Z (1969), Costa-Gavras [4.5/5]
Updated: Nov 27, 2022
A Ballad of Liberal Democracy & the Tendrils of Glass Tyrants...
In the port city of Thessaloniki in 1963, a high profile political assassination of one Grigoris Lambrakis sparked an about-face in Greek politics and a brief resurgence of their Left. Six years later, director Costa-Gavras (Missing, State of Siege, The Confession) portrayed this murder and subsequent resistance movement in his film Z starring Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Irene Papas. While an exhibition of great character writing in its own right, the film Z and the events it portrays mark a watershed in the history of Greek authoritarianism. While other political films like Come and See (1985) and The Battle of Algiers (1966) have exposed the evils of fascism and colonial occupation respectively, Z might be the the most resounding rallying cry in support of liberal democracy ever put to screen. Yet Z (1969) is most unique for portraying how despotic governments weaponize homegrown reactionaries for state violence under the guise of organic unrest.
As I showed in my review for Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N., politics has always been a potent yet tricky subject in filmmaking. If a movie’s message is too centered on a political outcome, it verges on propaganda and loses its complexity, as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Triumph of the Will (1935) demonstrate. It takes a learned filmmaker with a particular finesse and command of history like Costa-Gavras to capture politics without reducing the artistic capacity of a movie.
The historical figure at the center of the picture, Grigoris Lambrakis, was an independent left-wing MP (member of Hellenic Parliament), leader in the Greek resistance to Axis rule during World War II, and activist of nuclear disarmament in the 60s. In ‘63, Lambrakis commenced an antinuclear walk from Marathon to Athens. On May 22nd, Lambrakis delivered a keynote speech to a crowd of anti-war demonstrators in Thessaloniki before he was assassinated by two far-right extremists aided by the city’s gendarmerie. Struck in the head with a club, Lambrakis died shortly after of brain injuries in the hospital. His death sparked an investigation and national story that historians claim shifted the tides of political favor to decide the Prime Minister’s victory of the Center Union's Georgios Papandreou over the National Radical Union's Konstantinos Karamanlis later that year in the November elections.
In Parties and Elections in Greece: The Search for Legitimacy, historian Richard Clogg says that, “While no one suggested that Karamanlis [the Prime Minister] was directly implicated in the affair, opposition allegations of the existence of an illegal ‘para-state,’ prepared to engage in the violent suppression of any kind of left-wing dissent, acquired a new credence.” This occurred only four years before Greek’s “Regime of the Colonels,” a 1967 far-right authoritarian military junta that overthrew Papandreou’s soon-to-be elected government in favor of a dictatorship infamous for the imprisonment, torture, and exile of its political detractors. Yet before this junta, the anti-war resistance saw a brief heyday.
Gavras opens the film with The General, the chief of the military police played by a menacingly mustachioed Pierre Dux (Is Paris Burning?, Goodbye Again), addressing a room of Greek officers on an ideological "mildew" infecting their country. He claims the “-isms” (by which he means socialism, anarchism, communism, and general political opposition to authoritarian nationalism) are threatening the fabric of society. To combat this, the state will influence the lower schools, the universities and young workers, and the military to snuff these ideas out before they germinate in broader society. He claims to do so in the name of democracy, ignoring that his measures necessitate a police state.
Gavras then shows an amphitheater where Matt, a protest organizer played by a dutiful and cautious Bernard Fresson (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Belle de Jour), argues with the owner of the theater who says he can no longer hold an anti-war rally there and must leave. Matt suspects this sudden cancellation is because of outside pressure, but when he asks the owner, the man denies it before peering over to an eavesdropping plainclothesman. This is the first of many undercover thugs in Z — a secret police reminiscent of Ceausescu’s Securitate — who secure the state’s interests through tradecraft, blackmail, and murder. In the following scene, protagonist Z arrives by plane and joins up with his group of anti-establishment pacifist intellectuals who are planning the rally. He is never referred to as Grigoris Lambrakis in the film, but any reader of Greek history will immediately recognize the parallels. Z’s actor, Yves Montand (The Wages of Fear, Le Cercle Rouge), is a sort of French-Italian Cary Grant for his ability to balance easy elegance and man-of-action pluck, and he is the source of the movie’s lofty heroism.
Z and his colleagues meet with The Colonel, the head of security played by a wonderfully dimwitted Julien Guiomar (The Milky Way, Léolo), who concocts an excuse about the meeting hall not complying with safety standards before he shuts it down. Later, as demonstrators hand out fliers to inform participants of the venue change, plainclothesmen show up to wreak havoc on the protesters and destroy their signs with billy clubs. Without articulating it, Gavras has shown the viewer the existence of a secret police, the suppression and censorship of anti-government assemblies, and state violence against law-abiding citizens.
