By Costas Douzinas*
originally published at the Guardian
The sudden death of Theo Angelopoulos, the greatest Greek film-maker, while shooting his latest film on the current troubles, has acquired great symbolic significance. In recent months, reporting on Greece has concentrated on the deficit, debt and the untrustworthiness of its people. The films of Angelopoulos remind us of another Greece and a different humanity. In his dreamlike historical films, he chronicled the melancholic nature of a nation torn between an invented tradition of classical glories and a traumatic history of repressive state policies, dictatorship, corrupt and dynastic politics. He narrated the lowly lives of the defeated in the vicious civil war 1946-9, the degradations and melancholy of exile, the Odysseus-like return of people who go back to a place they nurtured in their memories but turns out alien and unwelcoming.
In his mesmeric long sequences, a simple gesture, a silence or smile acquire philosophical depth and historic significance. This is epic cinema made out of the fragments of everyday life.
Coming from the left, as did most of the Greek cultural renaissance of the second half of the 20th century, but ascribing to no orthodoxy, Angelopoulos described the degradations of ordinary people both in the hands of rightwing governments and in the Stalinist regimes where the defeated partisans retreated but found no haven.
For Angelopoulos, humanity survives in the memories and dreams of exiled, travelling people who never fully make it back to Ithaca. What makes us human, Angelopoulos tells us, is found in traumatic memories, in the desire to preserve an imaginary beauty, and in eternal returns perennially frustrated. Angelopoulos was both the Homer of modern Greece, and the country’s magical realist storyteller.
For decades, the Greek elites belittled those cultural achievements that didn’t fit their view of modernisation defined as insatiable consumption. The sorry state Greece finds itself in today was built against Angelopoulos’s poetry of images. If, for a moment, we put to one side the immediate economic news, a largely unreported dramatic picture of decay of the integrated political, economic and media elites that ran the country for the last 60 years emerges. The implosion of this elite is a textbook study in the collapse of a system of power.
Let me mention some recent symptoms, each of which have occurred in the last month, and which show an elite turning in on itself. First, the head of the Thessaloniki internal affairs division of the financial crimes squad (SDOE) was arrested last week for his participation in a gang of loan sharks and extortion.
Elsewhere, the government is trying to remove two economic crime prosecutors who reported the tax crimes of the rich and asked parliament to investigate the alleged 3% fraudulent increase of the country’s deficit by the incoming Papandreou government in 2010. It was this upward revision of the deficit that led to the term “Greek statistics” and brought the troika of the IMF, EU and ECB to Athens.
In another example, a senior cabinet minister admitted that he did not read the memorandum detailing the measures imposed on Greece by the troika before voting for them; he added that he disagrees with them now, although he energetically implemented them.
Or witness the attack by former prime minister Papandreou on the most powerful media empire, which has consistently supported the Pasok party, for undermining his personal authority. Its CEO replied in a leader that a commercial bank had refused his company a loan on the instruction of the prime minister. He added that later he was invited into the PM’s office, was ushered in Murdoch-like from the back door to avoid detection, and was asked to offer unspecified services to the government.
Greek and European elites freely admit now that the austerity – which has led to the deepest depression since the 1930s – was wrong. Former Pasok prime minister Simitis, who led Greece to the eurozone in 2001, (when the current prime minister was the governor of the Bank of Greece) and was accused by Nicolas Sarkozy of fiddling the books to achieve accession, admitted this week in Berlin that the troika measures implemented by his anointed successor were a major mistake. As the elite ship collapses, its captains run for the boats. The belated apologies confirm the suspicion that the deficit was a pretext used by the establishment to impose their desired neoliberal policies.
But there is also the Greece of Angelopoulos. This Greece is represented by men like Dinos Christianopoulos, the greatest living poet of urban solitude and malaise, who refused a Greek Academy lifetime honour stating that he does not want their gongs or money although he lives on a pension of only €600. It is also represented by those who, throughout the country, choose to show solidarity with the homeless, unemployed and poor. Only this week, farmers protesting the devaluation of their produce offered tons of free vegetables to hundreds of Athenians in Syntagma, the square where the indignants occupation last year changed the political landscape by introducing the direct democracy now seen all over the world. Ordinary people who worked hard, did not evade tax and did not participate in the great loot of the last 20 years are everywhere reviving the Greek ethos of friendship, solidarity and hospitality – characteristics lost in the get-rich-quick period.
Angelopoulos speaks of a Greece and Europe far removed from bankers’ bonuses and hedge funds. An MP of the extreme right, now in coalition government with the New Democracy and Pasok parties, stated yesterday that Angelopoulos’s support for open borders and “internationalism” does not represent Greece. He is wrong.
In 1971, the funeral of Nobel prize winning Giorgos Seferis became a symbolic moment of the resistance against the colonels. Greece is not a dictatorship now, but Angelopoulos’s untimely death may acquire a similar meaning – it has already led to nationwide soul-searching.
The struggle for the soul of the country is currently played out in assemblies, strikes and solidarity campaigns. Ordinary Greeks now have a historic chance to redefine the meaning and values of European civilisation.
*Costas Douzinas is a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London. His books include The End of Human Rights and Human Rights and Empire