Along with Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, Costa-Gavra's Academy Award winning film Z is one of the greatest political thrillers of all time. Z was released in 1969 which was the end of a bleak decade of great political violence and of drastic culture changes along with the public's heightened feelings of doubt and paranoia of their very own governments. Z is about a political assassination and isn't necessarily a 'whodunit' but more a 'how it was done,' making an interesting contrast to the domestic security breaches of the real life assassinations of Martin Luther King, President John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X. Z is no more about Greece as The Battle of Algiers was about Algeria, as its portrayal of military cover ups and corrupted government power are fascinating parallels to the Lai massacre, the Bay of Pigs or Richard Nixon and The Watergate scandal; and when witnessing the conspiracy start to unravel and the truth finally get exposed, it will make you shocked, angry and even furious at how us human beings could create such an important system of law, to than just see it be systematically torn down from the inside for our own personal gain. The story of Z is based on the true events of the machinations who were charged with the killing of a Greek social democrat named Gregoris Lambrakis in Thessaloniki on May 22 1963. When Z was first released its gritty and honest realism of political murder raised the political thriller genre to a much greater level and Costa-Gavra's style of film-making could be compared to the Italian neo realism movement and the earlier works of Elia Kazan, Jules Dassin and John Huston. This style of film-making creates an unrelenting amount of tension as you get the sudden sensation of dread of oncoming danger, especially during the brilliantly shot demonstration sequences as hundreds of angry violent rioters are only a few feet away from the deputy with just a wall of security officers separating them. After the deputy is violently attacked, it is immediately followed with a heart pounding action sequence as an organizer leaps onto a moving truck to fight the violent extremist. And yet most of the suspense that comes from Z comes from a chase: Not through the streets but through a maze of facts, alibis and official corruption. When this film was first shown at the San Francisco Film Festival, it was attacked in some quarters as being anti-American, which is interesting when all the film is addressing is only the simple truths of the corruption of military governments. Z exposes just about everything that is wrong with the flaws of political government which include bribed witnesses and alibis, purely fabricated events and scenarios, rewritten statements and reports, death threats and physical attacks, political activism, corrupted military coups, rallies and riot outbreaks during demonstrative speeches; and the murder and cover up of a passionate political speaker, whose murder goes beyond the everyday ignorant extremist and rises up the military ranks to not only the Chief of military police, but to the Attorney General as well.
The story begins with the closing moments of a rather dull government lecture and slide show on agricultural policy, after which the leader of the security police of a right-wing military-dominated government takes over the podium for an impassioned speech describing the government's program to combat leftism, using the metaphors of “a mildew of the mind”, an infiltration of “isms”, or “sunspots”. The scene shifts to preparations for a rally of the opposition faction where the passionate political doctor known as the deputy (Yves Montand) is to give a speech advocating nuclear disarmament and it is obvious that there have been attempts to prevent the speech’s delivery. The deputy's other peers who involved in getting the demonstration going is Georges, Matt, Manuel and Shoula.
Problems suddenly arise though when the original location for the rally is scrapped with the owner using the excuse that they need a permit for an indoor meeting. When Matt tries to talk the owner to change his mind the owner yells saying, "I don't care! I don't want trouble. Get a permit, or no hall. Do as I say! This is my place! Get a permit, or find another place." Matt knows that outsiders have threatened the owner saying "You don't cancel a rental unless you're under pressure." Matt asks the owner who is behind this and threatened him but when the owner knows he is being watched he yells, "Leave me alone! I don't want you is all." Matt discusses other location ideas with Georges saying, "We either cancel or meet outside. And without a permit. That'd mean agitators, club-wielding cops, wounded. We won't find a hall. They'll all refuse."
The two men suddenly get a phone call from Shoula saying she heard from a reliable contact that extremists are planning to murder the deputy. Manuel, Matt and Georges decide to tell the Prosecutor but he can't do anything saying, "Admit it's all vague. An anonymous informant, a conversation overheard somewhere. Maybe it's a practical joke, or a crackpot. Like those people who phone a bomb on a plane. Who’d want to kill your leader? I'll call the head of security. He'll provide protection, unofficially. We have no grounds for any action." The Prosecutor makes a call reporting the threat on the doctor’s life and to inform the Colonel who is in charge of the state police. Matt is furious and knows when the deputy arrives and hears the news that sellouts are hired to protect him, it's not going to make him happy. Manuel says to Georges, "Always blame the USA, even if you are wrong!" The deputy finally arrives and when getting off the plane is welcomed by his peers Manuel, Matt and Georges.
The deputy is told that outsiders are trying to sabotage the meeting and they all let him know of the threats they've heard about his life. Meeting with the Colonel about a hall to rent the Colonel tells the group that they have a problem with this particular hall saying, "This hall doesn't comply with safety standards. There's no emergency exit. With a normal show, there's no danger. But a meeting can get people worked up. I have no reason to stop your meeting. The reports of competent services dictate my decisions. I'm neutral in this affair." The deputy asks the Colonel on why they are being tailed and are told that the minister of the interior issued orders to protect the committee members from any possible extremist attacks. The Coronel suggesting the Union Hall building for their demonstration saying, "other halls meet safety standards. Like the Employees Union Hall opposite of your hotel. You only have to cross the square."
