Archive for August, 2009


Ο Δράκος: The Monster is Grotesque: the beautiful curiosity of Neorealist Film-Noir

O Drakos (The Monster, ο Δράκος 1956 Koundouros)


Opening scene: Blind men sing New Year’s Eve carols and beg on a street while a poster is glued to a wall, which, as a distancing device, is advertising the same film that we are watching. It is glued above an advert of the director’s previous film Magiki Polis (1954). The poster resembles one inviting you to the circus. Throughout the film there will be a parade of characters and settings strange, bizarre, unsettling, and unpleasant that will both attract and appal us.


The use of the Grotesque in O Drakos is subtle. There are no Lynchian dwarves or plagued men in heavy makeup dying in Venice; there are no drag queens or hermaphrodites to escort the scared fugitive protagonist through the dark underworld that he enters. Instead, the Grotesque takes the form of a femme fatale speaking in an annoying unnatural baby voice to suit her name, Baby; it takes the form of suffocating balloons and balls in partying streets and nightclubs; a landlord’s loud family with an obviously adult daughter dressed as a child and playing with childish things; a nightmarish clinging rocking doll given as gift; an exaggerated gesturing barman, a slimy man introducing the acts, a vulgar archaeologist cleaning his ears; turntables in the middle of the street; a parade of blind men and women; kitsch tourist posters for Greece on the walls and ‘welcome to our foreign friends’ signs on top of prostitutes’ beds; overacted scenes of macho men crying and kissing violently; more balloons – animal balloons; hysterics of a whole neighbourhood at the arrest of the Monster – Drakos, while a bright white bra hangs in front of him. When he returns to the nightclub before the big heist, the mobsters are in a drunken state of preparation, they bow to him frantically, almost ironically, and each one prepares with personalised rituals of religion, homoeroticism and grooming. Other cut their wrists and become blood brothers. And the Monster – Drakos – Clerk dances a pathetic dance among all this macho underworld poverty.


Koundouros’s subtle Grotesques are not appalling. He’ll employ them again in 1922 (1978) and Bordello (1984). They become what they are out of their inner turmoil and to set the scene. They never mean any harm.

Instead, it is the prevailing shadows that are full of dread. The director and the cinematographer drown this grotesque microcosm in the darkness. Even the morning scenes seem threatening and claustrophobic. Koundouros had studied Fine Arts so it is no coincidence he chooses to use painting techniques in film. The sets are expressionistic  from the very first plot scene of the Clerk inside his dark, weirdly-angled office. The lighting remains low-key; in form we have Clair-Oscur (light and shadow used to define the objects) that reaches Tenebrism (extreme contrasts of dark and light as dominant style) as far as this does not impair the realism of each shot. In the office, in the streets, in the nightclubs, the poor souls are whipped by these violent contrasts of light and darkness, and this darkness is always ominous. The lighting creates the set, sets the atmosphere and reveals the emotional troubles of the characters. In contrast though to other expressionist films, like the German expressionism of the 20’s, the reality is not distorted. Expressionism is the stylistic vehicle used so that we follow the Clerk and the characters that frame him into their angst.


The expressionist form and Chiaroscuro techniques together with the subject matter of mobsters, the underdog, femme fatales, heists and nightclubs lead to the unavoidable link of O Drakos to the Film-Noir which was at its height in the 50’s. Urban setting, the underworld, pessimism, cynicism and betrayal can all be found in this film, too. The characters are all trapped in a labyrinthine city and in the dark. They are bitter and alienated. Their morals are not clear – they are unlawful to rise out of their misery, not for the thrill of it or for riches. In the same way, the Clerk chooses to deceive, to accept the mistaken identity of the Monster-Drakos and by doing so to escape his own disheartening, his loneliness and his psyche’s bleeding.


It would be unfair though to consider O Drakos principally as a film-noir, as the connotations of ‘thriller’ would do it little justice. There is no surprise and no suspense. The fates are predefined. There are no heroes, only the Lost. Because the film’s main concern is Realism. Expressionism and Film-Noir are employed just to serve a realistic modelling of the life of all these people. In principal it is a neo-realist film. This marriage of styles was rejected by contemporary critics and the audience alike. The film was described as an ‘abomination’ even by inspired critics of the time (A Kyrou).


The intention is to show the struggle of the working class, to either find meaning (clerk) or a way out of extreme poverty (mob). Apart from the main actors, the rest are non-professionals. They are poor and they are desperate. It is to these underdogs that the writer offers the stage. There are a few outdoor scenes following the typical Italian neo-realism trend, but Koundouros has masterfully transported neo-realism from the crowded streets to a crowded nightclub, applying the same rules.

And the resolution has nothing to do with morals. Only with sadness.

O Drakos (1956): the beginning and the end of neorealist grotesque film noir.


Plot synopsis:

Based on a script by I Kampanellis (Stella (1955), the Abduction of Persephone (1956)). A timid little man, working as a clerk, finds himself alone and disillusioned on a New Year’s Eve. On his way back home and by looking at the newspapers he realises he possesses an uncanny similarity in appearance with a renowned serial killer whose photograph has just been published. The word Drakos (Monster, Dragon) is used in Greek for serial killers, serial rapists etc. He soon finds himself running away, as everyone he knows as well as the police mistake him for the Monster. He is taken in by a femme-fatale woman and lead to the nightclub in which she works. There he meets Baby, another cabaret girl who he warms up to. We soon realise that the nightclub is run by a circle of small crooks, planning a big heist involving selling antiquities to ‘the American’. The mob is run by the bar’s owner but they lack a strong Leader to inspire them before the big job. When the Clerk enters the scene, he is mistaken there, too, for the Monster. The “boss” sees in him the leader they are in need of. The Clerk does not deny that he is actually the Monster. The mob becomes delirious and hopeful. That night the Clerk-Monster is arrested while leaving the ‘hotel’ the two cabaret girls are staying in. He is humiliated by the Police that realise he is just a clerk. A crook at the police station notices the event. In the meantime, news reaches the Boss that he is not the real Monster. But he knows that enthusiasm and hope are so badly needed by the gang to succeed that he chooses to play along.


