“An individual may be guilty not because he is guilty, but because he is thought so.”
“Confession is the highest form of self-criticism. And self-criticism is the principal value of communism.”
The above two quotes are pulled from the film, and I feel that they cut to the heart of the message and subsequently the experience of Artur London (Yves Montand). The first is told in voiceover as something that London learned himself during his years in the Communist Party, while an interrogator tells him the second quote in order to coerce confession. The phenomenon revealed in the film is that through various physical and verbal tactics, one can subjugate a human being and cause him to betray himself. They use ideology, in this case communism, to convince him that he is doing a greater good through this act of self-condemnation.
London is a high-ranking Community Party official during the Stalin era. He lives comfortably in his privileged position. He has what appears to be an upper class lifestyle with his wife (Simone Signoret) and daughter. To his surprise, he finds himself being followed by a car. Later he sees two cars. Soon enough, the following turns into a full scale chase. He is cornered and taken prisoner. For what, he has no idea. The film language during this opening sequence is high action, and they use his thumping heart-beat to inject the tension, which will be used again later, although the majority of the film is not action-packaged but instead dialogue-driven.
When taken prisoner, London protests: “I demand to see a party representative.” He is promptly told that, “you aren’t seeing anybody.” He will figure out soon enough that it is the party that has taken him prisoner. They have betrayed him. Those who are familiar with Soviet history under Stalin know that there were many purges, false imprisonments and exiles of anyone who threatened Stalin’s power. The man was arguably paranoid, and he rid himself of anyone who achieved any sort of political power. The order to imprison London most likely came from the very top, as it did for many of London’s associates. A few of their stories will be told throughout the film, and most often they end with execution.
As the title indicates, they want a confession. Of what, London is not immediately sure. As far as he knows, he has not wronged the party. He has been a loyal member and subject. When badgered to confess, baffled, he says “Confess what? Ask me specific questions!” Meanwhile they play games with him. They lock him in a cell in the dark. They don’t let him eat or sleep. They essentially torture him. We will learn that they are not using these tactics to get immediate results, but as a mechanism to slowly and gradually break him down.
His wife is used against him. At one point he is told that she has repudiated him and taken up a lover. We learn later that this is not true, but is just another ruse to manipulate their prisoner. In reality, she writes numerous letters to the Minister, urging for answers. We see her visit the Minister, asking whether he has been arrested and what he is charged with. She is told that he has not been arrested, but that “it is a serious, confidential party matter.”
The film is nearly 2.5 hours long, and a large portion is spent on the interrogations. These scenes may not seem too exciting on paper, but they are actually quite engaging. The back-and-forth is in a way exhilarating. We see the harsh methods that his captors use to urge him closer to the confession that they want. They play with wording. For instance, they are interested in his interactions with an American spy named Noel Field, who gave London money in 1947 for humanitarian reasons. Field was not revealed to be a spy until 1949. London rejects the statement that he was paid by an American spy because he did not know Field was a spy at the time. Each time he dissents, he is taken away and tortured. Eventually he makes small confessions and is rewarded. When these short, signed statements are put together, they create the illusion that London was being paid for actions he did for a spy. A collection of true facts with misleading wording tell a big lie.
They tell London that the only way out is through confession. They tell him that all the others that have confessed are out of prison. These are all lies. Many of those that confessed have long since been executed.
Eventually London breaks down. Even though it is difficult to watch and hard to fathom, Montand gives such an amazing performance that makes us understand the character evolution. First off, he lost a tremendous amount of weight during the filming, approximately 25 lbs. He looks physically and emotionally emaciated. I have long thought that Wages of Fear was his best performance. Not any longer. He gave every bit of himself to this role. I know that actors put can themselves through a lot when committing themselves to a role, but few sacrifice as much as Montand, which makes sense since his character also sacrifices so much. Even without the physical transformation, Montand is captivating throughout the performance, whether he is voraciously battling his accusers about semantics, or when he is worn down and giving them what they want.
Combined with the torture and the party rhetoric, London does break down. He gives a full confession, which leads us to what would later be considered a “Show Trial” that was broadcast on the radio. It was a show because of all of the testimony was manufactured. We only see London’s experience, but the same type of ordeal happened to the dozen or so people that he stands trial with.
Costa-Gavras was accused of making an anti-Communist film, which he defended himself against. He says that he was making a film that condemned totalitarian rule, and that Stalin communism should not be confused with other communism. In my opinion, it does come across as anti-Communist, but not for the reasons that he intended. Through the party, the opportunity was created to allow these crimes against humanity. While Stalinism is without question the worst, there have been scores of Communist leaders that have controlled through totalitarian methods. There still are a few that exist today, most notably in North Korea.