When the group checks out the look of the Union Hall they realize the building can only hold 200 with Matt saying, "We'll look...pathetic. In a city of 500,000, only 200 will here you. The other's stay outside...It's pathetic." The deputy comes with the clever idea of using the square to hang loudspeakers up in the trees saying, "Permit or no permit, we'll have a turnout." The deputy stops to admire a beautiful young blonde in a store window as he then thinks back to a secret love affair that he had years earlier with a young woman and how his wife Helene had caught him in the act. The deputy tells his peers to print up flyers and change the venue while him and Manuel will discuss his speech. Two lowlife extremists named Vago and Yago see the flyers for the upcoming demonstration being handed out on the streets and signs informing people that the meeting is being moved to the Union Hall. Vago, Yago and several other men angrily start to tear down the posters and signs yelling, "Hold your meetings in Russia!" as a riot breaks out on the street.
That evening a large crowd of people start lining up outside the Union Hall as a young and aspiring photojournalist arrives to take some pictures along with several of his fellow colleague. Security police also arrive lining up to control the angry crowds just in case of rioting. "Were against the bomb, Russian or American!" yells a young man in the crowd as people start chanting, "Disarmament! Love live the bomb!! No more foreign bases!" The two opposing sides that are for and against this demonstration start becoming violent as one man is beaten in the street with the young reporter telling his colleague, "You can always sell 'em to The Daily Worker." When the Union Hall gets completely packed Matt gets the speakers and places them on in the square. Manuel is worried about this meeting and believes using the Union Hall building is a set-up for the deputy and they should cancel especially because of the death threat. The deputy says to him, "Aren't you going too far, over some stubborn extremists? We all know the risks. We’re going to the meeting." The deputy starts to make his way across the Town Hall square and past the crowds of angry protestors all waiting outside for him and shouting, "Politicians! All corrupt!"
Suddenly a man runs out of the crowd and hits the deputy and the man is taking away by the police as an injured deputy makes his way into the Union Hall and up the stairs. People are patiently waiting in silence within the auditorium for the deputy's appearance. Once the deputy is mentally ready he says to Matt, "I'm all right. We can start," as he makes his way on the stage approaching the podium as the people in the auditorium applauds seeing his arrival. He begins his speech: "They struck me. Why? Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence? Why is peace intolerable to them? Why don't they attack other organizations and movements? The answer is simple. The other movements are national, for domestic purposes, and thus leave our allies indifferent."
The crowds outside are listening to the speech through the loudspeakers and when the General chief of police arrives his men inform him that they can't control the angry protestors and they must cut the loudspeakers off. The General says that is out of the question. While Georges makes his way across the square he is mistaken for the deputy and is punched and violently attacked by protestors. When struggling to get up he is put in an three wheeler delivery truck which is driven by Yago and Vago. While Yago is driving Vago continuously is beating Georges they cut an ambulance off and Yago pulls over to have Vago finish Georges off. Once Vago starts beating him Yago realizes they have the wrong man and they quickly take off leaving Georges for dead in the streets making their way back to the Union Hall.
The General tells the police to get rid of the photographers and send them back to Bolshoi while the police clear the crowds to make way for the Deputy. After the Deputy is finished with his speech he makes his way back outside the Town Hall and out into the street to face angry and hateful protestors shouting, "Down with the police state! No more foreign bases" The deputy calls out for the support and safety from the General but the General turns his back on him. When the deputy makes his way across the square Yago and Vago drive through with the delivery truck and speed passed him but not before Vago on the open end of the truck bed strikes the deputy down with a club. The deputy clutches his hands over his head in excruciating pain and collapses to the ground. Before Yago and Vago drive off Matt jumps on the flatbed of the vehicle and fights with Vago throwing him off the truck.
Yago quickly stops the car which throws Nick off and onto the road knocking him out. Yago gets out and takes a club and starts hitting him while people in the street witness it. When police arrive Matt gets up and runs off but the officer arrests Yago when finding the club hidden in his jacket and takes him to the station. After attending a ballet the prosecutor is alerted to the news of the attack of the deputy and is asked to meet the General. The prosecutor asks what happened and the General says it was a stupid traffic accident and is still waiting to hear news of the deputy's condition. Vago all bruised up and bleeding goes to meet one of his contacts who is an editor of the paper and when asked what happened he says, "There was a demonstration. We taught the bastards a lesson." Vago asks his friend to write him into a story so all his extremist friends know he was involved with the attack at the Town Hall. At the hospital Manuel, Matt, and Shoula are arrive when hearing the news of the deputy learning from doctors that the Deputy's skull is fractured and not conscience.
