Readings & Screenings

‘War and the Iliad’ & ‘Z’
Yves Montand in “Z.” (Rialto Pictures)

In the final installment of our summer series, we consider the two landmark essays collected in War and the Iliad and Costa-Gavras’s Greek masterpiece, Z. You can find our first installment, on Italian fascism, here; our second installment, on race in America, here; and our third installment, on belief and unbelief, here.

Griffin,

A month ago, we thrilled to the youthful delights of French New Wave cinema. It seems appropriate that, as the days get darker both literally (post-dinner walks now take place after sunset) and figuratively (the mad ravings of QAnon are now coming from the Oval Office), we’ve moved on to gloomier territory. War and the Iliad brings together two essays on Homer’s epic poem: Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and Rachel Bespaloff’s “On the Iliad.” (Hermann Broch’s “The Style of the Mythical Age: On Rachel Bespaloff” serves as a coda.) Weil and Bespaloff both fled France for the United States in 1942, and their essays on ancient war are haunted by the contemporary violence they lived through. My Night at Maud’s, which we watched a few weeks ago, finds love at the center of existence. War and the Iliad finds suffering.

“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force,” Weil writes in the first sentence of her 1940 essay. “Force revels only in an abuse that is also self-abuse, in an excess that expends its store,” Bespaloff writes in her essay, published three years later. And what is force, this thing that Homer so powerfully imagined and that Weil and Bespaloff, in the midst of World War II, thought so compellingly about? Weil describes it with characteristic clarity: “It is that x that turns anybody who is subject to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” Force doesn’t belong to any person (Achilles or Hector) or any nation (Greece or Troy). It’s more like an electric current, now moving acting here, now shifting there. Wherever subjugation and dominance live, there it is. Force is that which dehumanizes, even unto death.

We can see this dehumanization at work in Homer’s poem and in the world around us. In the Iliad, Achilles kills Hector, then drags his corpse behind a chariot. In our time, capital reduces workers to abstract inputs of labor; racist policing turns Black people into Black bodies. In each case, objectification turns back on the objectifier. Achilles becomes inhuman, more thing than person, through his treatment of Hector; so too does the labor-squeezing owner and the trigger-squeezing policeman. As Weil puts it, “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.”

Both the Greeks and the Trojans, from king to foot soldier, are but the playthings of something even greater than the gods. Call it fate, call it fortune; it lives in and through violence.

Weil, a Catholic convert who refused to be baptized, and Bespaloff, the daughter of Ukrainian Jews, were both philosophers, and they’re interested in the Iliad’s overarching moral and ontological vision: what the poem sees as the good and the bad, the true and the false. They find Homer’s world to be, in an odd way, democratic. Homer doesn’t pick sides, and that’s because both the Greeks and the Trojans, from king to foot soldier, are but the playthings of something even greater than the gods. Call it fate, call it fortune; it lives in and through violence. I’m reminded of a stanza from “In Parentheses,” a poem Lawrence Joseph published in Commonweal:

Hyperviolence is the word, of epic proportions,
a species thing, the point at which
violence turns into ontology,
these endless ambitious experiments of destruction,
a species grief.

So it was then, so it is now.

Both essays are superb, but if I had to choose one, I’d choose “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” Maybe I prefer Weil because of her stylistic and analytical clarity. “Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths,” she writes. “Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.” Or maybe I’d choose her because, though Bespaloff says brilliant things about Homer and the Old Testament, she also says some silly things about War and Peace. (“Nothing, [Pierre] sees, is terrible in life because the whole of life is terrible.” Pierre, who declares at the novel’s end that, “As long as there’s life, there’s happiness”? I digress.)

I most admire Weil’s sense that, because subjection is our common lot, it’s also the grounds for solidarity. “Only he who has measured the dominion of force,” she writes, “and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.” To refuse violence and instead empty the self into a communion of the wounded: that’s Weil’s chastening, and exhilarating, demand. While Bespaloff shows the ugliness of force in the Iliad, she also notes its splendor. “Achilles and Hector are beautiful because force is beautiful,” she writes. “Force, for Homer, is divine insofar as it represents a superabundance of life that flashes out in the contempt for death and the ecstasy of self-sacrifice.” Bespaloff offers a more accurate reading of the complexities of Homer’s poem. But Weil’s uncompromising theological vision is more, well, forceful.