Brilliantly Gavras avoids geographical details to universalize the politics of the film: most of the actors speak French, the political parties and historical figures aren’t specified, and the shooting location Algiers remains a clever stand-in for Thessaloniki with its Mediterranean architecture, bustling fig markets, and vintage three-wheelers and Volkswagens. A cultural diversity similar to Thessaloniki’s animates its streets set to a background of blue Mediterranean vistas; although Gavras didn’t shoot in Thessaloniki, he certainly captured the essence of the port city (coincidently, the other best political drama of the decade, Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, was also shot in the capital of Algeria).
The main conflict arc of the film begins at the rally itself. When Z enters the city square outside the venue, his magnanimous presence parts the crowd as Mikis Theodoraki's (Serpico, Zorba the Greek) score thumps with an unnerving tension. Before Z can get safely inside, he is struck in the head by an anti-communist protestor. Somehow, he continues inside and broadcasts his speech about nuclear disarmament through the PA system to the city square outside. He advocates for his followers to reveal the truth and resist the corrupt state. “We lack hospitals and doctors, but half the budget goes for military expenditures… A single cannon is fired and a teacher’s monthly salary goes up in smoke.” He even calls out state violence directly, saying that the government employs hired thugs to “shout us down and attack us” before condemning the “destructive power of stockpiled nuclear warheads [which equal] a ton of dynamite for each person.”
As Z exits the hall, the sympathetic crowd applauds and shouts, “Down with the police state! No more foreign bases!” It is a heroic, catalyzing moment, like the shouts for liberty that rang out during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Peace signs abound, reminiscent of the contemporaneous U.S. countercultural movement and its stance against the Vietnam War. But soon, the scene turns nightmarish as two extremists Yago and Vago, played by Renato Salvatori (Rocco and His Brothers, Big Deal on Madonna Street) and Marcel Bozzuffi (The French Connection, Images) respectively, speed into the crowd atop a three-wheeled vehicle. They strike Z in the head with a club and he is sent to the hospital with a major brain injury.
His sorrowed wife, played by a steel-faced Irene Papas (Don't Torture a Duckling, The Guns of Navarone), arrives in Thessaloniki and learns that her husband is barely clinging to life. Scenes of their bygone affections play in her head, and she laments from her hotel room. When demonstrators gather outside the hotel, they paint a rebellious white “Z” on the street before they are chased off and beaten by police. More than just the protagonists’ name in the canon of the film, the eponymous Z translates to “he lives” in Ancient Greek. Although Z’s death is certain, his words of liberty and democracy will inspire generations of Greeks, echoing Z’s values throughout history.
Meanwhile, in a government building, The General spins the story and tries to portray the Z assassination as an accidental hit-and-run manslaughter. He orders spies to watch over the rest of the anti-war group and monitor their activity. He also makes anti-Semitic remarks about the lawyer in the group, saying that a half-Jew is the worst kind because they feel superior to other Jews. This anti-Semitism is shared by the group, implying such prejudices as the establishment view in the right-wing state of 1960s Greece.
Later, when the public prosecutor from Athens, played by a nervous François Périer (Le Samourai, Nights of Cabiria), attends a meeting where they debrief the incident, he is shocked to hear there are Chinese merchants in the city. When an officer mentions that the culprit’s getaway car was a three-wheeled Japanese hauler, the prosecutor says, “This is like the Far East” and gets a few chuckles from the room. This comment reinforces the idea of an ethnically and culturally diverse Thessaloniki (or Algiers) in contrast to the right-wing party's interests. It is a tension that exists throughout the film: the nationalism and homogeneity of the state versus the humanism and heterogeneity of the city and Z’s movement.
But it is not until the introduction of the varnisher Nick, played by a stubbornly heroic Georges Géret (Diary of a Chambermaid, A Quiet Place in the Country), that the audience understands the extent of the state's tendrils in private life. Nick, a witness to Z’s assassination, goes to testify that it was indeed a murder. On his way, Nick is struck in the head by a van of thugs, falls unconscious, and is prevented from testifying. The General and The Colonel arrive at his bedside as he wakes in a hospital and tell him this too was an accident; he knows they are censoring him. Despite pressure from those around him (his mother, sister, and governmental officials) to keep quiet, Nick remains intent to reveal the truth of the murder.
When his mother asks him who the extremists murdered, he says a deputy of the opposition and she replies, “He did right.” Gavras is suggesting that among even average people across the class spectrum (those not involved in the government), there is an anti-opposition, suppressive urge that wishes to see people like Z dead or at least sidelined. They are explained away as communists or troublemakers, and silenced under the guise of patriotism. Beyond grand political aims, characters like Nick’s mother and sister merely want to avoid the attention of the state that might bring trouble to their family. Nick’s mother pleads with him to lie and claim that he slipped on an orange peel because she fears the oppressive power of the military police and its thugs, and doesn’t think the truth is worth suffering their violence.
