Costa-Gavras might be the European filmmaker most influential on American directors of the 1970s. Although this honor often goes to Jean-Luc Godard and other compatriots of the Nouvelle Vague, films like The French Connection, The Parallax View, or Blow Out are most clearly engaged with a clamorous mode of political cinema that’s as fundamentally enraged as it is delicately assembled. Typically, Costa-Gavras’s Z is credited as the key film in this regard, not simply for its humanistic, injustice-as-thriller construction, but also for the way it “opened up critical perceptions,” as Armond White states it, for filmmaking’s lasting cultural effects. Such an assessment is backed by historical fact, but one would be remiss to overstate the terrain for Costa-Gavras, since none of the director’s subsequent films received a similar degree of accolades, either from filmmakers or critics. The neglect is easier to ascertain once it’s understood just how different The Confession is from its predecessor, a nearly two-and-a-half-hour film that shirks the frantic chase sequences of Z by dialing back its proceedings to a nearly singular setting, literally within the confines of Czechoslovakian torture camp, but more figuratively within the mind and body of Anton Ludvik (Yves Montand), a high-ranking communist official held prisoner by Stalinist extremists.
Despite efforts to conciliate his captors, Ludvik remains confined to a single cell, made to march and remain upright at all times, with little breaks for rest or nourishment. When he tries to give his name, he’s told he’s now a number, one that he’s expected to spout upon demand. He’s forced to wear welder’s glasses as he’s shuttled from space to space, keeping him both blinded and tormented throughout. The head Stalinist, Kohoutek (Gabriele Ferzetti), explains that he’s out to “finish what the gas chambers started,” while Ludvik, trying to offer rebuttals to his innocence, can barely stand from exhaustion. Costa-Gavras shoots these interior sequences with the visual palette resembling Army of Shadows, made the year prior. Jean-Pierre Melville’s work seems a clear reference point for Costa-Gavras, but then so do the films of Robert Bresson and Chris Marker. In fact, The Confession begs comparison with A Man Escaped for its very premise, with Ludvik’s psychological confinement measured against the physical space that he’s trapped within. Nevertheless, Costa-Gavras allows Ludvik reveries which thread his thoughts both into the past and, impossibly, the future, in a manner that lends the film a broadly science-fiction dimension. Marker actually served as still photographer during production, which could help explain Costa-Gavras’s more radical formal inclinations, with the use of freeze frames and essayistic montage, perhaps in direct allusion to La Jetée.
The movements in time, then, are less flashbacks in the narrative sense of that term than jumps in memory, with Costa-Gavras illustrating Ludvik’s evolving detachment from himself and insanity due to sleep deprivation. A mid-film inquisition is the most virtuoso instance of this, as Ludvik is tormented through a series of verbal and physical constraints. Costa-Gavras films pieces of the sequence in slow motion, as Ludvik has a bowl of water thrown in his face and, subsequently, falls while attempting to sit in a chair. Between these actions is a cutaway to Mme. Ludvik (Simone Signoret) some years in the past, explaining Stalinist philosophy over dinner, prompting another cut to archival footage of Stalin, waving from the door of a jet. The sequential logic of these images, then, isn’t actually one of a single character’s memory, but a collective “reassemblage,” to use the title of a Trinh T. Minh-ha film. Minh-ha’s said her film intended not to speak about a place or people, but “nearby,” in proximity rather than asserting mastery, and Costa-Gavras seems in pursuit of a similar aesthetic.
At its core, The Confession is suspicious of the tenets of all political ideologies, not simply communism or Stalinism. In fact, though several communist party members castigated the film upon release, Costa-Gavras remained adamant that it was more critical of Stalinist tactics and dogmatisms than communism as a whole. That insistence is well taken for a film that lacks facile polemics in favor of sensorial evocations of trauma and nationalistic pride, especially in scenes depicting the Prague trials of 1952, where a moment of widespread laughter among an entire courtroom suggests only those pleasures bred from basic human contact can momentarily assuaging unthinkable acts of wrongly forged persecution. To call The Confession a political film is something of a misnomer and a disservice to what could have been a starker, more hard-edged direction for art-house cinema to take, fusing the formal capabilities of narrative cinema with the dialogic capabilities of the avant-garde. Ultimately, The Confession makes Z look like a warm-up, even a naïve grappling with the unfortunate particulars of a torrid human condition.
The Criterion Collection continues to rescue vital, landmark films from home-video obscurity, and this new Blu-ray of The Confession is one of their most essential in many months, especially considering the excellent audio-visual transfer. The 2K resolution sports excellent color balancing and a clean image, with depth consistent throughout. Moreover, all potential instances of dirt, scratches, or rips appear to have been removed, while grain remains present. Audio is even more impressive, especially for a monaural track, with a balance and depth between both dialogue and Giovanni Fusco’s score; there are no overt or distracting flaws, meaning instances of pops and cracks have been eliminated.
One of Criterion’s best assortment of extras for a standalone disc, this Blu-ray serves as a welcome continuation of Costa-Gavras’s filmmaking legacy, building on the fine lot of supplements from Criterion’s DVD release for Z. An hour-long conversation between Costa-Gavras and film scholar Peter von Bagh touches on the director’s entire career, including his memories of watching more innocuous Randolph Scott westerns as a young man and subsequent realization that cinema could be more stringently political. Tidbits are more notable than rehearsed explanations for each film, like his early work with Jacques Demy or that Claude Lanzmann gave Costa-Gavras the idea to make The Confession. In a short interview, scholar John Michalczyk explains the film’s agonizing emphasis on process and torture and how it shows Costa-Gavras entering the realm of the Kafkaesque. Other short pieces include an archival interview with Yves Montand, a contemporary interview with editor Françoise Bonnot, and a brief segment from 1981 featuring the film’s real-life figures discussing their time as political prisoners. However, the best supplement is surely Chris Marker’s half-hour 1970 documentary entitled "You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London," which blends Marker’s essay-film approach with on-set interviews, including one with a particularly fiery Montand, who maintains his continued belief in socialist principles and how he’s "not interested in cocktail parties," unlike some of his showbiz contemporaries. Finally, an essay by the prolific scholar Dina Iordanova explains why The Confession is "one of the toughest political films ever made."
Although Z remains the most celebrated work from the oeuvre of Costa-Gavras, Criterion’s ecstatically assembled Blu-ray release of The Confession demands revisionist interrogation.