Costa-Gavras is correct that any political philosophy can have dangers if used to betray their own citizens. This is portrayed in the final act of The Confession because it is the “good of the party” rhetoric that takes London down to the road to cooperation. However misguided, he firmly buys into the fact that his confession is the right thing to do. His captors tell him to, “trust in the party. It’s your only chance.” He believes them and does trust in the party, the same people who have tortured him for nearly two years. The notion that he is acting as a good communist by cooperating is absolutely dangerous.
Film Rating: 8.5
You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Arthur London: Documentary from Chris Marker.
Chris Marker worked on the production, and while doing so, filmed a behind-the-scenes documentary about the production. Even though the subject is the film, the style is distinctively Marker.
He begins with the “real” mock trial of Arthur London, part of the Slánský trial, which was the last theatrical trial because it happened a few months prior to Stalin’s death. Slánský testified to not being a real communist, but not because it was true. This was because Stalin wanted him to say he was not a real communist. 11 of the 14 accused we executed.
As he introduces the behind-the-scenes footage, he describes the film via voiceover narration as “the tragedy of a Communist trapped by his loyalty.”
He interviews London, Montand, Signoret, Costa-Gravas, and others. He also tells the story of what happened after the film, how it was attacked and that London had to go back on trial in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Costa-Gavras at the Midnight Sun Film Festival: 1998 Conversation with film scholar Peter von Bagh.
He grew up in Communism and his father had participated in the resistance and was arrested afterward. Costa-Gavras and his family had a difficult time. He discovered films when he left the censored Greece for France in 1955. Despite the political difficulties, he and his brothers were raised well. He worked with Claire, Demy, Clement, and others. He liked working with Demy because the style and manner with actors was different.
He came to thrillers by accident, although he defends them as a narrative artform, giving an example of Greek texts that were thrillers. Coming to learn about Stalin helped develop his feelings about politics. The 1968 riots also changed his outlook quite a bit.
He speaks very fondly about Yves Montand and his political passion. At one time the French had conducted a political poll and Montand had 30% of the country that wanted him as president. We saw some of that passion in the Marker documentary.
That segues them to The Confession. Claude Lanzmann of Shoah actually told him to read the book, but it would be hard to adapt as a movie because it was 500 pages. Z had not come out yet, so that success did not help. The visuals, including archived footage, had not been done before. Costa-Gavras used this footage as a way to not show the constant question and answer sessions, because those exchanges are heavy in the book and would drag down the film. One interesting comment is that “most of us are bad guys for someone, whether we realize it or not.” He is not forgiving Stalin, but accepting that everyone has the capacity for evil.
Portrait London: Artur and Lise interviewed for French television in 1981 to coincide with the release of Iran hostages.
London says that he was a victim of Stalinism, not Socialism. He says that is like confusing the Inquisition with Christianity. During captivity he thought a lot about his wife, family, and his ideals against fascism. This is told well in the film. Even though the experience was terrible, the foundation of his beliefs withstood. He compares his incarceration with the American prisoners in Iran, and says there is no comparison. They were treated well from what he understood.
Yves Montand: 1970 interview.
The interviewer says it is not an “after dinner” film, but Montand is quick to point out that it is an entertaining film. It is a thriller. They talk about the process of making the film. They shot the “after” scenes first, because he had not lost the weight yet. Then he started losing some weight for the early scenes, and then it plummeted when he was being tortured. He basically had to go on a hunger strike.
Françoise Bonnot: 2015 interview with the editor of multiple Costa-Gavras films.
Her mother, Monique Bonnor, was an editor that worked on a number of Jean-Pierre Melville films. Françoise worked with her as an assistant, and came to work with Costa-Gavras first on Z. He wanted to be in the cutting room with her, and she had to ultimately kick him out. She was shocked to get the Oscar for Z. It was thought of as impossible for a French person to win. For The Confession, the dailies were put together so well that the editing was not as difficult. One challenge was she could not linger on the rough shape of Montand as prisoner because that would be too uncomfortable for the viewer.
She likes her editing to be “fluid,” where the editing is invisible. It seems like a continual motion to the viewer. She thinks the film came out well. The torture scenes could have been cut a little bit, but she still feels like it flows well.
John Michalcyk: 2014 Interview with writer and filmmaker, who wrote a book about Costa-Gavras.
