Z (1969 film)

Z is a 1969 Algerian-French epic political thriller film 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 thinly fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. With its satirical view of Greek politics, its dark sense of humor, and its downbeat ending, the film captures the outrage about the military dictatorship that ruled Greece at the time of its making.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byCosta-Gavras
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based onZ
by Vassilis Vassilikos
Music byMikis Theodorakis
CinematographyRaoul Coutard
Edited byFrançoise Bonnot
  • Office National pour le Commerce et l'Industrie Cinématographique
  • Reggane Films
  • Valoria Films
Distributed byCinema V (US)
Release date
  • 26 February 1969 (1969-02-26) (France)
  • May 1969 (1969-05) (Cannes)
Running time
127 minutes[1]
  • Algeria
  • France
  • French
  • Russian
  • English
Box office$17.3 million[2]

The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as the investigating magistrate (an analogue of Christos Sartzetakis who later served as president of Greece from 1985 to 1990). International stars Yves Montand and Irene Papas also appear, but despite their star billing have very little screen time. Jacques Perrin, who co-produced, plays a key role as a photojournalist. The film's title refers to a popular Greek protest slogan (Greek: Ζει, IPA: [ˈzi]) meaning "he lives," in reference to Lambrakis.

The film had a total of 3,952,913 admissions in France and was the 4th highest grossing film of the year.[3] It was also the 12th highest grossing film of 1969 in the U.S. Z is also the first filmand one of only a handfulto be nominated for both the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. It won the latter, as well as the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film; at the 27th Golden Globe Awards, the producers of Z refused the award to protest against the film's exclusion from the Best Motion Picture - Drama category.[4]


The story begins with the closing moments of a rather dull government lecture and slide show on agricultural policy, after which the leader of the security police of a right-wing military-dominated government takes over the podium for an impassioned speech describing the government's program to combat leftism, using the metaphors of "a mildew of the mind", an infiltration of "isms", or "sunspots".

The scene shifts to preparations for a rally of the opposition faction where the pacifist Deputy is to give a speech advocating nuclear disarmament. There have been attempts by the government to prevent the speech's delivery. The venue has been changed to a much smaller hall, logistical problems have appeared out of nowhere, and the people handing out leaflets about the change of venue are attacked by thugs under the command of the police. On his way to the venue, the Deputy is hit on the head by a right-wing anticommunist protestor, some of whom are sponsored by the government, but carries on with his sharp speech. As the Deputy crosses the street from the hall after giving his speech, a delivery truck speeds past him and a man on the open truck bed strikes him down with a club. The injury eventually proves fatal, and the police manipulate witnesses to force the conclusion that the Deputy was simply run over by a drunk driver.

However, the police do not control the hospital, where the autopsy disproves their interpretation. The examining magistrate, with the assistance of a photojournalist (Perrin), now uncovers sufficient evidence to indict not only the two right-wing militants who committed the murder, but also four high-ranking military police officers. The action of the film concludes with one of the Deputy's associates rushing to see his widow to give her the surprising news of the officers' indictments. The widow looks distressed, appearing not to believe things will change for the better.

An epilogue provides a synopsis of the subsequent turns of events. Instead of the expected positive outcome, the prosecutor is mysteriously removed from the case, several key witnesses die under suspicious circumstances, the assassins receive relatively 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, a Coup d'etat occurs and the military seize power. They ban modern art, popular music and avant-garde novelists, as well as modern mathematics, classic and modern philosophers, and the use of the term "Ζ" (Greek: zíta, or Greek: zi which was used by protesters against the former government), which referred to The Deputy and means: "He lives".



