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Master of the political thriller, filmmaker Costa-Gavras shines in Berlin

Greek-French director Constantin Costa-Gavras released "Z" in 1968 which became a global hit and transformed an entire genre. Now, the 83-year old is an honorary guest at the festival Hellas Filmbox in Berlin.

He has never forgotten his home country. That's why Greek-French director Constantin Costa-Gavras is likely to enjoy being an honorary guest at the second edition of the film festival Hellas Filmbox, which takes place from January 18-22 in Berlin. The festival is devoted to the contemporary film scene in Greece - almost a guarantee for controversial discussions. For years, the country has been entrenched in a deep economic crisis and fraught with divisions. 

Costa-Gavras was born in February 1933 in the province of Arcadia - a region surrounded by many myths that, a long time ago, came to be seen as a synonym for life beyond all sorrows and worries in Europe. In his later work, Costa-Gavras expressed a great deal of concern for the fate of various peoples suffering under military regimes, as well as the personal consequences of oppression for individuals. Living without worries in Arcadia was certainly not one of his preferred topics. 

A new life in France

During the World War II, Costa-Gavras' father, a communist, fought against the German occupying army in Greece only to see himself oppressed by the Greek state in the post-war era. All that affected the life of his son. In 1954, Konstantínos Gavrás left his home country and immigrated to France where he changed his name to Constantin Costa-Gavras. After studying literature and film, he assisted various famous French film directors. Two years later, he became a citizen of the "Grande Nation" and made his debut as a director in 1965.

The young director Constantin Costa-Gavras with his stars Irene Papas and Yves Montand during the US premiere of Z (AP)

The young director with his stars Irene Papas and Yves Montand during the US premiere of "Z"

He then directed numerous political thrillers featuring the world's most acute crisis regions like military dictatorships in South America and Europe, the Middle East conflict, the Holocaust, as well as challenges facing modern democracies, including racism and anti-Semitism. Even later in life, Costa-Gavras remained committed to political and social causes. His latest films dealt with the global financial crisis and the refugee crisis.

Honorary guest at Berlin festival

Now Costa-Gavras has come to Berlin as an honorary guest of the festival Hellas Filmbox, which is devoted to the contemporary film scene in his crisis-ridden home country. Costa-Gavras is expected to answer some interesting questions from the audience. "Political films continue to be made and be regarded as important," according to festival organizers, "But what about the thesis that basically all art, including film, is always political?"

Costa-Gavras was always a politically committed filmmaker who made an effort to attract a mainstream audience. He always worked with international stars, made use of dramaturgical tricks and suspense - and some have regularly criticized him for that.

The filmmaker sacrifices his themes to conventional Hollywood aesthetics, critics have claimed. Left-wing activist degraded him for making popular movies. At the other end of the spectrum of politically committed film makers in the late 1960s and the 1970s was Jean-Luc Godard. General audiences, however, rather went for the much acclaimed director Costa-Gavras, and many of his films became box office hits.

Costa Gavras (Hellas Filmbox)

Costa-Gavras at work

The Greek-born director also worked in film procurement. Back in the 1980s, he headed the legendary "Cinémathèque Française" in Paris for some time, which he took charge of again in 2017.

Questions directed at political films

Do we really still need political films, and how can they impact our world nowadays? That's a question to which the festival Hellas Filmbox aims to find an answer. Another question is: Do film makers have a "mission" when they produce political films? Does that mission justify a bad film, and which criteria should be applied to political films nowadays?

These are the questions that the festival organizers are likely to ask Costa-Gavras during the next few days. It's equally likely is that he answers will be as entertaining and suspenseful as his films.

The festival Hellas Filmbox takes place in Berlin from January 18-22. A total of 56 films, movies, short films and documentaries will be shown. There will also be prizes as well as side shows dealing with topics like "The Holocaust of Greek Jews/Greece under German Occupation." A photo exhibition devoted to Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who died in 2012, will round off the festival organized by Sandra von Ruffin. DW is the media partner of Hellas Filmbox, which takes place this year in cooperation with the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki and the Athens International Film Festival.

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