WAR AND CINEMA IN GREECE

 WAR AND CINEMA IN GREECE

Introduction

Since antiquity, war – as an extreme outcome of economic and social conflicts, a field of courage or sacrifice, which incorporates the entire human drama of life and death – has been the subject of art in all its forms. The strong emotions that it provokes has inspired artists, who have depicted war in sculpture, painting, epics, theatrical plays, and so on, of great artistic value.

However, to the degree that it depicts human action – apart from the aesthetic or emotional aspect – the artistic work encroaches on that of history. In fact, with the passing of time, as the emotional aspect fades or disappears, the aesthetic and historical-informative takes over and acquires special value for future generations.

It is no accident that the invention of cinema came at a time of great discoveries in numerous fields. Predominant among these was the development of the mass media. News was now being transmitted rapidly by telegraph and newspapers could publish photographs from events taking place far away. War was no longer merely a narration. The immediacy of information and, in particular, the image, brought it even closer.

The cinematic image has a double capability: it can both capture the historic event at the moment that it is happening, and can recreate it (by directing it, performing it in a more, or less, convincing way). These are the two key features present at its birth, which still continue to define its relationship with war or other events.

In addition, war was a field in which the cinema could develop a major spectacle – an area that it gradually mastered, as its technical capabilities increased and continue to increase much more than the other arts.

Chronologically, this “game” was introduced into cinema the year following its invention, in 1895. The first person to see in the cinema the possibilities of developing an impressive and large spectacle was Georges Méliès, a theatrician, specialised in magic tricks and juggling.

From the commencement of his cinema career, he began producing those types of films. He started with street scenes – just like Lumière – but as the travelling showmen, who bought his movies, asked for more and more, he created his own studio and begin producing films that covered a broad range of subjects. He became famous for movies in which his unbridled imagination, combined with the innovative techniques he developed (theatrical and cinematic), resulted in striking images.

A lesser known, but not secondary activity of the ingenious Méliès – which he developed simultaneously with his fantasy films – were directed newsreels. Méliès did not have Lumière’s network of cameramen, who travelled around the world, recording historic events on celluloid, but he had the imagination to recreate the events in his studio.

There, we see Méliès in 1897, creating – among other movies – the first war films in the history of cinema.

It is then that cinema demonstrated, for the first time, its ability to depict extreme moments relating to life and death, for an audience sitting safely and comfortably in the seats of a movie theatre. We see the culmination of this today, with television airing present-day imperialistic wars – the only difference is now we are viewing them in real time.

Naturally, the success of Méliès’ films prompted the ingenious Edison and the rival, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company – the major film producers of that time – to create a series of movies about the Spanish-American War, which began in 1898. This was the first war in which the film camera played a significant role, on both an informative and propaganda level.[1]

This war also gave American producers the first opportunity to promote – to an even greater degree than Méliès – large-scale spectacles. Movies about the Spanish-American War were a combination of newsreels with staged scenes. Fostering or exploiting patriotism and condemning the enemy were the predominant elements of the films, on an ideological level.

We have spent some time on these early war films, because they have remained essentially within the same framework up to the present day. From Méliès’ depiction of the Greek-Turkish War in 1897, up to the recent Hollywood production, Pearl Harbour, the approach to producing war movies has not changed. Only the means.

It should be noted that films about war were extremely popular from the very beginning and were widely distributed. This made producers step up film production in the coming years. Thus, the entire history of cinema is full of movies that depict real or fictional stories of armed conflicts – stories at the front or behind the lines, both dramas and comedies.

The ideological approach to the subject of war is directly linked to the prevailing political conditions in the country producing the film, making this kind of movie extremely changeable.  A special type of category were the war newsreels, which seemed to involve state services, as the filming of war scenes at the front could not easily be done by private filmmakers. Their propaganda use was widespread.

In any event, the relationship between cinema and war is exceptionally interesting and provides a wealth of material for study.  In this text – on the occasion of the poster exhibition entitled: “The War in Cinema” – we have undertaken a simple approach to the subject of war and cinema in Greece, touching on what we believe are the main issues, relating to both the production, as well as the attitude of the state and the audience response.

In this approach we felt it was necessary to include a closer look at one of the most historic cinemas in Greece, the Orpheus movie theatre. Hitherto unknown aspects of its history during the period of the Second World War constitute elements of modern Greek history.

In fact, the valuable collection of posters belonging to its owner, Lefteris Sklavos, came from this cinema.

From the 1897 film by Georges Méliès, Naval Battle in Greece.

1. THE GREEK APPROACH

 

The early films

Greece, and Turkey to a lesser degree, had the “honour” of being the first countries in the world whose armed conflicts were depicted in the cinema.

By 1897, cinema shows had been spreading around the world for the past year with amazing speed. The travelling showmen who purchased films, to screen them as they toured around the world, could see in the catalogue of movies offered to them by the distributors of that time, a special reference to a specific group of films: Scenes in the Graeco-Turk War.

