by Peter Pappas
Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 4-6
In a very real sense, it is almost a non sequitur to speak of a new Greek cinema; in essence there has never been an old one. And not simply in the sense that there has never been a dynamic film tradition like those in the U.S. or France or the U.S.S.R. or Germany, but in the much more crucial sense that an attempt was never made to create a tradition, to foster a cinema based on the particular reality of Greek experience. In this refusal to come to terms with film’s significance to national culture, Greece stands almost alone. There are very few countries—and here I include the so-called under or semi-developed countries -- which, though coming to the cinema very late, cannot at this moment lay claim to at least one filmmaker who, while starting out from his or her own country’s experience as the foundation, has come to receive international recognition. Consider the roles of Satyajit Ray, Miklos Jancso, Ousmane Sembene, Alain Tanner, Dusan Makaveyev, the entire Polish cinema, the Brazilian Cinema Novo, Miguel Littin, the post-revolutionary Cuban cinema. The list is almost endless. And, of course, there are filmmakers such as Bergman, Buñuel, Fellini, and Godard, who have become so “universal” that we tend to lose sight of the national character which is at the foundation of their work. But in Greece, film never developed.
To a very real extent it was not the fault of Greek filmmakers themselves. After the end of the Second World War and the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949, Greek cinema developed on the Hollywood model—and the worst of Hollywood at that. Greek films were then, and are still now, controlled by three or four major production companies on the style of the old Hollywood studios. In addition, the political climate in postwar Greece was not conducive to any kind of development or experimentation in any of the arts, let alone the newest and the one considered by many the most revolutionary. The Greece of the 50s was a conservative and fearful society where artistic development not only had to take account of the inevitable and huge censorship apparatus, but in more cases than not, the security forces themselves.
But, as is always the case, some sort of development did take place and this was also true in the cinema. But in that development itself we can see most clearly the cost of cultural reaction and artistic compromise. The two films from Greece that made the greatest impression not only outside but inside the country have been NEVER ON SUNDAY and ZORBA THE GREEK, both, incidentally, filmed in English. That fact is not a mere coincidence but a symptomatic indication of a more profound malaise. These two films represent precisely the nature of the Greek cinema until very recently.
NEVER ON SUNDAY was directed by Jules Dassin, an American who because of McCarthyism resettled in Paris and after marrying actress Melina Mercouri, in Athens. That quick sketch of Dassin describes the film perfectly. It is a travelogue, a tourist poster, an advertisement for Piraeus, for the various ruins to be found around Athens and, of course, for Melina Mercouri. It is Greece observed by a tourist, a passerby—and perhaps, even a little less. There are, after all, tourists who are much more perceptive than Homer (the leading character in the film, a U.S. tourist played by Dassin). But Homer-Dassin is not that kind of tourist. He is the kind with the Japanese camera, the American Express card, and a profound indifference to the essential nature of the land he is visiting.
Four years after NEVER ON SUNDAY, ZORBA THE GREEK was released. The difference between them is as immense as the distance between Hollywood and Crete. Michael Cacoyannis is Greek (though strictly speaking, a Cypriote) and commands a much more fundamental awareness of Greek reality than Dassin, though it must be said in Dassin’s defense, he had also attempted to bring Kazantzakis to the screen in his film HE WHO MUST DIE, an adaptation of The Greek Passion. Nonetheless, to deal with Kazantzakis, as Cacoyannis correctly understood, is more than simply trying to be faithful to an author’s work. It is coming to terms with the most influential mythmaker and legend-creator of modern Greece. It is because Cacoyannis understood this that his film was an aesthetic success. One can truly say that the film is, in a sense, more Zorbaesque than the book. Cacoyannis distilled the essence of Kazantzakis’ novel without compromising either the texture of the book or its latent darkness and pessimism.
There is no doubt that the film, for what it was, was very good. But the question remains, what was it? It was a film based on a literary legend—and the word “literary” is what is significant in this context. There is no argument with the validity of using the myth as the basis for a national art, especially in film. What must be emphasized though is that the myth on which Cacoyannis based his film was not one born from the popular experience, from the long history of what is known in Greece as the folk experience, the experience chronicled in endless folk songs and popular legends.
