Z (France-Algeria, 1969) ****
Directed by Costa-Gavras (Constantine Gavras). Written by Gavras & Jorge Semprun from the eponymous novel by Vassilis Vassilikos. Photography: Raoul Coutard. Music: Mikis Theodorakis. Cast: Yves Montand, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jacques Perrin, Irene Papas, Charles Denner, Francois Perier, Marcel Bozzufi, Georges Geret et al. 127 minutes. Available without cuts on a superior Criterion laser-disc
In 1963, Grigorios Lambrakis, MD, a popular leftist Member of the Greek Parliament, was assassinated in Thesssaloniki by goons employed by the extreme Right. Eventually the right-wing establishment fell and a precarious democracy was established, only to lead to a coup on 21 April 1967, by a military junta. The colonels' dictatorship lasted for 7 years.
A Greek writer, Vassilis Vassilikos, recounted the events around the Lambrakis murder in a thick novel, Z, in 1966. The title comes from a combination of the sound of the Greek letter Z, which is pronounced approximately like "Long Live", and the English sound of Z, which means in Greek, " he lives, he is alive" . Such shouts were uttered by the record crowd which attended Lambrakis' funeral in Athens. (Some people think that Z symbolizes the end, but the last letter of the Greek alphabet is Omega. )
When the movie came out, the Junta was already in place. The film was made with French money. It could not, of course, be shot in Greece, so Algeria was used as a substitute. Sharp-eyed viewers will detect Algerian faces and places, but overall the stand-in country works nicely.
The movie never mentions Greece by name, but its anonymous country is patently and transparently Greece. The uniforms are Greek, the references are Greek, the names are Greek Among others, note the scene of Yves Montand, (The Deputy and victim-to-be) in a police office : he looks up and sees on the wall the portraits of King Paul and Queen Frederica, but with faces hidden by the reflection of lights on the glass frames.
Z was a sensation in its time and, even today, when shown to students who don't even know the first thing about the American Civil War and the two World Wars--not to mention modern Greece!--the film works very well as a high-pitched, easy- to -grasp, technically excellent thriller.
Z is a film of Greek inspiration, made by a Greek filmmaker, but as a French production it straddles French and Greek cinema, and is considered a part of the French repertory.
Costa-Gavras is really Constantinos Gavrás (note the accent). His father, a Greek from the USSR, has started to emigrate from Russia to the USA--but his stopover in Athens became a permanent residence. The son, Constantinos (Costas for short) was born in Athens in 1933. The father, a small bureaucrat, was suspected of communism and harassed, even after the war, at a time when leftists could be denied such niceties as passports, driver licenses and entrance to the university. The son suffered much of that.
Costas went to Paris at age 20 to study literature at the Sorbonne. Later he went to the main French film school, the IDHEC. He worked with major directors, made a fine murder thriller, THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS, which starred Yves Montand and his then-wife Simone Signoret.
C-G's next work was about choice and conscience set among the French Resistance in World War II. Fame came with Z. In the meantime the name had been fancifully and mysteriously changed by the French (and the acquiescent director) to the easy, hyphenated, Costa-Gavras.
In Z, Gavras used a simple trick, so to speak, but a revolutionary one. His innovation was to combine European political awareness and commitment with the vigorous, dynamic, well-paced style of Hollywood action movies. The combination was unique and uniquely effective. There had been political films in Europe but these were in the intellectual mold or--in the case of the more familiar ones--in the shape of propaganda movies, whether Eisenstein's classics on the Russia Revolution (The Battleship Potemkin, 10 Days That Shook The World, etc. ) or Leni Riefenstahl's paeans to Naziism ( The Triumph Of The Will, Olympia) .
Gavras' s method was not free from good-guys vs. bad-guys reductionism, but it was fresh. It appealed both to finicky film-lovers and to the masses . It popularized, and awakened a new interest in ugly problems of contemporary political history.
Z 's rousing cinematography, music, kinetic editing and clear-cut figures, as graspable as the white hats and the black hats in westerns, made the film an unmistakable political statement. Later, when the novelty was dimmed, came the usual gripes about of commercialism and slickness. But no one has, to my knowledge, come up with suggestions of how Z might have been made in a different, more subtle way, yet retained its impact.
In fact, even by commercial standards, Z is to this day is a much more skillful movie than most others in the political thriller genre, partly because it is well made and partly because the film is angry, and not the work of opportunistic movie-making as is mostly the case in big films dealing with political or social causes. Z also sets the tone for what would become a remarkably consistent Gavras specialty : docudramas on contemporary history, directed against the abuse of state power.
Gavras's subsequent work in this vein was increasingly less manichean and more shaded, and did some serious probing of minds and souls. Many of those films starred Yves Montand, the director's fetish actor.
With THE CONFESSION Gavras took on another kind of extreme right, that of the Stalinist purges in the Czechoslovakia of the 1950s, and he explored the nature of True Believers in communism. STATE OF SIEGE dealt with the CIA in Uruguay, while exploring dramatic problems of conscience and of moral ambiguity. Ironically, it was made in then-democratic Chile, just before the fall of Allende. SPECIAL SECTION denounced the French collaborationist tribunals of the Occupation during World War II. MISSING was on the overthrow of Allende in Chile and the U. S. role in it . HANN K. dealt with justice, Palestinian and Israeli. Called pro-Palestinian, it had a very short life in theatres. BETRAYED does not denounce state power but the power of lunatic fringes within the state: it takes off from the infamous murder of Jewish radio personality Alan Berg and exposes neo-fascist organizations in America. The underrated THE MUSIC BOX tells of a man (German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl in his first US movie) who immigrated from Hungary to Chicago after World War II, was a pillar of the community and the father of brilliant lawyer Jessica Lange. In the 1980s he is accused of war crimes.
In his best films, the strongly political ones, C-G does not propagandize for a special point of view, but illustrates the oft-quoted (and oft-misquoted) "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Almost all those movies were anchored in fact. All were controversial. In film after film Gavras pleased many people and alienated others: Greeks, Czechs, sundry die-hard Stalinists, Americans (including the State Department, Washington agencies or white supremacists), French lawyers and lawmakers, Latin Americans and more.
Back to Z. An example of its impact. I saw it in London during the period of the Greek colonels' dictatorial, far-rightist and imbecilic regime. The movie was playing in a small art house full of attentive people. At the end they cheered, while looking as though they had undergone a mystical experience. Outside the theatre, a collection was being taken up for an anti-junta cause. The departing spectators, British, Greek, Cypriots, East and West Indians and others, did not merely give change but also pound notes, with a generosity that few had ever witnessed before.