In May 1963, Gregorios Lambrakis, professor of medicine at the University of Athens, opposition member of the Greek parliament, and leader of the Greek campaign for nuclear disarmament and against the deployment of American missiles in Greece, was conveniently run down by a motorcycle during a clash between his supporters and his opponents following a rally in Salonika. When Lambrakis died in the hospital a few days later, his followers claimed he had been the victim of a political murder. An investigation by a diligent and incorruptible examining magistrate bore out these charges. In 1966, the novelist Vassili Vassilikos wrote a thinly fictionalized account of Lambrakis’s death, the subsequent inquiry, and the sensational trial at which Lambrakis’s murderers were found guilty. The novel detailed how, with the connivance and cooperation of the police, an assassination had been made to look like an accident. Vassilikos called his book Z, meaning in Greek (Zei), “he lives.” The next year, the title was both confirmed and denied when the colonels overthrew the legal government of Greece and seized the power they still hold.
Meanwhile, Vassilikos’s novel had been read by Constantine (shortened to Costa, with a hyphen added, in his words, to “create confusion”) Gavras, a young Greek expatriate living in Paris. Gavras, a graduate of the Sorbonne and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques, had just completed his first film, The Sleeping Car Murder, and was anxious to turn Z into his second. But United Artists, with whom Gavras had a contract, turned him down because, as he later told a New York Times interviewer, “they were afraid that if they made it, all United Artists pictures would be banned in Greece.” The necessary $750,000 was finally raised in France. Another exile, Jorge Semprun, the Spanish author of Alain Resnais’s La Guerre est Finie, collaborated with Gavras on the scenario and wrote the dialogue. Yves Montand, who had been in both Semprun’s La Guerre est Finie and Gavras’s Sleeping Car Murder, agreed to play Lambrakis at much less than his usual star scale. Mikis Theodorakis, the obvious choice, was unable to do the music because he is under house arrest in Greece, so some already existing compositions of his were arranged into a musical score. Raoul Coutard, the great New Wave photographer, shot the entire film in color in a Salonika-like Algiers, not, as Pauline Kael tentatively suggested, to add Algerian resonances to the Greek story, but because the Algerians came through with facilities and equipment. The resulting film won third prize at Cannes and, in effect, first prize in New York when it was voted Best Film of 1969 by the New York film critics, with Costa-Gavras named Best Director. It was also nominated for five Academy Awards.
The unanimous enthusiasm of the critics brought people out to line up in the bitter cold to see Z, and from all reports they are still there. Yet even had the reviews been less enthusiastic, I suspect quite a number of viewers will be disappointed when they finally get in to see the film. Z is in many ways admirable, but its chance for greatness or even real dramatic effectiveness was fatally compromised at the beginning by a crucial unresolved ambivalence on the part of those who made it.
Why Costa-Gavras made the film is clear: it is his protest and personal revolt against what has happened in his native land. As he told the New York Times: “If I were eighteen, I too would be in the street.” But he is thirty-six, so he made Z instead.
The critics, though, paid scant attention to Z’s hortatory intentions: “Z is almost intolerably exciting,” wrote Pauline Kael, whose tolerance for movie excitement is quite high, “a political thriller that builds up so much tension that you’ll probably feel all knotted up by the time it’s over.” “Remember,” she goes on to ask, “when the movie ads used to say ‘it will knock you out of your seat’? Well, Z damn near does.” And Vincent Canby, after apologizing for his reservations, ended his enthusiastic New York Times review by urging his readers not to seek from Z more than it offered: “A lot of people are going to become emotionally unstuck about Z, seeing it as a strong political statement, which is unnecessary to ennoble sheer entertainment.”
As it happened, the person who became most emotionally unstuck about Z was its director, who did in fact see the film as a strong political statement. “I never intended Z to be sheer entertainment,” declared Costa-Gavras in the Times. “I always meant the film as a political act. And the proof that it succeeds is that everyone recognizes the situation as the one in Greece, even though Greece is never once mentioned.”
This last sentence aside (would anyone want to argue that the ease with which Berzelius Windrip is recognized as Huey Long is proof that Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here succeeds, or that the proof of the success of All the King’s Men is that everyone recognizes Huey Long in Willie Stark?), the director’s assertion raises an interesting question. How can Costa-Gavras’s insistence on the political priorities in Z be reconciled with the reviews which praised the film mainly because, to use Pauline Kael’s phrase, it was like “riding a roller-coaster just for the thrills”?