It was based on a literary myth, a myth that as far as the popular sentiment is concerned is inauthentic. In contradistinction to a work like Littin’s THE PROMISED LAND or, what may be the best known example, the films of Miklos Jancso, Cacoyannis’ ZORBA THE GREEK —and for that matter his ELECTRA and TROJAN WOMEN, as well as Dassin’s PHAEDRA and HE WHO MUST DIE—is not a film grown from the home soil of its native land, it is not a popular legend but an intellectual attempt at legend. When Kazantzakis wrote Zorba the Greek, he was self-consciously creating a modern Greek hero that he wanted to be considered the heir to Odysseus and Achilles.
But the point is that in their two thousand year history since the end of the classical age, the Greek people have created their own heroes and legends. These are the ones that constitute the authentic foundation to a national art based on recreating the experience of the Greek people. The art should be based not on the metaphors of literary artists but the metaphors of the people themselves, the folk tales of the peasant woman and the fisherman, the urban worker and the shepherd. And even more important than dealing with the legends of these people is dealing with the people themselves, with their history and experience, their sorrows and joys, and, in the last analysis, with the story of their oppression and their resistance to it—and even perhaps with their inability to resist. Because this approach must inevitably lead to an authentic statement of the condition of the Greek nation, it is this approach which has finally prevailed among Greek filmmakers. And it is to them, to this young generation, that I now turn.
The period of the early to mid-60s was a very turbulent one in Greece. It was a time of intense and many times violent political activity, of the development of an enormous and dynamic youth movement, of mass strikes and demonstrations, and of the fall of the conservative government. At the same time, it was also a period of what has popularly become known in Greece as a renaissance of cultural and artistic activity. It was a time of great hope and anticipation for the cultural future of the country. And of course filmmakers, especially younger filmmakers, shared in this general exhilaration and optimism. But on April 21, 1967, a group of colonels executed a putsch, abolished the parliamentary government, suspended the Constitution, and set up a seven and a half year period of rule the result of which, besides being a period of political repression and economic chaos, was nothing less than the imposition of a cultural Dark Age.
But it was in this Dark Age that the new generation of filmmakers was to grow and mature, it was in this Dark Age that they would finally develop a cinema based not on abstractions and warmed-over variations on the same theme but on the fact of Greece, of everyday Greece, the Greece of light and warmth and radiance but also the Greece of political terror, poverty, ignorance, and Medieval social relationships. This was and is the Greece of the new filmmakers. It is a Greece every bit as brilliant, complex, and tragic as the Greece of the Homeric epic and the Aeschylean tragedy. And most important of all, and unprecedented in the history of the Greek film, it is a Greece shorn of lies and sentimental distortions. It is stark and naked like the Greek landscape itself.
The first indication that a new tendency, if not a “new wave,” was developing in Greek cinema came at the Cannes festival, 1973, and at the New Directors/ New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1974, with the presentation of Theo Angelopoulos’ film, DAYS OF 36. Ostensibly the film is about the arrest of a petty criminal in connection with the assassination of a labor leader, and his subsequent seizing as a hostage a Conservative deputy who has come to visit him in his cell. By any historical standard it was a minor political incident. It is not so much the fact of the assassination that Angelopoulos is interested in as it is the fact or the social situation, if I may call it that, of the country at that precise historical point. Unlike a film like Z, DAYS OF 36 shows almost no interest in the machinations of power and corruption (though it is obvious that corruption exists, so much so as a matter of fact that with Angelopoulos’ camera one can almost see it springing from the land itself), or in the dynamics and intensity of the investigation to uncover the conspiracy behind the assassination.
What motivates Angelopoulos is the social condition and the social relations that are not only at the basis of the assassination, but more importantly, the foundation on which the country itself rests. And that is why, again as opposed to a film like Z or STATE OF SIEGE, it is a slow-paced film. DAYS OF 36 is shot and edited at a pace that is the cinematic equivalent of a hot Mediterranean summer—slow, lethargic, deliberate in every movement and gesture. More than that, it is shot with a fidelity to detail, emotional as well as environmental, and an economy of movement that is the equivalent of an analytical dissection of a particular societal apparatus at a given historical moment.
