This Classic Political Thriller Has a Lot to Teach Us About Fascism

By  · Published on November 8th, 2016

Fascists can ban the letter Z, but that won’t stop people from writing it.

The world never changes all at once. The occasion of a momentous event invariably entails looking back and taking stock of what chain of decisions, commissions, omissions, and institutional inertia led history to slowly roll to this particular point. As I write this I don’t yet know how the 2016 presidential election will end up, though I’m fairly certain that Hillary Clinton is going to win by a decisive margin. It’ll be a relief, as opposed to the alternative, but taking too self-indulgent a victory lap would be a mistake, since a Clinton victory is not any kind of decisive, conclusive victory over the forces of fascism. (EDIT : whoops, guess those last two sentences were written prematurely. Anyway, on with the larger point.) That’s because there is no such thing. One can be optimistic and insist that with sufficient resolve and dedication, the wolves can be kept from the door. When the wolves have already gotten in and taken over, that kind of optimism can be hard to come by, as is the case with Costa-Gavras’ 1969 film Z.

During the last year of World War II, conflict between the Greek government and Communist insurgents began, escalating into full-scale civil war in 1946. The government emerged victorious, with a strong prevailing anti-communist sentiment, and Greece would subsequently join NATO and become a strategic regional power in the Cold War. Freedoms were limited, as were opposition parties. In the early 60s, a popular leftist politician named Grigoris Lambrakis was assassinated by two far-right extremists who were discovered to have ties to the ruling regime. Lambrakis’ assassination did not, to put it mildly, improve the political climate, and a year after Vassilis Vassilikos’ novel Z, a thin fictionalization of Lambrakis’ murder, was published, Greece was taken over by a military junta. Costa-Gavras, who had been forced to leave Greece at 18 because his father’s Communist party membership prohibited him from attending university in his native country, adapted Vassilikos’ novel for the screen.

The film surges with righteous anger. Shot in a then-radical style using the method and process of cinema verite to capture staged action, Z foregoes expositional artifice for the visceral immediacy of the present tense. Opening with the best opening titles music in the history of cinema (by Mikis Theodorakis, who attended Lambrakis rallies), Z juxtaposes the banal tedium of fascist bureaucracy with the idealistic ardor of the opposing party, as they prepare for a rally for a charismatic pacifist Deputy played by Yves Montand. The Deputy’s fate is Lambrakis’, and after the murder, the film’s focus shifts to a conscientious magistrate, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who gradually discovers the ruling regime’s role in the assassination and their cover-up thereof. Evidence in hand, he presents an utterly damning case . . . and then a coup d’etat takes place and the new authority gives forth with a litany of now-banned institutions, concepts, and words, including removing the letter Z from the alphabet, since it has been used by the resistance to mean, referring to the Deputy, “he is alive.”

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Z is not a work of great subtlety, being as it is an angry, blunt rant, but its anger is infectious and inspirational. Costa-Gavras makes very deliberate use of the star power of his leading actors. Montand and Trintignant are two of the most charismatic actors ever to grace the screen but the greatest star of all, in a small but powerful role, is the Greek actress Irene Papas, playing the Deputy’s widow. Papas conveys an entire universe of emotion in her brief minutes of screen time, providing the entirety of the sense of the Deputy as a human being rather than a political candidate or a political idea. It’s a risk to neglect the emotional underpinnings so, in a film primarily concerned with politics and ideas, but Papas, as the great stars do, turns lead to gold without visibly breaking a sweat.

A few short years after its release, the ruling junta collapsed and Z became a historical document rather than a present-tense chronicle of an open wound. It remains, apart from its aesthetic qualities and its value as an exciting and entertaining movie, a caution against allowing the forces of authoritarianism to congeal around civic institutions, making it possible for the brutal few to fail upward into positions of absolute power over the helpless many. Details matter. Choices matter. Process matters. Results are emergences, not justifications. And most of all, the fascists can ban the letter Z all they want, but that cannot stop anyone from writing it. He is still alive, whether they like it or not, and will ever be.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all