‘The Solitary Anarchist’

The films of Nikos Papatakis
Colette Bergé in Les Abysses (Lenox Films/Album/Alamy)

When a niche director is rescued from the dustbin of film history, it’s fair to ask: Did they end up there for good reason? The late filmmaker Nikos Papatakis is one such long-forgotten artist, his five films difficult to track down in English until they were restored in 2018 for a brief theatrical run in New York City. This year they entered the streaming market for the first time, landing on the Criterion Channel as a presumptive first stop en route to an eventual home-video release. In a featurette shot for the Criterion retrospective, Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari recalls some foreboding advice Papatakis passed down to her at the start of her career: “Don’t try to imitate life. You’re a descendant of Euripides and Aeschylus—it’s all about creating this archetypal violence. Make the audience uncomfortable!”

Les Abysses (1963), Papatakis’s first film, wastes no time in fulfilling the latter part of that maxim. The movie opens with a swift camera pan to a woman clinging to a staircase as she unleashes a scream, by no means the movie’s only, or even most bloodcurdling, one. Papatakis then cuts to a sizzle reel of sorts, a series of decontextualized shots of two bedraggled women making mischief—hammering a cement wall to smithereens, peeling wallpaper like an orange—that are void of dialogue (though their mouths move) and scored by atonal orchestration. If you were to pause the film two minutes into it, just before the title card appears, you would have no way of knowing whether or not the entire film was this stylistically alienating.

Nikos Papatakis was the son of Greek and Abyssinian parents, born in Ethiopia in 1918, where he fought against Mussolini during the Italian invasion in 1935. Defeat at the hands of the fascists drove Papatakis from Ethiopia and into exile across multiple continents. He eventually landed in Paris and met Jean Genet, who became one of his closest friends while they were both living in poverty. Genet developed strong feelings for the heterosexual Papatakis, and he would go on to preface his poem “The Galley” with a dedication to “Nico, the Greco-Ethiopian God.”

While Genet was making his name as a writer, Papatakis struck gold as the owner of the nightclub La Rose Rouge, which became a popular hangout for artists and intellectuals, Sartre and de Beauvoir among them. When Genet wanted to make a film, Un chant d’amour, Papatakis put up the money for it and rented out the restaurant above the club for Genet to film it in. The film was censored internationally for its explicit homosexual content, but Papatakis made money from it for years by selling contraband copies to gays with deep pockets.

Genet wasn’t the only celebrity to enter Papatakis’s orbit. He was married to the actress Anouk Aimée for three years. He hung out with John Cassavetes and gave him money, too, for his disastrous debut film, Shadows (1959). Like Genet and other gay artists, the German photographer Herbert Tobias fell in love with Papatakis and nicknamed the model Christa Päffgen after him, calling her “Nico.” Papatakis would meet Päffgen near the start of the 1960s, during a stint living in New York City (where he had decamped in disgust over French atrocities in Algeria). On a lark he asked her if she had ever considered a career as a musician, and so it happened that Papatakis ended up enrolling Nico in her first singing lessons.

Don’t try to imitate life. Make the audience uncomfortable!

When he returned to Paris after the Algerian War, Papatakis decided to try his own hand at filmmaking with Les Abysses, an adaptation of Genet’s 1947 play, The Maids. Both The Maids and Les Abysses dramatize the lurid story of the Papin sisters, servants who murdered their employers in the 1930s. Claude Chabrol drew from the same well for 1995’s La Cérémonie, though its recognizable lead actresses (Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire) take the edge off the tale; gruesome class warfare is repackaged as middlebrow thriller, a crime Papatakis could never be convicted of

Following its abrasive pre-credits sequence, Les Abysses alternates between passages of murderous calm and frenzied mess-making. It would be unfair to call the film tedious, but it commits the cardinal sin of Papatakis’s filmography: didacticism that undercuts his electric filmmaking choices. Papatakis was not short on political opinions and Les Abysses is a showcase for the ideas that would preoccupy his whole career: the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie (and especially leftist intelligentsia), the oppression of the working class, and the struggle of Algerians (and sometimes Greeks or Palestinians) against their oppressors. He usually tries, with mixed results, to implicate the viewer in the travesties he wanted to criticize. Les Abysses ends with a row of wealthy characters looking up from the scene of the maids’ crime to stare directly at the camera. Just in case we didn’t get the point, Papatakis tacks on a few intertitles with historical context, ending on a line from the transcript of the Papin case’s actual jury archives: “Who is really guilty here?”