In connection with the above I would like to quote from an interview that Angelopoulos gave to Ulrich Gregor for the International Forum of Young Cinema at the Berlin film festival in 1973.
It is the reconstruction of an epoch, the recreation of an historical climate which is at the basis of Angelopoulos’ work. He is interested neither in documentary accuracy nor in agitprop. His purposes always remain analytical precise, and complete. in the sense of presenting a total image, a complete picture of an epoch, of a people, of a nation.
The movie is not overtly and simplemindedly accusatory, but rather descriptive, analytical, indeed reflective. And it was made in the Greece of the Colonels. (One could very well ask—where else should a Greek make a film about Greece if he wanted to make it in 1972?) For these reasons, some rather silly people involved in the various Greek democratic and resistance organizations condemned it as “compromised” or “self-censored.” They had missed the point entirely. Obviously, Angelopoulos had no intention of making a parallel to Z. His sole purpose was to make a comment on the condition of his country in the early summer of 1936—a condition that could possibly provide parallels to the state of his country thirty-five years later.
The conclusive evidence that there is in fact a new cinema in full development in Greece was offered a few months ago at this year’s New Directors/ New Films festival in New York with the presentation of Pantelis Voulgaris’ film, THE ENGAGEMENT OF ANNA. Voulgaris was born in Athens in 1940. After graduating from the Athens Academy of Film and Drama in 1961, he worked as assistant director on approximately twenty films. Since 1965, he has made two shorts, a documentary, and an experimental work based on the song cycle of Manos Hadjidakis (the composer of the music to NEVER ON SUNDAY) called The Great Erotikos. In February of 1974, Voulgaris was arrested by the fascist regime and sent to the concentration camp island of Yaros. He was released after the fall of the dictatorship in July of that year.
THE ENGAGEMENT OF ANNA is concerned with what are undoubtedly the two most important elements of the Greek social landscape: the relation of the lower classes to the middle class (especially the increasingly more uprooted peasantry in relation to the urban middle class) and the relation, in all its ramifications and variations, of the woman to her society. The “woman question” is undoubtedly the central focus of Voulgaris’ film. But the “woman question’ as understood by Voulgaris and as it exists in Greece is of an entirely different dimension and takes on a completely different aspect from its Western European or U.S. counterpart. It is, relatively speaking, more brutal, more destructive, and in a literal sense, more Medieval in its nature and consequences. It is based not simply on social or economic inequality, but on a more profound national insecurity and emotional underdevelopment—an underdevelopment that Voulgaris portrays in all its shabbiness and tragedy.
The struggle for women’s rights in Greece today has very little in common with the advanced feminism of the Western countries; it is a struggle for simple human dignity, it is a rudimentary, fundamental struggle in defense of the integrity of the personality of every human being. It is not so much comparable to contemporary U.S. feminism as it is to the campaigns over a century ago to abolish slavery in the United States, or, more exactly, serfdom in Russia. It is, to put it simply, a movement still at the first stage of development, having to deal with a social condition that has not been known in the West—and here I include the Eastern European countries—for at least fifty years.
The Greece with which Voulgaris deals in THE ENGAGEMENT OF ANNA is a land where a forty-year-old peasant woman will look sixty-five from working in the tobacco fields ten to sixteen hours a day from the age of fifteen. It is a land where rather than waste food on a female child, twelve year old girls from poor families are literally indentured by their fathers to middle class households to act as servants and to be well or ill treated at the discretion of the “master” and “madam” of the house. It is a land where the word for child, “pedhi,” is still, especially in the countryside, applied only to male children, female children being called simply girls, “koritsia,” not children. It is a land where dowry remains a central element and consideration in the marriage relationship. “Proxenio,” which means the arrangement of a marriage (and is, by the way, the word in the title of Voulgaris’ film which has been unfortunately translated as “engagement”), is not simply a joke, but a bleak reality for the hundreds of thousands of women who come from the peasant and working classes and cannot afford anything but the most minimal of dowries or, more often than not, no dowry at all. This is the social landscape which Voulgaris sets out to survey. He does it in a manner that is nothing less than extraordinary.