The 1963 murder of Greek politician and physician Grigoris Lambrakis and subsequent military junta served as the basis for the story.[5] Among Costa-Gavras' references to the actual events was the frequency with which the military compared ideologies to diseases, seen when the General compares -isms to mildew.[6] The Magistrate was based on real-life Greek jurist Christos Sartzetakis.[7] Costa-Gavras opted to show the Deputy had adulteries and conflicts with his wife to demonstrate he was simply a man.[6]

Costa-Gavras was also motivated by the suspicious disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965. American viewers infer parallels between the film and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, particularly given how some stylistic elements seem to mimic the Zapruder film. That said, Costa-Gavras has stated that the Zapruder film had not been widely circulated in Europe at the time and that Kennedy's assassination did not influence the production.[8]

Principal photography took place in Algiers at actor Jacques Perrin's suggestion, which the filmmakers approved for its Mediterranean environment and because the Ministry of Culture was accommodating.[6] In Algiers, Hotel St. Georges and the central square were filming locations, while Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was used for the ballet scenes.[6] Marcel Bozzuffi performed his own stunts wrestling on the "Kamikaze" vehicle due to the production's lack of budget for professional stunt performers.[6]

Costa-Gavras chose Z as the title of the film based on its common occurrence in Greek graffiti, for "He lives" (or even "Lambrakis you live; be our guide!" [Λαμπράκη ζεις, εσύ μας οδηγείς!; Lambráki zis, esý mas odigís!]); Costa-Gavras acknowledged a one-letter film title was unconventional and said Yves Montand expressed concern it would be confused with Zorro, but Costa-Gavras said the novelty of the idea won him over.[6]


The soundtrack, by Mikis Theodorakis, was a hit record. The Greek junta had placed the composer under house arrest but he was able to give his approval to Costa-Gavras for the use of existing musical pieces.

The film features, but does not credit, Pierre Henry's contemporary hit song, "Psyché Rock". The soundtrack as released on LP and CD replaces Henry's song with a similar track written by Theodorakis named "Café Rock."

  1. Main Title (Antonis) from the "Mauthausen Trilogy" of Mikis Theodorakis
  2. The Smiling Youth
  3. The Chase-The Smiling Youth
  4. Murmur of the Heart
  5. Cafe Rock
  6. Arrival of Helen-The Smiling Youth
  7. Batucada
  8. The Smiling Youth (Bouzouki Version)
  9. The Smiling Youth
  10. Who's Not Talking About Easter
  11. Finale-The Smiling Youth
  12. Murmur of the Heart
  13. In This Town

"The Happy Youth" and "Who's Not Talking About Easter" were among the poems adapted from Brendan Behan's play The Hostage by Theodorakis in 1962. By referring to the Irish struggle against British rule rather than Greek realities, they offered a way to circumvent censorship in Greece and condemn Greece's post-war right-wing establishment. "The Smiling Youth" (το γελαστό παιδί) was also one of the nicknames of Lambrakis.


The film earned North American rentals of $6,750,000 in 1970.[9] It first aired on American television on The ABC Monday Night Movie in March 1974.

Prints of the film were acquired by the Black Panther Party and shown at underground screenings.[8] An advance copy of the film was shown at the United Front Against Fascism conference in 1969.[10]

Critical response

At the time of release, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who named Z the best film of 1969, liked the screenplay and its message, and wrote, "[Z] is a film of our time. It is about how even moral victories are corrupted. It will make you weep and will make you angry. It will tear your guts out...When the Army junta staged its coup in 1967, the right-wing generals and the police chief were cleared of all charges and 'rehabilitated.' Those responsible for unmasking the assassination now became political criminals. These would seem to be completely political events, but the young director Costa-Gavras has told them in a style that is almost unbearably exciting. Z is at the same time a political cry of rage and a brilliant suspense thriller. It even ends in a chase: Not through the streets but through a maze of facts, alibis and official corruption."[11]

