The year 1968 was certainly the noisiest single year in the ‘60s (and arguably in the 40 years following the end of the Second World War), witnessing an extraordinary number of revolutionary “moments”. From Czechoslovakia to Mexico to Vietnam to Japan to the United States to France, major events piled up, each hugely symbolic (raising consciousness surrounding feminism, the radical left, student politics, third world liberation, racialized nationalism, class conflict, cultural innovation, military authoritarianism) and each carrying a certain global significance.
It has become a bit of a cliché to treat this much-studied year as representing the best and the worst of the times – both an annus mirabilis and an annus horribilis defined by an uneasy combination of victories and defeats on all sides. But those violent, revelatory, crisis-filled and politically-fraught 12 months were undoubtedly a watershed in the gathering global consciousness of the late ‘60s. How else to explain the international success of Costa-Gavras’ Z, a French-language thriller based on recent Greek history, all shot through with allusions to a burgeoning transnational revolutionary solidarity?
Appearing in late February, 1969, Z must have felt like a summary of current events to many in its global audience. As a thriller about a conspiracy between ultra-right workers, corrupt police, and militaristic politicians planning to discredit and assassinate a leftist politician, the plot was identifiable not only as a thinly-veiled reference to the murder of Greek pacifist legislator Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963, but also as a lesson about the willingness of the state to crush legitimate and democratic opposition with chilling impunity.
Opening with a dry speech from an agriculture minister regarding the danger presented by mould – as it grows and spreads through the fields it becomes uncontrollable, its momentum uninterruptable, before it eventually infects every crop – and segueing into a discussion of dissent by a military leader who uses almost all of the same words to describe opposing ideology (“isms”, he calls it) as it “infects” the people, Costa-Gavras’ clearly intends to rattle his audience out of any false sense of comfort. The state, in his view, approaches civil society as a commodity, with an eye toward a literal harvest when its citizens are to be called into military service, or into roles as workers whose jobs will help to maintain order, productivity, and security.
This is an unsettling, deeply stressful film. The tension leading toward the assassination – which comes early, but not too early, in the first act – is astounding, especially considering that we have no doubt that he will be killed. The roiling crowds of hostile workers who surround him (Yves Montand) as he walks toward a controversial speaking engagement seem like a cauldron of impending violence and gruff malevolence. The contrast between his business-suited civility and their muscle-bound thuggery is obvious and significant, given the post-Marcusean dismissal of the working class as “bought off” which complicated much thinking on the Left by the late ‘60s.
Frustratingly, the film fails to explore class disparity, gender issues, or non-whiteness as part of the opposition’s political sensibility – the only “half-Jew” among them is the subject of particular scorn by the politicians, but the topic is otherwise a dropped thread. Perhaps this choice was a conscious attempt to reflect the white, middle class and male character of the protest movements in western Europe as Costa-Gavras saw them. Realism is clearly his aim, as all of the battle scenes are shot with a verité immediacy, and a decidedly un-stylized visual appeal. The punches look like punches, the kicks like kicks. The weapons are cudgels and clubs and bottles – primitive and blunt and banal.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the film – leaving aside the impressive score, the naturalism of the performances, the clever editing, the ingenious script, and the incendiary last act – is the implicit argument that peaceful opposition to militaristic and violent authority is an exercise in futility. As they made this film (it was shot in Algiers, a site of not inconsiderable political relevance), 1968 was happening all around them. The crackdown in Prague, the student and worker revolts in France, the Columbia occupation in New York, the massacre at Oaxaca, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of various major figures (including Martin Luther King): all of this historic upheaval colours the sense of disappointment and defeatism that pervades the film.
Though the titular character is a reference to the Ancient Greek symbol Ζει (which means ‘He Still Lives’, a decidedly upbeat slogan), the film is very clear about who comes out on top when all the smoke clears. After following a lengthy and wide-ranging investigation of the circumstances (and political conspiracies) leading to the assassination, and culminating in a faux-triumphant climax as all the major figures are indicted for their crimes, a final reversal sees all of them freed as an emboldened, and even more restrictive, state apparatus takes hold. In the crushing denouement, even the letter Z is banned by the military overlords.
But such dire prognosticating was the order of the day in the immediate post-1968 era, and not just among left-wing expatriate filmmakers. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw a spate of political defeatism and separatism begin to push aside the optimism and liberal idealism of the pre-68 years. This was not a mechanical process, but there can be little disagreement over the fact that the prevailing belief in non-violent protest as a catalyst for change lost ground precipitously as various manifestations of the left tried to re-articulate themselves following 1968.
The rise of the Weather Underground from the ashes of the non-violent Students for a Democratic Society in the US, the choice to employ violence through the Red Army Faction in West Germany, the turn to kidnapping and murder at the Front de Liberation du Quebec, all of this stems from a post-1968 shift in the patience for and faith in non-violence.
Ultimately, Costa-Gavras’ masterpiece stands as a frightening reflection of the damage that grew out of that searing disappointment. Perhaps it could serve today as a lesson in the terrifying possibility that the nihilism of political violence is always creeping around the corners of our frustration.