The film opens with a panoramic shot, in soft focus, of the city of Athens as it awakens on a Sunday morning. In the background we hear the tolling of church bells. The camera then cuts to the courtyard of a church from the inside of which a young woman emerges; we follow her as she goes home.
As soon as she reaches the house she goes to the kitchen and prepares the morning coffee for the household—we see that she is a servant. There is an enormous tension written on her face. She moves about mechanically, automatically, but with a sense of fear and with what, we will come to understand, is an extraordinary resignation.
It is a typical middle-class Athenian home. The men of the family are outside in the garden playing “tavli” (backgammon). The women, in another part of the garden, are chatting about one thing and another. It appears to be a family gathering. It appears that they have all come together to be witness to an unusual event, but not as participants so much as voyeurs. More members of the family join the congregation. One of them, a young man, brings along his new movie camera, indeed he never parts with it. He examines and plays with it to such an extent that it becomes obvious that it represents a new stage in his life, a new level of accomplishment and status. Finally, the subject of the gossip becomes less general and more specific, more uniform. The gathering begins talking about the servant woman, Anna. After a few minutes we finally understand why the entire family has assembled together. It is a “proxenio,” the arranging of a marriage. They are all here to see and judge the bridegroom who has been chosen, and to ensure that the first meeting between him and Anna is a “success.” The prospective bridegroom, Kosmas, arrives and is introduced to Anna. After being assaulted by indiscreet questions and embarrassing glances, they are allowed to leave and acquaint themselves with one another. Before they leave, however, Kosmas must promise the master of the house to have Anna back by ten o'clock.
Anna clearly understands the indignity of her position. She is embarrassed, tense, almost fearful. She reacts as any human being would to the violation of her most elemental right—the right to choose the person with whom she will share her personality and the free moments of her life. She does not speak to Kosmas, and answers his questions with only the most peremptory replies. But there is something else that frightens her. She is also clearly aware of the possibilities of the moment, of this forced encounter between her and this strange man. But she is afraid that she may not be able to deal with the demands that these next few hours will make on her. Her problem is that she is a virgin—in her early twenties, but still a virgin. And not simply in the physical sense—that is the least important of all—but in the more crucial sense of emotional virginity. This is literally her first time alone with a man. She has never kissed a man, never touched a man, never exchanged private words with a man before. She is of that class of poverty-ravaged women who, at the age of puberty, are “given away” to a strange household to be locked up there until the day they are “given” to a husband they have never met. And she knows that she is a part of that class and hates it, and hates herself and is profoundly ashamed of the incompleteness and denial of her life. She cannot talk to Kosmas, she cannot look him in the eyes because she is ashamed, and because she feels that she is inadequate. She doesn't know how he will react to someone who has only been half a woman and half a human being, to someone who has never known even one moment of tenderness or love.
But Anna is a woman of immense inner strength, and Kosmas is a man of more than usual sensitivity, especially for a Greek male. Slowly, they move toward each other, exchanging each other’s despair and dreams. Kosmas takes Anna to a cafe and then to a small, working class nightclub. She begins responding to him more and more. She smiles at him, touches him with affection, and kisses him goodnight with the passionate awareness that he has saved her from complete despair. This is the first time she has ever been allowed to enjoy herself as a woman. She is overcome by happiness. They want to see each other again. She has been fortunate in that her trial has turned into her triumph and beyond that, into her joy and self-fulfillment.
But she has returned home late—it is way past the time that was set as the limit to her evening. As she walks through the garden of the house, she is confronted by her master’s mother, who has been waiting up for her all night, and now pounces on her with a calculated vengeance. Where has she been? She'll never change—give her a little bit of freedom and she becomes a tramp. And to think, the old lady has treated her so kindly, “almost” like her own daughter, and she is repaid with this massive betrayal, with this incredible disrespect and dishonor. But Anna can no longer keep still. She has kept her silence for years. But in the face of this final atrocity against her personality, she lashes out like a pent-up beast. She screams back at the old lady the truth of her condition with all the vengeance she can muster. She says that she has never been treated as a daughter, but rather as the constant and complete servant that she is. The conditions of her life have made her into a monster, she says, and this life of hers is nothing but a constant act of terror, an endless violation. Having spit out all her humiliation into the face of the old woman, Anna runs out and locks herself up in her room.
