Movie Review: Z (1969), Costa Gavras

It was 1968 and the world was exploding– millions of students and workers were on the march in every square of every city the world over – and one piece of shrapnel that rocketed out of those times was Costa Gavras’ Z (1969), and his brilliant political thriller is just as searing hot today as it was then.

As revolution was being threatened in Paris, and as Soviet tanks rolled over Prague’s cobblestoned streets, and while students were being massacred in Mexico City, in Greece democracy was being demolished and every sign of dissent there would be squashed beneath the bloody boots of military men.

Grigoris Lambrakis: a man of the olive branch

The narrator in Z (1969) tells us that after preventing free elections from going ahead, after suspending the constitution and arresting socialist leaders at gun-point, and after covering up multiple murders and disappearances of leftists:

The military banned long hair on males; mini-skirts; Sophocles; Tolstoy; Euripides; smashing glasses after drinking toasts; labour strikes; Aristophanes; Ionesco; Satre; Albee; Pinter; freedom of the press; sociology; Beckett; Dostoyevsky; modern music; popular music; the New Mathematics; and the letter Z, which in ancient Greek means: ‘he is alive!’”

The letter Z was the symbol used by all those people – unionists and mini-skirters – who were attacked during those seven years of junta rule during which Costa Gavras’ film itself was also banned. But most of all it was the symbol of the politician and activist Grigoris Lambrakis, a man of the olive branch, whose remarkable career in politics begun in the 1940s when Greece was under occupation by fascist Germany.

After having fought for the Greek Resistance against the Nazis, Lambrakis became involved in the Greek United Democratic Left, through which he ascended into Parliament in 1961. Throughout his time in Parliament he fought against the Vietnam War and called for an end to the Cold War, insisting instead on international détente and disarmament. He never hid his leftist heart, and in 1963 he used his parliamentary immunity to participate in the outlawed March for Peace from the town of Marathon to the capital, despite hundreds of his comrades being beaten away and rounded-up by the police.

Victoriously, Lambrakis walked into Athens holding a banner calling for peace, and for this, for merely repeating the simple edict issued two thousand years ago – ‘thou shalt not kill’ – those who thought this a crime would murder him just one month later.

“Why do our ideas provoke such violence?” 

After warning us that “Any similarity to actual persons or events is deliberateCosta Gavras recreates the last moments of Lambrakis’ life, using the character of ‘The Doctor’ to portray the targeted politician. Played by Yves Montand, ‘the Doctor’ is the embodiment of the ideal leader of the left, one who commands the respect and admiration of all those around him.

In one of the tensest scenes of the movie the Doctor – calm, articulate and intelligent – when faced with a vicious and aggressive mob of nationalists, simply walks straight into the mass of howling militarists and silently parts the sea of hate, and when physically attacked by one of the mob, the Doctor carries on to the protest meeting where he delivers his speech calling for peace and disarmament. Bloodied, sweaty, near to passing out, the Doctor stands on the podium and asks:

“Why do our ideas provoke such violence? Why don’t they like peace? Why don’t they attack other organisations? … We lack hospitals and doctors but half of the budget goes to military expenditure… A cannon is fired, and a teacher’s monthly salary goes up in smoke… Around the world too many soldiers are ready to fire on anything moving towards progress… We live in a weak and corrupt society where it’s every man for himself – where even imagination is suspect, yet it is imagination that  is needed to solve the world’s problems… They want to prevent us from reaching the obvious political conclusions based on these simple truths – but we will speak out… The people need truth; truth is the start of powerful, united action.”

Poster of Z (1969)

Peaceful in front of belligerence, calm in the face of aggression, certain in front of slander, wise in a mad world: maybe these are the reasons as to why I was so astounded by this character. How long has it been since we have seen a true leader, a representative of the left, like this in our countries? Have I ever seen it – will I ever see it – in my own lifetime and in my own country? When did it become unfashionable for the left to call for disarmament – nuclear and conventional – for world peace, for neutrality, for independence and pacifism, and why? When did the word socialism become passé?

Part of the answer to these questions lies, of course, in the power of the club to knock down leaders like Lambrakis. Having delivered his speech to a pacifist rally, the Doctor is attacked once again by right-wing thugs, but this time it is fatal.

The Greek Junta on trial

Following the Doctor’s death, a magistrate is appointed to investigate the death, and it is insisted by the police authorities that the death was a mere accident, the result of a drunk-driver hitting the politician as he walked out into the street, and it is expected that the issue would be resolved swiftly and discreetly.

The magistrate is forced to contend with a host of falsifications and inconsistencies, but it is through his patience, neutrality and keen eye that he can climb over this mountain of lies, and the most satisfying scenes come when he informs the conspirators of their arrest: the military brass are told to sit down in front of the magistrate, and their golden stars jangle on their chests as they flinch when asked “name and profession?” (just imagine asking that of the Blairs, Bushes, Cheneys and Howards of this world) before being told of the official accusations filed against them.

But the story does not end there, of course. Soon enough Lambrakis’ assassins would be freed and his defenders imprisoned when in 1967 the military staged a coup d’état before the scheduled elections, widely expected to elevate the left to power in Greece.

Everything about this movie is pitch-perfect. The acting is brilliant, and the soundtrack by Mikis Theodorakis will  make your fingers claw your palms. And whether you’re a cinephile, a history buff, an activist or just someone who loves a good thriller, Z (1969) will move you.

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