Like any self-respecting Paris-based filmmaker, Papatakis submitted Les Abysses to the Cannes Film Festival. The selection committee boycotted it, but after Sartre and de Beauvoir lobbied on his behalf the festival eventually screened the film to uproarious scandal. Undeterred, or perhaps even motivated, by this reception, Papatakis returned to filmmaking a few years later in Greece with Thanos and Despina (1967), also known as Shepherds of Calamity or The Shepherds. Shot in striking black and white, Thanos and Despina is clearly a more refined film than Les Abysses in nearly every regard, the manic energy of that freshman film still intact but doled out in smaller doses. Papatakis made the film the same year the Greek military overthrew the government, though you’d be forgiven for assuming this tale of creeping authoritarianism must have been shot after the fact.

Thanos and Despina begins with an exploding goat and a woman determined to marry off her only son. Katina (Elli Xanthaki), a cranky old peasant, tells her son, Thanos (George Dialegmenos), of her intention to wed him to Despina (Olga Karlatos), the daughter of the wealthy landowner whose pastures Thanos works on. Boldly making the request on Holy Saturday, she lifts her skirts to her son’s boss when he rejects Thanos in favor of the wealthier Yankos (Lambros Tsangas), and becomes the talk of the town for the rest of the night.

It is rare to find a movie that engages with Eastern Orthodoxy as directly as Thanos and Despina does, and rarer still to find one set entirely between Holy Saturday and Pascha, the holiest forty-eight hours in the Orthodox liturgical year. The bourgeoisie in Thanos and Despina are consistently shown worshipping with aesthetics imported from Western Europe, while the shepherds worship with liturgical aesthetics endemic to Christianity under the Byzantine Empire. (At first I thought it was an error when a Catholic-style image of the Virgin Mary appeared on a wall in Despina’s room, until a Byzantine-style icon of a saint showed up in Katina’s hut.) At the midpoint of the film, the characters file off to their respective churches for the midnight Paschal services. The wealthy parish is full of western iconography and white plaster pillars, and the service seems to end after the candlelight processional around the building and reading of the Gospel (complete with fireworks to accompany the Paschal troparion). Meanwhile the peasants attend what looks like a subterranean chapel, adorned with peeling Byzantine icons, where Papatakis emphasizes not the theatrics of the celebration but the peasants receiving the Eucharist (traditionally the final stage of the three- or four-hour cycle of nighttime Paschal services). Somewhere in the midst of all this, Yankos, clad in his military uniform, performs a salute with a long, white Easter candle.

After Christ rises from the dead, everything else goes to hell. Thanos and Despina collide, for the first time in the film, on their walk home from church. Despina condescends to him by offering him jewelry (you can just tell she thinks she’s doing a good deed), but Thanos flings it back at her and proceeds to take her captive by tripping her with his cane and stealing her shoes. When Papatakis cuts to Easter Sunday morning, Thanos and Despina have somehow made their way to the mountains, with slight modifications to their church attire. This final third of the film is full of satire of church, state, and culture alike, but unlike so many of his other films Papatakis doesn’t overindulge his instinct to hammer home his message. Katina rushes to the church on Easter Sunday morning to beseech the Archbishop—“in the name of He whom you pretend to represent”—to save her son from the military forces that Despina’s father has called after him. The archbishop silences her and pleads his political powerlessness. “I’ll pray for you. I’ll prostrate myself…. As for the rest, call the police!” In another biting scene, a procession of shepherds carry their lambs-on-a-spit up the mountain for a picnic as they sing Σαμιώτισσα, one of the most beloved melodies in the Greek songbook, but with the original lyrics swapped for parodic ones mocking the landowning characters. In the closing moments of the film, a radio broadcast announces the overthrow of the government; Papatakis had been editing the film as those events happened in real time, so he slipped an authentic recording right in.

