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Will Humanism Deliver Us From Real Living Fascism?
In America, the rules are different.
The Z in the title is not a mark of militarist fascists in the film, but rather the opposite: a rallying cry of the left. It is a symbol painted by protesters in memory of their assassinated leader, the deputy of an opposition party. It stands in for the third person singular of the verb “to live”—ζει [zi]: He lives!
The film centers around the assassination itself, and is a taut political thriller based on real events. (“Any similarity to persons or events is deliberate,” the film declares says during opening credits.) The real events in question center around the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a peace activist killed a few years before the colonels’ coup and the rule of the Greek junta.
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The hero of the film is the investigating magistrate, an upright civil servant from a royalist (read: non-communist) background who exposes a vast conspiracy to kill the deputy opposition leader: local working class street-fighting hooligans who belong to a shady nationalist organization, the city’s police force, as well as the military. The narrative arc traces his investigation from beginning to end, and ends on a grim note. At the very end, the wife of the assassinated deputy is told that the conspiracy has been wound up, and that all the high-ranking perpetrators are standing trial. She says she doesn’t believe anything will change. What follows is a rapid-fire exposition of subsequent events: the investigating magistrate is removed from the case and imprisoned, a bunch of witnesses die mysterious deaths, the assassins are given light sentences, and the conspirators get a slap on the wrists.
Beyond the film’s virtuoso execution (it’s very well paced and beautifully shot), the thing that struck me most is its clear-eyed portrayal of fascism. The film is directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-French auteur whose own family traces its politics to the Greek left. And though Costa-Gavras clearly has sympathies for the left in this film, it is less a film about the inherent justice of the left’s cause and more about the inherent brutality, and hopelessness, of fascist ideology.
What’s a fascist ideology? The opening sequence lays it out. The camera hones in on a staid lecture before a gathering of civil servants by a technocratic scientist on best practices in horticulture—on how mildew can be prevented, and how fighting it needs to be taught to the region’s farmers. The technocrat concludes his lecture by saying, “The [educational] leaflets remind peasants that mildew, which infects the vines, first appeared with the ideological malady that infects humanity”—and hands the podium to a general, the local chief of the military police.
The general then really leans into it. Mildew needs to be fought preventatively. Mildew, like ideological disease, is “caused by harmful germs and various parasites.” He advises that military service is the best way to protect easily impressionable students and young people from these intellectual pathogens—”to protect the sacred tree of national liberty against infection from ideological mildew.” “This new variety, more diffuse and insidious, is a crafty enemy, that is growing away from God and the crown.” He concludes his harangue by exhorting the assembled dignitaries to stay united in the face of this menace. “We must preserve the healthy parts of our society and heal the infected parts.”
This kind of paranoid organicism suffuses the speech of most of the rightwing zealots in the film. At an underground meeting of hoodlums, the ring-leader is giving a lecture on “patriotism.” After extolling the virtues of religion and monarchy, the leader starts in on the indivisibility of society. “No more capitalists! No more workers! No more Left, no more Right! A people united, one nation is what we need. That calls for a clean sweep! Start with the intellectual scum!” “Unite the young people, and give them a common ideal,” he continues. “Abroad, they are told ‘make love, not war.’ We say, ‘make war!’ Make war on corruption, on liberalism, and on indiscriminate liberties!”
What makes all this properly fascist, and distinct from the unhinged rantings of merely the far right, is that one can feel this logic coursing through all the sinews of society in the film. The film’s fatalism—the system wins in the end, with the virtuous sent to prison and the criminals getting off—underscores this point.
Costa-Gavras, in an interview with The Guardian in 2009, was asked whether he was moved by the activist energy of the 1960s. “Sometimes I regretted not having that enthusiasm, because the spirit of '68 was a strong motor even for personal change,” he replied. “But because I was from a country where people tried to change something when I was an adolescent, I was able to see the way the ideals of revolution ended.” Real, living fascism is when a terrified, conspiratorial, organicist conservatism takes over a body politic and captures all of its institutions. At that point, nothing can stand in its way.
Almost nothing. Costa-Gavras cannot resist a poignant note at the end. As the credits roll, a voiceover announces that after the events depicted in the film, a junta took over the country and banned a whole slew of things. “Long hair, mini-skirts. Sophocles, Tolstoy. Mark Twain (partially). Euripides. Aesychlus, Aristophanes. Ionesco, Sartre. The Beatles, Pinter.” The implication is that once fascism manages to fully take over a society, it will try to stamp out the sources of liberal thought and liberal values: literature, theater, music—culture as a whole.
How quaint, I thought to myself. Do we even think literature, and culture more broadly, has that kind of power any more? Our culture industry continues to claim that it does. Famous dissident writers like Azar Nafisi feed the dream of liberation through free expression, drawing inspiration from towering cultural figures who transformed politics like Vaclav Havel. And indeed, societies like Iran, China, and North Korea do still enact vigorous censorship regimes. So clearly there’s something there.
But it’s a lot harder to see when we look at our own society. We Americans are free, but it feels like we are free by default. Our ideals are learned by rote, intoned at a flag every morning in elementary school, celebrated over a barbecue every July. We have an ideology of freedom that leads us to instinctively recoil at restrictions. Even the most liberal of us instinctively feel the appeal of “don’t tread on me,” even if we fancy ourselves much too cosmopolitan to wear a Gadsden flag t-shirt.
All that construes a culture of liberty, but none of that comes from culture. Certainly not “high” culture.
Maybe it once did. A few months back, in writing about the film Tar, I wondered if it wasn’t an elegy to a time in America when high culture mattered more—when people like Leonard Bernstein could legitimately, and unashamedly, make bold claims about understanding the world, and inspire large swaths of the country to try to do the same.
Watching Z, I’m further comforted that what we saw with Donald Trump was not real fascism. We heard the siren song of nationalist harangue, and it had its allure to many. But it didn’t take root deep in this society’s soul, like real fascism clearly did in Greece during the height of the Cold War.
But if real living fascism does eventually take root in America, I can’t help but wonder: would we really be able to resist it?
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