When the Prosecutor later arrives Manuel says to him, "We warned you, but no, it was a practical joke. No, now you have an assassination on your hands." When the Prosecutor tells him that they have proof it was an accident Manuel and Matt cannot believe it. The photojournalist who was also present before the attack knows that it was attempted murder but unfortunately was ejected by security before the attack; so he couldn't get any pictures. The Prosecutor hopes that the Deputy doesn't die believing that if he does his peers will use the incident politically by making the deputy a martyr. The Prosecutor is shocked to learn from the doctor that another man was also hurt during the demonstration, which he wasn't told about earlier which was Georges who was found in the street but will live. The prosecutor decides to phone the minister while the photojournalist does his own investigating.
When the Prosecutor arrives to speak with the General again he tells him that the police should have prevented what happened to the deputy. The General tells him that they caught the culprit that hurt the deputy and when the Prosecutor sees him he is shocked to see the culprit Yago is not even handcuffed. The General informs him that Yago and one other man are charged with drunk driving but the Prosecutor doesn't trace any alcohol on Yago's breath. The prosecutor is angry that they had Yago in custody for hours and they only informed him about this now and orders the police to arrest the other culprit Vago. When Vago finds out that the deputy might guy he tells his newspaper friend to instead take his name out of the story so he won't be questioned.
(This is before a scene in which it seems like Vago is trying to pick up homosexual men.) The next morning the papers blame the deputy's political group for the supposed accident but the group know that the police are lying. Matt says, "We can only deplore police passivity and ineffectiveness. Only later can we exploit the flaws politically." Manuel thinks what Matt is saying is an excuse that they all have to go after those responsible. Manuel asks Shoula if her contact that warned them of the Deputy's life will come out now because of the deputy's current condition and make a statement to the press. She doubts it because the man was already scared of reprisals but she'll try but they just have to be careful.
The deputy's wife Helene finally arrives as the media surrounds her questioning her on her marriage with the deputy. Manuel meets up with her and tells her that the doctors are operating on her husband a third time. The main doctor says to Helene, "I knew your husband. We were in school together. I wanted to take part in his peach marathon, but since it was banned, I couldn't. It's serious, but he'll make it," as they have one of England's top surgeons. Helene has a quick flashback of her husband saying to her, "Tell the parents the truth? They'll have time for that later." Helene walks in on the doctor explaining the harsh details in her husband’s condition as everyone in the room stops suddenly when seeing her come in. The General knows that the liberal media will exploit the deputy's wife and play on her emotions and so orders his men to find any personal information that they can on the deputy and of his group's private lives. The general says to his men about the deputy, "Destroy his character. Does he get along with his wife? Any other women?"
The prosecutor then arrives with his Examining Magistrate (Grigoris Lambrakis) confirming to the General that the Magistrate will now be in charge of the case. The Magistrate asks the General when he can interview the second culprit Vago and the General says he can anytime he likes saying, "It seems he was asleep in the back of the three-wheeler, dead drunk, so he's innocent, if it all checks out." The Magistrate also is told that earlier Yago and Vago were out drinking at the Chinaman's bar and reads them the culprit’s statements and witnesses who confirm them alibi. "I think its clear enough though we lack background on the culprits, the theory of an accident seems valid," says the General. The Prosecutor says that the Minister wants these problems solved quickly to avoid political speculation abroad and his office must make a public statement that the culprits are charged with drunken driving, assault and battery and are behind bars.
Suddenly the Prosecutor gets a phone call and hears the tragic news that the deputy has just died which now changes the charges to manslaughter. Helene is at her hotel when she gets the news and starts to break down. The photojournalist knocks on her door and walks in saying how he's a reporter and greatly admired her husband. He brings up the death threat that her husband had gotten earlier and how he knows when hearing the news of her husband Helene told the hospital director, "So they finally got him." The photojournalist asks her who 'they' are. The photo journalist takes Helene to the window to show that a march had started against the murder of her husband to expose the truth as crowds of people with signs of the deputy paint the letter Z into the sidewalk; but when the police arrive a riot breaks out and several protestors get arrested. The Magistrate orders the doctors to perform an autopsy on the deputy and is later told by the doctors that the deputy had severe skull fractures and that falling from a vehicle would not cause the fractured skull to the deputy's head.
The Magistrate wonders if the collision from the three-wheeler could have caused the blow but the car only hit his body, but the doctors inform him that the head fracture could have only been caused by an iron bar, or a club. "No one said anything about a weapon," the Magistrate says to his partner. Hearing this makes Vago's and Yago's story not add up correctly and the Magistrate investigates further in the matter. He sets up a meeting with the General and specifically asks him what he saw and the General fabricates a story of the delivery truck three-wheeler driving through the crowd and into the square hitting the Deputy. He then asks the General if the Deputy's head could have struck the curb and the General says that's impossible because it happened in the middle of the street. The Magistrate then reveals that the autopsy confirms the deputy was killed by a club. The General becomes hysterical yelling, "A club? These doctors! Who asked them for an autopsy?"