 

Around the time he was finishing the film, Papatakis and Olga Karlatos wed. Almost a decade later, he cast her as the lead in Gloria Mundi (1976), also known, in line with his distaste for subtlety, as In Hell. Like Les Abysses, Gloria Mundi opens with a scream. Galai (Karlatos), an actress, is shown in close up as she listens to a recording of herself rehearsing for the part of a terrorist in an upcoming movie. In between her cries on the cassette tape, her director, a never-seen rebel named Hamdias (voiced by Papatakis himself), interrupts her, dissatisfied with the performance. Papatakis pulls back in a startling cut to Karlatos, sitting naked in a bathtub in a dilapidated room, a half-dozen cigarette burns peppered across her chest. To closer approach the essence of the torture victim she will be playing, she hooks up her genitals to a machine and electrocutes herself.

The rest of Gloria Mundi is a parade of physical and psychological harm inflicted on Karlatos’ body, only some of it at the behest of Hamdias. In one set piece, Galai rehearses a scene from her film where she is supposed to plant a bomb in a café. In order to wring a truthful performance out of her, Hamdias has left her instructions to use a real explosive. The combination of Karlatos’s breathy line delivery as she talks herself through the trial, a soundtrack of jittery mechanical noise, and Papatakis’s chronology-scrambling editing as Galai sets and resets the timer on the bomb make for some of the most harrowing minutes in Papatakis’s entire œuvre.

You are left wondering whose eyes Papatakis expected the film to ever reach and what exactly he hoped it would accomplish.

Gloria Mundi builds to a scene of Galai attending a dinner party of fashionable lefties where the rough cut of her film is screened. Papatakis lets the film-within-a-film play out at length, first with a mind-numbingly long scene where Galai aids a French soldier in a bizarre and emasculating fetish in the presence of a crying baby followed by another prolonged scene where the soldier, now on the clock, tortures her with the same implements from their ritual the night before. When the screening concludes, the spectators rise from their comfy seats only somewhat perplexed. The host clears the atmosphere by suggesting they head to the next room for snacks. “On to more serious matters!” one of the guests says with glee. For all of Papatakis’s vigor in designing gruesome and violent scenarios for Karlatos (and his viewers) to suffer through, you would think he could have produced a more creatively insulting punchline than this groaner.

Gloria Mundi isn’t the most unwatchable movie I’ve ever sat through, but I can think of few other superlatives that suit it better. So thoroughly and disgustingly does it disdain the viewer that I had trouble finding the will to press on to any of Papatakis’s remaining movies. Papatakis is at his most enraged here, and Karlatos delivers a performance of rare ferocity to match. (That they were married at the time has long raised questions about how Karlatos was treated on set, including rumors of actual, physical injuries being inflicted on her.) The emotional intensity of the film may be commensurate with the heinousness of France’s actions in Algeria and the impotence of Leftist opposition to it, but you are left wondering whose eyes Papatakis expected the film to ever reach and what exactly he hoped it would accomplish. Unsurprisingly, the movie was censored in France for thirty years.

Having gotten all that out of his system (and having divorced Karlatos in 1982), Papatakis would return to the situation in Greece for his next film, The Photograph (1986). The prettiest of Papatakis’s films, The Photograph opens in Castoria, Greece, in 1971, four years into the junta’s rule. Lowly Elias (Christos Tsagas) has just arrived home after a harrowing period in the military, where he was tormented for being the son of a communist. Unable to find employment in Greece because of his family’s political affiliations, he heads to France to see if his distant and allegedly well-off relative Gerasimos Tzivas (Aris Retsos), who has been living in Paris in exile, has any leads for him. As a good luck token for his trip, Elias pockets a mass-produced photo of a beautiful pop star found on the side of the road.

