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.