The War to End All Wars

in 27th Panorama of European Cinema Festival

by Konstantinos Blathras

One hundred years after World War One, “the war to end all wars” remains the most deadly war inthe entire human history. The most irrational too. It cost several millions of victims, those whosebest memorial representations are best served depicted on celluloid. Cinematic images replaced, inthe 20th century, the marble made monuments of the past and they have also given us some of themost doleful, heartbreaking stories of the Great War. My interest was strongly drawn to the elevenfilms presented in the retrospective of the 27th Athens Panorama of European Cinema, (in 2014m ost fittingly) dedicated to WW I. Between Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918) and Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), created almost a century later, numerous films presented war stories and legends. The unique scene from King & Country (1964), in Joseph Losey’s film, where thecomrades in arms of Private Arthur James Hamp encircle him in his cell and go on a drinking binge the same comrades that would execute him early next morning as a traitor, executing amilitary tribunal verdict is the most accurate dramatization of World War I madness. A similar feeling remains after the execution scene of the two losers war friends in the final scene of Mario Monicelli’s comedy The Great War (1959).

The films we saw in this retrospective are all classics most of them made back during the 30s and have left their unique print on both shores of the river time passing under the bridges of history. They can also be seen as a shortlist of films in memoriam: A Farewell to Arms (1932) by Frank Borzage, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Johnny Got His Gun (1971) by Dalton Trumbo, Paths of Glory (1957) by the emotional perfectionist Stanley Kubrick, Westfront 1918 (1930) by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Sergeant York (1941) by Howard Hawks and The Great Illusion (1937), a truly great film by Jean Renoir.

Renoir himself, just before the outbreak of World War II, illustrated much more intensely the causes of human cruelty in his masterpiece The Rules of the Game (1939), a film chosen by Dimos Avdeliodis, for a very interesting section in this year’s Panorama entitled Eight Greek Directors Propose their Favorite European Film. Somewhat surprisingly, the films proposed by the Greek filmmakers to the Panorama audience have a secret connection to their work. In this spirit, Yannis Economides proposed Cristi Puiu’s film The Death of Mr. Lazaresku (2005). I suppose that Mr. Lazarescu’s passions, loneliness, lowerclass destiny are very close to Stratos (2014) and to other Economides’ heroes, present even as early as his first feature film Matchbox (2002). The directorof Miss Violence (2013), Alexandros Avranas, chose Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) as a disciple’s reference to his master, although Pasolini’s world is very different from Avranas’ one. Thanks to Dimitris Panayiotatos, we saw for the first time in Greek theaters the filmof Agustí Villaronga In a Glass Cage (1986). Weird, before the Greek style of Weird, this oddball director Villaronga’s odd film breaks the ‘glass’ of silence about the Nazis’ cruel and inhuman experiments and explores the birth of a reflective cruelty at the depths of the victim’s heart.

War echoes have somehow inspired both the opening and the closing films of the 27th Panorama. The autobiographical film of John Boorman Queen and Country continues the director’s youthmemories after his Hope and Glory (1987). During the Korean War, two young comrades in armsare trying to deal with their insubordinate youth facing strict army regulations. On the other hand, the war in Ken Loach’s universe is something different, but also the same. His film Jimmy’s Hall isabout the farmers’ class struggle in Ireland back in the 30’s. Nobody between the “paters andmasters” was willing to recognize the poor farmer’s right to independence on education and leisure.In this war, farmers temporarily lose and Loach gives us another angry film, based on the real life of the activist Jimmy Gralton.

Those Irish days seem very similar to the Greek undeclared war in the late 60’s. Kierion (1968), the Dimos Theos’ film, chronicles the personal and historical tremors just a few months before the Colonels’ Dictatorship was enforced in Greece. Emos Vagenas, the film’s leading character, is drawn into the turmoil of a secret economical war about the distribution of the Arab oil andGreece’s fate. Using filmnoir codes, Theos offers a breathtaking narration of that Greek crisis. Hishero and the whole country seem to be on the verge of collapse. It was a real privilege to see thefilm screened in a bright new copy in a retrospective section called The Anti Conformists of the Greek Cinema. The audience was also delighted to watch Costas Ferris’ film The Murderess (1974) – an Alexandros Papadiamantis’ novel  in a screenplay adapted by Theos. Frangogiannou, the old heroine of this novel, circa middle 1800’s, declares a intergender ‘war’, with infant girls asthe victims. She feels obliged to strangle them, thus saving them from their fate which is, initially,to become a heavy burden for their family and, after their marriage, slaves of their husbands, their children and grandchildren for their entire life.

As a last comment, I’d like to mention another Greek film, a love story at the backstage of World War II. In Ekdromi (1966), Takis Kanellopoulos takes his heroes, a sergeant and a lieutenant’swife, on an excursion during a short break in the war. They fall in love and they try to escape crossing the borders. But the melancholic poet of the Greek cinema knows that nobody can survivein between the crossfire.

It seems after all, that the real fate of humanity is an endless war. Or not?

Edited by Steven Yates