'God Loves Caviar,' a portrait of the intrepid Ioannis Varvakis
By Panayiotis Panagopoulos
Multifaceted, fearless, piratical yet benevolent are but some of the traits that defined Ioannis Varvakis (1745-1825), the details of whose life are not widely known despite his contribution to the annals of history.
Filmmaker Yannis Smaragdis aims to acquaint the public with the enigmatic Varvakis in “God Loves Caviar,” his latest portrait of an esteemed Greek (coming after his 2007 film “El Greco”), which premiered at theaters on Thursday.
The cast of the English-language “God Loves Caviar” is led by Sebastian Koch -- who played a leading role in “The Lives of Others,” which picked up the 2007 Oscar for best international film -- and also includes appearances by Catherine Deneuve as Empress Catherine II of Russia and John Cleese.
Koch, 50, portrays Varvakis -- the pirate-turned-entrepreneur who made a fortune in caviar -- as a powerful presence, yet following the official Greek premiere of the film at the Athens Concert Hall on October 1, he admitted that he was initially skeptical about the role.
What was the first thing that struck you about the role of Ioannis Varvakis?
He is passionate in an almost naive way, he is powerful, he has no limits and knows no obstacles. He believes that he can do anything and he goes for it; he is curious and he looks at the world in a romantic way. The biggest challenge for me was being a German playing a Greek. At first I had a lot of doubts as to whether I would succeed, but Yannis [Smaragdis] convinced me because he really believed that I could do it. I took strength from his faith and, believing that I have some of the traits of Varvakis’s character, tried to play the role as best I could.
What was it that made you skeptical about taking on the part?
Playing a character like this is a great responsibility. Furthermore, we are in a crisis and our two countries have, let’s say, a difficult collaboration, though this was an opportunity to see how others work. I learned a lot more about Greeks and I am very pleased about that. It takes time to get to understand one another. We are different, but we can learn a lot of wonderful things from each other and this is what we ought to be doing.
What did you learn from your experience?
Having traveled almost all over the world, I have seen that people work differently in every country. I don’t travel as a tourist; I go to mingle with other people, to understand their culture. In order to play a Greek, you have to do a lot of reading and gain the kind of in-depth knowledge that a professor has, though ultimately it has nothing to do with what you read. You need to spend time with Greeks and to feel them, to see who they are and what they are. Germans are a lot more decisive; we plan everything and haven’t got a lot of spare time. Greeks are more relaxed; they follow a different tempo. Of course, in the environment of the crisis some may tell the Greeks that they need to do this or that, but we are different, and we must accept these differences rather than judge them.
As far as Varvakis’s character is concerned, did you do your own research into the historical figure or did you settle for his portrayal in the screenplay?
I read up on Varvakis and on the period in which he lived, but that was just my homework phase. The real preparation for me was trying to get into the Greek way of thinking. Once you understand the Greek psyche, even the stance of your body changes. I am not one of those actors who stands in front a mirror, posing and saying, “This is what a Greek looks like.” That’s rubbish. I firmly believe that if you understand the psyche and the roots, the body language and the gestures, the rest comes on it own.
Why are there so few intrepid people like Varvakis anymore?
Times have changed; this is a different era. Even up until a few decades ago, the rich had morals and ideas. “Old money” was always linked to an idea. The moment that all the power passed to the stock markets, everything became about numbers. There is soul in numbers and I believe that this makes them dangerous. The deeper cause of the crisis is that there are no ideals in regard to money. I didn’t know who Varvakis was before the film came along, but he was a truly great man. After getting past the phase of being obsessed with money, he went back to looking into his heart, into his roots and his spirituality, and that liberated him. I hope our present-day entrepreneurs watch the film and do the same.
There came a moment for Varvakis when he turned his life around. Have you ever experienced such a moment?
Yes, and it had to do with my personal life. After “The Lives of Others,” I had already done a lot of other things and I was so exhausted that I couldn’t deal with the process of an international career, with the appointments, the agents in Los Angeles and all that rubbish. I spent two years stuck in a rut, and just when I decided that I was ready, my daughter said she wanted to live with me. I canceled everything and she came to live with me for three years. In the first year I dedicated 100 percent of my time to her and by the end of that year the job offers starting coming in again. I believe that if you give love and do the right thing, life will help you.
“The Lives of Others” was a defining moment in your career. Do you feel that when you are taking part in a great film?
Yes, absolutely. From the moment I read the screenplay I knew it was something special. I never expected it to be such a success, but during filming I felt that there was a great force at work that it could lead to something big. And it happened. It is every actor’s dream to be in a film that stays alive for decades and that touches people, and I am grateful to have been a part of it.
Your career took a different path after “The Lives of Others” took the Oscar, to “God Loves Caviar” and now to “A Good Day to Die Hard.” What is it like to be in productions that are so different in size and content?
It’s been my choice. My motto could be “I don’t want to repeat myself.” Otherwise life gets boring. Once I have done something, I don’t need to do it again. That is why “God Loves Caviar” was a gift, because it gave me the opportunity to dive into the Greek soul. Then came a film with Mike Figgis [“Suspension of Disbelief”], which is very artistic, and then “A Good Day to Die Hard,” with Bruce Willis. I can only feel happy that I can do so many different things.
From plunderer to benefactor
Ioannis Varvakis (1745-1825) was born Ioannis Leontides on the island of Psara in the eastern Aegean, where he became an accomplished seaman, mostly by practicing piracy, building his own ship and assembling a crew.
During the Russo-Turkish War in 1768, Leontides offered his ship and crew to the Russians and distinguished himself in battle, earning the nickname Varvakis -- which came from the word “varvaki,” used by islanders to describe a kind of falcon with very striking eyes.
Broke after spending what little money he had on equipping his ship for war, Varvakis sought an audience with the Russian tsarina, Catherine the Great, and soon became her confidant and friend. He was rewarded with a sizable cash gift and a free concession to fish the Caspian Sea, as well as a Russian name, Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi, after Varvakis.
His fishing business was successful, but his real wealth came when he devised a way to preserve caviar and ship it over long distances.
Varvakis was a benefactor to the Greek community in Russia, but also to his homeland, where he financed the rebels in the Greek War of Independence and built the still-famous school that is named after him, as well as Athens’s central market, which is also still known as the Varvakeios Market.