If there was ever any doubt that Z is based on a true story the filmmakers put it to rest with a bold disclaimer over the opening titles: “Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL.”
Costa Gavras’ 1969 conspiracy thriller was released during a period of worldwide political turmoil, when a lack of trust in governments and authorities had reached fever pitch the preceding summer. Technically it takes place in an unidentified country and very few of the characters are ever referred to by name, but the film is in reality an account of the May 1963 assassination of Greek social democrat and pacifist Grigoris Lambrakis at the hands of far-right extremist thugs. Initially the ruling military junta attempted to claim that the victim was run over by a drunk driver until an examining magistrate uncovered not only the truth behind the murder but links to high-ranking military officials. Z is an examination of a corrupt and murderous seizure of power.
Gavras himself was in a kind of exile from his country of birth: he had been barred from attending any Greek university due to his father’s blacklisting as a suspected communist. He continued his education in France where he made his first two films, THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS (1965) (a take on Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938)) and SHOCK TROOPS (1967). Z was his third film and the one which would bring him worldwide attention. With Algeria standing in for his homeland the dialogue and most of the actors are French, though there are snatches of Greek in the background and the occasional appearance of Greek newspapers and beer brands. The images of large angry crowds protesting outside the pacifist rally give a clear and terrifying sense of a society caught on a knife edge between militarism and mob rule: scenes sadly reminiscent of those that returned to Athens in 2010 and continued into last year. Some scenes have a visceral impact: the beating a deputy receives when he is mistaken by the mob for his superior or the fight on the back of the murderer’s truck. The film is paced very much like an American-style thriller complete with car chases: few scenes drag on past the three minute mark and there are no static shots. It makes use of quick editing between four or five different cameras, giving a real sense of urgency and not allowing things to flag even during the magistrate’s numerous interrogation scenes (“Nom, prénom, profession…”) during which the conspiracy begins to unfold. The film was, of course, banned in Greece, and would not be shown there until democracy was restored in 1974. It closes with a list of things banned by the fascist junta, which includes trade unions, a free press, long hair on men, Chekhov, Pinter, the Beatles, and the letter ‘Z’, which was used as symbolic reminder of Lambrakis: the word ‘zi’ being ancient Greek for “he lives”. Two contributors are especially notable: the only Greek actor in the film Irene Papas, who delivers an excellent performance as the politician’s wife who becomes a symbol of Greek suffering, and the composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was famous for his work on ZORBA THE GREEK (1964) but was under house arrest in Greece at the time and defiantly offered Costa Gavras the use of any of his existing music for the soundtrack.
It’s notable that despite the assassination of several prominent American political figures in the sixties there was no Hollywood equivalent of Z. The paranoid atmosphere of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) bears similarities, though that is really an accident as Frankenheimer’s film has no basis in real events and was released before the Kennedy assassination, in the aftermath of which Sinatra allegedly had the film removed from distribution. Only relatively recently has American cinema begun to examine these events with films like JFK (1991) and BOBBY (2005). It would begin to play catch up in the seventies with films about Watergate and the Vietnam war, but it is an indictment of American cinema in the sixties when a film like Z can be made effectively in exile on a shoestring budget with such passion and political conscience. I was prompted to revisit the film on reading the memoir of the writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens, who passed away recently. A fierce opponent of everything totalitarian, he cites Z as a great inspiration and an experience that made him ask “And what are you doing about it?”