These films, according to John Barnes, were among the most successful, as they also had some “artistic features.”[2]

The titles of specific films, as they were listed with their serial numbers, distributed by Briton Philip Wolf, in The Optical Magic Lantern Journal Annual 1897-8, were:

18. Mohammedan inhabitants of Crete massacring Christian Greeks

19. Turks attacking a house defended by Greeks (Turnavos)

20. The Greek man-of-war “George” shelling the fort of Previsa

21. Execution of a Greek spy at Pharsala

The same films are noted – but with much briefer titles – next to the serial numbers of the list in the filmography of Georges Méliès, edited by Jacques Malthête[3]:

106. La prise de Tournavos

107. Exécution d’un espion

108. Massacres en Crète

110. Combat naval en Crèce.[4]

It is very possible that there were more than four films about the Greek-Turkish War. The following titles were also included in Jacques Malthête’s list:

103-4. War event

105. Bombardment of a house

There is no other information that offers further clarification about the content of these latter movies, but as no other war events were filmed during that period, it is most likely that they belong to the group of films on the Greek-Turkish War. Unfortunately, according to the Méliès film library, of all these, only the film Combat naval en Grèce appears to have been preserved.[5]

Méliès’ interest in “directing” scenes from the Greek-Turkish War was not due only to the fact that it was the most important armed conflict that year, but also to the Western public’s special interest in the fate of the Greeks. The war in Thessaly had moved the bourgeois revolutionaries in the West, who participated with volunteer groups on the side of the Greeks. Moreover, the ideological orientation of the Christian West against Muslim Turkey was quite clear from the titles of the films.

However, the interest must have been worldwide, because we see that at least one of Méliès’ films was shown during the first cinema screening in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1898.[6]  It is noteworthy that research has not traced any screenings of these films in Greece. Would this have been accidental, or on purpose?

The Balkan Wars

Between 1897 and 1912, numerous armed conflicts apart from the Greek-Turkish War, were recorded on film: 1898 Spanish-American War, 1899-1900 the Philippines, 1898 Sudan, 1899-1902 the Boer War, 1900 the Boxer Rebellion, 1904-4 the Russian-Japanese War, 1907 Morocco, 1911 Chinese Revolution and 1910-1914 Mexico.

However, the first wars to attract all the cameras of that time were the Balkan Wars in 1912-13. All the well known cinema companies – Gaumont, Pathe, Éclair, Jury’s, Cines, Kinemacolor and Tropical – made sure that the events were depicted on hundreds of metres of film. Over 20 cameramen from France, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Croatia, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and Denmark found themselves in the trenches with a movie camera in their hands.

For the first time then, Greek state interest was expressed in the filming of scenes from the war operations. The work was assigned to Joseph Hepp, a Hungarian cinema technician, who had settled permanently in Greece since 1910 and was undoubtedly the most experienced cinematographer.

According to Hepp himself, he had shot the first “Greek” newsreels in 1910, at the renowned “Dardanelles” – the passage between the Dore and Yannaki patisseries in Syntagma Square, where he filmed Athenian high society.[7] However, this information was found to be erroneous. His first films were made in 1912.

One of Hepp’s films – probably the first one on the subject of war – depicts the Red Cross donation appeal at the “Dardanelles,” which, according to Aglaia Mitropoulou, was for the soldiers fighting at the front in the Balkan Wars.

The head of the foreign ministry’s Diplomatic and Historical Archive Service, Fotini Constantopoulou, writes about Hepp’s activities:

“On March 25, 1912, together with a film on the celebration of the national holiday, he filmed the family of the heir to the throne, Constantine, in a film entitled: ‘Small princes in the palace garden.’ That same year, he filmed the Greek Army’s entry into Thessaloniki and the following year, the crushing of the Bulgarian Army outside that city. In 1919, sent by the Foreign Ministry, he collected valuable material from Thrace.”[8]

The films from the Balkan Wars were screened at the palace and cinemas of Athens, provoking a variety of reactions.

In 1914, the Athenian newspaper Patris referred to the film, The Great Battle of Kilkis and the Escaping Convicts, which it described as “excellently crafted,” but the only additional information given was that it was 1,600 metres long and was divided into two reels.

A more systematic cinematic recording of war events came later, during the period of the Asia Minor tragedy and its widespread use for propaganda purposes. The inspiration for the ideological use of cinema by the state apparently came from similar actions by the French and English armies during World War I.

Foreign propaganda

The first, rather timid, ideological use of cinema could be seen in the early films of Méliès. This continued and culminated during World War I. In that period, cinema was transformed chiefly into a means of propaganda, particularly by the imperialist forces involved, which also had the greatest cinematic development: France and Great Britain.

Their activities were not confined only to their own countries, but also extended to those in which their armies were active. In long-suffering Macedonia – the main field of battle – it was the French army that introduced the cinema and used it for propaganda purposes, while in Samos, it was the British.

Dimitris Mekasis, who wrote about the cinema in Florina, writes:

“During World War I, the French armies based in our town brought a portable film projector for the entertainment of their troops. Three adjoining shops in March 25th Street were used as the auditorium.  At the same time, there were also screenings for the Florinites with silent movies (war newsreels and comedies). The cinema was set up in various parts of the town, like Ermou Square (the present-day Seven Heroes Square), the orphanage courtyard, and Tegos’ café in Yiazi, where there were rows of seats dug into the mountainside.”[9]

On the contrary, the British army – according to Ward Price – did not bring the cinema to Epirot Greece. The soldiers of Great Britain created improvised shows for their entertainment, when they weren’t amusing themselves by killing.[10]

The situation was different in Samos, where the British authorities, in 1918, re-opened the cinema, which had stopped operating in 1916. The newspaper Aegaeon enthusiastically announced the event on March 17, 1918:

“We are pleased to inform you that the cinema of our fellow citizen, Mr. N. Foukis, will begin operating in the hall of the Pythagoreio High School, where war films will be screened. This commendable initiative is due, according to reports, to the kindness of the English Authorities, who will also procure the films, the proceeds of which, after expenses are deducted, will be donated to charitable causes.”[11]

The obvious propaganda nature of these screenings is demonstrated in the subsequent publication on March 19 in the same newspaper:

“The heroism and enthusiasm of the advancing Anglo-French armies stirred emotions of admiration in the souls of the spectators for our great allies. And the ruins of our flourishing cities made everyone feel the civilised world’s horror about the barbarous destruction wrought by the Germans. (…)  Tremours of emotion were also caused by the images of the wounded being transported and the heroic English regiments, marching into battle with such incredible eagerness, as if going to a fair.”