Nick even accuses his sister and her husband (a policeman) of joining the right-wing party to get jobs, an accusation which his sister does not deny. Meanwhile, the viewer learns that a fig merchant, played by a thuggish but earnest Gérard Darrieu (Elevator to the Gallows, My American Uncle), was blackmailed by The Colonel into striking a man in the opposition (one of Z’s colleagues) with the threat of having his permit revoked if he refused. It seems the coercion of the police state bleeds into nearly every sector of private society, from a mother’s relationship with her son, a woman’s with her job and her husband, and a shopkeeper with his livelihood and permit to sell on the street. Greek strong men like The General and The Colonel use a Kafkaesque network and panopticon to control the minutiae of everyday lives; documentaries like One Child Nation and The Exiles corroborate a similar portrait of Chinese autocracy while 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days portrays its Romanian manifestation. This corruption of 20th Century Greek nationalists might not be as punchy or megalomaniacal as Stalin’s or Mao's rule, but if this isn’t totalitarianism, then what is?
It's not until the last act that Gavras reveals the motives of the two extremists Yago and Vago. Gavras takes the viewer inside a meeting of their underground nationalist club known as the Christian Royalist Organization against Communism (CROC). In the meeting, a group leader declares they stand for patriotism, monarchy, and religion, “the pillars of our eternal homeland and Western Christian civilization.” This is not far from what one can find in the BAPist wing of the New Right, the so-called "neoclassical reactionaries" with Greek statue profile pictures on Twitter who criticize the loss of beauty and strength in the modern West and hark back to Hellenism. A watered down version of this Western chauvinism mixed with inflammatory rabble-rousing can be seen in the Proud Boys. The film's CROC is based on the real history of the The Northern Greek Society of Combatants and Victims of the National Resistance, a club founded in 1960 by Nazi collaborator Xenophon Giosmas.
The CROC members make war on “corruption, liberalism, and indiscriminate liberties!” and one of their first targets is a bookstore down the street. They are portrayed as a dim-witted club of disenfranchised traditionalists from the working class. "We need to be unified, and in order to be unified we must make a clean sweep,” they say. “Let’s start with intellectual scum.” Soon the audience learns that this neighborhood club is being weaponized by the state for their political goals. Nick, the injured varnisher who wishes to testify for Z, says that “the cops use them to keep order during state visits” and it is soon revealed that Yago and Vago’s assassination of Z was orchestrated by the state police, including The Colonel and The General. This club supplies the state with their thugs and rabble-rousers who they can sic on the opposition and their demonstrations.
In Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism, Seymour Lipset writes, "realization that authoritarian predispositions and ethnic prejudice flow more naturally from the situation of the lower classes than from that of the middle and upper classes in modern industrial society has posed a tragic dilemma for those intellectuals of the democratic left who once believed the proletariat necessarily to be a force for liberty, racial equality, and social progress." The beliefs of the film's CROC members certainly corroborate this.
In the end, The Magistrate, played by a cunning Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, Amour), charges all of them, even The General, with first-degree murder before they are disgraced by photojournalists. Z’s colleague, Matt, revels at the indictment of the military police, saying “it’s a real revolution. The government will fall. The extremists will be swept away. The elections will be a landslide victory.” But a realistic political drama like this surely doesn’t have a fairytale ending. In the next scene, a journalist covering the trial tells the viewer that almost everyone guilty escaped justice or did very little time. The General and The Colonel were merely “reprimanded” internally by the bureau. While the journalist is happy to report that the scandal led to the government’s resignation and the opposition united, “certain to win the elections,” he then tells the viewer that just weeks before the election, “the military seized power and dismissed the magistrate.”
Tragically, everyone involved in the opposition, all of Z’s friends and colleagues, were either killed or exiled. The military regime even banned miniskirts, Sophocles, the freedom of the press, Tolstoy, pop music, and the letter Z which symbolizes Z’s heroic call for freedom ("He Lives!").
The closing credits are ushered in by a triumphant but solemn score by composer Theodorakis. Gavras lionizes Z, and by extension the political hero Lambrakis, as a troubadour of liberal democracy in age of vengeful tyrants; even those highly critical of liberalism and its decadence will be roused by the heroism of Gavras' film.4.5/5.
Four years after the release of the film, Greece’s “Regime of the Colonels” shackled the country to a military junta, but in 1974, democracy returned to its birthplace in Greece. Today Greece remains a parliamentary democratic republic. For Lambrakis’ legacy, the Marathon Peace March continues to this day, calling for the pursuit of education over war and the vigilant protection of truth and democracy.