In 2006, James Berardinelli wrote, "Z was the third feature film from Greek-born Costa-Gavras, but it is the movie that captured him to the world's attention, winning a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It introduced the director's signature approach of combining overt political messages with edge-of-the-seat tension."[12] Jonathan Richards wrote in 2009, "It's hard to overstate the impact that this Oscar-winning procedural thriller had in 1969, on a world roiling in political activism, repression, and discord. In the U.S., the Vietnam War was on the front burner, the populace was passionately engaged, and the police riots outside the '68 Chicago Democratic Convention and the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton were raw wounds. With this stylish, intense indictment of the assassination of a leftist political leader by a right wing government cabal in his native Greece, director Costa-Gavras struck a nerve that resonated here and around the globe."[13]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 93% "fresh" score based on 40 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10. The site's consensus states: "Powerfully effective, this anti-fascist political thriller stands out as both high-conscience melodrama and high-tempo action movie."[14]

The film was selected to be screened in the Cannes Classics section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.[15]


Z was the second foreign-language film in Academy history to receive a nomination for Best Picture, after Grand Illusion.[16]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards 7 April 1970 Best Picture Jacques Perrin, Hamed Rachedi Nominated [17]
Best Director Costa-Gavras Nominated
Best Foreign Language Film Won
Best Adapted Screenplay Jorge Semprun, Costa-Gavras Nominated
Best Editing Françoise Bonnot Won
BAFTA Awards 1970 Best Film Costa-Gavras Nominated [18]
Best Screenplay Costa-Gavras, Jorge Semprun Nominated
Best Editing Françoise Bonnot Nominated
Best Film Music Mikis Theodorakis Won
United Nations Award Costa-Gavras Nominated
Cannes Film Festival 8 – 23 May 1969 Jury Prize Won [19]
Best Actor Jean-Louis Trintignant Won
Directors Guild of America 1970 Best Director Costa-Gavras Nominated [20]
Golden Globes 2 February 1970 Best Foreign Language Film Won [21]
National Society of Film Critics January 1970 Best Film Won [22]
New York Film Critics Circle 25 January 1970 Best Film Won [23]
Best Director Won

See also


  1. "Z (A)". British Board of Film Classification. 25 September 1969. Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  2. "Top Grossing Independent Films". Variety. 21 February 1994. p. A52.
  3. "Z (1969)- JPBox-Office". jpbox-office.com.
  4. "Trivia". Golden Globes website. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  5. Shaw, Tony (2014). Cinematic Terror: A Global History of Terrorism on Film. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 105. ISBN 978-1441158093.
  6. Costa-Gavras (2002). Z Commentary Track (DVD). Wellspring Media.
  7. Oliver Boyd Barrett; David Herrera; James A. Baumann (2011). Hollywood and the CIA: Cinema, Defense and Subversion. Taylor & Francis. p. 43. ISBN 978-1136806766.
  8. "Costa-Gavras Talks About Z". Cinéasta. 3 (3): 12–16. 1969. JSTOR 43551774.
  9. "Big Rental Films of 1970", Variety, 6 January 1971 p 11
  10. Sharpe, Kenan Bezhat (11/08/2018). "Directing the Revolution". Jacobin. Jacobin Magazine. Retrieved 22 June 2019. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. Ebert, Roger (30 December 1969). "Z". The Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2 February 2011.
  12. Berardinelli, James (2006). "Z". reelviews.com.
  13. Richards, Jonathan (2009). "In the Dark".
  14. "Z (1969)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  15. "Cannes Classics 2015". Cannes Film Festival. 29 April 2015. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  16. Levy, Emanuel (25 July 2006). "Oscar: Foreign Language Films as Best Picture Nominees". Emanuellevy.com. Archived from the original on 13 November 2017. Retrieved 13 November 2017.
  17. "The 42nd Academy Awards (1970) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  18. "Film in 1970". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  19. "Festival de Cannes: Z". Cannes Film Festival. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  20. Major, Wade. "World Class". Directors Guild of America. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  21. "Z". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  22. Weiler, AH. "National Film Critics Crown 'Z,' Jon Voight, Miss Redgrave". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  23. "1969 Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
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