People saw him as a stereotypical leftist political thriller director. The Confession is less of a thriller. It is a different type of intensity. Z has a quick progression and it is more exhilarating, whereas The Confession is slower and more deliberately paced.
The film attacks hypocrisy. At the time people did not know about the show trials. The Americans were mostly not even aware of them. The Soviet symbols were very much in the public consciousness in 1970. Michalcyk calls his approach not communist, not socialist, but humanist.
Criterion Rating: 9/10
À PROPOS DE NICE, 1930
Jean Vigo’s debut film falls very much into his idea of “social cinema.” He was a leftist (specifically an anarchist with communistic leanings), which I’ll talk about in more detail later. He was driven to film as a means of expressing his political world view.
À Propos de Nice is a silent documentary short, but it is unlike most of the ones you’ve likely seen. There are no title cards and little actual narrative. It is more of a slice of life documentary about the coastal town of Nice, France. It shows the flow of rich vacationers contrasted with the locals that put on a show for them, and reaches a crescendo that makes a thinly veiled political statement.
The beginning shows a number of upper class, upper crust people lazily enjoying the sun-drenched city. Some are simply walking and looking distinguished; others are enjoying a book on a beach chair; while others are taking sun naps. Occasionally Vigo will show a lower class citizen just to keep the viewer’s attention. For instance, between shots of opulence in action, there is a shot with a garbage collector. There is another shot with a clearly wealthy individual sitting in a chair, and a homeless person sits next to him. Vigo holds that shot, accentuating their differences, yet they are still both sitting idly near a gorgeous beach.
Vigo gets a little more adventurous with some daring, staged shots, which get crazier as the film goes on. There is one such scene with a lady sitting quietly in a chair. The scene cuts and we see the same lady in the same position, with a different wardrobe. It cuts again to yet another wardrobe, and continues to cut a couple more times. The last cut reveals her sitting completely nude in the same chair position. In this manner, the documentary is both jarring and humorous, which would be a constant.
Shots become more abstract as Vigo shows buildings from unusual camera angles, often sideways. He shows poor men wearing big hats, and we discover they are serving pies to their rich visitors. Finally we are shown a parade, including some large, comical figurine faces that were also shown out-of-context in the very beginning of the film. This is the real city of Nice. These are the workers that entertain the rich tourists, that depend on their livelihood and choose to look silly in order to facilitate the pleasure of the class above them.
The film ends with militarism and radical dancing. We see ladies doing the cancan, raising their legs higher in the air with each kick, threatening to reveal their hidden mysteries. These are again lower class, possibly prostitutes or at the very least loose women. Unlike the idle rich vacationers, they are partying wildly without a care in the world. They even dance over a pothole, with the camera covertly positioned inside, shooting them from below in a voyeuristic manner, even though it is obviously a staged shot.
We end with workers, soldiers, and fire. The message is clear when analyzed closely. It is at the hands of the workers that the future lies. Vigo shows them up to the task, upbeat and engaged, but the ending is not resolved.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Taris stands apart from the remainder of Vigo’s work. It was a commission to profile the famous French swimming champion, Jean Taris. While it was not a vehicle for his “social cinema,” it gave him the opportunity for some technical experimentation and expression that would be used again in his two final films.
The 9-minute short is a vanity film, with Taris showing off with his diving ability and his mastery of various swimming strokes. Vigo’s film language helps portray the swimmer in the most positive light possible. He shows close-ups of him while he is working hard, the respected yet agonized face of an endurance athlete. He reverses some of the diving scenes to make it appear that he dives, and then floats back to the diving platform.
The best footage is when Taris is underwater. There is no sound, which is appropriate for underwater footage. Taris is alone in his element. We see him in close-up, holding his breath, yet still enjoying himself and preening for the camera. If there’s any doubt as to his stature, it is quashed when the diving scene and a trick dissolve makes him appear that he is walking on water. Some may have seen that sacrilege, whereas his fans probably found it appropriate. He was an athletic celebrity.
Even though this is a technically accomplished film, it exists for the sole purpose of making someone look good. That makes it the outlier of the four films that Vigo would complete in his lifetime.
Film Rating: 5/10
ZÉRO DE CONDUITE, 1933
Zéro de conduite – or Zero for Conduct, as I will refer to it – is the most fully revealed of Vigo’s “social cinema.” I mentioned above that he was an anarchist. Even though his politics were complicated, Zero for Conduct helps clear them up. In some respects it is a blueprint for exactly the type of anarchic revolution that Vigo longed for, yet it takes place in the unlikely setting of a young boy’s school.
