“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