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.
Armond White is film critic for the New York Press and 2009 chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. His most recent books are Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles and What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies (from Resistance Works, WDC).