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Costa-Gavras on politics, cinema and his new movie

Hans Christoph von Bock
September 28, 2019

The new film from Costa-Gavras about the Greek financial crisis, 'Adults in the Room,' will celebrate its Greek premiere on September 29. The film is based on the book by former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis.

Costa Gavras
Image: Hellas Filmbox

The new film from Costa-Gavras about the Greek financial crisis, Adults in the Room, has its Greek premiere on September 29. The film is based on the book of the same name by the former Greek finance minister and political dissident, Yanis Varoufakis, which recounts the strained circumstances around the 2015 Greek financial bail-out.

Costa-Gavras is the winner of two Oscars for Z (1969) and Missing (1982). With this new movie, he has created a furious, insightful and at times funny political thriller centering around the audacious Varoufakis. The veteran Greek director aims to offer some explanation of a financial world gone mad — and one of the worst crises to emerge out of the EU financial crisis. DW asked the director a few questions about the new film.

DW: Adults in the Room is based on the non-fiction book by Yanis Varoufakis. What made you think that this book would make a good movie?

Costa-Gavras: The book had a strong main character speaking about a specific period of time and what happened to him. It was really helpful that Varoufakis had made a lot of recordings and a lot of notes. So I was able to verify everything he says in the book by reading his speeches and by listening to what others have said. 

Europawahl 2019 Kandidaten Yanis Varoufakis
Yanis Varoufakis in May 2019, during his European elections campaign as leader of the anti-establishment party MeRA25 Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Gouliamaki

In your other movies you often take the perspective of ordinary people to show how dictatorships function, for example in Latin America. Why did you change the perspective in Adults in the Room?

There are two main characters in the movie: Greece and Europe. Each defends their side forcibly, aggressively and, in my opinion, violently. And in a way I think that everyone is right. Even people who look like the bad guys are right because they're defending something very serious.

The German finance minister, [Wolfgang] Schäuble, is a good example. He doesn't trust the Greeks, or the old Greeks at least. There are new, up-and-coming people who he listens to, but their ideas are completely divorced from reality — so he becomes very negative. 

He also knows that other Greek governments have cheated for years so he believes he is defending the euro. In fact, he is essentially defending the European economy and the German economy. So for me there are no good guys and no bad guys. Everyone defends their own ideas and the things that are important to them. That's very important in the movie: there are no good guys or bad guys.

Read morePolitical thriller master Costa-Gavras honored by European Film Academy

Does that mean there are no winners at the end?

No, there are no winners. Everyone loses something. What we really lose is a strong Europe. We cannot have a Europe only made up of economic problems. You really have to look at the personal stories because everything that happened in this period, like trying to bring Greece out of debt, really didn't change anything. It was very negative for most people. The debt is still there, higher than ever before — and the people are still suffering. Nobody speaks about the 500,000 people with degrees who left. Lots of them went to Germany, the USA, Canada, and they will never come back. This is a huge loss for Greece. And the majority are still living in a terrible situation. 

Is Yanis Varoufakis a hero?

No. He is not a hero for me. He is someone who is able to speak about those times and he writes very well. And he has a lot of experience. I don't touch his personal life, I don't touch who he really is. He is there for one reason only: to defend Greece.

Adults in the Room is shot like a political thriller and told in a realistic way. But you also put in a few grotesque, absurd scenes like a dance of the European Commission with Alexis Tsipras.

When I'm making a movie, I'm making a show. And I'm trying to say things in the show. It's not an academic speech. It's not for the politicians. It's a show! I'm trying to tell stories. The dancing scene is a good example. They were trying to convince Alexis Tsipras to vote and the negotiations lasted the whole night. Nobody knows exactly what was said. So the only way to show that was by creating a dance scene: an elegant cinematic solution; a metaphor. 

Former Greek prime minister Alex Tsipris
Former Greek prime minister Alex TsiprasImage: picture-alliance/dpa/ZUMAPRESS/Wire/Eurokinissi

And the thing with the fish? Tsipras feeling like a swordfish on the hook?

The fish scene was a metaphor too. This is something the prime minister said. I was surprised that a prime minister would compare himself to a swordfish. In a way, it really is tragic. Where is the power? Where is the democracy? That's what these details are really about. 

So Greece suffered under the "the dictatorship of austerity" imposed by Germany?

In 2010 the Germans sold submarines to Greece. And what did they do so they could sell them? They paid the minister. One of them even went to prison later. So I think they were really not very nice — the European countries, I mean. And also because they knew after 2005-07 [Greek debt crisis] that the debt was so bad they should really get rid of it. That would mean not selling the debt on, but trying to find solutions. They did let it go, but after a while they discovered — all the Europeans, but particularly the Germans — that they had to stop it. It was just too high. 

The production of Adults in the Room
"Adults in the Room" in productionImage: K.G. Productions/J. Forde

As Varoufakis said, "You cannot spend more on the debt than the country's income."

You know that managing the economy of a country is like managing the economy of a house: You make a lot of money in a year. Let's say $50,000 every year. You cannot spent $100,000. It's impossible. After a while it will come back to bite you.

What is your hope for Greek people now?

The Greek government and the European government will find solutions to get out of the prison which debt is. This debt —Madame Lagarde [former IMF chief] says it several times in the movie — simply cannot be paid. "There is not enough money in Greece unless you sell everything. So you have to … I don't know how, but you have to find a solution for that." Because the debt is going up every year.

Gavras' Oscar-winning film Z
Gavras' Oscar-winning film "Z"Image: picture-alliance/United Archiv

You've been in the film industry for decades. What do you think the future of cinema will be like?

Cinema is going through a huge revolution. Look what's happening with Netflix, for example. A positive part of this is that everyone can watch movies. Everyone in their own homes, in small villages or big cities, everywhere. And we don't pay much money, which wasn't possible before. On the other hand, this means the movies are hidden away and can be forgotten about very quickly. You don't hear anything about them again and it's difficult to find out information like how many people have watched those movies. That is the negative part of services like Netflix. 

But on the plus side: everyone can make a movie. If you have a camera and a couple of friends you can make a movie. 

What do you want the viewers of Adults in a Room to take home?

That's up to them. I don't want to teach them. I tell stories in my movies just like I would with friends: I just tell the story, I don't tell them when to laugh. It's exactly like that as a director. We ask questions about this and that. And if we have good questions, then that's even better. We don't have the solutions.