What did you think about these essays, Griffin? And how did they read in relation to Z, which tells of a different kind of violence in a different time in Greek history?

*

Tony,

I’m with you: Weil’s is the more insightful (and terrifying) voice of the two. Sure, Bespaloff makes some great points with which I wholeheartedly agree (“The sense of the True is always a kind of conquest, but first it is a gift.”) But for me it’s Weil who hits the nail on the head, at least with respect to our presently intolerable political predicament. Speaking about the horrors of war, she notes that, “to be outside a situation so violent as this is to find it inconceivable; to be inside it is to be unable to conceive its end.” That’s pretty much how I’ve felt since November 2016.

In the wake of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 200,000 Americans killed by the pandemic, and President Donald Trump refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, the national mood in America can well be described as “hyperviolent.” So how appropriate that our final film of this series is Greek director Costa-Gavras’s 1969 masterpiece Z—easily the darkest, most violent, and most pessimistic work we’ve screened.

As Z’s caustic opening sequence boldly proclaims (“Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental”), the evil that Costa-Gavras depicts is no mere fiction. The plot—the first half is a tense political thriller, the second a hard-nosed police procedural—is based on the real-world assassination of left-wing Greek intellectual, activist, and parlamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis in 1967. After delivering a pointed anti-war (and therefore “subversive”) speech in Thessaloniki, Lambrakis was killed by two right-wing extremists in a drive-by head-clubbing. A subsequent investigation revealed that the attack had been carried out with the knowledge and consent of high-ranking Greek officials in the military and police forces. The disclosure led to widespread popular unrest, toppling Greece’s government and paving the way for a coup by a Greek military junta, which seized and held onto power until 1975. If in the Iliad Homer sings of the “rage of Achilles,” in Z the Greek expatriate Costa-Gravas powerfully displays his own, excoriating the rampant consumerism, corruption, and conformism afflicting not just his native Greece, but the entire West.

Despite the darkness, I absolutely loved Z, perhaps more than any other film I’ve seen in the past few years. Costa-Gravas’s satirical evisceration of right-wing hypocrisy isn’t just a mirror of our time; it’s also the perfect balm for the scandals and outrages of the Trump era. Z made me realize just how unimaginative, dishonest, and pathetically predictable the extreme Right is across time and space. Whether it’s Italy in the 1930s or Greece in the 1960s or America in 2020, the right-wing “patriotic” narrative always implies a false polarization: “We’re the healthy elements in society, antibodies in the fight against all infection [from the left],” the leader of the conservative CROC (Christian Royalists Organization against Communism) arrogantly declares in an interview. “Our goal is the defense of Western civilization.” Sound familiar? It’s chilling to contemplate just how hypocritical (and Trumpian) such lines are. Thankfully, Costa-Gravas builds in relief: when the proud, medal-wearing Greek officials are later charged with first-degree murder and humiliated before a pool of photojournalists, it’s more than a little satisfying.

That’s not to suggest that Z’s strength lies solely in its portrayal—however prescient—of modern political polarization and corruption. Taking a cue from Socrates (ironically banned by Greece’s real-life military junta), Z argues passionately for the ethical imperative and moral value of probing the truth, no matter the cost, and often in spite of the outcome. Besides Lambrakis and his associates, the film also lionizes the examining magistrate, based on the real-life investigator Christos Sartzetakis and played coolly (how else?) by French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant. Unflinchingly indifferent to partisan and careerist concerns, he follows the facts wherever they take him. His actions are not just methodical but forensic, in the double sense of the term: the inquiry, which revolves around a murdered politician’s body, is at the same time a clear-eyed confrontation with the moral rot at the heart of the Greek body politic.

Is seeing the problem the same as solving it, though? No, Costa-Gavras would probably concede, but at least it’s a start. My sense of Costa-Gavras’s vision is that even though evil seems to prevail definitively, falsehood doesn’t get the last word. If Z is a film that portrays multiple deaths—of a single politician, of an entire political system, of the possibility of justice—it also insists, almost blindly, on the eventual triumph of truth and life. That’s what the film’s strange, one-letter title means, as the closing credits tell us: “Z...‘he lives’ in ancient Greek.” Recalling how Weil and Bespaloff draw parallels between ancient Greek philosophy and Christianity, it’s hard to ignore the theological resonance here. Z isn’t just a tribute to Lambrakis, but a kind of testimony, an act of bearing witness: the film’s existence is itself proof that its martyred subject lives.

