Filmmaker Constantine Costa-Gavras made his first mark on world cinema with his incendiary 1969 political thriller Z, which told the true story of the assassination of a progressive Greek politician in the early 1960s. After the film won a host of awards, including two Oscars, Costa-Gavras spent his career tackling controversial, politically and socially charged subjects, the highlights being films like State of Siege (1972), Missing (1982), Music Box (1989) and Amen (2002). Before there were "issue" filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, Costa-Gavras set the stage.
This year finds Costa-Gavras, at age 80, still at the peak of his cinematic powers. Captial focuses on the world of international banking as a newly-minted CEO (Gad Elmaleh) of a French bank finds his moral compass quickly going south as he tries to maintain the balance of power in his professional and personal lives. Co-starring Gabriel Byrne, Natacha Régnier, and Céline Sallette, the Cohen Media Group release arrives on U.S. shores November 1.
Costa-Gavras, who relocated from his native Greece to France during the 1950s, spoke with me recently about his latest cinematic Molotov cocktail.
One thing I found fascinating in the film was how the character of Marc slipped so easily into becoming a full-blown sociopath.
Yes, the idea is that these people run our lives, in a certain way, because they control our money. They probably start out as good people, with good intentions, then they stop caring about other people, even those who are the closest to them, and just care about their business and their stockholders. They have to keep the stockholders happy, otherwise they will be replaced. This way, they stay kings, and like all kings, they want to remain in that position until the very end.
There were also undertones of fascism in terms of the way the banks and corporations in the film were run.
Yes, of course. What we don't think so much about is that most of what they do is completely legal. This is why very few of them have wound up in prison for what they've done.
No, usually it's their underlings who wind up going to prison.
What gave you the idea for Capital: the financial collapse in 2008?
No, it was earlier than that. I decided to make a movie about money and how it affects people. More and more money plays an important role in our society and the ethics keep getting weaker. I was doing research and realized that it all led to the people who sit at the very top of the world's banks. So that's the idea, and I tried to see how people think and how they change once they reach that top.
The character of Marc is certainly at best, an anti-hero, even though he isn't particularly likable, he's the most likable character in this particular nest of vipers. The fantasies he has throughout the film about "doing the right thing" drive this home.
It would have been simple to make Marc a standard bad guy, but that would have been too easy. What I found interesting about his character is that he thinks about doing the right thing most of the time, but then never winds up doing them. I wanted to show there is a conscience in there. Most of the bankers I met during my research were like this: very cogent of the situation they were in and what the right thing would be to do, then almost never doing it.
I loved at the end what Marc's wife says to him, with his response indicating in that world, human relationships don't matter, only business ones.
Absolutely. That's exactly who he's become and what you have to become in that world.
You've made a career of making socially and politically charged films. Your critics have accused you of being an activist/propagandist first and a filmmaker second. Where do you think your ideology comes from?
I'm always a bit suspicious about ideologies, you know. My basic thinking and feeling is to always respect the dignity and freedom of others. That's what I've always tried to make films about and if I do follow any personal ideology, that's the only one I can say I believe in. As for my critics, they're critics and always will be critics. (laughs)
I'm sure much of it stems from your childhood in Greece and the way your father was treated after the war: from being a hero of the Greek resistance, to being imprisoned as a suspected Communist.
Yes, this is probably the basis of my learning, but also when I went to France I was very lucky to meet people like Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Chris Marker, and some other people who were a few years older than me. I saw the way they were thinking, the way they were living, the films they were making and it really changed my life. Plus living in France during the '50s and '60s was a fascinating time. I saw very clearly what was a democracy and what was not.
Were you involved with the seminal events of May 1968?
Not directly. I was older than the students at that time, but I was there, because I was living very near the Sorbonne, where the demonstrations were happening, so I watched very closely. The ones who broke things, who started fires and so forth, I stayed clear of. But the discussions that took place in and around the Sorbonne I did take part in, and they were fascinating, and very exciting. That was all done in a peaceful way.
Any French citizen I've spoken with who was there said it was not only the most significant single event of their life, but the most significant event in France since the storming of the Bastille.
Perhaps, but if you look closely at the history of the country, it's in synch with French tradition. It's a country that's constantly in the throes of some sort of uprising. In '68, the violence was really minor. The significant thing was the intellectual discourse among the people, who were trying to change society.
Where do you see us headed now? Has the world become too apathetic for another revolution, or are we headed for another one?
A pacific revolution, I think, one with no violence. We've not had anything like that for a long time, but I think it must happen and is inevitable, particularly in regards to the economy. The economy leads the world, particularly when you have a great number of rich people and a greater number of poor people simultaneously.
In the past year, seeing footage of the riots in Greece, I couldn't help but think of your classic film, Z.
Yeah, the extreme situation in Greece has caused a real tragedy, which is a rise in Fascism. People think that if they can't save the situation, they have to turn to a Fascist leader. And of course, we've seen what happens when a fascist leader takes power in years past: Germany, Italy, Greece. Every time it resulted in absolute catastrophe for the human race.
But you still have hope?
I have hope. I think now at my age, I have seen so many things. I really do believe that things are getting better, but not as fast as they should.