Z (1969): Narrative Structure, Cinematic and Political Impact

A powerful anti-fascist political thriller, Z is a directed by Costa-Gavras, with a screenplay by Gavras and Jorge Semprún, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos.

The film presents a fictionalized account of the events around the assassination of democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. But it goes beyond this particular incident to present outrage about the military dictatorship that ruled Greece in 1969, when it wads made.

The title of this film refers to a popular Greek protest slogan (Greek: Ζει, IPA: [ˈzi) meaning “he lives,”  referring to Lambrakis.

With its satirical view of Greek politics, its dark sense of humor, and its downbeat ending, the film captures the anger and outrage of a tumultuous era.

The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as the investigating magistrate, inspired by the actual figure of Christos Sartzetakis, who later served as president of Greece from 1985 to 1990.

Other international stars, such as French actor and singer Yves Montand and Greek Irene Papas (“Zorba the Greek”), also appear in small but significant roles.

Jacques Perrin, who co-produced, was cast is the key role of a photojournalist.

Synopsis (How the Narrative Unfolds)

The story begins with a government lecture and slide show on agricultural policy, after which the leader of the security police of a right-wing military government (Dux) takes over the podium for a speech about the government’s program to combat the left, using such metaphors as “a mildew of the mind,” and  “sunspots.”

Meanwhile, there are preparations for a rally of the opposition faction where the pacifist Deputy (Montand) is to give a speech advocating nuclear disarmament. There have been attempts to prevent the speech by the government. The venue has been changed to a smaller hall and there are unexpected logistical problems.

The Deputy is hit in the head by right-wing anti-communist bullies, sponsored by the government, but carries on with his speech. As the Deputy crosses the street, a man on the open truck bed strikes him with a club. The injury is fatal. Meanwhile, the police have manipulated witnesses to claim that it was an accident, that the victim was run over by drunk driver.

However, at the hospital, the autopsy disproves their interpretation. The examining magistrate (Trintignant), helped by photojournalist (Perrin), uncovers evidence to indict the two right-wing militants who committed the murder, and the four high-ranking police officers.

The film concludes with a Deputy’s associate informing the distressed Deputy’s widow (Papas) of the officers’ indictments.

The epilogue depicts the subsequent events. The prosecutor is mysteriously removed from the case, several key witnesses die under suspicious circumstances, the assassins receive short sentences, the officers receive only administrative reprimands, the Deputy’s close associates die or are deported, and the photojournalist is sent to prison for disclosing official documents. The heads of the government resign after public disapproval, but before elections are carried out, in a Coup d’etat, the military seize power.

They ban popular art, such as music, avant-garde novels, classic and modern philosophers, and the use of the term “Z” (Greek: zíta, used by protesters against the government), which referred to the Deputy and means “He lives.”

Global Impact

The film had a total of 3.95 million admissions in France, where it was the year’s 4th highest grossing film.

It was the 12th highest grossing film of 1969 in the U.S, grossing in rentals $6,75 million.

still is one of the few films to be nominated for both the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and the main award, the Best Picture Oscar.


Jean-Louis Trintignant as The Examining Magistrate, based on Christos Sartzetakis

Yves Montand as The Deputy (Grigoris Lambrakis)

Irene Papas as Helene, the Deputy’s wife

Pierre Dux as The General (based on Konstantinos Mitsou)

Jacques Perrin as Photojournalist

Charles Denner as Manuel

François Périer as Public prosecutor

Running time: 127 Minutes