The Confession (L’aveu)

Director: Costa-Gavras
Screenplay: Jorge Semprún (based on the book by Lise and Artur London)
Stars: Yves Montand (Artur London / Gérard), Simone Signoret (Lise London), Gabriele Ferzetti (Kohoutek), Michel Vitold (Smola), Jean Bouise (Factory boss)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1970
Country: France / Italy
The Confession Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The ConfessionIn following the critical and commercial success of Z (1969) with The Confession (L’aveu), a relentlessly tense and emotionally infuriating dramatization of the 1952 Slánský show trial against 14 members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, director Costra-Gavras solidified his standing as one of world cinema’s masters of the political thriller. The Confession carries forward a number of the themes that dominated Z, particularly the corrupt nature of politicized investigations and the manipulation of “truth” by those in power. While the investigation in Z was genuine, undertaken by a character whose intent was to ferret out the truth as best he could, everything about the investigation in The Confession is a show, a sick parody in which gross injustice and the manufacture of “facts” masquerades as the official machinations of justice. If it hadn’t actually happened, one would guess it had been adapted from the works of Kafka.

The film is based on the 1968 book L’aveu, which was co-written by Artur London and his wife Lise. London, who was born in Austria-Hungary of Jewish descent, was a Czech communist politician who had fought against the fascists in Spain and had been arrested for anti-Nazi activities in Germany during World War II and spent time in a concentration camp. While he was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in Czechoslovakia, he was arrested along with 13 others (11 of whom, not surprisingly, were Jews) and forced after months of torture to confess to espionage and treason so that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin could purge dissenting views from the governments of the USSR’s satellite countries.

Yves Montand, who played a small, but crucial role in Z, plays London, who goes by the name Gérard, his French Resistance name. Screenwriter Jorge Semprún, who also penned Z, wastes no time, immediately establishing that Gérard is under surveillance for reasons that he does not understand. Soon he is arrested, after which his life descends into a nearly two-year odyssey of physical deprivation and emotional and physical torment, all of which is aimed at forcing him to confess to crimes he did not commit. His interrogators—primarily Czech secret police working under Soviet advisors—are many, and the relentlessness with which they come at him, day after day, asking the same questions over and over and forcing him to restate the same facts over and over, pouncing on even the tiniest inconsistency, works like erosion, slowly breaking him down mentally and physically to the point that he is incapable of refusing. It is not that he eventually relents, but rather that he is finally so worn down that he can no longer refuse, protest, or otherwise defend himself. The almost unbearable middle section of the film is an unrelentingly brutal depiction of a man being broken bit by bit.

And that is the film’s power. Without a great deal of aesthetic flourish or heightened dramatics—there is, for example, minimal use of the orchestral score by Giovanni Fusco—Costa-Gavras dramatizes Gérard’s ordeal and makes us feel his pain, his exhaustion, but most of all the terrible loss of his sense of self. He and cinematographer Raoul Coutard (a favorite of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut’s) deploy both documentary-like realism to bestow on the film’s events a sense of in-the-moment actuality and a series of carefully chosen subjective techniques like camera zooms, slow motion, and the disorienting zoom-in/dolly-out Vertigo effect to align us with Gérard’s experience. Gérard appears in virtually every scene in the film except a few that feature his strong-willed wife, played by Simone Signoret, and at times we flash back to his memories and flash forward to the years after his ordeal, which gives a crucial human dimension to the film’s depiction of politically orchestrated unreality. By the time we get to the actual trial, where Gérard and the other defendants have been coached into memorizing every word they say, we are, like him, simply worn down and accepting of what seems to be the inevitable.

Yves Montand, who lost 25 pounds to play the role, literally ages and shrinks before our eyes, his face becoming more gaunt, his eyes more hollow and glassy, his stance more bowed. Denied sleep and food for days at a time, forced to constantly pace the floor, and always moved about while blindfolded, Gérard’s existence becomes an exercise in inhumanity. His interrogators are all middle-age-looking bureaucrats with pressed suits and slicked hair, which makes their brutality all the more noxious. It is clear from the outset that justice fits nowhere in this equation; there is no sense that his interrogators want the truth, but instead a very particular confession that fits the political needs of “the party.” Gérard is told he must be a good communist and confess for the good of the party, which he rightly recognizes as logically conflicted: “If I have committed these crimes, why appeal to my loyalty?” he asks. “And if I am a good communist, then why I am here?”

