50th anniversary of Z, by Costa-Gavras, who receives the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award at Venice
Z, directed by Costa-Gavras, is a French procedural-thriller based on Greek events – but has a rich American connection.
Z, directed by Costa-Gavras, is a French procedural-thriller based on Greek events – but let’s first look at the American connection. When the film was released in 1969, then-US President Richard Nixon’s resignation was still a few years away – but what Federal Times Editor Jill Aitoro wrote, after the Watergate scandal broke, was already beginning to be felt.
She said that “a certain naiveté about politics was lost among Americans, a newfound appreciation of investigative journalism emerged, and government realized that press might not be so easily contained.” Vietnam. Race wars. The Black Panthers. The seeds of mistrust were beginning to be sown in the late-sixties, and it isn’t surprising that Z – about the assassination of a peacenik politician and the ensuing investigation into the cover-ups – became the 12th-highest grossing film of the year. (It went on to win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award.)
Another American connection: the way the assassination is staged brings to mind the 8 mm film of the John F Kennedy assassination shot by Abraham Zapruder. (You might have seen it in Oliver Stone’s JFK.) But Costa-Gavras, who will unveil a new film (Adults in the Room) at Venice and receive the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker award, denied that the Zapruder film was an influence, because “in Europe, no one has really seen the Zapruder films”.
In an interview he gave Cinéaste magazine (the Winter 1969/70 issue), he said, “I was more interested in showing how an important event is perceived. First we see [the assassination] as it actually took place, then as the general retells it, and finally, as a lawyer friend of Z remembers it.” The important event he speaks of is the assassination, in 1963, of democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis. But this is what makes the film universal. The Europeans may have known that it was really about one of their politicians, but the Americans may have felt the Kennedy connect. The specifics don’t matter.
Still, seen today, there’s a ho-hum air about the film. “Tell me more!” we say. “So what’s new!” It’s why Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (based on the 1966 Vassilis Vassilikos novel that Z was also adapted from) felt as timely as yesterday’s newspaper. When Costa-Gavras made Z at the height of the counterculture, the Cold War – with its threat that the world would vanish in a mushroom cloud – was a frightening reality, and a peace-mongering politician who spoke of disarmament was a genuinely vital figure that people identified with. In a public speech just before the assassination, he says, “The stockpile of A-bombs is equal to 1 ton of dynamite per person on earth. They want to prevent us from reaching the obvious political conclusions based on these simple truths.”
Also, back then, cynicism was still a new flavour in cinema. You had tasted it in the noir films, perhaps, where everyone came in shades of grey. Or maybe you could point to a classic Billy Wilder drama like Ace in the Hole, about an opportunistic journalist who preys on people’s incessant appetite for sensation. But thrillers about how rotten politics is, all the way to the top? That was something new. Z, along with the decade’s other political thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, paved the way for the subsequent decade of mainstream Hollywood movies (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) that played on audience’s fears about shadowy government conspiracies. At the end, we learn that key witnesses have ended up mysteriously dead, and the conspirators have been freed and reinstated in their positions through a military coup. Watching the film today, could anyone be really surprised?
I don’t mean to say we cannot or should not feel about these things anymore. I’m just saying that, after years of political conspiracies, such events aren’t sufficient as a narrative backbone. The “corrupt politician” has become as much of a cinematic cliché as “rich girl and poor boy”, and it’s not enough as the sole provider of dramatic tension. The fear of those times, that the System was corrupt and out to get you, is no longer a fear – it’s an institutionalised reality that we’ve become inured to. Whether this attitude is healthy in a democracy is a different question – but as drama, these stories simply don’t have the power to jolt us anymore. What hasn’t dated, though, is the excitement Costa-Gavras brings to his narration, with his constantly roving camera and cunningly elliptical cuts. Pauline Kael called it an “extraordinary thriller – one of the fastest, most exciting melodramas ever made”.
And regardless of the familiarity of the overall narrative trajectory, the last section is still very moving. It lists the things that were subsequently banned by the military regime. Long hair, for instance. In a 2009 WNYC radio interview, Costa-Gavras recalled, in his halting English, “The police catch the students with long hair and cutting the hair in the street.” Other banned items: mini-skirts. Sophocles. Tolstoy. Euripides. Russian-style toasts. Strikes. Aristophanes. Ionesco. Sartre. Albee. Pinter. Freedom of the Press. Sociology. Beckett. Dostoyevsky. Modern music. Pop music. (The Beatles were a big no-no.) New math. And finally, and the letter “Z”, which means “He is alive” in ancient Greek. The film’s saddest touch, however, comes at the very beginning. In a disclaimer, we see this confession: “Any similarity to actual persons or events is deliberate.”
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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