While there are plenty of films of varying seriousness about the horrors of Nazism, movies about Stalinism are rare, except as an example of a grey, faceless, inherently moribund “system.” That is probably because the film world is dominated by people who, even if they acknowledge the failings of Marxism, give it the benefit of the doubt because of its good intentions. Thus, Constantin Costa-Gavras’s The Confession, which dramatizes the Slánský show trial in Czechoslovakia, is all the more remarkable, given the leftist pedigree of many of the people behind the camera.
Costa-Gavras, still probably best known for his political thriller Z, has made a career out of dramatizing the brutalities of power. But like Marxism itself, his work should be evaluated on the basis of the results, not the intentions. And if a Z is heart-poundingly effective in dramatizing injustice, it still raises questions about how appropriate it is to use non-fictional politics as the basis for a thriller.
In The Confession, Costa-Gavras turns down the volume, although at a purely technical level, his film making is as sharp and imaginative as ever. The Confession’s low-key approach results from there being no real suspense in the situation and since much of the film is about Artur London’s (Yves Montand) interrogation, there is little justification for the restless forward movement that marks Costa-Gavras’s most rousing work. Instead, the film examines the evolution of a man’s political conscience.
It is moderately successful in that effort, but questions about the politics remain. Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, acknowledged as a chillingly accurate description of Stalinist horrors, makes clear that the torture to which London is subjected in the film, while certainly horrific, is nothing compared to what was inflicted on others as a matter of course. Which is not to suggest that Costa-Gavras should have made things worse than they were to make a point. It is only to recognize that by choosing this particular case of Stalinist brutality, the filmmakers can pull their punches—literally.
Montand does his best to externalize London’s change of heart, but he is hamstrung by the contradictory nature of the character’s development. For if The Confession is about the internalized guilt and shame that makes a dedicated Marxist confess to crimes he did not commit, the logical conclusion to result from that situation, to abandon a commitment to “the Party” and all it represents, is not dramatized, merely shown in flashes-forward to London years after the event. His crucial change of heart is elided, or better, evaded.
One suspects that Costa-Gavras and the other leftists on the film (including Montand, Simone Signoret, cinematographer Raoul Coutard and screenwriter Jorge Semprun) themselves had trouble reconciling what London’s story implies with their own political beliefs. Put simply, in political terms, The Confession is finally about how a Communist became a liberal. And that transformation seems to be the one thing that the filmmakers cannot quite accept, least of all in themselves.