Costa-Gavras was born in Loutra Iraias (Λουτρά Ηραίας), Arcadia. His family spent the Second World War in a village in the Peloponnese, and moved to Athens after the war. His father had been a member of the Pro-Soviet branch of the Greek Resistance, and was imprisoned during the Greek Civil War. His father's Communist Party membership made it impossible for Costa-Gavras to attend university in Greece or to be granted a visa to the United States, so after high school he went to France, where he began studying law in 1951.
In 1956, he left his university studies to study film at the French national film school, IDHEC. After film school, he apprenticed under Yves Allégret, and became an assistant director for Jean Giono and René Clair. After several further positions as first assistant director, he directed his first feature film, Compartiment Tueurs, in 1965.
His 1967 film Shock Troops (Un homme de trop) was entered into the 5th Moscow International Film Festival.
In Z (1969), an investigating judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, tries to uncover the truth about the murder of a prominent leftist politician, played by Yves Montand, while government officials and the military attempt to cover up their roles. The film is a fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. It had additional resonance because, at the time of its release, Greece had been ruled for two years by the "Regime of the Colonels". Z won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Costa-Gavras and co-writer Jorge Semprún won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Film Screenplay. L'Aveu (The Confession, direction, 1970) follows the path of Artur London, a Czechoslovakian communist minister falsely arrested and tried for treason and espionage in the Slánský 'show trial' in 1952.
State of Siege (1972) takes place in Uruguay under a conservative government in the early 1970s. In a plot loosely based on the case of US police official and alleged torture expert Dan Mitrione, an American embassy official (played by Yves Montand) is kidnapped by the Tupamaros, a radical leftist urban guerilla group, which interrogates him in order to reveal the details of secret American support for repressive regimes in Latin America.
Missing, originally released in 1982 and based on the book The Execution Of Charles Horman, concerns an American journalist, Charles Horman (played by John Shea in the film), who disappeared in the bloody coup led by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and backed by the United States in 1973. Horman's father, played by Jack Lemmon, and wife, played by Sissy Spacek, search in vain to determine his fate. Nathaniel Davis, US ambassador to Chile from 1971–1973, a version of whose character had been portrayed in the movie (under a different name), filed a US$150 million libel suit, Davis v. Costa-Gavras, 619 F. Supp. 1372 (1985), against the studio and the director, which was eventually dismissed. The film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation and the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Betrayed (1988), roughly based upon the terrorist activities of American neo-Nazi and white supremacist Robert Mathews and his group The Order.
In Music Box (1989), a respected Hungarian immigrant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is accused of having commanded an Anti-Semitic death squad during World War II. His daughter, a Chicago defense attorney played by Jessica Lange, agrees to defend him at his denaturalization hearing. The film is inspired by the arrest and trial of Ukrainian immigrant John Demjanjuk and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' realization that his father had been a member of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party. The film won the Golden Bear at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival.
La Petite Apocalypse (1993) was entered into the 43rd Berlin International Film Festival.
Amen. (2003), was based in part on the highly controversial 1963 play, Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy), by Rolf Hochhuth. The movie alleges that Pope Pius XII was aware of the plight of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, but failed to take public action to publicize or condemn the Holocaust.
Costa-Gavras is known for merging controversial political issues with the entertainment value of commercial cinema. Law and justice, oppression, legal/illegal violence, and torture are common subjects in his work, especially relevant to his earlier films. Costa-Gavras is an expert of the “statement” picture. In most cases, the targets of Costa-Gavras's work have been right-of-center movements and regimes, including Greek conservatives in and out of the military in Z, and right-wing dictatorships that ruled much of Latin America during the height of the Cold War, as in State of Siege and Missing.
In a broader sense, this emphasis continues with Amen. given its focus on the conservative leadership of the Catholic Church during the 1940s. In this political context, L'Aveu (The Confession) provides the exception, dealing as it does with oppression on the part of a Communist regime during the Stalinist period.
Costa-Gavras is a self-proclaimed communist.
Costa-Gavras has brought attention to international issues, some urgent, others merely problematic, and he has done this in the tradition of cinematic story-telling. Z (1969), one of his most well-known works, is an account of the undermining in the 1960s of democratic government in Greece, his homeland and place of birth. The format, however, is a mystery-thriller combination that transforms an uncomfortable history into a fast-paced story. This is a clear example of how he pours politics into plot, "bringing epic conflicts into the sort of personal conflicts we are accustomed to seeing on screen."
His accounts of corruption propagated, in their essence, by European and American powers (Z, State of Siege and Missing) highlight problems buried deep in the structures of these societies, problems which he deems not everyone is comfortable addressing. The approach he adopted in L'Aveu also "subtly invited the audience to a critical look focused on structural issues, delving this time into the opposite Communist bloc." Costa Gavras never worked in Greece and never made a film in Greek language.
Costa-Gavras has received an honorary doctorate from the Film School of the Aristotle University in 2013. He was president of the Cinémathèque Française from 1982 to 1987, and again since 2007.
He was interviewed extensively by The Times cultural correspondent Melinda Camber Porter and was featured prominently in her book Through Parisian Eyes: Reflections on Contemporary French Arts and Culture (1993, Da Capo Press).
He received the Magritte Honorary Award at the 3rd Magritte Awards.
He is a first cousin of recording artist Jimmie Spheeris, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, and musician Chris Spheeris. His daughter Julie Gavras and his son Romain Gavras are also filmmakers. He is a distant relative of actor Jordan Gavaris who is best known for Orphan Black and Jasper Bartlett on the action/adventure series Unnatural History for Cartoon Network and in his latest film, The Sea of Trees.The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartiment Tueurs) (1965)
Shock Troops (Un homme de trop) (1967)
Z (1969) winner of the 1969 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
L'Aveu (The Confession) (1970)
State of Siege (État de siège) (1972)
Section spéciale (Special Section) (1975)
Womanlight (Clair de femme) (1979)
Missing (1982) winner of the 1982 Palme d'Or
Hanna K. (1983)
Family Business (1986)
Music Box (1989)
La Petite Apocalypse (La Petite Apocalypse) (1993)
Lumiere & Company (Lumière et compagnie) (segment) (1995)
Mad City (1997)
The Axe (Le Couperet) (2005)
Mon colonel (2006) only writer and producer
Eden in West (Eden à l'ouest) (2009)
Capital (Le Capital) (2012)
"Madame Rosa" (1977)
"Spies Like US" (1985)