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Z poster
Elle est volontaire

You’ve heard that line, haven’t you, about how “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”? The Internet seems to attribute it to Joseph Heller and his novel Catch-22, although I can’t recall coming across it there. I’m pretty sure Alan Arkin’s Yossarion says it in the 1970 film version, though.

Anyway, the reason I mention it is because, in a roundabout way, it could be applied to another film, released only one year earlier in 1969: Z, directed by Costa-Gavras. After all, this film has many of the attributes of a paranoid thriller such as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). It revolves around the assassination of a politician. His killers are a pair of thugs who have ties to the police and the ruling military regime. And almost every character is named by cipher: The General, The Deputy, The Judge, The Photojournalist, and so on. There’s a probably a tinker, a tailor, a solider and a spy in there, somewhere, too.

Except: just because a film plays like a paranoid thriller, it doesn’t mean the authorities aren’t out to get it. As it happens, Z was based on a novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, which was itself based on the real-life killing of the Greek politician and pacifist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. This explains the title of film: after Lambrakis’s death, the word Ζει – standing for “he lives” – was sprayed, in protest, on Athenian walls*. And it also explains why the film couldn’t be made in Greece, where a military junta was halfway through its period of iron rule. That same junta had absolved many of those linked to the Lambrakis killing when it came to power in 1967. This wasn’t paranoia so much as actual, ongoing history.

Against such a backdrop, and with the unrest of 1968 still fresh in the audience’s collective memory, any film with Z’s subject matter ought to have stood out. But Costa-Gavras did much to make sure of it. He and the screenwriter Jorge Semprún signed their name to an opening text that, contrary to standard practice, read:

“Any resemblance to real events, to people living or dead, isn’t by chance.

It’s by choice.” 

And if that doesn’t make you sit up in your armchair, the movie that follows surely will. What defines Z, cinematically as well as politically, is its restlessness. The news-crew camerawork of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the spiky score by Mikis Theodorakis, Françoise Bonnot’s hyperkinetic editing; everything contributes to a drama that keeps on moving at all times. The assassination itself, which takes place about a quarter-way into the film, is a case in point. No sooner is the opposition politician thwacked about the head than we’re watching a fight, on the back of a moving three-wheeler, between a guard and the murderer.

Many critics sum up Z’s street-level style as “documentary realism”. And it’s true: the film does make you feel – like Francesco Rosi’s Hands Over the City (1963) and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers (1966) – that you’re watching political upheaval in real-time and real-space, as opposed to reel-time and reel-space. But I prefer to look at it differently. What Costa-Gavras manages, chooses, to do is take a documentary subject and cinematise it. Whether to help sell the film abroad, or for other reasons, it’s no accident that two of the main characters were played by Yves Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant, two French actors who were particularly en vogue at the time. And there’s also nothing accidental about the shots of Irene Papas as the politician’s widow; her face a haunting picture of grief, not least because it’s precisely framed by the black curtains of her hair.

This isn’t an admonition, to point out that Costa-Gavras understands, and makes use of, the zap-bang power of cinema – quite the opposite. But it is to say that he’s engaging in some political sloganeering of his own. It just so happens that, unlike the regime in Z, his slogans are sharpened against the tyrants, the killers and the corrptocrats. So never mind, ConservativeHome reader, that Costa-Gavras’s politics are left-wing. Forget that his latest film, which I haven’t seen, sounds like an insipid exercise in bashing the bankers. As he once put it himself, “I have always been suspicious about ‘hard left’ or ‘hard right’ and about anything ‘hard’.” Murderous political extremeness is what Z rails against, and that’s a very fine target.

Which kinda helps explain why I’ve avoided mentioning recent Greek politics in this review, at least until now. Yes, there are surface parallels between it and Z: the violence, the instability, the riots. That’s part of Greece’s tragedy. But this film isn’t so much about a time and a place as it is about tyranny everywhere. The General? The Deputy? The Photojournalist? It’s a universal cast for universal fears.

* Strangely enough, the same slogan also crops up in Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997). The proof? Fast-forward to 1:35 in this video.

This is the third entry in ConservativeHome’s Film Club, after The Great McGinty (1940) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). The next film will be will be A Face in the Crowd (1957).

2 comments for: Peter Hoskin: A film that isn’t about Greece then or Greece now, but political tyranny everywhere

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