A convergence of world phenomena hit director Costa-Gavras when he harnessed their energies to create his political masterpiece Z in 1969. In Paris and France, students and workers went on general strike and caused civil disorder in 1968. In the U.S. President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy were all assassinated. The Vietnam war caused national protests. But the model for the film was the assassination in Costa-Gavras’ (Constantinos Gavras) native Greece of the social democrat, pacifist legislator, and left-wing activist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. And because of the WW II anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, resistance work and Communist membership of his father, Gavras junior was also branded as second class in the new right-wing Greece. So Gavras went to law school and then attended the national film school in Paris, where he was exposed to the New-Wave of French cinema. He began working as an assistant to several directors and made his own first movie, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartement Tuers) , in 1965. The cast included Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, and Montand’s wife, Simone Signoret.
(This Post is part of the Vive la France Blogathon hosted by the Lady Eve’s Reel Life and Silverscreenmodes. See other entries here.)
What Gavras noticed in the film-making of the day, whether traditional or New Wave, was a lack of movies with any political plotting. A new book became his inspiration, Z by Vasilis Vasilikos, a fictional account of the murder of Grigoris Lambrakis. His brother, still living in Greece, had sent it to him. The Z in the title came from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning “he lives.” Gavras teamed with screenwriter Jorge Semprun for the story, along with his producers including Jacques Perrin. Perrin would play the persistent photo-journalist in the film. There was very little financing for the film, and they would certainly not be able to film in Greece. Shooting in France could provide similar geography but was too expensive. Algeria was approached for funding, but could only provide facilities and location. The politically charged The Battle of Algiers had already been filmed there. Costa-Gavras then employed Greece’s best musical composer, Mikis Theodorakis, composer of Zorba the Greek, to write Z‘s driving score. This was just before he was imprisoned by the right-wing junta as a communist. Gavras also got the Greek actress Irene Papas to play Montand’s wife in Z .
Z starts off running, its music pulsating as scenes change with the beat. The backdrop could be in any country, although the film is in spoken French. A group of military officers and civilians are explaining the need to eliminate a disease of grape vines in a veiled analogy to the elimination of certain unwanted people. In the next scene a politician and member of the opposition played by Yves Montand arrives in the city to give a speech. Almost immediately he receives a death threat. His inner circle, his apostles, are divided and begin arguing whether to continue or abandon in the face of visible hostility. The police, under the control of the military, are there to “protect” the politician from harm. A rally and speech that were supposed to be in a large venue have now been forced into a 200 seat hall – all over “bureaucratic” reasons. The politician’s (Z) anti-government supporters are in the streets as are the anti-protesters and the hired thugs. Filmed in cinéma vérité style by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the fights that break-out have your heart racing from the first scene. The Algerian extras that were hired, either as police or protesters, already knew their sympathies from years of national strife, and got into their roles with vigor. Montand’s character “Z” arrives and decides to press on, walking through crowds as he’s harassed and struck. He enters his hotel. The police did nothing.
The main characters are quickly delineated. The colonels who control the police, the thugs planning chaos and worse, Z’s increasingly powerless inner circle. And there is a photojournalist who is documenting every action, on who’s side we are unsure. Within minutes of the movie’s start Z makes the decision to carry out his plan – his rendez-vous with fate. He and his group walk from their hotel to the hall, but before they get there he is struck on the head. Woozy but determined, he continues and gives a speech in the hall. After this he will speak to his followers outside that couldn’t fit in the Hall. But agitators are filling the square. His group enters the breech of chaos. The police are passive.
Complaining members of Z’s inner circles are attacked themselves.
After all the stunning events of the night. A magistrate of the Department of Justice must determine what happened and if anyone is guilty. Jean Louis Trintignant plays the magistrate. His disposition presents a mystery. He wears tinted glasses, giving him an elusive air reinforced by his poker-faced demeanor. As thugs and colonels go about their self-satisfied ways, he soon begins his investigation. He is methodical and his questions have one of the thugs admitting to belonging to CROC, the Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. And Yago the thug admits that the cops use the organization to “keep order” during events such as Z’s visit. Soon the accidents begin to look predetermined. Here Costa-Gavras’ film’s editing moves in rapid fire. The magistrate interviews various witnesses. No time elapses between these scenes, as we are shocked seeing a case build against the guilty. The wall of defense of the thugs, colonels and elites crumbles. The hooded schemes of the powerful seemingly undone by the straight-forward questioning of the magistrate: your name and profession? Then the charges brought against them., with a deconstruction of their defense. All of this proceeded by the indignity of being photographed by the press as they enter the magistrate’s office, with some colonels chasing the photographers around the hall.
Yet absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the real end of the story needs a long view of progress. When released in the U.S., Z was like a shock for its viewers. Political thrillers were virtually unknown here in 1969. Critic Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1969. At a time when assassinations had taken place in the U.S. – with no satisfactory answers for many – here was a film with a plot that seemed shockingly real. I remember attending Z’s opening with a couple of friends. One of them didn’t attend college and rarely had any political thoughts. He left the theater shaken and for long after became distrustful of government and authority. Movie audiences were struck by its audacious film-making techniques coupled with the film’s political message. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and for Best Film Editing. Costa-Gavras was also nominated for Best Director.
Fifty years after its creation, Z still stuns the viewer. It has influenced political thrillers ever since, from Parallax View (1974) to Enemy of the State (1998) to State of Play (2008). Riots and large protests have grown around the world and in the U.S. – with increasing size offering some measure of protection to its participants. For filmmakers this has enhanced the need for even more realistic filming techniques. The riots in Greece in 2008 begun over the police killing of a young student and the state of the economy provided realistic film footage for the movie Jason Bourne (2016). The rise of protests themselves over the fight for liberties continue in the face of harsh crack-downs, as we have seen in Hong-Kong. The outline provided here for Z give’s only a hint of its power. Even in translation it is a remarkable and one-of-kind film. It is both a film of the 1960s – and a film for today.