Greek propaganda

The first war films shot in Greece, as we saw previously, were those by Joseph Hepp in Macedonia and Thrace. In the period of World War I that followed, as the filming of war newsreels by foreign states became more systematic, in Greece a problem arose with local newsreel producers.

The existing production companies of the fledgling cinema industry expressed interest in filming the war – not from a patriotic point of view, of course, but to collect money from the state coffers.

This was illustrated by Dimos Bratsanou’s story, as he disclosed it in an article published in the Eikonografimeni magazine, in the November-December edition, 1919:

“In our previous issue, we reported on Greece’s military action and its contribution to the Great Cause, which took place in secret, without publicity, without even a few pages being recorded on film for historic purposes, or at least to boost morale. Now we are informed that despite a most financially reasonable proposal by the only serious Greek company with Greek capital, 50,000 drachmas were paid from public funds to a foreign cameraman for three (3) films, which he made, each approximately 200 metres long. These three films comprise a visit by King Alexander to the front, the battle of Skra and caring for the refugees.”[12]

In the Pathé company’s archives is a newsreel entitled: Greece against Bulgaria, produced in 1918, which corresponds to Bratsanos’ description. It includes a visit by King Alexander to the front, the battle of Skra, General Paraskevopoulos at the Roupel pass, Eleftherios Venizelos handing over the flag to the 34th Infantry Regiment, etc. However, it is 270-metre film and not three films.

The explanatory intertitles (in French), which call the Bulgarians “enemies” and talk about territory “which will soon become ours again,” betray the fact that it was a propaganda film, intended for abroad. Perhaps for that reason it was assigned to a foreign cameraman. Pathé’s archive documentation indicates that it was made by Leonce Film.

In the following period, as Greece becomes involved in the Asia Minor episode, the situation changed. Almost all the Greek cameramen of that time – Dimitris Gaziadis, Achilleas Madras, Joseph Hepp – were following the army and filming war newsreels. From 1921, painter-photographer Giorgos Prokopiou began systematically filming war events in Asia Minor, on the orders of the General Army Staff.

The films of that time were used directly and without excuses for their propaganda. Screenings were not left only to movie theatres, but special showings were organised in at least two locations: Syntagma Square in Athens and the square of the White Tower in Thessaloniki.

It was in the summer 1920, as the Asia Minor campaign reached its peak, when the cafes of Syntagma were, quite literally, mobilised for the screenings – “without higher prices for drinks” – of newsreels. It is indicative that the Foreign Ministry-produced newsreels are described, for the first time, as “national films,” in an article published in the newspaper Athinai on July 23.

“National films

          The first series of dispatched films on occupied Thrace were shown at a preview screening yesterday at the Foreign Ministry. These films will be made available to two cafes in Syntagma Square, and will be screened there for the public, without higher prices for drinks. In addition, similar films with French and Greek subtitles will be sent abroad.”

In Thessaloniki, it was the municipality that organised the screenings of state propaganda films.

“During the years of the Asia Minor campaign,” writes author Costas Tomanos, “the municipality set up an outdoor screen in the square of the White Tower, where scenes were shown from the life of our soldiers at the Asia Minor fronts. People used to watch [the films] standing up, with noisy cheering, because the scenes were well chosen and showed our soldiers having an easy time. However, some wounded men, who were returning from the front, brought completely different news.”

Pleased with the response to the newsreels, which – as we have seen – were screened in public squares, the Foreign Ministry wanted to make an even more impressive film. Thus, it proceeded with plans to produce the first Greek war fiction film in 1921.

The Gaziadis brothers were mobilised and given the subject, “Achievements of the Greek Army in Asia Minor,” with the title, The Greek Miracle. In turn, they mobilised Russian actors, as the Greeks were away at the front, and began filming. According to reports, the film would have concluded with the occupation of Ankara! However, it was not completed, because the front collapsed and the first war film in Greece remained half-finished.[13]

The war history of Asia Minor was subsequently to become a subject of taboo. When it was touched on some 40 years later, it provoked a storm of reactions and provocative state intervention.

The war films of the inter-war period

As the subject of the recent war was virtually prohibited, the past became the only available topic for cinematic utilisation. This marked a turn back in time, to the history of the national struggle for independence in 1821, which again had bad Turks and good Greeks, but also victorious battles. The films were The Banner of 1821 (1929) by Costas Leloudas, and The Final Days of Odysseus Androutsos (1929) by Dimitris Kaminakis. The state indirectly funded these endeavours with equipment and other facilities. However, the artistic results were disappointing. And from then on, up to World War II, there was nothing else. In fact, the total production was negligible.

Of course, the production of newsreels increased and consolidated, as well as their obligatory screening in movie theatres. With law 4767 in 1930, state propaganda through cinema was legislated for the first time. Movie theatres were obliged – under the threat of having their licences revoked – to show “daily, with each regular program, films of a duration not more than five minutes, made available by the state’s soon-to-be-established cinema service…”

Although Greek cinema was far from the war, this was not the case abroad. Foreign films were imported and screened in Greece, provoking a variety of reactions, especially those with anti-war content. Meanwhile, the rise of fascism in Europe raised once again the issue of a new, widespread armed conflict.

