Z (1969) Costa-Gavras

July 5, 2008 at 12:43 am

Z, a 1969 Algerian-French production by director Costa-Gavras, is almost universally recognized as ‘the’ classical political thriller. My decision to talk about this film in the context of our current investigation on Balkan film and history may come across as a somewhat contentious choice. However, I believe that the film is particularly suitable to discuss here. For two reasons. First, the film Z has been seen more widely than many of the Balkan films I could talks about instead (that reflect on similar matters) and is still widely used as a classical text in the teaching and discourse on political cinema. Secondly, precisely because the film so successfully transfers the place of action from Thessaloniki to an unnamed North African country, it allows me to make some more general points on issues of violence and totalitarianism, which are endemic to the Balkans. I am choosing this film also because it presents violence and political corruption that is directed against the left forces and thus allows me to making an important point: it Is not only the communists who engaged in gross human rights violations and political terror across the Balkans after WWII, this type of behavior was characteristic for various other political parties across the board.

Z is a Greek film in many respects. Based on a 1966 novel by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos and is adapted for the screen by Greek émigré director Constantin Costa-Gavras. It stars Greek actress Irene Papas and features a memorable musical score by famous Greek composer and leftist activist, Mikis Theodorakis.

Most of all, the story of Z (the novel and the film) relates to real events — the assassination of Greek leftist pacifist leader Grigoris Lambrakis in May 1963 in Thessaloniki and the subsequent scrupulous investigation. Lambrakis died as a result of the attack he sustained from two right-wing vandals who run him over with a delivery truck in the aftermath of a large political rally. His death led to civil unrest and triggered an inquiry by the prosecution, which gradually exposed a system of corrupt police and army officials who had maintained close ties with paramilitary extremists, thus confirming the perception that the government itself had been behind the assassination.

I still remember the visceral reaction that the description of the brutal violence and rude verbal abuse to which Lambrakis’ was subjected triggered in me when I read Vassilikos’ novel many years ago (this was also the first time when I realized that being called ‘Bulgarian’ could mean an offense). What remained prevalent in my memories of the novel was the gut-wrenching description of merciless thuggish violence, one that I have since come to think about as being endemically prevalent in the region’s political history. (The accounts of brutality and extreme cruelty in the assassination of the popular leftist agrarian party leader Aleksandar Stamboliyski in Bulgaria in 1923 are yet another such well-known episode of vicious show-down encouraged by right-wingers in power.)

Even if Z, the film, takes place in an unnamed country, is no secret today that it is all about Greece. But back then, in 1969, with the right-wing military junta in power, it had been an act of political bravery to make it (it was, no wonder, banned in Greece), and to identify precisely which is the incident that it depicts. At the very opening of Z, the viewers are told that “any resemblance to real people and events is purely intentional.” In response to criticism claiming that the film commercialized and simplified the Lambrakis affair, Costa-Gavras is said to have reacted: “That’s the way it is in Greece. Black and White. No nuances.” And indeed, it is probably this head-on manner of tackling the brutality and viciousness of Balkan politics, with all its ugly methods of silencing people, its intolerance, and its media and police complicity, that makes Z such a universally important text in the history of political cinema.

Not only is the likeness identified as ‘intentional’ or ‘deliberate’, but one can easily come across references that identify other historical personages besides Lambrakis. The prototype of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character, the conscious prosecutor Christos Sartzetakis was eventually arrested by the junta, imprisoned, and tortured, according to the Greek culture web-site Plaka. Later on, in 1982 he was appointed to the Greek Supreme Court in 1982 and a few years later proposed by PASOK for the presidency of Greece, a capacity in which he served in the period 1985-1990. Another protagonist, known as ‘the Tiger’ who was instrumental in exposing the assassination, had become a folk legend in Greece. Someone posting on the imdb from Greece insists that the assassination of Lambrakis did, in fact, leave deep traces on Greece’s political life (and not, as the film suggests, did not shatter the prevailing cynical brutishness). It triggered the resignation of the then prime minister Karamanlis and led to a short-lived opposition triumph in 1963-1965, which was later followed by the junta coming to power in 1967 (Vassilikos’s novel was already published by the time, but composer Mikis Theodorakis, who had been a follower of Lambrakis, had to go into internment just about the time he composed the musical score for the film). So, the user (gletzes) claims, something did change in Greece in reality, whereas the film shows a complete stagnation in an overtly pessimistic tone. But then, as the junta was in power at the time of the film’s making, it was probably ‘proper to make the film bleaker than the true events’ the writer concludes.

The novel had been written and published in Greece, but, provided the military coup of 1967 made it impossible to make a Lambrakis-themed film at home, as the original intention might have been. However, it is precisely the circumstances that imposed the need for a transnational reworking of the theme that supplied the film’s universal importance. The novel, even if translated in many languages, remains a Greek-interest one. The film became a classic of its genre, contributing a general commentary that would apply to many more countries and contexts. Adapted for the screen with the assistance of Spanish republican exile Jorge Semprún, who brought in his own perspective on treacherous overt and covert political violence aimed at his fellow-leftists in Spain, it was taken as a post-factum commentary on aspects of the civil war. Financed and shot in newly emancipated Algeria made it easy to discover links with issues of the state-sponsored political violence directed against independence fighters from the colonies. Released at the time of extensive political oppression in the countries of Central Eastern Europe, it was assumed to comment the political situation in the Soviet camp.