So what did you think, Tony? I know I didn’t say much about Weil or Bespaloff, but how do you think these two philosophers would respond to the world of violence and corruption depicted in Z? And as we head into the elections this fall, save me from despair: Is politics really nothing more than a cynical game?  

*

Is seeing the problem the same as solving it, though? No, Costa-Gavras would probably concede, but at least it’s a start.

If anything, Griffin, I think you’re underselling the darkness of Z. Because, in a literal way, evil and falsehood do get the last word.

Yes, there’s something satisfying, even cathartic, about the film’s dramatic arc. As a typewriter clacks in the foreground and Mikis Theodorakis’s jaunty, march-like score plays in the background, the slimy general and his minions are indicted one by one. “You are charged with first-degree murder,” the investigator tells one official, who huffily leaves the office, clownishly struggles and fails to open a locked door, and then walks the gauntlet past a frenzied press corps. The same process—indictment, locked door, walk of shame—happens again, and again, and again. These men are evil, to be sure. But they’re also buffoons, and to see them as such is to feel moral and comic satisfaction.

Yet the film doesn’t end there. First, we get a scene in which the late deputy’s wife, played with great melancholy by Irene Papas, hears of the indictments. She becomes even more saddened; she seems to know what’s coming, and it’s not moral justice or political victory. Cut to the next scene, where a news report describes the outcome of the trials. The deputy prosecutor “died of a heart attack, according to the coroner,” the reporter flatly tells us, while seven other witnesses died before trial under strange circumstances (a car accident, a gas explosion, a second car accident, etc.). The low-level thugs hired by CROC get some years in prison; the high-level officials have their charges dropped entirely.

The investigator’s victory, in other words, hasn’t lasted more than a few minutes of screen time, and things only get worse. The reporter tells us that unrest following these judicial decisions led to a military coup, which then led to the sacking of the investigator and the death or deportation of opposition leaders. Finally, the young male reporter’s voice gives way to a young woman’s voice: the reporter himself has received a three-year sentence “for disclosure of official documents.” The film ends with a scrolling list of the many things banned by the military regime, from long hair and miniskirts to Dostoevsky and Beckett. It’s true, the final image we get is of the martyred deputy, as we’re told of one final ban: “the letter Z, which means ‘he lives’ in ancient Greek.” Hope lives at the film’s end, but it’s on life support. (As it was in Costa-Gavras’s time: Z was filmed not in Greece but in Algiers, since the director couldn’t get permission to film in Athens.)

You asked what Weil and Bespaloff would think of the film. Weil wouldn’t be surprised by the wicked ends to which the extreme Right puts religious discourse. “God casts no light on the Reds,” a leader of CROC intones, positioning his organization as a defender of Christianity against the twin threats of communism and liberalism. To quote Lawrence Joseph again, “thugs, / thugs are what they are, / false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks / who think not at all about what they bring down.” Bespaloff would see that whatever beauty force might have had in Homer’s poem is absent here. The film’s many street brawls aren’t balletic but chaotic, as cinematographer Raoul Coutard uses handheld cameras and jump cuts to muddy things up. It’s tough to tell left from right when fists are flying and clubs are being swung. In fact, the leaders of CROC bank on violence’s tendency to obfuscate: once fighting starts, it becomes easier to cast peace activists as anarchists.

At one point, Weil describes how violence haunts every scene of the Iliad, even those away from the battlefield:

How much more varied in its processes, how much more surprising in its effects is the other force, the force that does not kill, i.e., that does not kill just yet. It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of the creature it can kill, at any moment, which is to say at every moment.

We could say the same about living under authoritarianism or living in a time of pandemic. The pain and the unfreedom come not just from explicit acts of violence, but also from the threat of violence, the sense that the state or the virus might descend at any time.

While doing this series over the last few years, I’ve loved how intentionally removed it is from the world of hot takes. Politics is important but it’s not everything, and sometimes it’s good to forget the monster in the White House and think instead about the world of medieval Armenian troubadours, as we did with The Color of Pomegranates. But that has seemed harder to do this summer. Costa-Gavras said of Z that it is “less a political film...than a political act.” Naming immorality doesn’t defeat it, as Z shows. But it’s a necessary first step. Unless we name evil for what it is, we have no hope.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

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