Z (1969): Costa-Gavras and Political Filmmaking

The rerelease of Costa Gavras’ 1969 seminal political thriller “Z,” to commemorate its 40th anniversary, calls into question the very nature and commercial prospects of explicitly political filmmaking, the kind of which this estimable director has devoted all of his career, with varying degrees of success.


Born Konstantinos Gavras, in 1933, in Kilvia, Greece. The son of an atheist bureaucrat of the Greek government, he received a strict Orthodox education, at the insistence of his mother. Since his father, a WW II resistance-fighter, was repeatedly jailed after the war on suspicion of Communist activity, Kostantinos was denied entry into a Greek university and was refused a visa to study in the U.S.  At 18 he went to Paris, where he graduated from the Sorbonne 3 years later with a degree in literature. A cinema devotee since childhood, he then studied filmmaking at I.D.H.E.C. (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques) in Paris.


After serving as assistant director to Yves Allegret, Rene Clair, and Jacques Demy, he made his debut as director in 1965 with a commercially suc­cessful suspense thriller, “The Sleeping Car Murders.” But he gained international prominence with his political thriller “Z,” a virtuoso indictment of the repressive Greek junta regime, notable for its gripping suspense and realistic camera work. The film was nominated for Oscar Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. It won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Editing. The New York Film Critics named Costa?Gavras Best Director of 1969.  Demonstrating that he was opposed to tyranny anywhere, he followed “Z” with another political film, “The Confession,” again starring his favorite actor Yves Montand, this time as the victim of a Com­munist witch-hunt in Czechoslovakia.


In “State of Siege,” Mon­tand plays a CIA agent meddling in the affairs of Uruguay. In 1975 he shared the Best Director prize at Cannes for Special Section, a recreation of Vichy government days in WW 11 France. He shared a Golden Palm (best film) in Cannes and a Best Screen­play Adaptation Oscar for his first American film, “Missing” (1982), a piercing factually?inspired drama about American ­sanctioned atrocities in post?Allende Chile. Like most of Costa?Gavras’ works, the film caused contro­versy, as did his pro?Palestinian melodrama “Hanna K.” (1983).

Looking back at his career, “Z” is still his most invigorating and influential picture, in which an investigating judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tries to uncover the truth about the murder of a prominent leftist politician (Yves Montand), while government officials and the military attempt to cover up their participation. The film is a fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. The film gained additional resonance, because at the time of release Greece had been ruled by the “Regime of the Colonels”. 

The next political film was “L’Aveu” (“The Confession”) in 1970), which follows the path of Artur London, a Czechoslovakian communist minister arrested and tried for alleged treason and espionage in a “show trial” during the Stalin period.

The more effective “State of Siege” (1973) takes place in Uruguay under a conservative government in the early 1970s.  Loosely based on the case of U.S. police official and alleged torture expert Dan Mitrione, an American embassy official (Yves Montand) is kidnapped by the Tupamaros, a radical leftist guerilla group, which interrogates him in order to reveal the details of secret U.S. complicity with repressive regimes in Latin America.

Arguably Costa Gavras’ last succesful political melodrama, “Missing,” also based on actual events, is about American journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. Horman’s father (played by Jack Lemmon) and wife (Sissy Spacek) begin searching for him.  In 1985, Nathaniel Davis, U.S. ambassador to Chile from 1971-1973 filed a $150 million libel suit against the studio and the director that was eventually dismissed.

Loosely based on the case of John Demjanjuk, “Music Box” (1989), a seemingly respected naturalized American citizen (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) is accused of being a Nazi war criminal and has to account for his past to his daughter (Jessica Lange). 

“Amen” (2003) was inspired by the controversial 1963 play, “The Deputy,” by Rolf Hochhuth. The movie alleges that Pope Pius XII was aware of the plight of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, but failed to take public action to publicize or condemn the Holocaust. These issues have continued to be disputed, with the Vatican thus far declining to open to historians all of its archives relating to the extent of the Pope’s knowledge during World War II.

Costa Gavras is known for blending controversial political issues with the entertainment value of commercial melodrama, dealing with law and justice, oppression, illegal violence, and torture.  The targets of his work have been right-wing regimes, including Greek conservatives in Z, authoritarian governments that ruled Latin America during the height of the Cold War, as in State of Siege and Missing, conservative leadership of the Catholic church during WWII in “Amen.”

Costa Gavras has focused on such relevant issues as abuse of power and the dangers of authoritarian regimes.  His movies walk a fine line between agit-prop and artistic works, but at the very least, they cal attention to controversial issues that the mainstream mass media often neglect to report.

With the exception of Oliver Stone, it’s hard to think of an American filmmaker whose work has been so blatantly political in nature and message.

See Review of Z