The children in the boy’s home are characters that many can relate to. They push the boundaries of authority, and try to get away with whatever they can. They are into hijinx, practical jokes, and overall misbehavior. They are not a peaceful bunch, and they give it to their teachers at every opportunity, whether to their face or behind their backs. The only exception is Monsieur Huguet, who they find as an allay and a character that understands them.
The other teachers are impatient for any mischievousness, and they rule with an iron fist. “Zero for Conduct” is the punishment for any transgression. It means that they are not given their freedom on Sundays to visit family or friends, and instead are required to stay in school at detention. Furthermore, the teachers dole out the punishment arbitrarily and unfairly. Vigo is intending to portray this as a totalitarian state where the lower class’ (or children’s) rights are being impeded.
The children may be the goats, but they also get to be the heroes. With some assistance from the friendly teacher, they lay out plans for rebellion. The planning is carefully orchestrated and is not put into action until the authority tries to compromise one of the oppressed. It begins with an expletive, continues with a rowdy food fight, and the revolt is in progress. The children hoist their flag and march with exaltation. The sense of freedom and liberation is palpable, just as Vigo expects that it would be in reality. Even though the film is of revolution, it is combined with the exuberance of childhood merrymaking.
Zero for Conduct was banned for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there is clear male nudity during the march scene. There is also the acknowledgement of a homosexual relationship between two males, one of which looks effeminate to easily be confused as a girl (full disclosure: I thought he was a she during the first viewing). Not only is it apparent on screen, but even the school officials take notice. In one scene when the pair are walking arm in arm, the headmaster tells another teacher that “we need to keep an eye on these two.” This was 1933, where the subject of homosexuality was barely even believed in common society, much less presented in the media arts. Finally, there was religious consecration as the children place one teacher in a crucifixion pose during the rebellion. This was too much for the censors.
While Zero for Conduct is an understandably controversial film that was a product of the post-Bolshevik era and Vigo’s politics, it is also far ahead of it’s time in film language. During the early years of French Poetic Realism, there had been plenty of radical images, but none that came close to Vigo’s penultimate film.
Film Rating: 9/10
Since this entry is about only three short films from The Complete Jean Vigo disc, I am only going to cover the commentaries in this post. There will be another post about L’Atalante and a wrap-up post to come, which will cover more supplements.
Commentaries – Michael Temple, author of French Film Directors: Jean Vigo contributed commentaries for all four of Vigo’s films.
All four films were producted with Boris Kaufman, brother of the filmmakers that created the legendary Man With a Movie Camera, and he had significant success after the Vigo years. He already had a great deal of film background when the collaboration began, whereas Vigo was young and inexperienced. The partnership may not have happened if Vigo had not financed À Propos de Nice with his marriage dowry. The collaboration was beneficial to both, and they grew as filmmakers, which is more than evident from the quality of their work.
Temple claims that Vigo is considered one of the more celebrated filmmakers in French film history. This is amazing given that he made a mere four films, and only one of which was a full length feature. Vigo’s work was not appreciated during his lifetime and would be rediscovered by filmmakers such as Truffaut and Godard during the French New Wave.
I’ve already referred to the term “social cinema,” which is a phrase I received another source (Republic of Images, Alan Williams.) Temple says that Vigo called À Propos de Nice a “social documentary.” It is divided into three parts: 1) Wealth. 2) Contrasts 3) Revolution. Vigo himself appeared in the cancan dance sequence, kicking his legs up with glee with both women around his arms.
Taris was the exact opposite of Apropos because it was commission. Vigo received it because of his name recognition after À Propos de Nice. He used the commission to learn more about film technique, which he would use in his two final films. The most notable items he recycled were the underwater scenes, which he shot by using portholes underneath.
The producers did not like his version and hired someone else to finish. We do not know for certain whether it is all Vigo’s work in the final film. Vigo rejected the film, but said he like underwater scenes.
Zero for Conduct was Vigo’s signature film. It was both based on his personal experience in a children’s home, and it expressed his anarchist ideology throughout the film.
Merde is a magical word in anarchist culture. It is a difficult translation from French (literally translates as “shit”), but the word is not always profane. Sometimes it is just a desire to shock or go against conventions. It is a word used within revolt.
Vigo sees anarchism and revolution as joyful, and that is eloquently presented in the film. The kids are having an absolute blast, while it is also a call to freedom.
The final confetti slow motion rebellion scene is one that Vigo borrowed from his underwater scene. If you watch it carefully, it is reminiscent of how Taris was shot with it’s subject swimming under the water.