The Magistrate says that he did because it's legal procedure and suddenly the Magistrate gets news that a volunteer witness came forward claiming the deputy was murdered, has proof and is coming in to testify. "Here we go. It's a murder now," the General says. "They'll be calling it a plot if this drags on." The mysterious witness is Yago's friend who is on his way to the police station to expose the truth until a mysterious van pulls up beside him on the street and several men knock him out. The witness is taking to the abandoned hospital and when awaking the General comes in along with The Colonel and the two state that he the witness was not attacked but simply fell and hit his head on the sidewalk and also suffers from epilepsy.
The General and The Colonel leave when the Magistrate arrives to question the witness and the witness points out to the Magistrate the three men in photos who were driving the three-wheeler which were Vago, Yago, and a mysterious third man. The witness then tells the Magistrate that Yago blabbed to him of the murder he was going to commit at his work the day before the demonstration took place, and when the witness than seen Yago's picture in the paper the next day he decided to volunteer and come forward; as much as his family was against the idea for him to do that. The Magistrate finds it interesting when he learns that the General was just there accusing him of being epileptic. After the Magistrate leaves the witness's mother and sister angrily come to see him and beg him to not testify because it will destroy their lives. The photo journalist walks in and wants to take some pictures of the witness in the hospital bed saying, "People have to see you and know they attacked you to keep you from saying something important. See?" When the witness says they will just attack him again the photojournalist says, "They won't dare...once you're famous but the papers have to talk about you."
Suddenly Vago is caught trying to sneak into the hospital room, probably to attack the witness and when the photo journalist sees him the man takes off down the hall. The photo journalist takes after him holding a club to attack the witness and when Vago surprisingly sees the photojournalist he quickly runs back to a hospital room he was originally supposed to be in but is caught. Vago is arrested and taken in to see the Magistrate and is questioned on why he was at the hospital and with the club. Also when interrogated on the night of the deputy's manslaughter and of the abduction and beating of Georges, Vago says how he and his friend Yago were drinking heavily at the Chinaman's til 10. When he describes Georges leaping onto the three-wheeler and Vago getting thrown off, words he is using seem to be the same exact words that Yago gave in his interrogation; which is odd since the two haven't had contact since the incident.
Vago says he went home after the scuffle and when reading in the papers the next day about the attack on the deputy he went to the police who put him in the hospital because of his earlier injuries. The Magistrate finally reveals to him what he knows about this investigation as he tricks Vago into revealing he and Yago are part of an anti communist group by purposely accusing him of being a communist. Completely falling for the Magistrate's plan Vago becomes furious like expected with the accusations and impulsively yells, "I belong to an anti-communist group! Yago too! CROC! Christian Royalist Organization against Communism!" The Magistrate smiles after his plan of reverse psychology worked looking at Vago's lawyer. The photojournalist reveals to the witness that Vago has been charged with premeditation. Because of the Magistrate believing the witness's story he dug deeper and discovered that Vago and Yago belong to a secret group called CROC. The witness says, "CROC? Everybody uses them. The cops use 'em to keep order during the state visits."
The photojournalist says the witness is a famous man now and that no one can touch him. The witness reveals to the photo journalist more names of the men involved in CROC including a man named Duma saying, "CROC's got a hold on him cause of trouble with his brother. He wants to work in Germany but has no passport. So if you can fix that..." The photo journalist goes to meet Duma and offers to make him a passport in exchange for information on CROC's organization; who's involved and where they specifically meet. The photojournalist discovers that Vago and Yago attended several of these hidden meetings and agreed with its radical messages with Yago also wanting to pay off his kamikaze; and now can do so quite easily. The photojournalist smiles now knowing the motive for the deputy's murder and says, "That's why he killed the deputy?"
Duma points out several of these members of CROC who work in the town like the barber, mechanic, the chief, Jimmy the boxer and a fig seller as the photojournalist snaps pictures of them while riding in Duma's vehicle. In the hospital slowly recovering, Georges picks out the fig seller as the third man who kidnapped and beat him with Vago and Yago when given photos that the photo journalist had taking. Georges thinks they will publish this story in the deputy's paper but the photo journalist tells him this story is going to be in the National Daily which will be much more sensational and create a much bigger impact with the public. The fig owner comes bursting into the hospital room creating a tangent because of Georges accusations saying how he read them in the paper. The Magistrate arrives and tells the man that he couldn't have read the story in the paper that morning because the mail plane was grounded. "Who told you to say all this?" the Magistrate asks him. The fig owner breaks down and admits he did hit Georges but he was made to do it by the same man who warned him of Georges accusations.
The photojournalist asks the fig man for the name but he doesn't want to give it out because he's very high up and powerful. The Magistrate takes him for a short drive and the fig owner reveals to him that this powerful man threatened to take away his business permit if he didn't help out with the attack on the deputy. The Magistrate realizes it is the Colonel the head of security that ordered him to do it because he is the only one with the power to create or take away working permits. With all this new information discovered on the case the Magistrate visits the Prosecutor and updates him on the investigation and how it's now a new case in a different light.
