State of Siege is the third film of a loose trilogy of political thrillers made by the French-based Greek filmmaker usually known as Costa-Gavras. Z (1969) deals with the rise of the military junta in Greece in the 1960s, L’aveu (The Confession, 1970) focuses on the repression of Czech dissident politicians in the late 1940s/early 1950s and State of Siege is set contemporaneously in Uruguay with the struggle of Tupamaros guerillas against a repressive right-wing regime. In each case, Costa-Gavras ‘personalised’ the struggle and cast the major French star (and well-known socialist) Yves Montand as the figure at the centre of a political thriller. Z and State of Siege are two of the films that are central to the HOME season of ‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’. They were also shown at the Leeds International Film Festival where I saw both in the same afternoon. It was well worth spending over four hours on the uncomfortable seats of the Victoria Hall in Leeds City Hall. I did see L’aveu on its initial UK release in the early 1970s and I remember it made an impact on me as a personal story, but at the time my knowledge of East European history was limited. Z was a huge success internationally but State of Siege had a lower profile. Seeing them together more than 40 years after their first appearances, I enjoyed both films but found State of Siege more impressive as a political film.
Both the films seem to have been restored with Costa-Gavras’ involvement in 2014. The restorations were projected digitally in the correct 1.66:1 ratios and I thought they both looked very good. Both also have a music score by Mikis Theodarakis. State of Siege was photographed by Pierre-William Glenn who had at that time been working for both François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. The film’s script was written by Franco Solinas (writer on Battle of Algiers) and Costa-Gavras. The story is set in Uruguay in the early 1970s but filmed in Valparaiso in Chile, standing in for Montevideo. The events depicted in the film were based on real events and with the same regime still in power, filming was not possible in Uruguay. The script never refers to Uruguay but various signs make clear that the action is meant to be set in Montevideo (see the car number plate above).
The narrative is based on real events in 1970 when an American official posing as a ‘communications expert’, but in reality a senior police officer and expert in torture techniques, is captured by Tupamaros guerrillas. He is one of three kidnap victims who the guerrillas hope to use in negotiating a release for political prisoners. The narrative begins with a police search which finds the body of the American who has been executed. The story of how the execution became inevitable is then told in flashback, mainly through a focus on the interrogation by the guerrillas of the American, who eventually agrees that all the evidence collected by the guerrillas about his activities is indeed genuine. Meanwhile the Montevideo police are closing in on the Tupamaros and their ‘People’s Prison’. Will they find the kidnap victims before the government is forced to resign? We know the answer is that the American dies and the government survives, but the point of the film is to expose the methods of the police and the role of US ‘advisors’.
Watching State of Siege in 2017 is interesting because we have learned a great deal about what actually happened across various Latin American countries in which US foreign policy supported fascist regimes during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The filming in Valparaiso is particularly ironic since Allende’s democratic government was ousted by Pinochet, with US backing, in the same year that State of Siege opened in the UK and US and in the last few years we have seen the documentaries about the period made by Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia For the Light 2010 and The Pearl Button 2015). I also realised that the street scenes in State of Siege reminded me of Argentinian films about the same horrors and how the references to Brazil in the 1960s made me think back to some of the films in HOME’s Brazilian ‘Weekender‘ in 2016. I mention this simply because what is most interesting about this new restoration is that it sends us back to the context of the State of Siege‘s first release in 1972-3.
When I looked back at the reception of the film in 1973 in the UK, I was amazed at the critical response. In Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1973), Tom Milne dismisses the film, claiming it simply doesn’t work. One of his main gripes is that everyone speaks French in this French co-production! To be fair, he points out that Yves Montand playing the American agent speaks fluent French but the other Americans speak English. I didn’t really think about this. Montand is made up to look like a suave agent (the real agent was seemingly less so). Making Montand the villain does, I think, help to make the narrative work. Milne’s point might be linked to the regular complaint about films set in various European countries where everyone seems to speak English – some with accents, some without. But for an English-speaking audience, watching subtitled French films is more or less the same as subtitled Spanish films and I doubt Milne’s concern was widely shared. More important is the clear inference that mainstream critics are keen to dismiss the film because of their own political backgrounds. (This isn’t a personal criticism – most leftist critics dismiss much of Hollywood’s output for similar reasons.) Another odd objection to the film was the appearance of O.E. Hasse, the German actor known for many international films such as Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). I can’t remember if he is dubbed in the subtitled but it didn’t bother me. His role is to act as a senior newspaperman who acts as the typical investigative reporter, asking the awkward questions about government policy and responses to the kidnappings.