Indicative of the prevailing climate in Greece during the inter-war period was the review in the magazine Parlan of the French film, Verdun, shown in Athens in 1931:

“Verdun can give some idea of the [two] different approaches taken by French and German war films.  It is an imperialistic, chauvinistic film, which follows the overall stratocratic trend of post-war France. How far away it is from Pabst’s humanitarian film ‘Four Infantrymen,’ or even from the American ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ by the German Remarque! With a film like ‘Verdun’ – apart, of course, from its historical interest – the cinema does not offer a service to humanity.”[14]

The film, All Quiet on the Western Front, caused quite a stir when shown in Greece in 1931. Fascist organisations were roused by its opposition to war and – favoured by the state – developed considerable activity. Groups of fascists burst into cinemas in Athens and Thessaloniki, where the film was being shown, releasing foul-smelling gas and inciting unrest. It was an unsettled period that led in 1936 to the imposition of the Metaxas dictatorship.

The dictatorship used the cinema extensively for propaganda purposes.

The 1940 war

And we come to the major armed conflict of 1940, in which the cinema is called upon to play a more substantive role.

Immediately after the declaration of war, newsreels on the war became the most interesting cinematic attraction for people in the cities. In Athens, two movie theatres – the Cineak and the Asty – screened exclusively war newsreels, in Greek and English. Greek production was considerably stepped up in creating this kind of film. Joseph Hepp was among the cameramen, who were once again mobilised.

But the moment came when the front collapsed. On April 9, 1940, the Germans entered Thessaloniki. One of the first orders given by the occupation forces was for the cinemas to open, in order to show that life continued peacefully under their exalted protection. Previously, due to fear of bomb alerts, cinemas operated sporadically, opening at irregular hours.

Certain cinemas were now requisitioned and used for the entertainment of the German soldiers. In Thessaloniki, the Dionysia was transformed into the Soldaten Kino, the Pathé into the Germania Kino and the Pallas into the Frontbuhne. The Ilyssia was “ceded” to the Italians. In Athens, the Attikon became the Soldaten Kino Victoria, the Apollon turned into the Kino Apollo, while the other cinemas were obliged to write the titles of films in German and Italian, apart from Greek. These measures was extended throughout Greece.

With the entry of the Germans there was no other change in the operation of cinemas, apart from the banning of films which came from countries hostile to the Axis forces, the obligatory screening of German propaganda newsreels, and the adaptation of screening times to the curfew and the necessity of saving electricity.

In Katerini, the Germans had their own film projector when they organised occasional screenings for their troops, as the projector’s sound system was faulty in the town’s cinema and all films were screened silent – something which did not seem to annoy the locals.

In Kalamata, at the requisitioned Trianon movie theatre, screenings took place virtually under war conditions and it was probably the first time that a cinema was converted into a fortress! The veteran film projectionist Costas Katsikas, recalls:

“The screenings took place with strict protective measures because of fear of attack by ELAS [Greek Liberation Army]: machine-guns at the entrance, on the roof, machine-guns everywhere. Those were terrible hours and days.”[15]

Films and post-war censorship

          During the post-war period, cinema production flourished for the first time, but the subject-matter was rigidly controlled by the state – as was social life in general – or, more specifically, by the military. It was the time when an absolute form of censorship was established. “Censorship is a phenomenon that makes an exceptionally strong appearance immediately after World War II and stems from ideological and political conflicts,” notes Chrysanthi Sotiropoulou.[16]

The first victim of post-war censorship was a film produced by Finos Films, Last Mission, its subject-matter inspired by the recent war. Directed by Nikos Tsiforos, it was released in April 1949. After one week’s screening in Athens, it was banned by demand of the Security Ministry and the General Chief of Staff, through the military police. The reason for the ban was that it discredited Greece.

The magazine, Kinimatografikos Astir, which played a major role in banning the film, came to the point of pillorying and denouncing publicly the “communist friends” of… Finos and Nikos Tsiforos!

Finos withdrew the film, changed the script, “so that it not only did not offend the patriotic sentiments of the Greek people, but praised them” – as the newspaper wrote – and re-released it, “purged,” into the market. The new version of the film received screening permission, after being approved by a committee, with the agreement of the General Chief of Staff. Now the film could be advertised as “a wonderful story of self-sacrifice and patriotism.”

The military’s decisions on this specific film were perhaps excessive, but it was necessary for them to set an example for others, who would be dealing with similar “sensitive” issues. Thus, all subsequent films referring to the war – when they were not grossly warmongering – were seemingly neutral. Melodramas about the war predominated, in which everything revolved around the only acceptable formula: good Greek, bad German.

Prior to the Finos film, there had been, in 1945, some “cheap theatrical, melodramatic stories,”[17] which used the Albanian front and the Occupation as a background (Broken Hearts by Orestes Laskos, Unconquered Slaves by V. Papamichalis). Others of a similar kind followed. In the contradictory period 1947-48, before the Republican army was crushed, the film, The Germans are Coming Again, by Alekos Sakellarios, criticizes the “incomprehensible” confrontation of left and right, and promotes a message of conciliation.