"We began with an accident and two drunks. Next day, the autopsy reveals death caused by clubbing. Before I have time to examine this new theory a volunteer witness says it was a murder attempt. On his way to see me, the witness is clubbed. He's still in the hospital. Enter the reporter. His motives are anything but political. That's important. Then I discover that Yago and Vago belong to CROC, the Christian Royalists. Along with the second deputy's assailant and most of those at the demonstration. It seems the police know them and use them to maintain order during state visits. That remains to be proven. As does the head of security driving this man to the demonstration. My conclusion is this: It would be simple as a drunken driving case, but that's no longer possible. However, if we accept it as the premeditated act of a group abetted or simply tolerated by the police, it all becomes clear and fits together." The Prosecutor realizes how very serious this matter is and must phone the minister immediately saying to the Magistrate, "I favor the accident theory. Premeditated by two fanatics. Drunk, to boot. You must settle this quickly. The city, the country, even the world are watching and waiting. Our country's honor is at stake. Forget about these lowlifes. Your future lies before you. This case can take you very far or break your career. Take it from someone who knows."
The Magistrate starts to bring in several members of the CROC movement and interrogate them but the members explain how they are all honest citizens whose goal is the moral defense of Western civilization. They also deny they were even at the demonstration with all of them having confirmed alibis and yet the Magistrate pulls out several photos that were taking at the demonstration that clearly places these individuals there. The Magistrate them indicts them all for perjury including those who confirmed the alibis. Eventually the whole conspiracy of the deputy's murder is finally being exposed including the alibi of Shoula's contact that warned the group of a threat on the deputy' life a day earlier. The man is brought in and giving his story of the murder threat with the Magistrate correcting his use of the word murder to incident because there is no proof of murder yet. The man reveals on how he overheard Yago conspiring with another man about the upcoming murder and points out this man in a photograph. He then says how he saw Yago carrying a club and later witnessed Yago having dinner with the Colonel. And when the Magistrate asks the man why the Colonel would hire Yago for this assassination job he is told it's because Yago is known as the best driver in town.
The Magistrate can't use the man's testimony though because of his controversial political past. One day Manuel is almost run down by a VW police vehicle in broad daylight (the same one that the deputy was placed in after being struck at the demonstration) on a public street. Manuel survives the attack and quickly reports it to the Magistrate believing the attempted murder was because he is a witness who holds important information. Manuel gives the Magistrate his version on what happened the night the deputy was attacked and when he rode with the cops who were taking the deputy to the hospital how they were purposely stalling the drive, even by hitting another car and stopping to fill out a report while the deputy was dying and losing blood inside the car. The police driver is questioned and revealed to be the personal driver of the General even though earlier the General denied knowing the driver of the VW police vehicle and when the Magistrate tells the driver the strange coincidence that he just happened to be there right at the scene of the deputy's murder. The Magistrate assistant whose typing out the report stops and asks The Magistrate, "Do I type 'murder?' You said murder."
The Attorney General arrives in town to speak to the Magistrate and the Prosecutor. He is outraged that the Magistrate is planning to indict the chiefs of police and security and this so-called proof that the Magistrate says he has purely gossip invented by pacifists who want to create a hero. The Magistrate goes over all the overwhelming evidence that he uncovered and through the confession of several officers that revealed The General and The Colonel even forced them even rewrite the statements and the original report of the deputy's attack purposely not mentioning the club in the attack. The Attorney General because hysterical going on a tangent saying, "There are grounds for indictment, but not enough to sentence police officers. You'll discredit the police, as well as the court, which will be blamed for not sentencing them. As if it's not enough that our country’s been invaded by long-haired thugs, atheists and junkies of unclear sex, now you want to disparage our armed forces and courts, the only elements not corrupted by parliamentarianism. Just when we dream of renewal, a country without parties, without Left or Right, heeding God and its destiny, you want to ruin it all." The Magistrate and the Prosecutor are in complete silence and the Attorney General calms down.
In the end of the film The Attorney General than makes a suggestion to the Magistrate to try the case in three parts saying, "First, try the two criminals. Let justice be done. Second, the police authorities. Their negligence is evident, or at least probable, but it lies outside the jurisdiction of a circuit court. It's an administrative matter that can be handled internally. Third, bring an action against the rally organizers. Their inflammatory speech makes them morally responsible for the violence. It's an old rule of thumb. Who stands to gain the most? The justice minister asked me if you were a Leftist. I categorically denied it. Here's a list of useful witnesses. It seems no one meant to kill the deputy, just intimidate him. I trust I've convinced you to protect the honor of the forces of law and order. But you're accountable only to your conscience, after God."
The climax of the film shows a montage of the Magistrate indicting several officers of first degree murder and the abuse of authority including the Colonel and the General of the state police (who when giving his statement uses the exact wordings that Vago and Yago used earlier in their statements), and then when trying to leave unnoticed by struggling to go through a locked side door, they are instead surrounded by crowds of reporters, cameramen and photographers.
