reveal deeply prejudicial, preconceived notions about the essence of the American character. Betrayed covers a difficult, explosive topic: Racism and white supremacy in mainstream America. Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger) is a Vietnam war hero and widowed farmer who, outwardly at least, is a likable, salt-of-the-earth American. His mother is the type whose apple pies win blue ribbons at county fairs. His two kids, a boy and a girl, are fine, well-behaved youngsters. On the Fourth of July, this family joins with its neighbors for an afternoon of picnicking and an evening of fireworks.
Yet underneath this picture-perfect view of Main Street lies something warped and sinister. Through changing times and economic realities beyond their understanding and control, Gary and those like him have been losing their farms and their way of life. This powerlessness has been translated into a violent, horrific extremism. Gary—and, it is implied, thousands of others like him—has become a clandestine terrorist. He spouts the gospel that "the Jews are running the country." He claims that blacks are not human, but rather "mud people." In a sequence that is among the most jarring of any movie of the late 1980s, he and his cronies hunt down and kill a black man strictly for sport. Most disturbing of all, Gary's sweet, cuddly daughter repeats what she's learned from her father. On to the scene comes a government investigator (Debra Winger), posing as an itinerant farm laborer. Before she is certain of his true nature, she finds herself becoming involved with him sexually and romantically.
Betrayed is ultimately an outsider's view of the American heartland and the Vietnam veteran. While Gary and his ilk objectify blacks, Jews, Asians, and gays, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Joe Eszterhaus are equally as guilty of objectifying white midwesterners. The film would lead you to believe that every last American farmer is a closet cross-burner. And Gary Simmons, a psycho in sheep's clothing, is yet one more superficial celluloid Vietnam veteran.
In Music Box, Armin Mueller-Stahl takes on the Berenger role: a Hungarian-immigrant father accused of horrible war crimes and thus faces deportation. Jessica Lange plays his devoted attorney daughter who defends him in a high-profile trial. Of course, the sweet old man eventually is shown to be guilty as charged. The generalization here is that all working-class immigrants hold equally sinister views, and equally clandestine pasts.
Costa-Gavras' most recent film, La Petite Apocalypse (The Minor Apocalypse), is a decidedly minor affair, a satire of 1960s radicals, capitalist greed, the demise of communism, and an overzealous media. It premiered in New York in 1995 not on a theatrical run, but as the opening film in the Sixth Annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.