Film as Witness in Costa-Gavras’s Z

| Luke Mosher |

A crowd of men stand on the road at night; in the back is a line of men wearing blue helmets. In front of them are mostly men in suits. At the front is Yves Montand, dressed in a brown suit.

The regal Yves Montand as The Deputy, moments before he is attacked.

Z plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, August 18th, through Sunday, August 20th. Visit for tickets and more information.

This essay contains spoilers for the film Z.

Costa-Gavras’s 1969 film Z is a fictionalized account of the 1963 assassination of the Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis by the Greek government. The title refers not to our English Z but the Greek letter Zeta, which protesters used as a slogan after Lambrakis’ death for “Zei,” or “He lives.” As retaliation, the Greek military junta that seized power in 1967 banned the letter Z. The film’s title, memorable for its simplicity, was a direct provocation of the Greek ban. In 1969, just watching it was an act of protest. Even today, Z plays as a political film relevant to our own time, and shows how film can serve as its own kind of witness in times of censorship.

The machinations of Z’s plot are complex and unfold rapidly, so laying out the story of the film may be helpful to the reader not already versed in Greek politics of the 1960s.1 I’ll go ahead and issue a *Spoiler Warning* here. However, the story documents what’s already on public record, and in any case is more of a Columbo-style “howdunnit” than a “whodunnit,” so I’d say it can’t really be spoiled.

Z begins rather boldly with the text, “Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is INTENTIONAL.” Screenwriter Jorge Semprun and director Costa-Gavras created a sort of roman à clef film, retaining the details of the real-life story but changing names and places. Viewers unfamiliar with the Lambrakis story can still read it as a universal parable about any instance of politically abused power, but the film was always intended to be a public telling of the assassination and how the Greek government covered it up.

A man is running under a white concrete building, with a car following him.

In one of Z‘s most iconic scenes, a fleet-footed witness to The Deputy’s assassination is chased by a car.

The film’s story is split into the events leading up to the assassination and its aftermath. In the first half, the fictionalized Grigoris Lambrakis, a left-wing politician named The Deputy (Yves Montand), is scheduled to give a speech against the militant right-wing party currently in office. The film glosses over details, but the real-life Lambrakis opposed Greek involvement in NATO and reliance on American economic aid, and called for the disarmament of a U.S. missile base in Thessaloniki. After his speech, The Deputy exits into the street, and a man in the back of a delivery truck clubs his head in front of a huge crowd of witnesses—the military, the local police, protestors on both sides, as well as us, the audience, who have the clearest view of all. The effectiveness of this pivotal moment comes from film’s unique ability as a medium to show events more accurately than an eyewitness’s testimony: the camera doesn’t lie. We know what we saw, and won’t be persuaded otherwise.

After this attack, the Deputy is taken to a hospital, where he dies. The second part of the movie follows the investigation into this suspicious incident by a character called the Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), based on the real-life investigator Christos Sartzetakis. Pressured by the authorities to present a false narrative where the Deputy died from a “traffic accident,” he decides instead to follow through with his investigation, wherever it might lead. Simply by carrying out his civic duty, the Examining Magistrate becomes the film’s hero. With the help of a squirrely journalist (Jacques Perrin), he pieces together the true story of the incident as he makes his way through the maze of disinformation, red tape, and eyewitnesses who are mysteriously disappeared.2  In a surprisingly funny scene, he finally interrogates the military leaders who conspired to assassinate the Deputy, and they all deny the charges in the exact same way, threatening to resign on principle (they don’t, of course).3 At the end of the trial, which in real life took two years (1966-68), the Examining Magistrate publishes his conclusion, finding the military leaders guilty of conspiracy to murder. Lambrakis’ killers were imprisoned, and the leaders who conspired to his assassination were discharged from office, though not prosecuted—though not an ideal ending to the trial, at least the truth of the matter had been uncovered.

However, a famously abrupt epilogue reverses this ending. The final scene is a news report that details the 1967 government seizure by a military junta, who dropped all criminal charges from the leaders involved, and “rehabilitated” them into power. The Examining Magistrate was relieved of office, the journalist arrested, and several political opponents met their deaths. The film ends with a list of the junta’s bans that would be absurdity funny if they weren’t all true: long hair, miniskirts, Sophocles, Tolstoy, Russian-style toasts, sociology, pop music, new math, and finally, the letter Z. The film ends with a final, defiant shot of the letter Z superimposed on a picture of the Deputy. When the film was released in 1969, the letter was still banned.

An image comparing the lead to a sketch of the same man. On the left is the actor Yves Montand, while on the right is a sketch of the politician he is portraying. In the middle is a large blue Z and the text "Il Est Vivant".

The Greek “Z” and French “IL EST VIVANT,” which both mean, “He lives.” 