Costa-Gavras’s 1969 political assassination thriller Z appeared at the end of a decade of burgeoning cultural change and rampant paranoia. In the United States, this Algerian-French coproduction sparked a sensation, not just relaying the European political crisis but perfectly capturing a global mood of apprehension at a moment when America was at its most vulnerable, our domestic security seemingly breached by the consecutive concussive shocks of our own political assassinations (John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy). Based on true events, the film vividly imagined and uncovered the machinations behind the May 22, 1963, killing of the Greek social democrat and pacifist Gregoris Lambrakis in Thessaloníki. It made the fact of political murder cinematically real, as no Hollywood film at that time could dare. And by borrowing Hollywood action techniques, the Greek-born Constantinos Gavras raised the genre to a new level—one that he would define as his own.
This type of filmmaking, of course, was familiar to American moviegoers from the work of such post–World War II Hollywood directors as Elia Kazan, John Huston, Robert Siodmak, and Jules Dassin, who all combined startling social observation with narratives powered by violence and suspense. The activist-aesthete’s genre was not part of the peaceable 1960s counterculture, however. Not even John Frankenheimer’s now-vaunted The Manchurian Candidate was a box-office success. It took a European with one foot in a family political legacy and the other in cinematic craft to update the political thriller in terms both commercial and vital.
Costa-Gavras’s father had fought against the Nazis in the left-wing Greek resistance movement, but after World War II was labeled a Communist by the country’s new government and imprisoned. This political blacklisting of his father precluded education in Greece for Costa-Gavras and even caused him to be denied permission to study film in the United States. So instead he moved to Paris, where he enrolled at IDHEC. Working as an assistant to René Clair, René Clément, Henri Verneuil, Jean Becker, Jean Giono, and Jacques Demy gave him a grounding in form and innovation that became instantly apparent in the stylish assurance of his 1965 debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders, a murder mystery on a moving train in the tradition of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes but suffused with contemporary immediacy and starring politically conscious actors Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.
Carrying on the tradition of the politically informed films of Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Hands over the City, and The Moment of Truth), which turned recent politics into complex, engrossing cinematic myths, Costa-Gavras would proceed to advance the political thriller toward a popular mode. His work paralleled that of Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) and Elio Petri (The Tenth Victim, We Still Kill the Old Way, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), whose political exposés were also accessible as action films. This trend was distinct from such earnest, earlier cultural movements as Italian neorealism and Russian formalism in that it permitted socially conscious, politically motivated artists to pursue personal causes, infected with the excitement of the era’s post–New Wave aesthetic. Costa-Gavras was inspired to make his next leap forward in 1966, when his brother, still living in Greece, sent him the new Vassilis Vassilikos novel, Z, a fictional account of the Lambrakis assassination. (Its title, from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning “he lives,” had become a rallying cry for Lambrakis’s supporters.)
With this material, Costa-Gavras could do his part to address the troubles of his homeland. Since World War II, power struggles between Communists, the conservative government, the military, and King Constantine II had kept Greece in turmoil, which included Lambrakis’s assassination and a 1967 military coup. In Z, Costa-Gavras responded to dictator George Papadopoulos and his colonels—albeit from afar, with this Francophone production that used only one Greek actor, Irene Papas (as Lambrakis’s wife)—symbolically addressing the Lambrakis murder and subsequent coup, and endorsing the restoration of democracy, which ultimately did happen when Konstantinos Karamanlis was elected prime minister in 1974. The pulsating score by Mikis Theodorakis, who was under house arrest in Greece but defiantly gave Costa-Gavras permission to use his previously recorded music, helped define the film’s rebellious spirit. Costa-Gavras illuminated all that real-world drama while exercising his skills with newfound purpose.
Z is not a tract setting out the ideological differences that made Lambrakis a target of the conservatives seizing power in Greece. Rather, Costa-Gavras and screenwriter Jorge Semprún use Lambrakis’s murder to ring the alarm on a corrupt and murderous seizure of power. Their means are sincere and emotional more than propagandistic, appealing to leftist sympathies while offering a simpler understanding of the morality behind power struggle, in a way that recalls the righteousness of those late-forties Hollywood political thrillers. To dramatize how human rights are under literal threat, Costa-Gavras and Semprún craftily, without naming names, set up the scene of the crime: a Lambrakis-like speaker, played by Montand, opposes the obstacles that local authorities raise to holding a small rally. This tense night has noirish parameters, with Montand’s heroic deputy, diffident officials, executive military officers, the rally planners, and a ragtag group of hired thugs with anti-Communist sympathies. Once the rally is forced into a less accommodating hall, the stakes for calamity rise. Chaos erupts out of this tension, and Costa-Gavras, with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, exposes the tragedy with depth and lucidity. The clarity is almost surreal—it feels as inevitable as prophecy and as familiar as history, instantaneously mythic. When replayed in slow motion, the scene recalls the experience of reprocessing an unbelievable truth.
