The State is a Sick Person:
The Hippocratic Cinema of the Greek Weird Wave
by DAVID ROBERTS
“… and the decision of one man to launch a wholly
unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq – I mean, of Ukraine.”
– George W. Bush, momentarily confusing himself with Russian president
Vladimir Putin, in a speech concerning election integrity, May 19, 2022
The Greek Weird Wave is a cinematic movement spanning from 2009 to the present. On one level, the films are allegories that satirise aspects of modern life, such as competitive dating in The Lobster, male insecurity in Chevalier (both 2015), the amnesia of social media in Apples (2020) or the dissolution of the family unit as patriarchal system in Dogtooth (2009). Theodore Angelopoulos and Michael Haneke have been cited as possible influences, though in terms of its fractured bodies and the surgical precision of its visual metonymy, the Greek Weird Wave most closely resembles the opening scenes of Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), a classic of satirical cinema. But while Z satirises a fascist junta, the films of the Greek Weird Wave are more troubling for their atemporality, their timelessness. They seem to suggest, as does the dying patriarch-architect in Attenberg (2010), that “Man has designed ruins with mathematical accuracy.” In other words, it’s not so much a case of a coup d’état as it is of a fait accompli.
“THE STATE IS A SICK PERSON IN A PLASTER CAST,” ran a prominent slogan of the Greek junta, 1967 to 1974. Its ardent purveyors, right-wing colonels whose coup had pre-empted the projected victory of the Centre Union party, wished to impart with this vivid metaphor a kind of moral turpitude ravaging the country, but its corporeality better serves as a reminder of the violence perpetrated by the junta on the people. I’m sure the surviving victims of the Polytechnic uprising of 1973, many of them no doubt consigned to their own plaster casts, must have been struck by the metaphor’s new literalness, its oddly prophetic gratuity.
It is this, the self-indicting quality of the junta’s bungled rhetoric, that Costa-Gavras explores in the opening scenes of Z. At a junta meeting in a shadowy room, the deputy minister for agriculture suggests that liberal values have somehow infiltrated and blighted the grapevines of Greece: “mildew… first appeared together with the ideological malady that infects humanity.” This claim inadvertently exposes two things: a fascist discomfort with metaphor – despots like their moral rot like plaster casts, that is, literal – and an equally fascist disregard for the people, hereby demoted in taxonomic rank to the status of creeping vegetation. The metaphor has, to quote Cicero, “made the subject at hand more vivid,” albeit the subject it was meant to conceal: the junta’s intention to subjugate those whom it would feign to protect.
The podium is soon assumed by the chief of military police who, in his further mangling of the metaphor, is even more egregiously transparent. By advocating the “spraying of humans with appropriate mixtures” to combat “ideological mildew,” he returns the vines back to their human origins in order that they might be ‘sprayed’, thus properly dehumanised and violated against.
“THE STATE IS A SICK PERSON IN A PLASTER CAST” similarly seeks to conceal its barbarous motives, though in a far more calculated, even classical manner. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (which, incidentally, features a wily, unhoodwinkable Cicero), Brutus stresses that outward decorum is crucial if his own violent junta is to be accepted by the populace as a matter of urgent civil duty: “This shall make / Our purpose necessary and not envious / Which appearing to the common eyes, / We shall be called purgers, not murderers.” Purgers instead of murderers: this might as well be the underlying message, the ur-text, of the Greek junta’s motto. For, just as Jekyll disguises Hyde, is there any better decoy for murderous intent than the Hippocratic stethoscope, the life-restoring scalpel? These are not generals, these are surgeon generals, here to purge the state of its malady: democracy!
In these first scenes of Z, Costa-Gavras uses film to perform revision surgery, cutting and framing the junta officials in a way that inflicts their own violent terms against them. Thus, they become anatomical parts, reflecting the chief of military police’s obvious desire for violence, while at the same time becoming plants and produce, reflecting the minister for agriculture’s conflation of the Greek people with rotting grapevines. For example, while the ‘impressionable’ youth of Greece are described as “young shoots” that have “not yet reached four or five inches,” an official’s bald head, bureaucratically faceless, dominates the frame like a potato on a window sill. The junta’s metaphors are swiftly removed, a celluloid metonymy implanted in their stead.
There is a good deal of Z’s satirical modus in the films of the Greek Weird Wave, a movement that has only gained in momentum since its inception in 2009. Indeed, the reach of its international influence has never seemed so extensive as now, while the world still contends with the COVID pandemic and the consequent global recession. The films reverberate, as does Z, with righteous anger at the desecration of democracy, but their visual metonymy reaches further back as well as further forward through time. They are as stark and elemental as Santorini’s Caldera, as desolating as a COVID lockdown.
Nowhere is this classical-futuristic quality of the Weird Wave more apparent than in those films which interrogate the role of the doctor as paragon of civic duty, the medic as democratic demigod. Take, for example, the 2016 film Suntan, directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos, the opening scenes of which bring Dr. Kostis ashore on a holiday island in the gloomy off-season via a ferry whose lowering ramp reminds one of naval landing craft. Having been installed in shadowy, wood-panelled lodgings reminiscent of Z’s junta meeting, Kostis, whose bald pate radiates a correspondingly male pattern of patriarchal rage, slumps and contemplates the march of events that have led him to this spiritual hinterland. (Kostis will later confide to an old uni friend that a number of “setbacks” sullied his postgraduate studies in Thessaloniki.) Nevertheless, the emergence of sunnier weather brings with it young shoots, if you will, of personal renewal, as a group of twentysomething holidaymakers crash his doctor’s rooms, bearing aloft Anna, who has wounded her leg. While the injury is not severe enough to warrant a plaster cast per se, Kostis is highly assiduous in his ministrations, and he ignores his visitors’ innuendos with an admirable, even clinical, objectivity. Alas, Kostis has already breached his duty by allowing the revellers to run rampant in his surgery. This breach is made irresistible by an air kiss proffered by Anna, his nubile patient, as a kind of emotional bribe.