Keeping in mind all these complex circumstances, it is important to point out that Z qualifies as a classical example not only of political but also of exilic cinema (Naficy). Even though it is financed by French and Algerian sources and shot on location in Algeria, Z is a work driven by concerns that characterize the discourse of exile where the link with one’s country of origin and the longing for reconnection is very strong yet a return is ruled out. And indeed, it is the exilic position of several of the key figures involved in the making of the film that is most important in the case of Z. The film’s director had left Greece consciously at a very young age in search of opportunities he would never have at home due to the political convictions of his father. Writer Vassilikos, composer Theodorakis and actress Papas, along with outspoken Greek actress Melina Mercouri and her husband-director Jules Dassin, were all adversaries of the junta in Greece, where their work was banned over certain periods.

Born in 1933 in a Greek leftist family that was affected by the anti-communist status quo in the aftermath of WWII, Costa-Gavras emigrated to France at 18 and never looked back; he thinks of himself as French director and has fully enjoyed the freedom of speech granted under the French constitution. While Z is his first foray into political filmmaking, later on he developed a profile as one of the most committed political cineastes working transnationally, having made films about various aspects of political oppression, having condemned both right and left-wing extremists, and having based his work almost always on real events. His L’Aveu (The Confession, 1970) was released in the aftermath of Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion and exposes the staged communist trials in the Czech republic. His Uruguay-set État de siège (State of Siege, 1972) and Chile-set Missing (1982) put state- and internationally-sponsored political abductions, torture, and assassinations under relentless scrutiny. Costa-Gavras’ filmmaking career seems driven by what I see as an ultimately exilic resolve to exposing those who resort to subverting the justice system and use covert violence as a means of curbing on a democratic dialogue and a free public sphere.

Making the film in Algeria has come more or less by accident, as the director has testified in his 2003 interview with Ian Christie. From the onset the intention has been to focus openly on the Lambrakis incident, to denounce the junta and expose the political reality of Greece. Such a project, however, proves nearly impossible to fund. The idea to consider filming in newly emancipated Algeria comes at a point when the project is nearly shelved; Raoul Coutard, Godard’s committed leftist cinematographer and a veteran of the French war in Indo-China, is brought on board. Early on into the shoot, parallels between the political reality in Greece of 1963 and the recent history of newly emancipated Algeria begin coming across loud and clear. Gradually realizing the universal importance of the theme, Costa-Gavras soon knows he is making

‘a movie about that system where the country’s democracy stops or is completely controlled by… lets start from the palace, and then the army, and then even some parts of the justice is part of that system. And then everything is possible. And what’s also extraordinary in that story, because everything is true, there’s no fiction in there, except very little things here and there.’

In the same interview, the director testifies that Z was made completely independently from Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, as the film had been banned in France at the time and he had not had the chance to see it.
The film shows the assassination of the unnamed protagonist (played by Yves Montand), the subsequent media frenzy to which the wife of the victim (Papas) responds with withdrawal, and then the investigation by the principled magistrate (Jean-Louis Tringtignant) and the corrupt moves toward a cover up of his findings. Edwin Jahiel’s Usenet review identifies a range of overt references which confirm that the unnamed country is ‘patently and transparently Greece’: police uniforms, the portraits of the Greek King and Queen on the wall (‘with faces hidden by the reflection of lights on the glass frames’), and earlier on the sign ‘Hellas’, as well as a typewriter with Greek characters. And, in case it has not become clear, the closing statement takes all remaining doubt away: it lists an array of things currently banned by the junta in (from long hair on men, strikes and labor unions, through Chekhov and Trotsky, to Eugène Ionesco and Harold Pinter). The very title of the film, Z, for ‘Zee’ (‘he lives’), a Greek slogan, is meant to be a reference to the plea to keep alive the memory of those lost in the struggle.

Here is a compilation of important moments from the film, which, on the background of Theodorakis’ memorable muscial score, gives a good idea of the dynamic camera-and-editing work that make Z’s depiction of violence so visceral; there are also sequences that show the effective silencing of the victim’s wife (Irene Papas barely utters a few words throughout the film). The last minute and a half of the clip have an appendix featuring documentary photographs and footage related to the real-life assassination of Lambrakis.

Even if very different in style, political thuggery in the vein of Robert Rossen’s classic All the King’s Men (1949), is also in the focus of Z’s attention. Most other films that treat similar themes, except Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battaglia di Algeri (Battle of Algiers, 1966) and Haskel Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), seem to have been made later, especially those exposing complex political conspiracies, like Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990), and Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006). The influence of Costa-Gavras’ approach is evident across all these texts who have also acquired the status of classics.