She refuses to come out. Finally she allows her master to come in and speak to her. His first question is, “What has he done to you?” She looks at him blankly, overwhelmed by the extent of his indiscretion. She replies, “Nothing.” Her master asks if Kosmas had touched her, had compromised her, had been dishonorable with her. He can't seem to understand that Kosmas is not the problem—that the problem is his own interference, his own indiscretion at the expense of Anna’s dignity. He concludes by assuring Anna that he'll never allow Kosmas to go near her again, and by informing her that he has called her mother to come to Athens from her village.
Anna just stares at him blankly; her life is in the hands of others. She makes up her mind to leave—to leave all of this forever, definitively. It is the only solution left that will keep her from a life of self-hatred.
But her mother arrives and brings with her an inescapable realization. Anna is condemned to a dual oppression—she is a victim not only of her sex, but of her class. She is representative of all those young women in Greece who are given over to a strange home because the families from which they come are so poor that the few resources at their disposal have to be carefully rationed. The male children who are grown have left the village to become laborers in the major cities, or more often than not, have emigrated to the Greek ghettoes of West Germany, Australia, or the United States. After they leave, there is always one daughter (and many times more than one) who is given out as a servant both because she will be less of a strain on the family and because the little money she will earn in this fashion can be sent back to the village to supplement the family income. This is Anna’s social position. Her mother, a quiet, almost invisible woman whose face is marked by the deprivation and defeat of her own life, comes to tell her that she should stay at least one more year. Her mother understands her—how could she not, in her gait and in the lines of her face we see Anna’s tragedy anticipated. But if Anna could only be patient for one more year, her younger brother will be old enough to go out and start working. But now he is still too young—he needs Anna’s support. In the end Anna decides to stay “one more year,” but we know that it will be much longer. Anna represents yet another dead generation of Greek youth and Greek womanhood. She decides to accept her mother’s fate—a life of resignation and self-hatred. She decides to condemn herself to oblivion. The film ends as it began, with a panoramic shot of Athens as it awakens to yet another day.
Voulgaris’ film is a triumph of intelligence and compassion. It is at the same time a moving creation of individual tragedy, and a searing indictment of the social and economic structure that is its basis. Voulgaris has illuminated precisely the extent to which an individual’s life is not in her own hands, but at the mercy of the entire cultural structure of which she is a part. Voulgaris is not at all interested in the portrayal of atomized individuals or acts and situations alienated from their roots and their environment. As a matter of fact, he does not believe that such atomization or alienation really exists. His concern is with human relations in all their multiplicity; and with the societal structure by which these relations are influenced, transformed, and even created. He is an artist concerned with subtleties and nuances, with all those seemingly insignificant suggestions that are at the core of human action.
And it is this sensibility that also explains his technique as a director. Every critic who has written on Voulgaris’ film has commented on its tone. THE ENGAGEMENT OF ANNA is an extremely quiet film. It is almost silent as it moves from event to event with the same certainty and rhythm as the passing of time. Its tone is soft, placid, and inconspicuous. Despite its commitment, it is not a baldly accusatory film. It presents us with all the facts needed so that we may make a judgment. But its indignation is not a part of its method; it is a result of its solicitude and compassion. Though a profoundly revolutionary film, the key to its essential nature lies in its unassuming gentleness, in its demand that all judgments be made peacefully and with restraint, with a generous heart and an immense good will.