Costa-Gavras learned crime-movie procedurals from Clément and Verneuil, but Z adds new dimensions: outrage and fear. The breakdown of social order is implicit in scenes of the assassins’ brutal escape and the bureaucracy’s remorseless cover-ups. Z isn’t a whodunit, it’s a how-was-it-done. Its fascination comes from blunt confrontation with the treacherous behavior of political adversaries. It has visceral impact, such as when a henchman (Marcel Bozzufi) fights an organizer (Bernard Fresson) on the back of a truck. Adept at the mechanics of the thriller, Costa-Gavras sharpens the viewer’s social consciousness with both political exactitude about the stress of fascist oppression—demonstrated through the fearful military and the defensive organizers—and journalistic outspokenness, embodied in the reporter (Jacques Perrin) who witnesses the assassination and uses a camera to document his own investigation. This sixties muckraking spirit is consonant with Rosi, Petri, Pontecorvo, even Godard’s political allegory Made in U.S.A, where the movie’s dynamics convey the tension and pressure of political awareness. Because Z is as exciting as it is enlightening, the movie brings home the weight of political activism besieged by intractable conservative forces.
By answering that traumatized period’s bafflement about political subterfuge, Costa-Gavras crafts a near-perfect allegory for the perils of political insurrection. The assassination and investigation are relayed through tersely structured mystery, suspense, shock, and the relief of resolution through jurisprudence. It remains Costa-Gavras’s most fast-paced film, manipulating time as Rosi did in Salvatore Giuliano, but constantly pushing inexorably forward toward a shocking ending of political repression and resistance to come. In his subsequent political works, The Confession, State of Siege, Special Section, and Missing, Costa-Gavras chronicled the process of putsches, coups, and rebellion in Czechoslovakia, Uruguay, occupied France, and Chile—all distilled into dramas about the historic struggles of risk takers and power mongers.
As The Sleeping Car Murders first showed, Costa-Gavras makes political commentary through the expert deployment of politically identified stars. His multinational casts of well-known progressives embody types: in Z, Montand’s deputy, a dignified, philandering pol; Papas as the distraught, betrayed widow; a supporting cast of leftist and rightist characters portrayed by Charles Denner, François Périer, Pierre Dux, Georges Géret, Fresson, Renato Salvatori, Magali Noël, and Jean Dasté—all familiar from the history of European liberal cinema (evoking the films of Vigo, Renoir, Visconti, Pontecorvo, Fellini), and all contributing to Costa-Gavras’s effort to enlighten.
Jean-Louis Trintignant’s examining magistrate, the ethically minded prosecutor who brings the assassination conspirators to conviction, spurred a new phase in the actor’s estimable career. Trintignant won Cannes’ best actor prize for his characterization of the man, Christos Sartzetakis, who prosecuted the real Lambrakis assassins. The Trintignant magistrate’s unyielding pursuit of the facts provides a steady, sobering counterweight to Costa-Gavras’s violent, melodramatic action scenes: the staccato montage of police roundups that rapidly lead to scenes of military interrogations where Trintignant demands, “Nom, prénom, profession,” a phrase soon to become a meme of revolutionary, restorative justice. It’s a significant aspect of Costa-Gavras’s agitprop method to implant in viewers notions of civic integrity by simultaneously informing and entertaining them.
Ending with a provocative, unorthodox tally of fascist clampdowns on freedom of expression and the arts, Costa-Gavras angles his exposé with a frightening coda that encapsulates the on-going political struggle. He avoids hippie optimism and foresees contemporary cynicism with a basic thriller device: a warning. Z carries the reverberations of that cultural shift from enlightenment to paranoia in each of its shrewdly devised tropes from common genres. Costa-Gavras expresses the tension and terror of political conspiracy that haunted the democratic and anti-war movements of the sixties—and still does.
Costa-Gavras's father fought in the left-wing Greek resistance movement against the Nazis, but was later labeled as a communist by the countries new government and was than imprisoned. This created the black listing of Costa-Gavras which caused him to be denied to study films within the United States. Costa-Gavras instead moved to Paris and worked under such directors as Rene Clair, Jean Becker and Jasques Demy. Costa-Gavras wanted to carry on the realistic and gritty style of Gillo Pontecorvo and Francesco Rosi and wanted to create complex and engrossing political films. He was inspired to make Z when his brother who was living in Greece at the time sent him a copy of the new Vassilis Vassiliko novel Z, which was a fictional account of the Lambrakis assassination. Finally, Costa-Gavras could make the complex political thriller that he always wanted to make and interestingly enough it addresses the issues of his homeland.