Somewhat unexpectedly, Z became an international hit, and is significant within film history for inventing the political thriller as a genre. In fact, Z was so popular that political thrillers used to be nicknamed “Z films.”4 Of course, politically oriented thrillers existed prior to Z, but they were usually thrillers about politics with a fictional story (1962’s The Mandurian Candidate and 1964’s Fail-Safe come to mind as two of the best). Z was the first film to combine a real-life political story with the edge-of-your-seat thriller filmmaking developed in 1960s Hollywood. Costa-Gavras cited as inspiration for Z the documentary-like realism of Italian neo-realists like Francesco Rosi or Gillo Pontecorvo.5 Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962), about the real-life murder and investigation of an Italian criminal, and The Battle of Algiers (1966), about the Algerian war against France, are two of Z’s closest antecedents. 

The story behind making Z is in some ways as ideologically daring as the film itself. Z was Costa-Gavras’s third film, after the Hitchcockian mystery-thriller The Sleeping Car Murders (1965) and the WWII adventure Shock Troops (1967). While visiting his family in Athens, Greece in April of 1967, Costa-Gavras’s brother Tolis lent him the Vassilis Vassilikos novel Z, which he read with great enthusiasm. Less than a week later, the military junta seized control of Greece. Costa-Gavras realized it was the right political moment to tell the story of the Lambrakis assassination, which has obvious resonances to the current seizure of power in Greece, as well as other political assassinations of the 1960s, including John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Mehdi Ben Barka. To adapt the novel, he worked with the screenwriter Jorge Semprun, who wrote Alain Resnais’ The War is Over (1966), which Costa-Gavras had been impressed by.

For the central role of the Deputy character, Costa-Gavras attracted Yves Montand, a major actor and singer who was considered the Frank Sinatra of France, relying on his regal image to convey The Deputy’s magnanimity. Montand was so personally drawn to film that he turned down the opportunity to make Topaz with Alfred Hitchcock so he could act in Z. The film was financed and produced by actor Jacques Perrin, head of the production company Reggane Films, who got the role of the journalist in exchange for help financing and producing the film. More funding came from the Algerian government, who also provided extras, and allowed him to film exteriors, Algeria being a good stand-in for the Mediterranean landscape of Greece.

On the left is a man taking a photo, on the right is a man laying in a hospital bed with a tray of food in front of him. He is smiling and holding an ice pack on his head.

A witness to the central crime suddenly remembers what he saw when he learns he can get his picture in the newspaper for it.

A final interesting detail about the movie’s production is the score composed by musician Mikis Theodorakis, famous for Zorba the Greek (1964) and later Serpico (1973). Theodorakis was a close personal friend of Grigoris Lambrakis, and after his assassination in 1963 organized and led the Lambrakis Youth Movement, the very group that invented the Zei “He lives” slogan that inspired the film’s name. Theodorakis’ music was banned by the Greek government in 1966, and again by the military junta in 1967, after which he was briefly arrested for six months, and then exiled to the small mountain village of Zatouna. Actor-producer Jacques Perrin (the journalist) journeyed to Zatouna to secretly pass a message to Theodorakis to compose a score. Theodorakis recorded two original songs for the film and smuggled them on a tape back to Costa-Gavras—listen for one during the scene when the journalist investigates the members of CROC—and the rest of the score was taken from previously recorded material. 

Z has been perennially relevant to our political present since its release in 1969. The film is radical simply for showing the truth about what happened in the Grigoris Lambrakis assassination without embellishment. Z’s creators could not have known this when the film was made, but the Greek junta that seized power in 1967 was overthrown in 1974, and the Examining Magistrate who investigated Lambrakis’ death and exposed the truth, Christos Sartzetakis, was elected president of Greece from 1985-1990. The Greek junta suppressed the truth for a few years, but the truth can only be silenced for so long. 


1 Including myself—I know nothing of Greek politics beyond Z and the sources I cite here. I hope this is the only time I will have to use this phrase during this article, but it’s all Greek to me. The details on the real-life Lambrakis assassination and the making of Z in this article are taken from John J. Michalczyk’s excellent Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film, the single best resource I found on Costa-Gavras. See John J. Michalczyk, Costa-Gavras: The Political Fiction Film. Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1984. 76-105.

2 I stole the idea of Z’s story as a maze from Roger Ebert’s 1969 review. Ebert was spot-on, as usual: “[The film] ends in a chase: Not through the streets but through a maze of facts, alibis and official corruption.” From Roger Ebert, “Z,” (December 30, 1969).

3 Evidently, in the real-life interrogation, one general put a gun to his head and threatened to kill himself, but Costa-Gavras thought this was so outrageous that nobody would believe it really happened, and took it out of the story.

4 Some critics, like the authors I cite here, indicate that this was not necessarily a compliment—as in, B movie, Z movie. They saw Z’s imitators, especially within 1970s Hollywood, as crass, commercialized versions that cheapened the political integrity of Z. Guy Hennebelle and Renée Delforge. “Z Movies; or What Hath Costa-Gavras Wrought?” Cinéaste 6. 2 (1974): 28–31.

5 Michalczyk, Costa-Gavras, p. 22.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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