Of the films of that time, the first to avoid cliches and distinguish itself artistically was Greg Talas’ Barefoot Battalion, made in 1954. The resistance activities of homeless children at the Papafeion Orphanage in Thessaloniki, during the Occupation, inspired a film that “critics worldwide acknowledged as an achievement similar to that of Rossellini’s Open City, and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.”[18]

Although Greg Talas’ outstanding film won first prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1955 and became the first Greek movie to receive an international award, it was virtually overlooked in Greece and, unfortunately, continues to be ignored.[19]

In 1958, the EDA [Unified Democratic Left] emerged from the elections as the main opposition party. Obviously influenced and encouraged by this, Nikos Koundouros made The Outlaws, a story of pursued partisans, who desperately seek an escape by sea. The time and place of the armed group’s activities are not defined and only those in the know could see a reference to the Civil War in this film. It was obvious that self-censorship had been imposed by the filmmaker, in order to ensure that the movie passed through the state procedures. Any reference to specific events of the Resistance period can be found in statements made by the filmmaker later.[20]

In 1961, at a time when the rebirth of the labour movement was consolidated and cracks began to appear in the harsh post-war regime, a different approach by Greek filmmakers to dealing with war could be observed.

For the first time, a director dared to make a film with propaganda-type newsreels as its main material. The Aegean Tragedy by Vassilis Maros was a documentary film, which utilised invaluable film archive material – in danger of being lost – to create the modern history of the Greek state, with special emphasis on the country’s armed conflicts. Although it was a “nationally correct” film, praising the greatness of the state, which crushes its external and internal enemies, it also attracted the attention of the censors.

The adventures experienced by this film revealed the “sensitivity” of those in power to films, which touch on historical issues in any way, because history – for its defilers – is, one way or the other, fire.

The problems faced by the film began when it reached the 2nd Thessaloniki Film Festival in 1961. Vassilis Maros describes it like this:

“The Thessaloniki Festival censors banned its screening, demanding the removal of some scenes. I refused. Following numerous efforts by friends and several interrogations by the police, its screening was permitted only for the festival, in the presence of 40 police officers. It won the special golden award from the jury, presided over by Elias Venezis, with its members Alexis Minotis, Marios Ploritis, Yannis Maris and other prominent people of the arts and literature. However, the government of that time would not give me permission to screen it in Athens, on the excuse, ‘Why stir up old stories?’”[21]

How the film received an award, a little later, from the then King Pavlos, was one of the paradoxes and absurdities of the situation in modern Greece.

The following year, we have a fiction film with a different approach to the last war – Sky, by Takis Kanellopoulos. The stereotypes of good and bad disappear, emphasizing the war itself as the great evil. The fact that prevailing positions about the “sanctity” of war and the “glorious” dead were put to one side, in order to highlight the human drama, made the film “subversive,” although the denunciation of war was confined to a romantic level.

In 1966, Kannellopoulos returned with Excursion, another film with the Albanian war as its backdrop, and the same line of approach as the previous one. In the meantime, Costas Manousakis filmed Betrayal, (1964), a love story set during the Occupation, in which newsreels about the Third Reich are incorporated for the first time.

Censors were unable to intervene in these films, but lurked in wait. Their next target was a French film referring to the Spanish Civil War. In October 1966, just prior to the Greek colonels’ 1967 military coup, censorship was imposed on Alain Resnais’s masterpiece, The War is Over. The most essential scenes were cut from the film and the butchered version was screened, raising a storm of protests from journalists, intellectuals and artists.

This different, liberal climate that emerged in the 1960s was violently interrupted in 1967, with the imposition of a dictatorship by the colonels and the abolition of constitutional freedoms. The cinema, which was the principal form of popular entertainment, was now called on to serve the propaganda of the stratocracy and the “Hellenic-Christian” ideals that it professed.

“Immediately after the imposition of the military dictatorship,” writes Chrysanthi Sotiropoulou, “a series of films appeared with all the features of major productions and with stories based on war operations. The regime itself, by providing equipment, soldiers and locations, assisted in the realisation of these films, which in essence boosted its prestige, as they referred directly to war activities and made heroes of the military forces.”

And Sotiropoulou points out: “What is interesting is that producers abandon their previous efforts to present their position as ‘apolitical.’ On the contrary, now they directly promote ideological fabrications, frequently distorting specific historical facts.”[22]

The war films of that period, unchecked, covered the entire historical course of Greece and its inhabitants up to the Korean War. Typical examples of this type of flag-waving and disgraceful cinema, with the notorious James Paris as its high priest, were the films, No, Brave Men of the North, At the Frontiers of Betrayal, etc.

On the contrary, Dinos Katsouridis’ film, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? gave a tragicomic picture of life during the Occupation.

The post-dictatorship change in the political climate appeared to be the reason that Nikos Koundouros’ film, 1922 (1978) – which supposedly was an abstract denunciation of “violence, human cruelty, organised authority and the indifference of the powerful”[23] – met with a great deal of criticism, as it was considered extremely chauvinistic and dangerous for Greek-Turkish relations.

For the next few years, the war no longer constituted a frequent subject of Greek films, but there were increased references to the Resistance and the Civil War, as they were no longer taboo subjects. Typical examples were About the Civil War by Diamantis Levantakos, The Man with the Carnation by Nikos Tzimas, Aris Velouhiotis by Fotis Lambrinos, Stone Years by Pandelis Voulgaris, etc.

Wartime audiences

The collective behaviour of wartime audiences is a special aspect, worth studying, of the relationship between the war and cinema.

Chronologically, the first war to enter the lives of Greeks cinematically, was the Boer War in South Africa in 1900. At the Tsoha theatre, scenes were screened from “the battles in the Transvaal, the captivity of ……., etc.[24]

But the war that made a real impression and provoked varied reactions was the one that came in 1911. It was the war between Italy and Turkey for the domination of Libya. War newsreels, obviously Italian-produced, were shown in Greece and made a big impression.

