The ‘political thriller’ is the escapist’s worst nightmare. Ranging from the terrifyingly satirical to the powerfully didactic, this genre blurs the lines between culture and politics, or fantasy and reality, distinctions that many prefer untouched. But if modern politics is disturbing enough for you, that’s precisely why these films are necessary. Of course, they’re still dramatisations: reality, but intensified, to get a message across. Indeed, Costa-Gavras’s 1969 film Z does not shy away from promoting a political message. But to look at it as merely a dramatisation would be an insult to both its creators and the history behind it.
An Algerian-French film set in Greece, Z is a gripping account of events surrounding the assassination of left-wing politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. It provides insight into the political turmoil of 1960s Greece that culminated in the military coup of 1967, when a far-right group of colonels overthrew the government a month before elections were due to take place. But while Gavras’s contempt for the colonels is clear, any appeals to emotion are only thinly fictionalised. In fact, barely two minutes into the movie, the audience is given this warning: “Toute ressemblance avec des évènements réels, des personnes mortes ou vivantes n’est pas le fait du hasard. Elle est VOLONTAIRE.” (Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE.) This film does not glamourise or exaggerate. If you come out the other end a sobbing revolutionary, you would have most likely done the same during the real thing.
In spite of the film’s low budget (there was reluctance to fund something so controversial), there is no lack of cinematic brilliance. It boasts an incredible soundtrack by Mikis Theodorakis, with pulsating rhythms of both music and narrative that build tension and keep the audience hooked. Setting and conflict are established with an elusiveness that serves to emphasise the power of rhetoric, as a roomful of military officials talk in metaphors, describing their left-wing opposition as an ideological disease – an “outbreak of ‘isms’” – the “antibodies” for which are their recruits of right-wing “thugs”, ordinary people lured by nationalist sentiment and financial gain. Yves Montand plays the Deputy (Lambrakis), a kind-hearted, ‘man of the people’ politician, and we see his assassination at the hands of two of these recruits. The film then depicts the moral and political struggle surrounding the investigation, as military officials are faced with the dilemma of an almost robotically conscientious magistrate, unfazed by intimidation and determined to discover the truth. But truth is often powerless when up against power itself, something that the Deputy’s wife, a perpetually melancholy Irene Papas, seems well aware of. And indeed, one look at the reigning military regime that Gavras was condemning, and it becomes painfully clear that truth did not prevail.
In many ways, Z could be considered one of the most foreign films ever. This may seem like a ridiculous claim to make, but think about it: an English-speaking audience is presented with not one, but (god forbid) two different cultures. Greek history meets the French language and a left-wing sympathy rife in 1960s France – truly a stain on the Western and Anglophonic cultural canon. Ideologically, this film could not be further from Hollywood. There’s no typical happy ending of good defeating evil, and not only does it sing the praises of left-wing activists, but it even blatantly condemns American involvement in Greek political affairs. In fact, there is little doubt that the 1967-74 ‘Regime of the Colonels’ in Greece had a significant degree of American backing.
With its anti-fascist message, Z feels constantly relevant these days. Take the recent US Capitol riots. The world watched in horror as what arguably resembled the beginnings of a coup unravelled in the Congress building, forcing a delay in the certification of Biden’s victory. Many mourned the “travesty of democracy” and the “stain on America’s legacy”. Biden himself insisted that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not represent who we are.” And yet, a brief dip into American history would suggest otherwise. Greece, Iran, Chile, Panama, Syria, Yemen, the list is endless. For years, American federal institutions have interfered in regimes across the world, under the pretence of advancing democracy and preventing so-called tyranny. Their true intentions tend to be more sinister, often to reassert US dominance in the face of Soviet-backed governments, or to seize another country’s natural resources, or even to protect a financially beneficial trade relationship. Either way, it would do us some good to remember that America and democracy are not necessarily synonymous. Power and truth have the same unbalanced relationship in ‘the Land of the Free’ that they did in 1960s Greece.
Costa-Gavras’s film is simultaneously a political cry of outrage and a thoroughly moving cinematic experience. To finish, the audience is hit with one final blow: a list of things banned by the military regime – a list so absurd that you can’t help but laugh – ranging from sociology to mini-skirts, modern mathematics to The Beatles, Dostoevsky and Chekhov to long hair. Also banned is the letter ‘Z’, or ‘Ζει’, meaning “he lives” in Ancient Greek, a symbol associated with Lambrakis’s murder. Nowadays, with the continuous rise of right-wing nationalist politics, watching this film is more important than ever. And I’m sure that Lambrakis and his associates would be somewhat reassured to know that in spite of everything, he lives.