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.