Glimpsing back at another time of turmoil
By Gabriel Frangoulis
“Apartment in Athens” (2011), directed by Ruggero Dipaola and featuring the famous Italian actress Laura Morante, Richard Sammel (“Inglourious Basterds”) and Greece’s Gerasimos Skiadaressis, opened the first edition of Tutto Italia, an annual celebration of Italian cinema and culture, last week in the Greek capital.
Set in Nazi-occupied Athens in 1942, the film centers on the Helianos family, whose lives are changed when a German officer commandeers their apartment.
The tyrannical behavior of Captain Kalter prompts the youngest member of the Helianos family to dream up fantasies of revenge, but his departure leaves a void in the home. Kalter returns a changed man: He’s kinder, even indulgent. But it is a fragile balance.
Dipaola spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his first feature-length movie, which will be screened in Italy in September.
What made you decide to make this movie?
The decision came after reading the novel “Apartment in Athens” by Glenway Wescott, a well-known New York writer, considered along with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald an important emerging author [in the 1930s].
The book was first published in 1945 and then republished in 2000 in Europe and America.
I was looking for a story for my first film after eight short movies and a friend of mine suggested this book to me.
I liked it very much and by the time I had finished reading it I was already getting the copyright for the movie.
Furthermore, when I was writing the screenplay and telling my mother about my work, I discovered that she had a similar bad experience hosting a German soldier in her house, in the town of L’Aquila in Italy.
I had totally forgotten this memory, but anyway, I think my decision to make this kind of movie was not accidental.
The movie takes place mostly inside the microcosm of an apartment. How difficult was it to prepare the actors?
The balance between the characters inside the apartment was very important and it took a long time to write the script, discussing every last comma. Also the different directions the movie could have taken at the start and the different dynamics that existed between the various characters were very complicated.
For example, at the beginning of the movie it seems that there is a pedophilic relationship between the German captain, Kalter, and the little girl, Leda Helianos, but then the film heads off in another direction.
Shooting a movie in just one place is risky because it could have been boring and very slow, but according to the feedback we have received to date, we think we have made a film full of suspense.
Moreover, there are also some funny scenes that make you laugh, so I think this is a balanced movie.
Most of the movies about WWII depict the Nazis as cold-blooded and unemotional. What motivated you to provide some insight into Captain Kalter’s emotions, to show some sensitive character traits?
We are really convinced, myself as director and screenwriter as well as my two co-screenwriters, that the Nazis were quite capable of feeling different emotions. For example, many of them were very big animal lovers and suffered at their loss.
The fact remains that being a Nazi meant having respect for animals and the Aryan race and a total lack of respect for other human beings.
I would say that what they were was emotionally sick, not completely lacking emotion.
“Life Is Beautiful” is a famous Italian film about the Second World War. Does “Apartment in Athens” seek to build on that success or should we not compare the two films?
I think they’re two different movies. However I’d like to make an observation. Both films are dramatic with some moments that make you laugh.
Perhaps in “Life Is Beautiful” the goal is to make you laugh, based on a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of reality, in order to soften the imprisonment of the child.
On the other hand, sometimes “Apartment in Athens” makes you laugh about the dynamics that exist between the characters, but not about a false representation of reality.
Let’s just say that if we will meet with the same success as “Life Is Beautiful,” for sure we will embrace it! We will not send it back!
Considering the current anti-German sentiment in Greece, what kind of feelings or reactions do you expect your film will evoke among audiences?
Both audiences and critics in all countries where we have presented the film, including Italy, Germany, Ireland, the USA and India, found the movie to be of great topical interest.
People have identified Captain Kalter as a representation of today’s Germany, which is no longer Nazi but does exert a lot of power over the European Union. They have also identified with the Greeks, who today have to endure the Germans imposing the rules in an effort to exit the economic crisis.
However we should underline that we wrote the screenplay in 2008, before the economic crisis and all its consequences. It was not our intention to offer this interpretation.
Greek MPs have raised the issue of German war reparations. What is your opinion?
I completely agree with this. It’s fair that those who have committed certain horrors and they cannot be called anything else have to pay.
It is really important not to forget what has happened.
I am continually amazed every day by new waves of neo-Nazism and neo-fascism. Young people see these things as if they happened at the time of Christopher Columbus instead of just over 60 years ago.
But today the number of Holocaust denial groups and neo-fascist and neo-Nazi movements is growing larger and larger, and using symbols like the swastika or other insignia of the Hitler or Mussolini period.
It is absolutely necessary to repeat what the Jewish community recommends: Never forget.
How do Italians view the German role in Europe and in the Greek debt crisis?
Germany is definitely seen in Italy as a nation that has a central role in the economic and financial dynamics of Europe.
However, Germany’s behavior vis-a-vis Greece at the moment is not looked upon favorably.
In your opinion, considering the fact that both Italy and Germany occupied Greece in collaboration, why is Italian culture worshipped in Greece today, whereas Germany is mainly associated with WWII?
I think this goes a long way back and is related to the last 3,000 years of history that have seen Italy and Greece much closer than Germany and Greece.
I think at the time of the Golden Age of Athens, the Athenians loved Italy for certain reasons and vice versa the Roman Empire took a lot from ancient Greece. [Kathimerini English Edition]