What “thrillers” have in common is that they thrill, and it is rare that they do so by accident. Almost invariably the thrills are the result of a conscious and calculated structuring. Most of the methods employed were discovered long ago in Hollywood, and have been used and reused in films, and particularly in American films, ever since. And it is precisely these techniques—the devices and conventions of the Hollywood thriller—which the so-called “serious” filmmaker usually eschews. A thriller might almost be defined as the opposite of a serious film, since the first tries for the superficial reaction and wants only to arouse, while the second aims deeper in an attempt to stimulate. Z is practically a paradigmatic case study of what happens when the two are imperfectly combined. The essential ambiguity of Z is that it is too serious—in intention at least—to thrill, and tries too hard to thrill to be taken seriously. Costa-Gavras wanted Z to show the true history of the Lambrakis affair. But he tried to hedge by telling it like a detective story. The reason he did so goes a long way toward explaining Z’s serious structural weaknesses.
Basically, I think the director did not feel he could trust his audience. In exile, engagé, unable to return to his homeland, Costa-Gavras is forced to suffer the world’s placid toleration of a military dictatorship in the birthplace of democracy. It must be hard to endure the anguish of seeing tourists continue to go to the Greek islands, not caring that similar islands nearby have been turned into concentration camps, and the daily frustration of watching the Western powers treat the colonels with equanimity, approval, and even respect. It is quite understandable, then, that Costa-Gavras would see his first task as overcoming the widespread indifference to the plight of his native land. These preoccupations dictated a somewhat oblique approach. First, he would arouse the audience against political oppression and official corruption in general; only afterward would he reveal that all these things actually existed in Greece. The viewers’ still unstructured anger would then be given specific direction, and the audience would be enlisted in the fight against the colonels. “We did not give the name of the country,” Costa-Gavras explained, because “when people think of Greece, they think of beautiful vacations in the sun, and they would have been distracted from the movie’s purpose.” But “at the end, with the military coup d’état and the long list of censored works, the audience recognizes that the country is Greece. And they realize that what we have been showing them throughout the entire film are real facts.”
The only thing wrong is that all this is based on a misapprehension. Everyone recognizes from the very first frame that the unnamed country in question is Greece. The danger of distraction is not from thoughts of beautiful vacations in the Greek sun, but from being diverted from the factual content of the narrative by its fictional form.
“I suppose,” Costa-Gavras allowed Vincent Canby, “there are certain people who just do not wish to believe that things are the way I have shown them in my film.” But this is not the real reason for disbelief. A better reason might be that audiences have seen these things in too many other films to believe that when they occur in this film they are taken from real life. Watching Z, one understands why so many directors never go to movies. The device of having a car chase a man through a colonnade and down a street, for example, is blatantly borrowed from the Hollywood thriller, and is by this time not only a cinematic cliché, but a very hackneyed one. If such an incident really did occur, it should be shot in a straightforward fashion, with discretion and economy. The temptation of theatricality must at all costs be shunned, since the slightest suggestion of melodrama risks a huge credibility gap. Yet this sequence in Z—in which one of Lambrakis’s supporters is almost killed—is played for all it. is worth. Unable to resist a dazzling, virtuoso camera technique to heighten the suspense, Costa-Gavras films it more like a reconstruction of previous gangster-film scenes than a recreation of real-life events. Nor is the chase episode—one of the most “thrilling” in the movie—the lone example of Costa-Gavras’s willingness throughout to set echoes of old Hollywood thrillers going in the minds of his viewers. What all such instances suggest is that Costa-Gavras (assuming we take his declarations of intention seriously) was trying to apply the methods of North by Northwest to making The Battle of Algiers.
In a sense, of course, it is hard to blame him. Partisan propagandistic films are rarely very good, and when they are it is generally in spite of their political purposes. Sometimes, as with the anti-Communist movies Hollywood produced in its early-50’s rush to expiate for its long neglect of the Red Menace, such films fail because the off-screen menace proved to be minor compared with the on-screen one. When the menace is real—when a film’s Manichean world view is a fair reflection of a Manichean world, as was the case with the anti-Nazi films of the 40’s—the problem is more serious. But precisely because the Nazis were so totally evil, many of the movies made against them were devoid of drama. The heroes tended to be as unequivocally good as the Nazis were unequivocally bad, and even less interesting.
Several ways around this dilemma were developed by moviemakers of the 40’s. One was to shift the dramatic center to something more interesting, as in Casablanca, where the question is not whether Victor Laszlo, the anti-fascist resistance leader, will escape, but whether Ingrid Bergman will go with him or stay with Humphrey Bogart. (Indeed, Victor is so dull that his wife’s leaving Casablanca with him is presented not merely as her duty in the Fight Against Fascism, but as an Unhappy Ending, her martyrdom to the cause of freedom.) Another strategy was to employ a more traditionally entertaining medium in which to convey the message. It was Ernst Lubitsch, a German Jew and an ex-comic actor, who saw that only its being taken hyperseriously saved Nazi theatricality from farce. By the masterstroke of having comedians play real Nazis and pseudo-tragedians play imitation ones, he made—in To be or Not to Be—what is undoubtedly the most devastating of all anti-Nazi films. Yet a third method was the use of allegory as, for example, in Westerns like the mainly antifascist Ox-Bow Incident of 1943, or the anti-McCarthy High Noon and Johnny Guitar of the early 50’s, or a movie like the 1947 Brute Force, which used a prison-picture format for what was obviously an anti-fascist message.