“It goes without saying that the cinema predominates and, particularly, war films. In front of the white screen, battles are discussed, plans are made, military moves are approved, the winners are cheered, the losers are booed, and the Greeks, proud of the Italians, are applauding their friends’ victory. After all, we are participating in a war.”[25]

In January 1914, just prior to World War I and after two Balkan wars, Athens was experiencing intense cinema fever. On January 7, the newspaper, Patris, gives an extraordinary image of Athens:

“The cinema fever of Athenians has reached the point of everyone waiting for hours outside the box office. And although yesterday, not even a fly could fit into the Attikon, everyone insisted on getting in.”

In 1915, new cinemas were opened and old ones renovated. Nineteen sixteen was an even more difficult year: the country was at war, there was a shortage of food, high prices ate up people’s income, but… the number of movie theatres multiplied! “The flood of cinemas in the Greek capital this year is unprecedented and amazing,” wrote the Eikonografimeni.

In November, Eleftherios Venizelos’ party was formed in Thessaloniki. The country was divided in two and the Entente forces imposed a blockade on Piraeus, but that did not prevent Athenians from frequenting the cinemas, despite the fact that old films were being screened, due to a shortage of new ones.

“What terrible distress gripped us this week,” wrote the Eikonografimeni magazine once again. “But this did not prevent Athenians from light-heartedly crowding the nightclubs and movie theatres.”

The free screenings of propaganda films of the Asia Minor campaign have been mentioned above. And so we come to the next war, which resulted in the 4-year German Occupation. As we saw, the Nazis did not ban the operation of cinemas, despite the fact that the darkness inside facilitated all kinds of “illicit” activities on the part of the Resistance.

The behaviour of cinema audiences did not change, despite hunger, widespread shortages and the Nazi oppression. In the June 21, 1941 edition of Theatis magazine we read: “The cinema is at its zenith. Young and old, we will all spend our evenings there.”

The strange behaviour of the capital’s inhabitants right in the middle of the cruelest occupation is very vividly described by writer Giorgos Theotokas in a few pages of his diary:

 

“On the evening of 28th (August 1941) there was one of the biggest air raids of the war in Greece… I was at the outdoor cinema in Stadiou [Street] in Athens, when the raid began at around 9:30pm. The show began as scheduled, accompanied by all the clamour of Hell and continued until 10:30, when the audience was told they would have to leave. During that time, people were exceptionally calm and watched the film, without paying too much attention to the noises and the flashes of the air battle and the possible danger from falling fragments.”

At the time of the German Occupation, people were especially interested in the newsreels and this, of course, was no accident. Four cinemas in Athens – compared to two in the pre-war period – screened exclusively war newsreels, accompanied by short-length films: Asty, Cineak, Cosmopolit and Cine News. It is indicative that the largest advertisements in the press came from these cinemas.

But also at the other cinemas, the mandatory newsreels attracted people’s attention.

Cinema owner Lefteris Sklavos remembers that towards the end of the war, the screening of the landing at Normandy attracted a particularly high attendance of people. The audience wanted images about what was considered a major hope for the end of the war, even though the newsreels came from German propaganda.

The Orpheas cinema in Vouliagmenis Street,

in the first year of its operation in 1935

 

 

2. THE ORPHEAS GOES TO WAR

Reference to only one cinema during the period of the German Occupation seems to individualize the subject. However, in reality, it was representative of all the characteristics of that time.

The tale of the Orpheas cinema in Vouliagmenis Street and the interlinked story of its owner, Lefteris Sklavos, is a long and rich saga. Our description of the events is based on the robust filmmaker’s own narrative, which is lively, vivid and colourful and, at the same time, anti-heroic and self-derisive.

The declaration of war found Lefteris Sklavos on the last day of his military service. It was a tragic irony that the sirens of war sounded on the very day that he would have been discharged from the army. So, instead of discarding his uniform, he had to outfit others to leave for the front. Later, he also went.

He ended up in Korytsa, to return a little later, hanging clandestinely between the wheels of a sanitation wagon, when the front collapsed. Back in Athens, his thoughts turned once again to the cinema.

“As the Germans had come and occupied the country, we went about our business, to re-open the cinema, which I had abandoned. During the war, they had stopped; who would look after them?”

And Lefteris had not one, but four, cinemas in operation during the pre-war period – two indoor and two outdoor – the Astera in Lipasma, the Luxe in Kamini, the Miami in Glyfada and the Orpheas in Vouliagmenis Street.

So, in the summer of 1941, the Orpheas began gradually operating in Vouliagmenis Street and later, in winter, the Luxe in Kamini. In Athenian newspapers, we discover that the summer Orpheas remained open up to the month of December! We find this difficult to grasp, but Lefteris Sklavos’ explanation is disarming:

“We remained open so late, because people had no other form of entertainment. They didn’t have cars and there was an early curfew, but they had the cinema. They were cold, but what did they do? They went to the bar, which could be accessed from the road. There was a blanket as a partition. They said, ‘Uncle Paul’ – that was my father – “give me the blanket to cover myself.’ If it rained, they took the chairs and put in on their heads.”

The cinephile “truck jumpers”

As is well known, during the Occupation, food supply was the greatest problem faced by the urban population and especially the working class.

          “During the Occupation, they were dying of hunger. The municipal vehicle would go out and instead of collecting rubbish, it would collect bodies. It was real hunger.

          What did we do at the Luxe in Kamini? I had my father running the bar. We made a bar in a door of the cinema and used to sell both inside and outside. There were various empty milk tins there – about 10 in a row – and the little kids would come.