As does the whole film, this scene – detailing, in essence, an abrogation of one’s civic duty – acts as a fine dissection or autopsy of the failure of the junta’s incriminating motto, “THE STATE IS A SICK PERSON IN A PLASTER CAST,” but in a way that ironically evokes the very sickness that the junta alluded to (and proceeded to exacerbate). Bound not by the fixed temporality of Costa-Gavras’s albeit bravura satire, Suntan suggests that the motto’s failure was not merely due to its corporeality, but perhaps more poignantly still to its choice of the ‘good doctor’ as beneficent mask. For, in the subtle exchange of Anna’s air kiss for Kostis’s relaxation of standards, there abides the Greek tradition of the “fakelaki” [envelope], the bribing of private companies and, more pertinently, public servants for the expedition of goods and services.
This is a practise that both predates and survives the military junta. In his 2017 article, ‘‘Fakelaki’: How the Greek economic concept impacted my family’, author Peter Papathanasiou writes, “the fakelaki is so entrenched in Greece’s culture that it has its own Wikipedia page.” Papathanasiou goes on to quote his uncle Vangelis: “‘You want anything done in this country, you take a fakelaki. You go see the doctor, you slip him a fakelaki under the table.’”
In the medical profession, the prevalence of the fakelaki is particularly galling because it flouts no less than the Hippocratic Oath, that touchstone of Western democracy: “Into whatever homes I go, I will enter them for the benefit of the sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption…” As such, the junta’s bid to disguise its malevolent designs in ‘respectable’ medical terms is something akin to a snake oil salesman masquerading as a politician: the metaphor does not compare one thing to another, it makes them the one and the same. It literalises, as is the fascist’s wont, making the mask transparent to the point of being in fact non-existent. As Dr. Kostis prepares to tend to Anna’s leg, he asks her forebodingly, “Are you afraid of doctors?” Her answer sees right through the non-existent mask. “It’s you I’m afraid of,” she says.
From here on in, Suntan offers a number of the “chopped-up or overturned” bodies that preeminent Weird Wave scholar Dimitris Papanikolaou identifies as a defining feature of the movement. Much as Costa-Gavras spliced and anatomised his junta heavies, Suntan wields its own elucidating scalpel, albeit from the vantage of the aggressor.
There is a distinct, rejuvenating quality in Z’s satiric comparison of a bald head with a potato, something akin to Sergei Eisenstein’s use of editing in his communist film October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927), wherein footage of a vainglorious Russian politician is intercut with that of a mechanical peacock.
In Suntan, however, the critical distance is collapsed and the satire degenerates. Shortly after the consultation in the surgery, we adopt the perspective of Kostis as he looks at the vulnerable bodies on a nude beach from the watery remove of the ocean. Here, the predatory nature of Kostis is made clear, not least from the way that this shot recalls Jaws in its adoption of the shark’s point of view. Kostis is soon joined by Anna and he, the good doctor, enquires impassively about her wound, at which prompt Anna executes a quick handstand, her body bisected by the surf, her inverted lower half exposed for Kostis’s scrutiny.
But perhaps the most vivid metaphor for Kostis’s professional impropriety comes later in the film, in a shot reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), where, in extreme and unflinching close up, Kostis’s tongue probes Anna’s eyeball in an effort to suction and remove a grain of sand. The ghost of the scalpel from the earlier film foreshadows with the menace of Macbeth’s imagined dagger.
By the end of Suntan, when we witness Kostis trying madly to treat the physical damage he has wrought upon Anna, the surgeon has become, quite literally, the murderer.
The surgeon-as-murderer also appears in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Its central figure is Stephen Murphy, a cardiothoracic surgeon whose patriarchal instincts are piqued by a young man, the fatherless Martin, whom he encounters in a diner. Martin says that his father died in a car crash, but it soon transpires that he died on Stephen’s operating table, a victim of medical negligence. Through chilly, antiseptic mise-en-scène and Kubrickian long shots of strip-lit corridors, the film burrows down to Stephen’s violent core, which explodes in the basement of his family home.
In Chevalier (2015), directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, a man identified simply as The Doctor oversees a competition to decide who amongst those assembled on his yacht is the greater man. Penises are measured and blood is extracted in this floating microcosm of modern democracy.
And even in the films where doctors and surgeons are not prominently featured, the Greek Weird Wave is reliably a “cinema of biopolitics,” as scholar Papanikolaou has termed it, a charting of the ways in which our bodies are forever at the mercy of the politics that govern them.
Indeed, in this age where THE STATE could be argued to be A SICK PERSON ON A VENTILATOR, one has to wonder how far we have fallen from the Hippocratic oath of our nascent beginnings. Where does the surgeon end and the junta colonel begin? One might just as well ask: when does democracy shift into fascism? It is fitting that Greece should produce a modern cinema that poses these necessary questions.
David Roberts is the author of Young Love.