The American reception of the film was quite complex and requires careful analysis. The history of the film’s release in the US is recounted by Costa-Gavras in a Cineaste interview in June 1973 when he was in New York to work on the American dubbing of State of Siege. (Most cinema screenings were subtitled so I’m not sure where the dubbed version would be shown.) He recounts how the first reviews in the US from Judith Crist and Vincent Canby were very positive. Even Time magazine was favourable – but not Newsweek. From other things I’ve read, there was opposition to the film but it also clearly got support. Costa-Gavras also reveals that support came from two American businessmen, Max Palevsky and Dun Rugoff. These were partners in a production company Cinema 10 and Rugoff was also President of Cinema 5, a company that distributed and exhibited films, including Z and State of Siege. What is noticeable is that over the next forty years, while Z remained in the public consciousness, evidenced by the relatively large number of IMDb entries on the film, State of Siege seems to have disappeared from view in the US. Z with an IMDb score of 8.2 and 68 external reviews (88 ‘user’ reviews) contrasts with a score of 7.9 for State of Siege and 16 external reviews (25 ‘user reviews’). The simple explanation may be that Z received five Oscar nominations, winning two. In addition, it received a cinema re-release in 2009 alongside its Criterion DVD release. State of Siege did not appear on Criterion DVD until 2015. So, perhaps it was these distribution factors that restricted access to State of Siege? Or did it disappear in the 1980s when American covert operations and support for right-wing regimes in Latin America was so widespread? My memory of US films and TV is that there were significant examples of filmmakers eager to criticise US policy so I don’t think that was an issue (though I don’t discount the possibility of such ‘conspiracies’). More important is the decision by Costa-Gavras not to copy the the thriller structure of Z. In the same Cineaste interview quoted above he tells us that his political aim was:
Simply to present a situation, a specific example of neocolonialism, and in doing so to show the faces of events that are hidden to the public.
That simplicity is key to the film’s political impact.
An essay on State of Siege by Mark Danner is included on the Criterion website for the BD/DVD of the film. The short clip below is from the Criterion series ‘3 Reasons’ to buy this film.
This was the third Costa-Gavras film to be shown in HOME’s States of Danger and Deceit season. Unlike Z and State of Siege, it deals with a historical period, but one in which similar kinds of anti-democratic and criminal behaviour in fascist regimes is exposed. The setting is Vichy France in August 1941 and this film, along with others such as Marcel Ophüls’ Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), helped to question the myths that had developed around resistance and collaboration in France following the German occupation of Paris and the Second Armistice of Compiègne in June 1940.
As in the earlier films, Costa-Gavras and his scriptwriter Jorge Semprún were dealing with historical facts and documents but they also used a secondary source, L’affaire de la Section Spéciale by Hervé Villeré. The story begins with the actions of a group of young men and women in Paris, who stage a seemingly impromptu demonstration/march in Paris with the Tricolour and singing of the Marseillaise – and with attempts by some to sing the Internationale. The march is disrupted by German troops and some marchers are shot in the confusion. Later, two of the young men are executed by firing squad. In retaliation, the group decide to kill a German officer. A naval officer is publicly assassinated in the Paris Metro and the youths escape. The German authorities then demand that the Vichy government take action very quickly. It’s worth noting the timing of these events. ‘Operation Barbaraossa’ was the codenmame for the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The fascists in the Vichy government needed little encouragement to turn against communists in France – which included many of the young people in the march.
The key issue in the narrative is that, given seven days to respond, the Vichy authorities represented here by Michel Lonsdale as ‘Le ministre de l’intérieur’ formulates a plan by which a ‘Special Section’ of senior judges searches back through recent court convictions to find six men whose sentences can be changed through new court hearings. These will be the sacrificial figures who will be guillotined in Paris to satisfy the Germans. The judges in the court hearing were willing to go along with this with only one exception and majority verdicts were accepted. The cases selected were all deemed to feature ‘Communists, Anarchists and Jews’.
I agree with Isabelle Vanderschelden who introduced the screening and suggested that Costa-Gavras took great care in presenting a very detailed mise en scène and marshalling a large and highly talented cast. There are many familiar faces on screen and many more drawn from French theatre and television, including some comic actors. This all makes sense in terms of the dialogue requirements – and some of the absurdist and frankly comic sequences. As Isabelle pointed out, this does feel like a return to the approach adopted in Z rather than the cooler and more distanced approach in State of Siege. There are two kinds of absurdity or almost surrealism. The first is prompted by Vichy as a location. This spa town in the centre of France with 25,000 or less residents had the largest concentration of hotels outside Paris, so the Vichy regime set up in the main hotels and used the art nouveau Opera House as its ‘debating’ chamber. Special Section actually opens in the Opera House with a recorded speech by Pétain played to the audience of dignitaries at the end of a performance of Boris Godunov. Later we see Michel Lonsdale attempting to work in a hotel where he is interrupted by his children and then by an escaped chicken being chased down the stairs. Through a window we see a promotion for a local Jockey Club event as a trap is driven down the street. (An interesting article by Julia Pascal in the Guardian was published in 2002 when a later Costa-Gavras film, Amen., was released and created controversy in France.) Later, during the court hearings, we are offered in short vignettes, flashbacks to the stories given in evidence by defendants. At least a couple of these are quite comic and in one, the hapless youth whose petty crimes are nearly always immediately uncovered by the police, the events play out like a silent cinema comedy.
What is the point of these absurdist moments? In relation to Z, Coast-Gavras said that what he actually showed was, to a certain extent, toned down. He is referring here to the behaviour of the senior police officers interrogated at the end of the film. It does seem to me that the comic scenes make the representation of events seem more ‘real’ and therefore more chilling. Life is sometimes absurd and we struggle with that absurdity. Many mainstream films that remove that absurdity seem banal because of its lack. Costa-Gavras encourages audiences to become involved in political stories. He doesn’t attempt to use avant-garde techniques to expose those stories/issues. Instead he allows audiences to find them through his skilfully presented but conventional narratives. Special Section packs a real punch. In a further disturbing irony, Michel Lonsdale appeared earlier in the ‘States of Danger and Deceit’ season in the heroic figure of the Police Commissioner who finds the ‘Jackal’ in Day of the Jackal (UK-France 1973)