Such inventiveness is not present in Z, for even the flimsiest of disguises might have proved too effective. Above all, Costa-Gavras did not want the public to be “distracted from the movie’s purpose,” an exposé of the Lambrakis murder. It is a false economy. What makes a narrative effective is not subtraction, but judicious addition. What lifts a good movie to greatness is attention to detail, either factual or fictional. Costa-Gavras may have had no scruples about using traditional cinematic clichés—both the standard kind and the currently fashionable kindergarten Resnais devices—to render “what actually happened”; but there is here a curious kind of puritanism—which expresses itself in a refusal to “make anything up”—about embellishing the actual facts of the Lambrakis case. There are, to be sure, a few halfhearted attempts to give the secondary characters distinguishing dimensions, but they prove catastrophic. One of the assassins is made into a homosexual, which I suppose is meant to be indicative or important—Lambrakis the Olympic hero, versus the homosexuals—but fails, for lack of development, to be either. A witness provides some unfunny comic relief by posing for publicity shots, and there is a heavy-handed exchange between the witness and his sister.
For the most part, however, Costa-Gavras avoids such risks and relies on sure-fire effects. The fascists are interchangeably faceless, since for Costa-Gavras and for most of his audience the fact that they are the ones in uniform is enough to indicate that they are the bad guys. As far as the good guys go, the casting of Yves Montand as Lambrakis instantly solves all characterization problems. Using Montand was a kind of dramatic shorthand, a ready-made prepackaged stimulus to the audience which saved the director from having to do the job himself. The same is true of Irene Papas, a magnificent woman who seems to walk through numerous films these days looking like the winner of Shirley Jackson’s lottery.
It is one thing to put on a festival for Greek freedom; it is another to make a film. The actors are used here as if they were appearing at a benefit drive for Greek democracy. And we are supposed to understand instantly, and make the proper identifications, not from their roles in this film, but because we have seen them all before and know them automatically to be on the “right” side.
What in the end does Z wind up saying? Most of the critics—misled by the title perhaps, by the fashionably libertarian auspices under which it all takes place, or by the echoes of the Algerian struggle provided by the setting—have assumed that Z is a celebration of democracy—of the imperative for freedom residing in the people. Democracy may be thwarted temporarily, it seems to say, but in the end the impulse to liberty lives on and must triumph. Yet if one examines the movie closely, it doesn’t really say this at all. The “people” act only once in this film, when a small group of students paint “Z” on the pavement before being easily dispersed by the police. For the most part, they are inert—either standing by passively as their political leaders are beaten by homosexual goons or, as in the comic sequence with the witness’s sister, totally unaware and indifferent to what is going on around them.
The hero of Z is not the people but the examining magistrate, and the drama of Z lies in the magistrate’s unrelenting pursuit of those behind the assassination of Lambrakis. This magistrate—played by Jean-Louis Trintignant—derives as much from the American film as from real life. His type goes back to the earliest days of the movies, when William S. Hart would singlehandedly take on the combined forces of evil, and emerge victorious. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, Trintignant is the man who cannot be dissuaded from his duty, the man who stays when all the others run away. Perhaps unconsciously influenced by Hollywood films, Costa-Gavras’s Z inadvertently shares their simplistic and even invidious naiveté, a naiveté which says that one fearless man is both necessary and sufficient to vanquish the forces of evil. Necessary because the people are sheeplike, inert, and useless; sufficient because the hero always does win in the end. The myth of the man alone is indefensible in what Z purports to be, and in what it has been widely taken as being.
Curiously, the “people” did actually play a political role in recent Greek history, but this role the movie altogether slights. Popular outrage over the Lambrakis affair, and popular reaction to the judicial inquiry, were in part responsible for the 1963 fall of the conservative and corrupt Karamanlis government. The Center-Left government headed by George Papandreou then came to power, only to be removed by King Constantine, who, after the colonels’ coup, was himself forced into exile. The movie—as Andrew Sarris alone among critics has pointed out—actually presents a mendacious view of recent Greek history for its own ends. By telescoping the years between the Lambrakis affair and the colonels’ takeover, Z makes it appear as though the present rulers of Greece killed Lambrakis and then seized power to cover their crime. This is simply not true. Though the makers of the film would doubtless argue that this is a mere legalistic point, the colonels in effect being on the same “team” as, and consequently the heirs of, those who perpetrated the murder, one is entitled to ask whether the spirit of freedom, of justice, or of love of the people is ever ultimately served by this kind of obfuscation.