With the novel Costa-Gavras was able to address the power struggles between communists, the military coups, and the conservative government in which King Constantine II had been holding Greece in turmoil since World War II; which involved Lambraki's political assassination. Z also brings up George Papadopolous and his military colonels, trying to endorse the message of democracy; which eventually did happen in 1974 when Konstantino Karamanlis became elected prime minister. The lively score by Mikis Theodorakis used in Z gives the film the strong and rebellious spirit needed for its themes. Z isn't necessarily setting out to make ideological differences or isn't trying to expose any propaganda like agendas about communism and democracy, but merely addressing how human rights can be looked at as a threat and can also be taken away by a higher form of corrupted military power. Costa-Gavras seems to shift his ideas towards more liberal sympathies within the films themes and yet still seems to give off a balanced, sincere and honest message which recalls the 40's and 50's American political films like Robert Rossen's All the King's Men, John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May and Otto Preminger's Advice and Consent.
The way Z is shot gives the film a powerful nightmarish like quality as you see the deputy trying to hold a rally in a much less accommodating hall and when chaos erupts with a group of hired anti communist extremists, you get the sudden sensation of dread and oncoming danger. The documentary looking realism that is brought upon the screen during the demonstration scenes like for instance the hundreds of angry violent rioters just feet away from the deputy with just a wall of security officers separating them, and a one take shot of an organizer leaping onto a moving truck to fight a violent extremist reminded me of several scenes of Francesco Rosi's political film Salvatore Giuliano. Z could have been crafted as a simple police procedural film with pretty ordinary sequences of interviews, and dull investigations and events but Costa-Gavras crafts the film in such an effective and exciting style it makes the film always interesting and extremely exciting. The films suspense isn't created through chase scenes or action but through a maze of interrogations, facts, investigations, alibi's and of separating the truth from the lies.
Similar to Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, and Akira Kurosawa's High and Low the lead protagonist and point of view change midpoint through the film. It begins as we follow the deputy and his peers as they plan their political demonstration, struggling to find a location and good enough security. After the deputy's assault and eventual death the protagonist changes to the Examining Magistrate and his involvement to the indictment of an entire political system. Similar to the first half of the film in which we come to care for the deputy and his peers and the same goes for the character of the Magistrate during the second half. We see the Magistrate as a stubborn and honest man as he tries to resist official pressure from men more powerful than him to conceal the scandal. During all that he is investigating he eventually compiles enough evidence to finally come to the conclusion that the deputy was in fact murdered; with him saying the exact word 'murder', a word that he had been telling other's not to say throughout his investigation because a murder was never in fact proven yet.
At the time of Z's release, film critic Roger Ebert, named Z the best film of 1969, liked the screenplay and its message, and wrote, “Z is a film of our time. It is about how even moral victories are corrupted. It will make you weep and will make you angry. It will tear your guts out...When the Army junta staged its coup in 1967, the right-wing generals and the police chief were cleared of all charges and rehabilitated. Those responsible for unmasking the assassination now became political criminals." Critic Jonathan Richards wrote in 2009, “It’s hard to overstate the impact that this Oscar-winning procedural thriller had in 1969, on a world roiling in political activism, repression, and discord. In the U.S., the Vietnam War was on the front burner, the populace was passionately engaged, and the police riots outside the ’68 Chicago Democratic Convention and the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton were raw wounds. With this stylish, intense indictment of the assassination of a leftist political leader by a right-wing government cabal in his native Greece, director Costa-Gavras struck a nerve that resonated here and around the globe." One of the many reasons why Z is such a masterful and powerful thriller is its bleak honesty and harsh truths of injustice even within the realm of the law. The story seems to end in triumph, when the Magistrate finally exposes the rotten and dirty core of the government for what it really is and the main military officers involved in the cover-up and conspiracy are indicted for murder. The character of Matt races to Helen's home and finds her by the seashore to give her the good news, telling her the police force will be charged with the murder of her husband and that the government will fall and the extremists will be swept away. And yet Helene's expression reflects no justice or triumph; only her suffering and despair of her husband who can never be brought back to her no matter what justice the law can achieve. And yet the ending becomes even less triumph when in the epilogue we are given a synopsis of the subsequent turns of events of each character in the story; making the themes of the courts, the law and the fight for truth and justice a sad and ironic joke.
"The deputy prosecutor never made the trial. He died of a heart attack according to the coroner. Seven other witnesses died before the trial. A car accident. A gas explosion. A suicide. A drowning. A work accident. A second car accident. And a heart attack while driving. 'Foul play is ruled out,' the new head of security declared. After a three-month trial, Vago was sentenced to eight years on a prison farm, where one year equals two. Yago, 11 years of the same. For the four indicted officers, charges dropped, with administrative reprimands. The scandal led to the government’s resignation. After the trial, the opposition united certain to win the elections. Weekends before elections the military seized power and dismissed the magistrate. During transport in a police van, Deputy Georges Pirou died of a stroke, according to police. Matt deported to the islands. Manuel fell from the seventh floor during questioning. Attempted to escape, according to police.
Three years for disclosure of official documents. The military regime banned long hair, miniskirts Sophocles, Tolstoy, Euripides, Russian-style toasts, strikes, Aristophanes, lonesco, Sartre, Albee, Pinter, freedom of the press, sociology, Beckett, Dostoyevsky, modern music, pop music, new math and the letter Z, which means HE LIVES in Ancient Greek.