          ‘Uncle Paul, can I go in?’

          ‘What have you got there, what did you bring?’

          ‘I’ve got a handful of beans that I picked.’

          ‘Put them here.’

          Another would come. ‘What do you have? Rice? Put it in this can. What do you have?’ ‘ Sugar.’ ‘ Chickpeas.’ And we’d look at which one was full enough for cooking to eat that day. The next day, there would be another can.

          So that’s how we managed, with the kids, who raided the trucks for supplies. They’d jump up on the trucks and whatever they could find, they’d rip off and put in their pockets. If there was wood or army bread, they’d throw in down. By the time they were noticed and the truck stopped, they had already done their work. As soon as it stopped, zoom, they were off!

          And that’s how we got through the Occupation, with the tins that we filled.”

Of course, apart from the “truck jumpers,” the rest of the people paid for tickets. But the big problem with money was inflation.

“Each week, the ticket price changed – 100 million, 200. It reached as high as two billion! Even the shoe-shiner asked for a billion to polish your shoes.

          We were gathering money for Loula to give birth. We filled a sack and when the midwife came, she said: ‘What can I do with it? I don’t want it.’ So we gave it in exchange for a kilo of spaghetti. A military sack full of money…”

Loula is Lefteris Sklavos’ wife, and little Paul was born that day on October 30, 1944.

“Sabotage”

“We only showed German films. They had banned all the foreign ones. Only some excerpts [were allowed] from musicals, like Fred Astaire dancing. We only showed German newsreels. They made us screen them, because they were propaganda. They didn’t charge us for them; they gave them to us free.

So, one day we were showing, at the Orpheas, a landing that they [the English] had made. And because there were only a few copies, I screened the same copy as the Panhellenio [movie theatre] in Syngrou Avenue. We had a boy on a bicycle going to the Panhellenio, where they showed the film; he brought it back to us, then went again to the Panhellenio. And many people came that evening to see the landing by the English.

The boy was late for the final screening and the people were anxious. They waited for an hour, an hour and a half, then some left, others wanted their money back, and for others we signed the tickets so they could come back the next day. When the people had left, we switched off the lights and then the boy with the bicycle came, out of breath.

‘What is it, Giorgos?’

‘You know, the Germans caught me with the evzones, who were patrolling, and didn’t let me go. That’s why I was late.’

‘What’re you talking about? You have a note to circulate freely and they’re German newsreels. If we don’t show them, it will be considered sabotage and they may shoot us.’

‘Mr. Lefteris, since I couldn’t come, what could I do?’

We said to the projectionist, ‘Take him behind the screen and put on some music. And we began to beat him. As one finished with him, the other grabbed him. ‘I’ll tell you,’ he said. As we were doing good business and the other neighbouring cinema wasn’t – I don’t know how many billions they gave him – they told him, ‘Be late, don’t take the copy.’ That’s how we found out the reason.”

“And the people came mostly for the newsreels, but not always. This particular time, [they came] because the English had landed and the Germans recaptured it again. It was a German propaganda ploy. And especially for this newsreel, we had a lot of business.

In fact, the boss of the person, who paid the boy not to come, came to compensate me and brought me billions. I said, ‘No, take it. This will stay between us, they mustn’t find out, otherwise they’ll think we committed sabotage.’

Sometimes I see [the boy]; he’s grown up now, and he says to me, ‘Mr. Lefteris, remember the beating I got?’”

The blockade in Vouliagmenis Street

The Orpheas continued to operate as usual, disrupted only by the execution of Lefteris’ brother and sister, and the cinema doorman.

“When the Germans were leaving in 1944, I remember the partisans seized the last jeep leaving the Maltsiniotis factory that they had requisitioned and where they were making ammunition. So, as it was leaving, the partisans nabbed him – the German was alone – took his vehicle, undressed him and, from the bridge at the Aghia Fotini [church] at Makriyanni, threw him down into the river. He wasn’t killed; only his legs were broken.

At some point, a German vehicle passed by. He called for help and they picked him up. And, starting at the Fournos bus stop, all the way to the top, they smashed the houses, sent everyone outside, and lined them up. And they set fire to the houses.”

The house that Lefteris Sklavos was renting and living in when he got married was in Vouliagmenis Street, exactly opposite the Orpheas. On that day, Lefteris with his wife and his siblings, Michalis, Marios and Evangelia, were inside the house. Lefteris continues his story:

“And the same thing happened to me. They kicked the door in. All those who were sitting there… We had gotten under the beds because of the shells falling from the mountain and Loula was in front and I was at the back. She wouldn’t let me go out; she was pregnant with Paul. They took whoever was there and lined them up in the street.

Behind, came another German vehicle with a machinegun at both ends, and killed all those standing in line. All the way to the top. That day, 200 people were killed. From Fournos up to Aspiotis, the whole length of Vouliagmenis Street. 

My brother, Michalis, didn’t die. He called for help and my sister ran to help him. A bullet hit her in the forehead and she fell. My brother, as I said, hadn’t died. A soldier came on foot and shot all those who were still alive and moving. And he shot him in the head.

Our doorman at the Orpheas, Yannis, was killed there.

          That was the last dramatic episode in the history of the Orpheas cinema, until it was demolished.

                   “After the Germans left, the Orpheas operated as usual up to 1970, when television appeared and I was evicted.”

