1970; directed by Costa-Gavras; Adapted by Jorge Semprún; 138 mins
The first recurring director here, I think. That said, this is only the second movie I have seen that is directed by Costa-Gavras after Z. The Confession is a dark, exhausting, disorientating movie about true Communism vs. Stalinist Totalitarianism. This angry biopic is based on the true story of Czech Communist party leader, Artur London (1915-1986) and his many months in prison being interrogated as a traitor to the party based on trumped-up charges cooked up by a government that needed rid of any and all dissenters. This is a very different story to Z, whereas the former film was darting all over a city, taking in informants, heavies, politicians, generals and people both central and periferal to the story, this is a literal chamber piece concerning a small group of people trying to break one man.
The film does resemble Z in terms of it’s style, however. Quick cutting, near-constant movement and occasional slo-mo are some of the many cinematic tricks that Costa-Gavras has up his sleeve. It’s a very modern looking film in that sense, you can see a possible influence on directors such as Oliver Stone or Andrew Dominik in terms of varying shutter speeds and cutting away to documentary footage. You would say with caution that his style has very much influenced his son, the brilliant music video director, Romain Gavras. It seems to very nimbly bridge the gap between urgent, exciting filmmaking and a story that grinds to a halt quite early on which is a credit to Costa-Gavras as an unsung practitioner of real propulsive thriller filmmaking.
Even so, the experience of watching the film is a tiring one but you do feel that it is to a purpose. I realise that this sounds like so much arthouse fan bullshit (“I have no idea what it was about but it must have been meaningful”) but the whole purpose of the narrative is to show the breaking down of London by meeting his immovable object with the unstoppable force of bureaucracy. As with the fact that no film can truly capture the sensations of war, no film can truly capture the pain and degradation of imprisonment and interrogation but The Confession gives it a damn good go. We watch for the best part of two hours as the soldiers and interrogators shout at London to march around his cell, order him to sleep and then order him to get back up again to recite his prisoner number and then send him back to sleep before dragging him up again to go for another interrogation where he’ll be shouted at by various generals and party officials and then thrust back into his cell to sleep before being shouted at to sleep in the official position. This endless onslaught of barked orders and bustling between rooms in what may or may not be the same building gives the audience a state of confusion and mild delirium. It thereby forces us to ask ourselves to what limits we would go to defend ourselves and defend our true beliefs rather than towing the party line.
The party, of course, being the Communist one you may have heard of. Set in 1951, in a Soviet Union still in thrall to Stalin, the film takes a forensic look at the difference between being a Communist and being a Totalitarian Stalinist. London and his close friends are still idealists, even in their middle age. Veterans of the Spanish Civil War, dedicated to the ideals of Marx and Trotsky, we see them early on voicing concerns about the recent turnaround in the leadership of the party in Czechslovakia. London has already had men in cars following him to his home and had this concern batted patronisingly away by a higher-up. His concerns about the direction the party is taking are soon to be exploded by the raving, raging group of uniformed party underlings. They represent the fearful pen-pushers who help out whoever’s winning at the time, in stark opposition to the likes of London. However, you do wonder how many of them realise just how interchangeable they are. Are they wallowing in their power regardless of the timeframe or are they trying to show how good they are at persecuting ‘traitors’ as much as possible in the fleeting time they have before Russia needs a change to happen again? This is Costa-Gavras’ central focus: the Machiavellian efficacy of institutions and regimes to maintain power whilst simultaneously pissing all over their original goals and desires. Perhaps this is also reflected by the current cries for all Muslims not to be tarred with the same brush as the few extremists who go out and kill innocent people. This film shows the mindset of the Soviet Union that allowed for the rise of the Putins and the Thatchers of this world who were able to say; “Look, that’s the leftist utopia, isn’t it awful?” and then, aided by a world media with more concern towards getting the story out first as opposed to sitting back and thinking about the possibilities, the world goes “Yes, it is rather”.
Not that London is any saint, however, for example, it is reiterated the hypocrisy of his bourgeois lifestyle but his flaws can only pale in comparison to the backstabbing and oppression inherent in the string of monkey-suited lackeys who poke, provoke, pressure, patronise and persecute those that would try to do the good work of Communism and make life better for the many and not a cosy cabal for the chosen few. A vital piece of work that is sadly forgotten but needs a resurgence of interest now when it is more relevant than ever before.