Costa-Gavras, the Greek French director known for his high octane political thrillers, crafted the complementary movies on authoritarianism, Z and L’aveu ( The Confession ). Both the movies are based on true events in Post War Eastern Europe and situated in a climate of political flux of the 50’s & 60's. They both talk about how concentration of power under any ideology or regime will always end in trampling of civil liberties and mutilation of truth. They are stark reminders of nations that swung between extremes and whose citizens had to invariably pay the price.
Z is situated in Greece where a Right Wing government is ruling the peninsula. The opposition parties invite a Leftist political activist and a doctor Grigoris Lambrakis ( Yves Montand ) to give a speech on the disarmament. After the speech the doctor is clubbed down and killed by a radical right wing group with the support of the security forces. The govt denies the act of murder and records the event as an unfortunate accident. Officials manipulate evidence, make false confessions, use tactics of intimidation to prevent the discovery of truth. A righteous public prosecutor takes up the investigation to find the real instigators of the crime.
L’aveu takes us to 50’s Czechoslovakia where a Communist government is in power. Yugoslavia with Tito had split away from the Stalinist model and started its own form of Communism. It is feared that a similar separation is in the offing in Czechoslovakia which the USSR cannot afford. Hence the top most ministers of Czechoslovakia are put under surveillance by Stalin supporters in the country, starting with Artur Ludvik ( Yves Montand ), the Deputy Foreign Minister. He is then captured and put in a cell and tortured for confession. He has to confess to sedition which he had not committed. His friends and other ministers are made to do the same.
Both the movies showcase a Hobbesian form of governing structures where the regime is intimidating and lives on the fear of its citizens. The fear is instilled by constant surveillance and sudden disappearances of innocent citizens. In Z the opposition party members are under surveillance and atthe same time receiving death threats from a government supported radical group. In L’aveu the ruling members are under supervision in prisons, where their every action is monitored and controlled. They are supposed to march continuously within the cells and can only sleep when they are told to.
This entire scenario is akin to what the postmodern French thinker Foucault notes in his book Discipline and Punishment, the way ceaseless surveillance and imprisonment affect the citizens.
“The crucial move of imprisonment is that of coaxing prisoners to inspect, manage and correct themselves. If effectively designed, supervision renders prisoners no longer in need of their supervision. For they will become their own attendant. This is docility”.
The political prisoners in L’aveu do become docile and confess to crimes that they had never committed nor had the intention to do so. They become so pliant and obedient that they memorize word by word, the script of their ‘seditious’ actions and reproduce without fail at the public trial.
Another common theme in both the movies is the perilous equation of truth to propaganda. In Z the CROC (Christian Royalist Organization against Communism) uses indoctrination and brainwashing tactics to radicalize members against the pacifist Left parties in Greece. In L’aveu it is the Communist govt itself that manufactures truth for its citizens to consume, they concoct new enemies of the State by inventing phrases like Trotskyists and Titoists. Citizens who raise their voice against the Party are nothing but termites to the ideals of revolution.
Costa-Gavras shows us that authoritarian regimes both on the Right and the Left tend to hold a monopoly on truth. But such a singular truth can only be spun out of lies, conceived in prison through torture and proven through doctored documents. The facade of truth is not monochromatic but iridescent. The same reason why pagan Greeks were closer to God than medieval monotheists.
Gavras is a self proclaimed Communist hence Z comes off like a scorcher of the authoritarian religious Right and L’aveu as an lament to the ideals of Communism. It even produces pitch dark humour, as the torturer tells the minister who has to confess to fictitious crimes,
“ Confession is the highest form of self criticism.
And self-criticism is the principal virtue of a communist”
L’aveu echoes loud in an age where Communism is reduced to an emotion, a nostalgia for a future we should have already inherited.
In essence Costa-Gavras puts forth a set of binaries,
The Right or The Left, the Gas Chambers or the Gulags, to die of race or to die of class, to be a student in Tlatelolco or a student in Tiananmen, to take refuge under the Hands of Invisibility or behind the Curtains of Iron. The choice is yours.