 

SOURCES

  • Sotiris Gardiakos Archive (USA)
  • Pathé Film Archives
  • Gaumont Film Archives
  • Greek Cinema, Documents 1, Inter-war period, edited by G. Soldatos, Aigokeros 1994.
  • Foreign Ministry, Historical Archive Service, compiled by Fotini Constantopoulou, pub. Kastaniotis 2000.
  • Stathis Valoukos, Filmography of Greek Cinema, pub. Aigokeros 1998.
  • Tassos Goudelis, “Greek Cinema and History: An Outline,” Archaeologia magazine, no.37, December 1990
  • Eleni Dima, “The Cinema in Samos, 1897-1941,” Apoplous magazine, triple issue 18, 19, 20, January 1999.
  • Nikos Theodosiou, At the Old Cinemas, The Chronicle of Cinemas in Greece, pub. Finatek 2000.
  • Dimitris Mekasis, The Old Professions of Florina, Prespes ’93, vol. I.
  • Aglaia Mitropoulou, “At the Refreshing Springs of the 7th Art in Greece,” Eikones magazine, February 3, 1961.
  • Chrysanthi Sotiropoulou, The Diaspora in Greek Cinema, Themelio 1995.
  • Michalis Hanousis, “How a newsreel film was made in Greece,” Theatis magazine, December 16, 1939.
  • Dimitris Spyrou, “The attendance of children and young people at Greek cinema,” introduction to The Child in Greek Cinema-Film Posters, pub. Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People, 2001.
  • John Barnes, The Rise of the Cinema in Great Britain, volume 2, Bishopsgate Press Limited, London.


[1] Between 1898 and 1901, 68 films were produced on the subject of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent revolution in the Philippines. The films comprise newsreels shot in the United States, Cuba and the Philippines, showing troops disembarking, warships, Cuban prisoners-of-war and parades, as well as staged scenes with trench warfare or naval battles filmed in the USA.

[2] John Barnes, The Rise of the Cinema in Great Britain, Volume 2, Bishopsgate Press Limited, London.

[3] Jacques Malthête, Méliès Image et Illusions, ed. Exporégie, 1996. Reproduced on the website of CINEMATHEQUE MELIES (Les amis de Georges Méliès).

[4] In 100 Years of Greek Cinema, Maniatea pub. 1997, Ninos Fenek Mikelidis notes only the latter two films, entitled Massacres en Crète and Combat naval en Grèce.

[5] In 192., Méliès was on the verge of bankruptcy. He closed the studio at Montreuil-sous-Bois and left. All the boxes with his films were sold to travelling showmen and disappeared. Méliès himself, in a moment of rage and disappointment, set fire to the stock of films he had kept and destroyed them. But the greatest destruction of the early films was caused by the Pathé brothers, in about 1910 – when there was a great shortage of celluloid. They sent people to collect all the old copies, removed the old photo-sensitive substance, replacing it with a new layer, in order to make new films.

[6] Anupam Hayat, A Brief History of Bangladesh Cinema, www.bangladesh.net/cinema.

[7] Joseph Hepp’s assertion that he had filmed the first newsreel in 1910 was published in Theatis magazine on June 26, 1939, in the article entitled: “A hunter of Greek current affairs.” These films, according to him, were screened at the cinema in Syntagma Square and were sent abroad.

[8] Fotini Constantopoulou, The Cinema in Greek History. From the Macedonian Struggle to the Invasion of Cyprus. Historical note to the Foreign Ministry, Historical Archive Service, Cinema Archive, compiled by Fotini Constantopoulou, pub: Kastaniotis 2000.

[9] Dimitris Mekasis, The Old Professions of Florina, Prespes ’93, Vol. 1.

[10] Ward Price, The Story of the Salonica Army, New York 1918.

[11] Eleni Dima, “The Cinema in Samos,” 1897-1914, Apoplous magazine, triple edition 18, 19, 20, January 1999.

[12] Dimos Bratsanos was the publisher of Eikonografimeni magazine.

[13] Angelos Rouvas, “CinemaProductions,” in the feature “Stories from Greek Cinema,” Epta Meres magazine, issued by Kathimerini newspaper, November 11, 2001.

[14] Parlan magazine, December 12, 1931.

[15] Costas S. Katsikas, “A Film Projectionist Remembers,”  Eleftheria newspaper, June 16, 1994.

[16] Chrysanthi Sotiropoulou, The Diaspora in Greek Cinema, Themelio 1995, p. 34.

[17] Tasos Goudelis, “Greek Cinema and History: an Outline,” Archaeologia magazine, vol. 37, December 1990.

[18] Dimitris Spyrou, “The presence of children and young people in the Greek cinema,” introduction to Children in Greek Cinema-Film Posters, published by the Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People, 2001.

[19] In the voluminous work by Yannis Soldatos, Greek Cinema, Kochlias 2001, there is no reference at all to this film. In the Filmography of Greek Cinema by Stathis Valoukos, pub. Aigokeros 1998, its award is not mentioned, only its participation in the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1954!

[20] “It is an angry film. Resistance had been stifled, the fighters’ means of expression had been suppressed under the violence of a police state. I wanted to pay tribute to the partisans in the mountains, to the humbled, to the humiliated, to the ignored – in the best case – Greek, who kept the Greek spirit high.”

[21] Vassilis Maros, “Aegean Tragedy,” from the feature, “Stories from Greek Cinema,” Epta Meres magazine, (Kathimerini newspaper), November 11, 2001.

[22] Chrysanthi Sotiropoulou, The Diaspora in Greek Cinema, Themelio 1995, p. 84.

[23] Chrysanthi Sotiropoulou, ibid, p. 126.

[24] To Asty newspaper, April 22, 1900.

[25] Eikonografimeni magazine, December 1911

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