"I consider myself a storyteller who tells stories through the images," director Costa-Gavras said in a discussion with director Bill Duke following a screening of Gavras' Amen.
Costa-Gavras said that his love for films stemmed from his childhood. "I grew up watching movies, first in Greece as a boy, and then I went to France. I went very quickly, to the French Cinematheque and discovered other kinds of movies — I discovered that the cinema was something different."
Once he began making movies, Costa-Gavras also discovered that "a movie is a passion. You cannot spend two, three, or four years with a story, a movie, from the writing to presenting it, without really having a passion for it."
While Amen concentrates on the Holocaust, only three deaths are shown on screen, yet Costa-Gavras manages to leave his audience with a feeling they have witnessed the deaths of millions. Viewers will probably never look at a train in the same way again having seen goods trains crisscrossing the screen throughout the movie, sometimes with doors open, at other times with doors closed — an incredibly powerful image.
Much like Hitchcock made audiences believe they had actually seen Janet Leigh stabbed in that famed Psycho shower scene, Costa-Gavras lets the audience fill in the blanks.
"I believe strongly that you have to trust the viewer. The average viewer can be very intelligent and understand what's happened and create their own images," he said. Familiar images from other films in the genre are also missing. "The decision was taken from the very beginning not to show the chambers, not to show the repression of the Jews and also not to show the Germans as we are used to seeing them in the movies — crazy people who were screaming, killing and clubbing and so forth — I tried to show them as human beings from the very beginning."
One reason Costa-Gavras moved away from the familiar was because he said, "I don't believe I can re-create that horror. Probably other directors can do it, I always thought it was something unbelievable to recreate."
Despite the inclusion of a real-life SS officer and other historical incidents, Costa-Gavras insisted, "This film for me is really not an historical film, it's a kind of metaphor about our differences today in our societies. At the same time it's a film for speaking about resistance. The two main characters, for me, are very important because they resist under very, very complicated and difficult situations. Being part of the system, knowing what they learned, they immediately tried to do something against it, and I believe that resistance is one of the most important human things."
Taking historical fact and making it into an acceptable movie can cause problems, as Costa-Gavras acknowledged to Duke. "It's a permanent dilemma but I've always said, and I deeply believe it, a movie is not an historical book. It's not the history, it is not either the school or university speaking about history. A movie is a spectacle, and I try every time to be (conscious) with the ethical truthfulness of the period. This took place over four years, we see that period in two hours, so we cannot say that is history."
Costa-Gavras drew applause and gasps of amazement from the audience when he revealed his 65- to 66-day shooting schedule, complete with hundreds of actors, costumes and props and some exceptional sets had been accomplished on a $10 million budget. Costa-Gavras put it down to the location, Romania, and the fact that, despite requests to find name actors, he went with his own choices. "We would have less money (elsewhere)," he said. The film stars Ulrich Tukur and Matthieu Kassovitz because Costa-Gavras didn't want the usual British or American actors playing good guys, with German actors playing the bad guys. But that decision was only reached after long discussions with producers Claude Beri and Michelle Ray Gavras.
Almost reluctantly, he admitted he had to use special effects to attain a particular sequence where a train goes under a bridge, as a car crosses over it — a beautiful shot to watch but incredibly difficult to choreograph — and time consuming! "Unfortunately, I have the car, I have the bridge ... I have everything. But when I tried to make it, I understood very quickly I should spend one week," he says.
Costa-Gavras spent a year and a half working on the script with Jean-Claude Grumburg, which meant going through, "a lot of historical books." When he began assembling his production team, Costa-Gavras went for Patrick Blossier, his director of photography, "because it's a kind of very close collaboration, easy to be understood by him," but chose film newcomer Armand Amar for the Amen score. "He was doing music for a ballet. I heard his music and so I asked him if he wanted to work with me," he said.
Bill Duke concluded the evening by thanking Costa-Gavras, "for your courage and power as a filmmaker and your inspiration." But the 70-year- young director isn't giving up yet. He's already chosen his next project, though wouldn't reveal details, meaning that he still has the passion and desire to inspire audiences and fellow directors.