January 1st marks an unusual anniversary for me.
On January 1, 1970, I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances.
The 1969 film was directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lived in Paris. He based it on a book written in 1966 by Vassilis Vassilikos, who, using official documents, described the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.
Lambrakis, an MD who taught at the medical school in Athens, was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament. Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists. He later died of his injuries.
After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities. Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”
In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.” (You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”)
His focus was clear: political oppression. His cast: Yves Montand as Lambrakis, Irene Pappas as his wife, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.
In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech. Many supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for. The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators. But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.
So it’s not the police who represent oppression here. Rather, it’s the demonstrators, one of whom strikes Lambrakis in the head. He’s stunned but goes ahead to give his speech. When leaving the venue, he’s struck once again, causing him to die later in the film.
Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?” Costa-Gavras’s answer: It’s all about power. Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.
Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic, and a 1967 coup by the military led to their control of the Greek government until their regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.
I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970. The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw many “art flicks” there when I was younger. It’s long-gone, demolished and replaced by a high-rise building that includes a Neiman Marcus store.
I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor. I’d recently completed a clerkship with Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the judge who presided over “the Chicago 7 trial” (also called “the Chicago conspiracy trial”) that got underway in the fall of 1969 and was still ongoing in early 1970. The trial stemmed from the turmoil engulfing the Democratic convention held in Chicago in 1968. (Happily, I never had to work on that trial. My clerkship was ending, and my co-clerk was assigned to that task.)
[FYI: I will discuss my tenure with Judge Hoffman in an upcoming post.]
I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December. Ebert was an unusually young and thoughtful movie critic, close to my own age, and I was a great fan of his reviews. This review, which called “Z” the best film of 1969, highlighted the political backdrop of corruption, and I was eager to see it. I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself. (As luck would have it, I met my adored and never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.)
The film more than lived up to my expectations. But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, was one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Judge Hoffman). In that era, Abbie Hoffman was a major figure in the protest movement opposing the government. All seven of the Chicago defendants were protesters indicted by “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s administration.
I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie Hoffman and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself. But I was opposed to the Vietnam War, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.
As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie Hoffman was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago. Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination.
But there were parallels. The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago led to an overreaction by the Chicago police. Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention. The U.S. Justice Department went on to indict Abbie Hoffman and the other defendants on charges brought under a law many viewed as unconstitutional.
But there was one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece: the prosecutors.
I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film. Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account. And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.
(The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetakis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but triumphed after democracy was restored and was elected by the Greek parliament to serve as the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)
By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were politically ambitious and far from fair-minded. They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie Hoffman, whose protests during the convention had been largely peaceful. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the federal prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.
No one was killed in Chicago. And although the trial defendants were convicted, they were convicted only of contempt, and these convictions were mostly reversed by other courts. But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain.
46 years later, “Z” is still a powerful film. And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.