Cast & Crew
In 1951 Gérard, a Jew and Czechoslovakian Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, is abducted by Prague Intelligence and charged with conspiracy against the Communist party. His suspicious past activities include participation in the International Brigade in Spain, incarceration in a German concentration camp, and confinement in a Swiss tuberculosis sanitarium. After months of torture conducted by secret policemen Smola and Kohoutek, Gérard is persuaded to confess to false charges for the sake of party loyalty. With 13 codefendants, 11 of whom are also Jewish, Gérard stands trial; all make false confessions because of absolute allegiance to the party. Eleven receive death sentences; Gérard and the others are sentenced to life imprisonment. When she hears his confession broadcast over public radio, Gérard's French Communist wife, Lise, denounces him. After Stalin's death Gérard is released and vindicated. Reunited with his wife and children, he moves to Paris, where he chronicles his trial and imprisonment. He returns to Prague as the Russians begin occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Artur London insisted that his book had to be published in Czechoslovakia before it could be printed anywhere else, but the constant upheaval in that country continued even after he finished writing the final words. "The very day that I arrived in Prague with my wife in order to give my manuscript to the Union of Czech Writers publishing firm," he told the press while promoting this film, "I witnessed the invasion of my country by 600,000 men and 6,000 tanks of the Warsaw Pact armies." Born in 1915 in Ostrava, London, London came from a Socialist family that was an active participant in the 1930s strikes. The first of his multiple arrests was in 1931 which led to him fleeing to Russia, then eventually fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the International Brigades in 1937. Afterwards he adopted the name of "Gerard" to fight in the French Underground where he was arrested again and became a prisoner at the Sante in Paris, eventually being deported in 1944 to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Upon his release he returned to France where he received the Legion of Honor among other medals and became Czechoslovakia's Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs in 1949. At that point, the events of the film begin.
Brought in to play London was Yves Montand, who had appeared in Z and was one of France's top box office draws. Also cast as his spouse was his real-life wife, Oscar-winning actress Simone Signoret, and both were Communist sympathizers with complex feelings about their political outlooks. "Personally I would have preferred not to have done it," Montand said upon the film's release. "Not just me, but all the other people involved in the film - Costa-Gavras, Semprun, and London himself - feel this way. But it was a film that had to be made. I can't go on voicing leftist, progressive - call them what you will - ideas and yet, remain silent in the face of the flagrant, ignoble things that took place... For the time being, socialism doesn't exist anywhere in the world. What we've got is a caricature of socialism, and not socialism at all."
The depiction of Montand's psychological and physical battering to induce a confession took its toll on the actor, who lost 24 pounds for the role and wore his prison uniform night and day, refusing to even shave and bathe himself for long periods of time. "Montand really turned into London the prisoner before our eyes," Costa-Gavras said in a press conference in Paris. "Between takes he'd sit, collapsed, on a stool in the corner. After a while, even the grips began pushing him around on the set. He was the prisoner." London visited the set twice, but Montand was averse to his presence and stated, "He lived through it; it's not right for him to see me playing it."
The film was ultimately shot in France when plans to shoot in Czechoslovakia fell through, and several other Z alumni were brought back including screenwriter Jorge Semprun and cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Also enlisted to create the arresting still photographs seen in the film was Chris Marker, who had created the legendary short film La Jetée (1962) and crafted a lengthy making-of featurette to coincide with the film's release.
Not surprisingly, the release of The Confession (via Paramount in the United States and Warner Bros. in most other territories) was fraught with controversy. In Santiago, the local Communist party protested it in the publication El Siglo and attempted to have its release delayed until after local elections. Private screenings were arranged and the London book was serialized in the papers (condensed and without his permission), while an incident with striking picketers nearly scuttling one screening became a news item in the papers. Costa-Gavras also made an incendiary appearance on television referring to himself as "a Sartre Marxist," in opposition to the way he had been characterized by the press to that point. The film was received with great hostility by the Parisian leftist press and was even banned in Beirut after Soviet pressure. It didn't even premiere in Prague until January of 1990, where the director, screenwriter, Montand, and new Czech president Vaclav Havel attended with Lise London (as her husband had passed away). Even then the controversy did not subside, as historian Karel Bartosek asserted six years later in a book about London that he had been colluding with the Soviet Union and had fabricated or exaggerated many of his experiences, a claim Lise London loudly denounced.
The release of The Confession was distinctly more uneasy than the warm reception accorded to Z, but critical admiration was still plentiful. The New Yorker likened it to "a fast read - at times, almost a speed test. One has to pay careful attention, because Costa-Gavras whips through the data and nothing waits. The pace doesn't allow for much thought while you're watching. Yet Costa-Gavras doesn't put on the squeeze, and the film depends not on visceral impact but on the viewer's adding things up; the director has adapted his technique to the subject of political orthodoxy." Judith Crist wrote a lengthy piece about the film calling it the first release of 1970 "to rise above the simplistic and sophomoric political mouthings of the dismally youth-oriented kiddie-level fictional movies and documentaries that have flooded the screens." Perhaps the most amusing review came from John P. Roche in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, who arrived early to catch the final minutes of Lindsay Anderson's if... and, without any context for the rest of the feature, trashed its excessively violent finale before calling The Confession "a superb film, one of the most devastating exposures of totalitarianism ever performed." However, not everyone was won over, with Newsweek finding that "Costa-Gavras bullies the audience, programming its responses as meticulously as was Gerard by his interrogators. At every frame, the viewer is forced to feel outrage, pity, fear - whatever Costa-Gavras's partisan passions dictate. There is no room for ambiguities."
In the decades since its release, the political sensitivity that limited the worldwide visibility of The Confession has since migrated to other concerns, with the Soviet-era tensions now dissolved into different, equally volatile tensions. However, the harrowing events depicted in this film remain as contemporary as ever with nearly every major nation still repeating variations on the abusive dynamic of interrogator and victim, a dance of spiritual death that still seems to have no end.
By Nathaniel Thompson
Opened in Paris in April 1970 as L'aveu; running time: 138 min. Cut from 160 min?
Released in United States 1970
Released in United States December 4, 1988
Released in United States January 1990
Shown at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City December 4, 1988.
Film was banned in Czechoslovakia as well as the 1969 novel whose author was imprisoned for life.
Released in United States 1970
Released in United States January 1990 (Premiered in Prague January 1990.)
Released in United States December 4, 1988 (Shown at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City December 4, 1988.)
The Country of France