Costas Gavras Talks About Z, 40 Years Later

A riveting action thriller about political assassination at the highest levels, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Z. Not the magazine in front of you, but the Academy Award-winning 1969 film co-written and directed by Costas Gavras (AKA Costa-Gavras) about a Judge (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who looks into the death of the Deputy (also referred to as Comrade Z, played by Yves Montand) who was about to give a speech on nuclear disarmament. Deliberately dissident, claiming its intention to resemble the U.S.-backed military coup of Greece in the early 1960s and the events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963, Gavras’s film touched a nerve with audiences still reeling from the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations.

While Gavras has made many political films—Missing, Music Box, and Amen—his film titled after the banned letter, which was a symbolic reminder that Lambrakis (he) lives on—remains his masterpiece.

ESTHER: Why did you want to make Zin the first place?

GAVRAS: The colonels had just come to power in Greece, overthrowing democracy. Making Z was my way to protest them.

What were your political intentions?

To show they were a pack of fanatic and stupid military men that were foes to democracy.

How successful were you in achieving those goals?

If you consider how successful the film was all over the world—except in dictatorship-ruled countries, which banned my movie—I can say I reached my goals.

Which of the characters in the film do you identify with the most and why?

I identify with the journalist for his passion of seeking the truth and information and with the judge for his passion for justice, which he stands up for at great risk of losing everything.

In Z you combined European political awareness and commitment with the tempo of an American action thriller. What kind of audience did you have in mind?

I never think of the type of audience or whom I am addressing or I should address in my films. I make it, thinking of myself as a spectator and what I feel.

Famous photo of Lambrakis in a peace marathon a month before his assassination in 1963 (sign says Hellas-Greece)

Some on the hard left felt casting stars such as Montand and Trintignant played into the hands of storytelling a la the establishment (namely Hollywood). I know casting stars makes it easier to raise money and fill theater seats, but what else do you say to those “purist” criticisms?

Montand and Trintignant were stars, but they are also actors with great talent. I have always been suspicious about “hard left” or “hard right” and about anything “hard.” I keep in mind that Hollywood made great masterpieces in cinema…as it also made bad movies.

The uniforms, popular songs, names, and pictures used in the film are Greek yet the film is in French. What were the reasons behind telling the story in French?

It would have been impossible to make it in Greece. Besides it is also a film with universal appeal. There are no Greek names in the movie. The characters are named by their occupations: the General, the Deputy, the Lawyer, the Doctor, the Colonel, etc. The two murderers’ names are Yago and Vago, which are common names. But for the Greek audience, there are, here and there, some signs, such as the beer FIX. We talk about the palace and we show one or two official portraits of the king and the queen. Z…means in Greek “He is still alive” or “he lives.”

Why did you have to go to Algeria to get this film made

Because, of course, it was impossible to make the film in Greece. United Artists financed the movie, then refused it. The script was too wordy and they were also scared that all their productions would be banned from Greece.

In an attempt to avoid sentimentality with the character of the Deputy you downplayed some of Lambrakis’s other fine attributes (for example he ran a free clinic for the poor). In hindsight are you convinced this was the best decision?

The main issue was to show the political philosophy of Lambrakis, which was disarmament, peace, and democracy in a country where it didn’t exist.

Conversely you downplayed the buffoonery of the top military brass and the homosexuality of the killer. Could you talk about your motivations behind those conceits?

Tanks patrol Athens during 1973 uprising

Buffoonery of the top military brass comes from their reality and philosophy. I was convinced they were reactionary and stupid. Then I moderated this thought and just showed them as buffoons. The real killers were like those in the movie: one was economically dependent on the police, the other was a pedophile, so also dependent on police.

The women in Zare few and far between, yet they play pivotal roles in acquiring information and bringing a human dimension to the story. In your later films (Hanna K, Music Box), women play a more prevalent role. Could you give us your thoughts about women in the roles of political discourse—historical, cinematic, or otherwise?

In Z, the role of women was limited by the story itself to the minimum. I suggested relationships with his wife and also the fact that Lambrakis felt attracted to other women. Nowadays women play a more and more important role in politics and I think this is a great hope for society.

Like the assassinations of Trotsky and Kennedy during the same era, the Deputy takes a fatal blow to the head (brain). What does that say about fascism and the state of ideas?

This is a very true statement. Consciously or unconsciously, fascists hit (aim, shoot) the most vulnerable part of man: his head, a place from where his ideas come from—especially when these same ideas condemn fascism.

How do you feel about winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film? After all, the AMPAS is a hubbub of middlebrow, reactionary tastes.

It legitimized the film. It was as if Hollywood condemned the Greek colonels while Washington recognized them and was collaborating with them.

After its release many film scholars saw it in relation to the JFK assassination, which, according to what I read, was not on your mind. What does that say about American ethnocentrism, even at the higher-intellectual levels?

This parallelism with the JFK assassination was made because, in both cases, they were young politicians who were breaking with the traditions of old politicians. Z was the only movie telling the story of a real political assassination, not a fictitious one.

Is there anything you find about Z that rings false today?

No. I saw the film a month ago in New York City and I thought there is still a lot of faith in it and that the actors’ performances didn’t become outdated.

The re-release of the film comes after Bush’s reign. Perhaps I am being one of those American ethno-centrists, but what similarities can we draw between America from 2000-2008 and Greece’s right-wing establishment in the early 1960s?

There is the same lack of intelligence and generosity to face social and political issues. On a larger scale than Greece, there is the same fanaticism and lack of respect for the human being.

Trial of the Greek junta leaders in 1975

There is considerable talk about investigating the Bush years. While there is much to be said about the matter, I was wondering if you could talk about this in light of the fact that the Examining Magistrate was a right-winger who held honesty above ideology.

Christos Sartzetakis was right wing. That is why he was given this case, but he was also an honest judge who held justice above everything. Concerning Bush, I have a question that can sound naive: Who was running the country? Bush, the poor-minded president, or Cheney, the rich businessperson and vice president?

Although you have made several films since Z, it is still the film you are, overwhelmingly, best known for to this day. How do you feel about that?

I don’t want to compare myself to them, but it is a usual phenomenon. Orson Welles is associated with Citizen Kane, Sergei Eisenstein to The Battleship Potemkin, and Francis Ford Coppola to The Godfather.

What do you think about the magazine Z, which took its name from the movie?

It’s a magazine of quality. That is why I have responded to your questions in detail. On the other hand, I would never go to the Greek restaurant Z in New York!

What do you think about interviews where you discuss your work? Do they serve the work? Should the work just speak for itself?

The film speaks for itself better than the author who made the work. One can only speak about one’s work in a superficial way. It is impossible to explain the feelings and compulsions that lead to the making of a film.


John Esther lives and writes about culture and politics via cinema. His work has appeared in Z Magazine and numerous other publications in print and online.