The late great Greek director Michael Cacoyannis: he brought Greek cinema to the world.

George Savvides

Last November Michael Cacoyiannis was in London to promote his latest film “The Cherry Orchard”. We met at the Curzon Plaza Suite, Mayfair. Cacoyiannis studied law in England (43) and acting at the Central School of Dramatic Art in London (44) and directing at the Old Vic School (46). He then worked as an actor for the next few years till he moved to Athens in 1952. He made his first film “Windfall in Athens” in 1954.

Remembering his life in London he said: “Look, it was during the War but when you are young, things are easier. When you live in an atmosphere of danger there is much more electricity in the air and I remember our spirits were much higher, we laughed a lot.”

When I asked about the problems he had as a young foreign actor he said: “Problems, what problems? The usual; I played a lot of good roles such as Caligula and Herod.”

I then commented that his early films in Greece were pure Greek. He agreed: “The first ones had original screenplays written by me apart from “Stella” (55) which was based on Kampanellis’ play “Stella with the Red Gloves.” He disagreed with me when I said that Stella reminded me of Carmen. “No, Carmen was a whore. There is a huge difference. Stella is faithful to her man but doesn’t want to be tied down and marry. She leaves men because they want to suppress her. Stella is never after money – is never like that at all. She changes because the man wants to blind her – feminist theory.” He agreed when I said that he was one of the first Greeks apart from Euripides to give women such good roles and added: “I wanted to show the oppression of women in small communities.”

When I mentioned the Italian neo-realism movement he added: “We were working at the same time and we were all working with the same way.” Comparing his masterpiece “A Girl in Black” (55) to Lorca made him say; “No, this film is clearly influenced by the personal tragedy of Elli Lambetti. Her family drama is put on the canvas of a small community. But the idea of a family dealing with someone’s death was influenced by Lambetti’s personal experience, with whom I have worked many times in the theatre and were great personal friends. That’s where it started –from my personal experience with Elli Lambetti. I admired her and loved her very much.”

Then we talked about his collaboration with Walter Lassally and the use of the hand held camera: “Hand held cameras were first used in “Stella” followed by “A Girl in Black” and then everywhere.” I was impressed by his later film “A Matter of Dignity” (58), commenting on the death scene of Eleni Zafiriou- the use of sound and finding similarities to “The Cherry Orchard”, where both families are facing bankruptcy. “From the beginning I was interested in the use of mixed sound. You are right about the families but in Chekhov there is a civilised, kind response to their drama whereas the middle class community of “A Matter of Dignity” lacks the kind-heartedness of the Russians. The Greek family reacts in a more violent and petty way when facing bankruptcy.

In regards to his documentary “Attila 74” which is about the tragedy of Cyprus and is one of his most powerful films, I commented that no actors could convey the pain of the mothers as they wait for the release of the prisoners. “Also the boy whose father they killed and gives a cry of pain – no actor could do that. I’ve added an epilogue to the film where Denktash confesses about the mass graves.”

I enjoyed his stage production of “The Trojan Women” two years ago in Cyprus and said that it is a scandal that he hasn’t been invited to direct a play here at the National Theatre. “If you knock at their door they will say “of course”. But I don’t want to do that. The Abbey Theatre has invited me, but the National never!”

Finally we talked about “The Cherry Orchard”. The cast is first class and the scenes with Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates work particularly well. Also one wanted to see more of Frances De La Tour. “Charlotte Rampling joined the cast at a later stage and I’m glad you liked Frances De La Tour. I cut one of her scenes though but Charlotta’s part here is longer that the play. She appears in the whole opening sequence in Paris, which is not in the play. Alec Guinness dropped out in the last minute because I was filming in Bulgaria and his health was fragile. He was my first choice for Feers.”

Talking about his editing and his cinematographer Aris Stavrou: “I do the editing- when we film I know where to cut. Aris Stavrou is great! He films almost without any light- he puts white cloths/sheets around the set. The costumes are authentic to the period; I always wanted piano music, that’s why we use Tchaikovsky, and also because he is Russian. The whole thing is by Tchaikovsky- his four seasons. Askenazy, who plays the piano, is an admirer of the film so he offered his services for free. I didn’t rehearse much with the actors, maybe three or four rehearsals, not the whole play but segments.”

We talked a lot about the style and the use of the language. Regarding future plans he said: “Probably theatre. I’ve translated a few plays from English to Greek”. I wished him great success for the future and for “The Cherry Orchard” which opens in London on February the 11th at the Curzon Mayfair Cinema.

(This interview was first published in Parikiaki on the 27th of January 2000)

Read his obituary from Parikiaki