That night, the crooks prepare in delirious dances and rituals for the heist. They welcome back the Monster in a frenzy. They are all happy and hopeful because as it is revealed they are all just poor desperate trying to find a way out of poverty. The Clerk-Monster joins in their drunkenness. O Drakos is played by a famous comedian at the time, Ntinos Iliopoulos giving an amazing performance. A close-up of him, realising his fate, with his glasses removed is of the most powerful scenes of the film. Soon, the crook from the station arrives at the nightclub to reveal the truth. The news crushes the dreams of all those desperate people. The Clerk is stabbed. He leaves the nightclub stumbling but alive. Refuses the help of the Boss to take him to a hospital, he chooses to let himself die. He is found by early workers lying on the wet asphalt. The crooks watch. ‘At least this one can rest now’ murmurs the Barman.



The Round-Up (Το Μπλόκο) – no one will lick your wounds

The Round-Up (Adonis Kyrou 1965)

The Round-Up (Το Μπλόκο) is considered to be the first Greek film to deal with a very dark side of the 1941-1944 German Occupation of Greece: the collaborators. There have been numerous post-war films dealing with the subject of Nazi brutality, the Occupation and the Resistance. But these have always dealt with the subject either melodramatically or nationalistically. The setting is usually urban, and shot mostly in Athens or in studio interiors. The action relates to a closed set of characters or a single character that becomes heroic or not. There is no social or historical comment. In general, they are in line with other European melodramas on the subject: they are all meant to unite the nation and comfort it post-war, to reaffirm the ideals of national pride and heroism (especially individual heroism). And this is where The Round-Up upsets the norm.

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Written by Adonis Kyrou (an affiliate of the Surrealist Movement, France resident and ex- member of leftist armed Resistance groups) it re-enacts a horrifying incident from 17th August 1944: the Round-up of Kokinia, a poor industrial area in the outskirts of Athens that was considered a haven for the Resistance. Round-ups were a common method by which Nazi occupation forces retaliated (“for each dead German 50 Greeks will be executed“), stabilised their reign of fear and eliminate possible dissidents. They would oblige all men of fighting age to gather in the central point of the village or neighbourhood; there, by selection or indiscriminately, all men considered related to Resistance groups were executed in public. This selection was usually done by the collaborators, who, wearing hoods to cover their faces, would point at the individuals to be executed. The issue of participation by collaborators and Greek-manned security forces in such events still remains a highly controversial and passionate subject, almost a taboo, as it is considered directly connected with the Civil War that followed (1946-1949).

The Round-Up follows a few main characters as they experience this event. The focus, though, regularly shifts to the enormous amount of extras and peripheral characters that are shown either in moments of resistance, obedience, fear, fight, plight. The whole neighbourhood fights and reacts en mass; the action, though inspired by leading individuals, is collective. By the end, characters that seemed morally dubious and opportunistic turn heroic, and heroes, like the leadership of the Resistance end up cowardly hiding while others are sacrificed.

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The characters are quite realistic, apart maybe from the representation of the German soldiers, who are stereotypically demonised. Still, the rest of the characters, collaborators, heroes, ordinary scared men, all are victims of circumstance, not of their character. This, together with the subject matter and the depiction of direct, urban warfare and collective action caused the film a lot of trouble with the State and the Left alike. The Resistance was unfortunately split into two armed forces, one pro-Communist and one pro-monarchy that were also at war with one another. In this film though, there is no direct mention of EAM (the pro-Communist resistance army) but the Resistance is shown as unified, or anyway unidentified as one branch of the two. As with all films that are the first to touch on controversial issues of internal conflicts (as happened with the Kurdish Turkish Cinema of the 90’s), the Round-Up is considered propaganda by the Right and cowardice by the Left.

Aesthetically, the film has clear neorealist elements. In contrast to most Resistance – Occupation films, the setting is not urban but the industrial edge of the city, almost post-apocalyptic, drowned in light and burnt by the summer; it is the same area where many Greek émigrés ended up after the wars and troubles of the past. Most of the action takes place in natural exteriors, and the sun is always burning giving the film a spaghetti-western feel. Either a conscious decision or coincidence, the cinematography fits the imagery of the Spanish Civil War more than that of WWII. The soundtrack is generally naturalistic; music score is used scarcely, the music of a Left Revolutionary song or the haunting sound of battle drumming. It could even be said that it is characterised more by the lack of sound. Many screams, cries, shouts are silent. Long wide shots, handheld camera, and unconventional angles create an atmosphere of dread and a premonition of the fate of the individuals.

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While obviously referring to Left-Right-Nazi-Collaborators-Resistance issues, it touches openly on sexual issues as well, with many non-marital affairs implied.

For my generation, the history lessons at school always mysteriously stopped sometime around the beginning of the Second World War. It is a shame that both the State and the citizens collectively still seem quite scared, biased, unprepared and unwilling to frankly face the years during and after WWII. Hopefully films like The Round-Up, with all its flaws can provide a starting point for the newer generations to begin this serious discussion and start licking the nation’s wounds.

– ulalume

August 2009
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