In the early 60's Greece's government was firmly controlled by the right wing. However, populist agitation was growing. The government viewed this as 'communist.' Gregoris Lambrakis was a left-wing member of parliament calling for Greece to disarm and withdraw from NATO. After speaking at a rally in Thessalonika on May 22, 1963, he is struck on the head by a club or iron bar used by a man in the back of a small pickup that charges through the square. Another deputy from EDA, George Tsaroukhas is hit and sustains a head injury. Five days later Lambrakis dies without regaining consciousness.

The government is widely suspected to be behind the assassination. Over a half a million people attend the funeral in Athens shouting "Lambrakis lives!" (Lambrakis zi!). Thus the letter "Z" becomes a symbol for resistance to the repressive regime.

The government was indeed complicit: it had some of its vigilantes do the murder. It took three years and a dogged prosecutor, but eventually some officials were convicted, but not for premeditated murder. Still later, the military junta reversed this, and rehabilitated the police who were involved.

Gregoris Lambrakis

Born 1912, he was a noted athlete, winning medals at the Balkan games and holding the Greek record for long-jump for many years.

He was involved in resistance to the Nazi occupation during WWII. After the war he became a physician.

Left-wing, his politics were pacifist. Elected to parliament in 1961 from Piraeus he became an outspoken advocate who was unafraid to challenge government disapproval of public protest. Just a month before his assassination he used his parliamentary immunity to spectacularly defy a government ban on a peace march.

There is monument to his memory in Thessaloniki and a marathon race named in his honor.

In 1966 the author Vassilis Vassilikos produced a novel (also called Z) that was based on these events.

This was turned into a movie by Constanine Costa-Gavras ("Missing"), staring Yves Montand as the unnamed Deputy, Irene Papas as his wife Helene and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the brave examining magistrate (the prosecutor).

Due to the control of Greece by the Junta at that time, the movie had to be shot in Algeria and France and is in French with subtitles. The DVD contains a charmingly unpolished interview with Costa-Gavras and the actors sitting in a very smoky room discussing The Meaning Of It All.

Music for the film was written by Mikis Theodoraks, the famous Greek composer. He is a long-standing activist for progressive causes, and had marched with Lambrakis. After the death, Theodarakis wrote: It is a law that assassins drown in the blood of their victtims. ... A single Lambrakis is more than enough to send them all to their graves. Lambrakis is lost but thousands of Lambrakides have been won-thousands of suns which will keep him alive and illuminate his memory.

Thus, the use of his music in the movie is even more appropriate. The film won two academy awards, one for best foreign film.

It was a frightening time to attract the attention of the senior officials. This image from the film shows a classic scene. The honest, and largely apolitical, prosecutor (in the middle) is being confronted by two senior officials who are, with a mixture of blandishments and threats, trying to get him to confine his attention to the small fish and not look too closely at who or what might have motivated them to act.

It is a scene that reoccurs often in corrupt systems: the moment when someone who tries just to "do his job" is confronted with a costly choice.

In real life, the Examining Magistrate who prevailed in the face of official opposition, Christos Sartzetakis (played here by Jean-Louis Trintignant), was later arrested by the junta and imprisoned and tortured. Upon the restoration of democracy in 1974 he was honored for his service and appointed to the Greek Supreme Court in 1982. He was proposed by PASOK for the presidency of Greece and served one term as president from 1985 to 1990. Unfortunately, his tenure as president tarnished his reputation.

There is evidence that other officials, including Attorney General Pavlos Delaportas and several prosecutors, (and several journalists) also showed courage in defying the government to peruse the case, but I have not been able to learn much about them.

The movie is compelling because it works at three levels: telling a true story (about Greece in 1963), telling a particular fictitious story (about this deputy) and telling an archetypal, universal story - all at the same time. The struggle of progressive forces to try to unseat right-wing power is one that is repeated endlessly and thus one many can identify with.

The movie has no significant special effects and the violence is all personal, one-on-one. As a result it is far more realistic and terrifying than any Rambo cartoon. The director puts you right in the middle of it - as here, moments before the deputy (in the brown suit, with his back to the camera) is attacked.

For more information
Read an interview with Costa-Gavras about the film (Up 8/1/21; posted 9/23/19)
Prosecutor Christos Sartzetakis is profiled at Wikipedia (Up 8/1/21; posted 3/13/07)
More on Gregoris Lambrakis at (Up 9/23/19)
Theodorakis web site (Up 1/10/20; posted 8/29/04)
Sources for the narrative given here
Internet Movie Database entry For credits, actors, etc. (Up 9/23/19; posted 8/28/04)
Roubatis, Tangled Webs, The U.S. in Greece, 1947-67, p. 158
Mikis Theodorakis, Journal of Resistance, p. 305
C. M. Woodhouse, Modern Greece, p. 284.
Last modified 8/1/21; posted 8/28/04; original content © 2021; 2004 John P. Nordin