Letter from Thessaloniki

Documentary filmmaking is cheap, is real (as opposed to true?) and is also suspect. Especially nowadays, after the scheme that was recently hatched at the Pentagon only a few weeks back: that nifty wartime strategy which instructed that any country hostile to the war on terrorism would get a swift dose of (media) influence, including perhaps a bunch of flat-out lies. Therefore, the question that arose at Thessaloniki’s Documentary Film Festival was: Can we trust what is said on documentary films? For plausible reasons, we came to the – admittedly bitter – conclusion that many things are not what the public thinks they are. Yet for many of us, who have spent much of our careers laboring in the literal and metaphorical darkness of small editing rooms, it is a rare thrill to watch documentaries on big screens in front of large audiences. I should know, since many years of my life were spent making that kind of film with Roussos Koundouros during the Rome years. Now, watching a whole week of documentaries that were incredibly powerful, even inspiring, at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, I picked out two biographies made with the contribution of consenting grandsons. Both documentaries happened to be crowd-pleasing portraits of two legendary superstars, one German and one Greek: Marlene Dietrich and Katina Paxinou. Realized by Marlene Dietrich’s grandson, J. David Riva, «Her Own Song» (2001) makes use of some unpublished material: some select interviews, which quite unexpectedly also include one given by the «Man Without a Face,» ex-spymaster Markus Wolf, who was head of East Germany’s foreign intelligence office from 1952 to 1986. Speaking in general of the German expatriates during the Second World War, and referring in particular to the most famous German star ever (the one with the weary look and projected coolness, nonchalance and indifference), «Misha» Wolf, who lived in the Soviet Union, while Marlene Dietrich in the USA devoted much of her energy to the struggle against Hitler’s Germany, gave a picture of the «Good Germans;» the anti-Nazis. «Most of all, we were determined that war should never again originate on German soil,» he declared. By remarkable coincidence, I also knew Katina Paxinou well when she was a member of the jury at the Berlinale. Later, I saw her quite frequently in Rome while she was doing a film, and also met her in Athens. I was among the lucky ones who have tasted her magnificent cooking more than once. I was therefore deeply moved by the «Tribute to Katina Paxinou» (2001) produced by Dimitris Dimogerontakis and Costas Mahairas for Greek state TV. Katina Paxinou (1900-1973), has been recognized for several decades as the first lady of Greek theater. She is one of the three Greek artists (the other two being composer Manos Hadjidakis, and set designer Vassilis Fotopoulos) who got «the bald little metallic man, with no genitalia and holding a sword,» as Dustin Hoffman so eloquently put it when accepting his own Oscar film award. This extraordinary Greek actress broke all the rules of Hollywood film grammar to create the world of Spanish resistance fighters. Trained as an opera singer, Katina Paxinou switched artistic gears when she met actor Alexis Minotis and joined the Greek National Theater at the age of 29. Just like Marlene Dietrich, when World War II broke out, Paxinou happened to be in the USA where she was selected to play Spanish freedom fighter Pilar in the 1943 film version of Hemingway’s «For Whom the Bell Tolls,» which was that sort of Hollywood movie where Gary Cooper plays the resistance hero who can absorb the most ferocious beating and show no pain, but will wince when Ingrid Bergman cleans his wounds. Nevertheless, Paxinou got a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film. «When we returned to Greece in 1950, we both resumed our stage careers, forming the Royal Theater of Athens,» the late actor/director Alexis Minotis, her principal director from 1927 and her husband from 1940, reminiscences in the film. «At that time, we were strongly accused by the Greek rightist press of being active in the progressive movement in the USA. Imagine! as if there could ever have been a Greek Communist Party in Hollywood in the early 1950s,» he added in the filmed interview. Yet the issue of whether to testify before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee was never raised for the Paxinou/Minotis couple while they lived in Hollywood. Thus they did not share the unfortunate fate of Elia Kazan who did appear before the HUAC and was branded for the rest of his life. At the time of mass paranoia over Communist infiltration of the USA in the 1950s, you were damned if you did testify and damned if you didn’t. Like Paxinou, Dietrich had strong political beliefs. She made a stand against the Nazis that would alienate her from many in her homeland for the rest of her life. As in Dietrich’s «Her Own Song,» the main surviving character in the Greek documentary is actor and Ms Paxinou’s grandson, California-born Alexandros Antonopoulos, who displayed an astonishing memory of his illustrious grandmother in a long interview. These are all interesting facts. But facts alone do not explain either the phenomena Marlene Dietrich or Katina Paxinou. Sharply etched on my memory is a personal theatertime episode on East German territory. It so happened that some time in the 1960s, returning to Berlin from Greece, I once mentioned to Helene Weigel – that is Bertolt Brecht’s widow and actress at the Berliner Ensemble – that Katina Paxinou was preparing «Mother Courage» for a Broadway production. She was besides herself. «Mother Courage is first of all a businesswoman, and lives off the war. Whenever presented with the choice between her money and her life, she unfailingly chooses money. Her actions often run contrary to human nature. Understandably, she is presented as a negative character. I fear that Paxinou would make a tragic figure out of her. No, I will not permit that!» And she added, «Do you know who Brecht himself would have liked for the part? Ethel Merman!» Ethel Merman was a mature – and earsplitting – star of the US musical stage. With the power to do so, Helene Weigel clearly stopped the project. «That’s because she wanted to play it herself on Broadway,» Paxinou reckoned later. «The nerve that woman has! Who would watch her? Her English is horrible!» she added. Unfortunately, the Documentary Festival in Thessaloniki, which ended last night with a successful Bal Masque at the Thermaikos Bar – with red as a carnival theme – did not play before packed houses. Big cinema audiences seem to prefer documentaries on TV.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.