Z has been referenced on numerous occasions in relation to the crackdown on leftists by various Latin American dictators throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Thus, starting from the remote corner of the Balkans where the original incident of ugly political violence had taken place, Z became a film of the importance that, like The Battle of Algiers, transcends the concrete and could be seen in direct relation to Latin American works such as Patricio Guzmán’s La Batalla de Chile (Battle of Chile, 1975-1979) or Héctor Olivera’s No habrá más penas ni olvido (Funny Dirty Little War, Argentina, 1983), but also as a film that is in dialogue with Algerian-themed films, from René Vautier’s Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (Being Twenty in the Aures, 1972) to Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005). An imdb user remarks:

‘I have read and even heard from people I know, that to watch “Z” was a kind of cathartic relief for them. I am talking about people who lived under fascist dictatorships like the Argentinian junta, or Chile under Pinochet fist, or Spain under Franco’s regime.’

One of the earliest reactions to the film is found in Roger Ebert’s review dated December 1969. He is probably the first critics who links Z to The Battle of Algiers by remarking that Z ‘is no more about Greece than The Battle of Algiers was about Algeria.’ To Ebert, both films have universal importance far beyond the concrete political assassination (even if the actual Lambrakis murder, having occurred just six years earlier, is still very fresh on people’s minds). In a tone that is not so typical for his later reviews, he calls it ‘a film of our time’ that shows ‘how even moral victories are corrupted’ by the rehabilitation of villains and the criminalization of those who struggle for justice, and makes parallel to American references such as the My Lai massacre and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Even though Z is proclaimed to be an ant-American film (at the time of the US release, the Greek junta enjoys the US support), in a daring move marked by the spirit of ‘68 it become the first film to be nominated by the Academy not only in the relatively obscure foreign language category, but also for the ‘best motion picture’ award. It wins the best foreign film prize and the one for editing, as well as a standing ovation at its Academy screening. (The most The Battle of Algiers had received was an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category.) LH Williams from Houston talks of the way the film’s distribution was curbed in the U.S. and of a condemnation originating from J. Edgar Hoover himself.

In spite the massive number of awards and the overwhelming evidence of the film’s importance, Z remains an unaccessible film. It had an American DVD release by Fox/Lorber (Wellspring) in 2002, which triggered a round of reviews, and there seems to have been a release from the Criterion collection (e.g. see reference in Jahiel’s revew). Strangely enough, however, acquiring a copy of the film today seems to be a challenging task. Second-hand VHS copies and DVDs sell for substantial amounts; an imdb user from Bolivia was boasting he got it for a dollar, while another one was setting his asking price at $500. The only piece (uncredited) piece of information on the imdb related to the film’s business sets the US video rentals revenues for Z at more than $7 million. A profitable film to be withdrawn from distribution, one wonders why companies would miss out on these revenues.

Z preceded the breakout period of new Greek filmmaking in 1971, which marked the arrival of directors such as Theo Angelopoulos and Pantelis Voulgaris. It is difficult to assess to what extent these directors, who were to address the controversial and difficult ordeal of post-WWII Greek political history, relate to Costa-Gavras and his Z, a film that they are certainly familiar with. When one reads the work of Greek critics, one is left with the feeling that Costa-Gavras’s style of flmmaking is considered as foreign here. A Greek political ‘noir’ from 1983, Ypodeia diadromi (Underground Passage, dir. Apostolos Doxiadis) which is clearly under the Costa-Gavras influence, has had a lukewarm reception in Greece, triggering ironical remarks from critics (see Zikos, for example). Films like Angelopoulos’ Oi Kynigoi (The Hunters, 1977) and Voulgaris’ Happy Day (1976) and Petrina hronia (Stone Years, 1985) address episodes related roughly to this same period and also expose a widespread political corruption and are considered as much more relevant to the country’s identiy discourse (see Dan Georgakas’ essay on Stone Years in Cinema of the Balkans). Yet, even if those Greek-made features have been embraced more closely by the Greeks than Z, in this line of filmmaking Z is a Balkan/Greek film as much as these other ones, all showing that the brutality of the approach is not inherent to the cause but it is intrinsic to moments where lesser political culture is allowed to dominate.

The main achievement of Zlies precisely in the fact that it raises out of the Greek context and ends up making general statements on political lawlessness and abuse. What may have been an accidental reaction of adjusting to the restrictive circumstances of exilic filmmaking supplies the main strength of the film which acquires intercultural qualities and allows for people from different cultures ro empathize with the story and see it as commentary on their own lives and struggles.


Georgakas, Dan. Petrina hronia/Stone Years. In: Iordanova, Dina (ed.) The Cinema of the Balkans (24 Frames). London: Wallflower Press, 200. pp. 217-224.
Michalczyk, John J. Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film. Philadelphia: Art Alliance. 1984
Stone, Judy. Eye on the World: Conversations With International Filmmakers. New York: Silman-James Press. 1997.
Zikos, Sotiris. ‘Underground Passage’, In Dermentzoglou, Alexis (ed.) In a Dark Passage: Film Noir in Greek Cinema, Athens: Erodios, 2007. pp.77-82.

© Dina Iordanova
5 July 2008