Kalavryta – People and Shadows: No Apologies

in 16th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Michael Pattison

Elias Yannakakis’ latest documentary, Kalavryta: People and Shadows, begins with archive footage in which grieving, black-clad women of varying age huddle together in mourning. A voice-over ponders the meaning of such images: what are the identities of these women and what has caused their palpable heartache? As we learn, the women are residents of Kalavryta, a mountainous town located in the central-eastern part of Achaea, a regional unit in Greece. The footage was shot in the aftermath of the December 1943 massacre, in which all males aged 14 and over were gathered in a field overlooking the village by the Nazis, and subsequently machine-gunned to death. Just less than 700 were killed; only 13 survived.

Yannakakis’ film matter-of-factly bears witness to Kalavryta’s ongoing trauma, and does so with formidable precision. Limiting his own presence to that of an infrequent narratorial voice, the filmmaker refrains from the kind of charismatic interventions for which Claude Lanzmann’s similarly themed works are known, so as to assemble what feels very much like a collectively-written tableau of primary accounts. Wives, mothers, sisters and daughters recall and describe the confusions and horrors of that unimaginably terrible day — which the Nazis claimed was in retaliation to the killing of 81 German soldiers who had been captured by local partisans fighting against the occupation.

As such, not only do Yannakakis’ witnesses live today with an overwhelming sense of personal and communal loss, they are also scarred by seemingly unanswerable questions regarding the causes behind the mass execution. Could it have been avoided? More specifically, was the retaliation, in response to the unlawful killing of captured officers, justified? As a consequence of such lingering questions, an unshakable sense of guilt pervades the town.

Such guilt is shared and even perhaps exacerbated by some of the 13 male survivors who are still alive today. A number of these, young boys at the time, not only survived the initial machine-gunning, but were also subsequently injured when the Nazi officers came to finish them off with individual shots. Accounts of having to play for dead, among the real corpses of close friends and relatives, are common. One witness recalls how he was shot at point-blank range, with the bullet ricocheting off his scalp, while another tells of how close he came to joining his father at the execution, and how something as inconsequential as his own physical strength had prevented him from opening a gate to do so. In both instances, the men recount their testimonies with reserved, contained detachment, only to be overcome with belated emotion.

Elsewhere, we have the death site described to us by the women who arrived at the field soon after the Nazis had departed (singing along the way). The unfathomably atrocious sight of loved ones, young and old alike, lying there motionless, their faces obliterated and their brains hanging out, still evokes today that unspeakable scenario of facing one’s own mass extinction — of a future quite literally denied.

Beginning by contextualising Kalavryta historically and geographically, Yannakakis ends with an extended discussion concerning German culpability. Though token reparatory gestures have been made in the decades since the massacre (which also included the destruction of monasteries, homes, monuments and the seizure of over 2,000 livestock), no official apology has been made by the German government and very few of the officers responsible were even brought to trial (General Karl von Le Suire, the commander who ordered the execution three days prior to its fulfilment, was captured by Soviet troops a year and a half later and died in 1954 in a Stalingrad POW camp).

Crucially, the burden lies with Germany. An occupying force imposing its imperial ambitions upon the historical cradle of western democracy, the Nazis had and have no argument when it comes to the justification of the Kalavryta Holocaust. The partisan movement played an unquestionably vital role in struggling against fascism during the Second World War. Though it’s to Yannakakis’ credit that he goes to the trouble of exculpating the Greeks for their own actions, any argument in favour of struggling against fascism ought to fundamentally go without saying — especially today.

Michael Pattison