Stale Vichy Water

Special Section directed by Costa-Gavras at the Beacon Hill

THE DIFFERENCE between Special Section and Costa-Gavras's early masterpiece Z is the difference between being upset and being enraged. The earliest work is a classic in the genre of political filmaking. Its importance is explicit, topical; its purpose to instruct, inform, and hopefully, to change. In Z the ugly, brutal face of fascism is an easy target for the audience's hatred. Unfortunately, Costa-Gavras' latest film seems to have political intentions and somehow means to help us form a social opinion. Ultimately it does neither. Its topic of justice and collaboration in the Vichy regime is 35 years removed and hardly a live issue, doubly so because Vichy has no logical counterpart in our time. So we are left with a study of evil and the malpractice of government in the Southeast corner of France during the year 1941: a historical film rather than a political one. It makes us wiser but not a bit more opiniated.

Costa-Gavras is a skillful enough filmmaker that what he does present is well put together. The narrative begins in Paris with the assassination of a Nazi admiral by a group of communist members of the resistance. The action then switches to Vichy where the new Minister of the Interior--a Nazi sympathizer--tries to force through a tough plan of retribution for the admiral's death. "In order to set an example," six political prisoners will be executed under a "Special Section" of the new The "Special Section" gives the Ministry the power to use the new law retroactively, apply it to whomever they choose. This idea of retroactive legality offends the senses of some loyalist cabinet members--even some German occupation officers.

Costa-Gavras's sense of irony is sharp. A scene between two French officers and a German lieutenant has the French justifying the "Special Section" because "directives from the central government must be obeyed by the judiciary if the state is to remain strong. When evil is bold, good must be stronger," they argue. In a surprising position of devil's advocate, the German points out that this section violates traditional French legal thought based on Montesquieu's idea of separation of powers. The Nazi, in other words, argues the French side and the Frenchman sounds like a Nazi. This sad but true fact of history--that many Frenchmen sold their countrymen into the arms of the Nazis for the sake of their careers under what they believed would be a Nazi future in Europe--informs the conflict between collaborators and loyalists that runs throughout the film. When the fascist Minister of the Interior argues the importance of order in a "National Socialist state," the loyalist Minister of Justice angrily snaps back, "you mean Kraut!"

Loyalists obviously don't count for too much in Vichy because the plan is rammed down the judiciary's throat. Eventually they have to find judges and prosecutors reactionary enough to preside over this mockery of justice. Charges severe enough to warrant execution must be drummed up on at least six people. It's an obvious sham and everybody realizes it--but no one has the guts to contradict orders from above. Only fascist sympathizers or unscrupulous self-serving careerists are willing to be involved with this travesty, and even some of these feel the weight of their consciences.

The irony mounts as the cases to be tried are randomly selected from among the folders of hundreds of political prisoners. Though none of them has been sentenced to more than five years, prosecutors rummage through tons of paper, choosing for death those folders that look appealing; "two Communists, two Anarchists and...two Jews. That's about right." An entirely random process decides the lives of six men.


THE WEAKNESS in this movie is that irony runs quite a bit thicker than plot and suspense. Once the machinery of the "Special Section" goes into motion--and this is fairly early on--the rest of the film is straightforward exposition. In an atmosphere heavy with injustice and guilt, six petty criminals predictably receive death sentences. Even some of the hard-boiled fascist sympathizers have moments of recrimination. But developments are few. Once the injustice of the justice system is clear, the movies hobbles along on sheer irony. There are some momentary setbacks in the judicial process when some of the judges recant, but they are quickly overruled by higher authorities.

Without any new additions to the plot, the pace of the movie slows down to a lugubrious, ponderous crawl. Here, Costa-Gavras has unwisely strayed from his style. His specialty is the fast-paced, linear form, where events are linked together in some exciting sequence and the movie moves forward by inertia. In Z, first the lingering fate of the seriously injured central figure, then the unexpected slant taken by the prosecutor kept the excitement up. Here, the tension dies long before the prisoners do. And the irony, predictably, becomes heavy-handed. The Latin motto "Justitia", inscribed in mosaic on the floor of the Palace of Justice in Vichy is shown over and over again--to the point where the audience's intelligence is insulted.

Attempts to supplement the wooden plot are ineffective. Flashbacks to the past lives of the six doomed men are too brief and superficial to seem anything but awkward. Glimpses of the judges' private lives serve only to show how little we know about them. So not only does the narrative sag badly, but the characters never rise above the level of faces in an important crowd. If Costa-Gavras could have involved the audience intimately by showing what happens in the judges' minds to cause their attitudes of collaboration--the events of injustice would have taken on a more human quality. A scanty plot would then have human underpinnings to compensate for its lack of suspense. As it is, we have neither psychology nor action--only irony, a weak substitute.

This is perhaps what comes of trying to dramatize history in the directors' swift, documentary style. Costas-Gavras can't change the facts to provide missing suspense. And the situation he has chosen has all the decisions made at the beginning, so that the rest flows painfully, but predictably. It has all the inexorability of Oepidus Rex but none of the suspense.

THE GREATEST irony in the movie comes from what happens after the movie ends--and it's the irony that's least exploited. One had assumed that only the most reactionary judges would serve under the Special Section law--as the events in the movie imply. But an explanatory paragraph flashed on the screen at the end informs us that most Vichy judges eventually served under the law, and that not six, but hundreds of people were executed under its jurisdiction. Worse, no action was taken against those judges after the war. Perhaps this would have been more worth filming--to show how the collapse of Vichy brought no punishment of its injustices, but simply condoned its colossal sell-out.

As it stands, the implications of the film live and die in 1941. Its political overtones never acquire palpable contemporary significance--which one senses is what Costa-Gavras was after but missed. The vitality and importance of a film like Z is lacking in Special Section. What happened in Vichy seems like a stale story; but what happened in Greece during the dictatorship was genuinely tragic. There's nothing really wrong with making more than one film about political repression, but in a world where political repression easily wins prizes for the most popular form of government, a director like Costa-Gavras should stick to contemporary situations suited to his style, and leave history alone.