Gerasimos, a bit of a shut-in who lives in a house of mansion-like proportions compared with the one-room hut Elias and his mother share, initially takes Elias for a liar and thief but caves to his more hospitable instincts and invites him in for a meal. He also spots Elias’s pocket-sized pop star and inquires about her identity. In the spur of the moment Elias tells him it’s his unmarried sister Joy. Desperate for love and not up with pop culture, Gerasimos asks Elias to help arrange their marriage in exchange for taking Elias on as an apprentice. In tandem with the web of lies that Elias starts to spin, his family’s capitalist nemeses in Castoria begin to spread slander about him through their international whisper network in the Greek diaspora, hoping to prevent Elias from ever gaining a work permit.

As the fantasies spin further out of control, Papatakis slackens his tight control on the realism of the film and taps back into some of the destructive chaos of his earlier work. Throughout the descent into madness, Elias keeps repeating a saying his mother tells him at the beginning: everywhere’s a lion’s den, but it’s better to be in a den with a well-fed lion than a hungry one. In an epilogue set in August 1974, mere months before the junta’s collapse, Elias and Gerasimos return to Greece and Papatakis returns to his old didacticism. Elias ultimately takes a rock to his cousin’s head before Gerasimos can be crushed by the truth about Joy. “I hope my action will be heeded by those who leave their country for a destiny which is not theirs,” Elias recites in a final voice over with a freeze frame of his face, “and which, like Gerasimos and I, they endlessly pursue without ever attaining.”

For his final film Papatakis would circle back to his beginnings and pay homage to his old friend Genet. Walking a Tightrope (1991) stars Michel Piccoli as the fictional poet Marcel Spadice (transparently a version of Genet). Spadice is frumpy and washed up and smitten by Franz-Ali (Lilah Dadi), a German-Algerian circus hand who cleans up after the elephants but dreams of becoming a trapeze artist. Franz isn’t gay, so Spadice sublimates his desire for him by sponsoring his tightrope apprenticeship, choosing his costumes, giving him reading recommendations, and taking him on tours of the great cathedrals (“Only a queer would be capable of immaculate conception,” he quips before a statue of the Virgin Mary). Unfortunately Franz turns out to be a dud athlete, accruing multiple embarrassing and near-fatal falls that send Spadice chasing after a different stud.

In the context of Papatakis’s filmography, if not his life, Walking the Tightrope is an unexpectedly queer film. It opens with a dream sequence of comely young men in circus attire pulling the curtain back from an enormous phallus and gets an extra boost of camp from supporting performances by Polly Walker as Spadice’s headhunter and later Franz’s lover, and Doris Kunstmann as Franz’s ex-wrestler mother (cheekily named Christa Paffgen). Walking the Tightrope is also Papatakis’s subtlest film by far, not even undercut by an explosive finale scored to Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50 (this would not have been the case if he had gone with Swan Lake).

 

Neither a monumental innovator nor the creator of any agreed-upon masterpieces (though Thanos and Despina strikes me as a major work), Papatakis nevertheless intrigues as a marginal figure, and his deviations from the prevailing artistic and political trends of his day make for an interesting, colorful footnote in the history of film. In Greece, he’s a decidedly more important name, at least as an influence on the Greek “Weird Wave” of directors who have come to prominence in the twenty-first century, namely Tsangari and Yorgos Lanthimos. Neither of these directors lived through the Greek junta as adults—Tsangari was born one year before its start and Lanthimos one year before its dissolution—so their films are unsurprisingly more concerned with bourgeois, psychosexual themes. Though transgressive by Hollywood standards, the sexual deviance of their early films like Dogtooth and Attenberg have an alluring, even exotic appeal; Dogtooth evidently wasn’t so aberrant that it couldn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Papatakis would never enjoy such success in his lifetime, but it was never his intention as a filmmaker to look for it. Despite his proximity to wealth and celebrity, Papatakis’s firsthand experiences of fascism, war, poverty, and exile seem to have kept him from ever turning his desire to unsettle the audience into a brand or a means of securing funding for his next project. Tsangari says that Papatakis used to call himself a solitary anarchist. Eleven years after his death, that title stays unchallenged.

Published in the December 2021 issue: 
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Tim Markatos is a designer and film critic who lives in Washington D.C.

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