Costa Gavras gleaned his political activism literally from his father’s knee. The senior Gavras was a Greek government functionary who performed heroically in the resistance movement against the occupying Nazi forces in World War II. At war’s end, the outspoken Gavras found himself labeled a communist by the new regime. As a result, young Costa Gavras was denied entrance to the U.S., where he hoped to study filmmaking. He moved instead to Paris, studying literature at the Sorbonne and working as an assistant to several of France’s top directors.
Costa Gavras displayed both the techniques he’d learned from such masters as Renoir and Demy (and the tricks he’d picked up through incessant viewings of American films) in his first directorial effort, The Sleeping Car Murders (1966). It would be the last pure entertainment effort in Costa Gavras’ career; once the Greek government was toppled in a military junta, the director concentrated all his energies in turning out fast-moving, entertaining cinematic tracts.
Z, a 1969 indictment of the repressiveness of the Greek “Colonels,” was an international smash (even yielding a hit soundtrack); it won multiple awards, including the “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar. Most often in collaboration with his favorite actor Yves Montand, Costa Gavras continued pouring out his hatred of political oppression in such subsequent films as The Confession, State of Siege and Special Section. His style was several degrees removed from subtlety, and his films drove home their messages with the force of a jackhammer. In his first American film, Missing (1982), Costa Gavras casts Jack Lemmon in the role that Yves Montand might have played in other circumstances; the film (which won a “Best Screenplay Adaptation” Oscar for the director) was based on the true story of an American kidnapped in Chile, a tragic consequence of the American-backed dictatorial regime.
“My life in Greece
influenced what I am”
Making films for his own edification and not for those of the “politically correct” elite, Costa Gavras lost many of his adherents (and gained many others) with his pro-Palestinian Hanna K. (1983). In 1982, Costa Gavras was appointed the president of the Cinematheque Francaise.