The one element that, more than any other, is responsible for the serenity of Voulgaris’ film is the slowness of its pacing. Like DAYS OF 36, it is a film constructed on a passivity of motion. This unhurried pacing seems to be becoming the distinctive feature of the new Greek cinema. The only parallel really is to Antonioni -- but whereas the slowness of Antonioni’s films is the result of existential lethargy, of the internal definition and condition of his characters’ lives, the slowness of the new Greek films is external, environmental -- it is a product of the Greek landscape itself. Indeed, it appears to be a conscious attempt to ensure the integrity of the Greek film by placing it in its authentic environment, in the midst of its country’s heat and slowness of life. In all its aspects, the contemporary Greek cinema is intensely committed to absolute fidelity to the reality of modern Greek experience. It will not compromise with that commitment. And perhaps because of its authenticity and integrity, it will be able to play a unique role in the cultural maturation of the country. It would be a role comparable, in its influence, significance and genius to that played by classical tragedy in Pericles’ Athens -- no less a task than the reflection of a peoples spirit and the definition of their future.
POSTSCRIPT: The THIASOS Affair
A few days after writing this article I learned of what has already come to be known in Greece as the “THIASOS Affair.” THIASOS (Theater Company) is the title of Theo Angelopoulos’ new film. Upon completion it was immediately chosen by the Cannes festival as the official Greek entry. But when the film was screened for the Advisory Committee of the Greek Ministry of the Presidency (the Cabinet office that is the executive organ of the President) it was vetoed. Perhaps I should remind the reader that for a film to officially compete at Cannes, it must be sponsored by the government of the country it is to represent. The Advisory Committee decided against the film on the grounds that it “one-sidedly expresses the opinions of the extreme left.”
The film deals with the period 1939-1952, in other words, from the Second World War and the Resistance through the Greek Civil War and the final triumph of the Right. It is almost four hours long. Other than the above I can make no critical judgment, as I have not seen the film. But others have made judgments and I would like to present them here.
1. Festivals: In an unprecedented move, the governing committee at Cannes changed its bylaws to allow THIASOS to be shown in competition, and it was subsequently awarded the International Critics Prize as Best Film; a Special Prize for THIASOS at Taormina; an entire day dedicated to THIASOS at La Rochelle; a four-day event dedicated to Angelopoulos at the Venice Bienalle where, along with his three feature films, three other Greek films are to be shown, among them THE ENGAGEMENT OF ANNA; and in addition, THIASOS was chosen for the festivals of Locarno, Berlin, London, Portugal, and Mexico.
2. Critics: Cahiers du Cinéma is to publish an interview with Angelopoulos; Positif is to dedicate an entire issue to him. An Italian critic at Cannes wrote, “In 1947 we had the discovery of Rosselini. In 1960, Antonioni. In 1975, the discovery of Angelopoulos.” The critic of the Suddeutsche Zeitung: “(THIASOS is) a film that for post-junta Greece will gain the importance of Eisenstein’s POTEMKIN for revolutionary Russia and Rosselini’s OPEN CITY for post-war Italy.” The critic of the Frankfurter Rundschau: “(Angelopoulos) has proven that he is one of the greatest (directors) in Europe.” The critic of the Tage-Spiel: “With every new film that Theodoros Angelopoulos makes it becomes increasingly clearer that there enters the history of the cinema a director that must be considered among the few great talents.” He goes on to compare the director to Godard and Orson Welles. Penelope Houston, writing in Sight and Sound: “Without too much difficulty a line could be traced from Antonioni through Jancso in the work of Theodor Angelopoulos, fast emerging as the Greek director to watch.” Richard Corliss, writing in The Village Voice: “Theo Angelopoulos’ ACTORS’ TRAVELS (sic) was one of the most important films at Cannes, if only for the political and stylistic trends it embodied.”
In Greece meanwhile, the THIASOS affair has drowned the government in a tidal wave of protest from a disbelieving and disgusted public opinion. The question of THIASOS even reached the floor of Parliament.
As for Angelopoulos himself, he has kept a cool, if rightfully angry, perspective on the entire matter. In his words,
“With this manner the officials lost the opportunity of an alibi and threw away the mask of supposed progressivism. In the entire affair I am the only one who has profited. Or, if you want, it is the history of our land itself that has profited. Because it is frightful that the ruling class still does not admit that a civil war occurred in Greece.”
Concerning his film, Angelopoulos says simply,
Now the only thing that remains is the film itself. Hopefully, it will come to the United States -- sooner, rather than later.