Logic, justice, human decency—all of these are discarded in favor of political expediency, which is what made London’s book and Costa-Gavras’s film so dangerous for those who still believed in communism as a political ideal. By exposing the indefensible theatrics of a show trial designed to sacrifice innocent men for the supposed good of the party, The Confession revealed layers of moral and political rot that many wanted to keep hidden. The fact that the film’s flash forwards assure us before the end of the film that, despite his experiences, Gérard does not lose faith in the idea of communism tells us much about Costa-Gavra’s political intentions. Although it was criticized as such in numerous leftist circles at the time of its release, The Confession is not an anti-communist screed, but rather a cry against the inhumanity of any system that sacrifices the innocent for its own perceived good, a sin that was hardly unique to Stalinism.

Costa-Gavras’s film, which stays close to London’s memoir, certainly skirts around some difficult issues, particularly Gérard’s own culpability in supporting earlier purges that resulted in the execution of men as innocent of political crimes as he was. However, to expect the film to deal with all the complexities of London’s history in addition to his harrowing experience in the early 1950s is perhaps too much to asks of a two-hour feature film. As is, The Confession is still quite brave and absolutely essential in its depiction of how any political system is susceptible to totalitarianism.

The Confession

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London (1970) documentary
  • Portrait London, a 1981 French program
  • 1970 interview with Yves Montand
  • Video interview with editor Françoise Bonnot
  • 1998 video conversation between Costa-Gavras and film scholar Peter von Bagh
  • New interview with Costa-Gavras scholar John Michalczyk
  • Essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 26, 2015

    Both The Confession and State of Siege, the two films Costa-Gavras made following his international breakthrough Z, have been released by Criterion in new 2K digital restorations by KG Productions under Costa-Gavras’s supervision and with the support of the Centre national du cinema et de l’image animée. Both films were scanned from the original 35mm camera negatives and digitally restored, and both look excellent. These are very clearly films of the early 1970s, with a heavy grain structure that is left fully intact. The two films look quite different owing to their different settings: While The Confession takes place almost entirely indoors, often in dark rooms and tight corridors, which creates a sense of impending claustrophobia, much of State of Siege takes place outside in the streets of its fictional Latin American country. Not surprisingly, then, The Confession is quite a bit darker overall, while State of Siege has a broader color palette. Both films leans toward the bluish-teal end of the spectrum, which must be the intended look given Costa-Gavras’s supervision of the transfers. Both films have strong contrast and excellent detail that really comes out in the numerous close-ups. In terms of soundtracks, both films have restored Linear PCM monaural tracks transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic tracks. They both sound good, with some depth and range and a bare minimum of aural artifacts or ambient hiss.
    Virtually all of the supplements on Criterion’s Blu-ray have been taken from the archives, which helps illustrate the historical and political context in which The Confession was released. One of the best supplements is You Speak of Prague: The Second Trial of Artur London, a half-hour on-set documentary by filmmaker Chris Marker (who worked on the film as set photographer). Originally aired on French television in 1970, it features interviews with Costa-Gavras, Artur London, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, and screenwriter Jorge Semprún, as well as actual footage from the Slánský trial. Just as interesting are the 12 minutes of excerpts from Portrait London, a 1981 French program that featured an interview with Artur and Lise London in which they speak at length about their experiences as political prisoners. There is also an 7-minute interview with Yves Montand from French television in 1970 and a fascinating one-hour conversation between Costa-Gavras and film scholar Peter von Bagh, which was recorded at the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland in 1998. There some new interviews, as well, including one with editor Françoise Bonnot (17 min.) and one with scholar John Michalczyk, author of Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film (8 min.). The insert fold-out includes an essay by film scholar Dina Iordanova

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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