In May 2010, Greece went officially bankrupt, and the government was forced to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with creditors and the other Member States of the European Union. The impact of this event instigated a massive social upheaval that resulted in the birth of the so-called Movement of the Indignados. This anti-austerity faction frequently occupied Athens’ central square, protesting and hurling abuse at the politicians convening in the nearby Greek House of Parliament.
Greeks experienced a collective depression as their income drastically reduced, unemployment rates skyrocketed, and numerous young scientists and professionals abandoned the country to actualize their potential elsewhere. No aspect of social life proved immune to the catastrophic financial developments that kept the population on tenterhooks regarding the nation’s future inside the European Union family. Cinema, as one of the most prominent and popular modes of artistic expression, was one of the first to respond to and address the problems created by the ongoing Crisis by moving towards odd – for some even extreme – narratives and stylistic choices in a series of films that earned the moniker “Weird” by international critics.
Even though the adjective “weird” is rather problematic if used to describe an emerging artistic movement, Dimitris Papanikolaou, the author of the erudite study Greek Weird Wave: A Cinema of Biopolitics, underscores that it is at the same time “able to unlock the very social, cultural and power dynamics that put it in use in the first place”. What is most important for those who want to examine the Greek Weird Wave phenomenon is to remember that this movement is concerned, in equal parts, with filmmaking and the general sociopolitical context that shaped its doctrines in terms of theme selection and extravagant shooting anomalies/abnormalities.
According to film critic Violeta Katsaris, “The movement’s films are weird, morbid, and even gruesome because Greece throughout this era has felt like an anomaly as if the nation had swerved onto the wrong lane and entered an entirely different and unknown region.” The films that comprise the core of the Weird Wave can be described as existential with a hefty dose of surrealism and absurdism, often featuring alienated protagonists struggling to survive within a meaningless milieu, sometimes reminiscent of the works by the most prominent representatives of the Theatre of the Absurd.
The Greek Weird Wave’s birth coincides with the release of Yorgos Lanthimos‘ 2009 feature film Dogtooth. The film gained the attention of global audiences, not least because of the Oscar Nomination it earned for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 2011 Awards. Lanthimos is rightfully considered to be the pioneer of the newfound movement, and he continued to create films illustrating all the hallmarks of the “Weird” cinematography as established in his milestone 2009 urban dystopia.
His exemplary collaborations with the Greek screenwriter Efthimis Filippou, one of the most particular and provocative scenarists that ever appeared in Greek cinema, led to works such as Alps (2011), The Lobster (2015), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), all of which obtained high praise and acclaim from critics around the world. As the most representative piece of the Greek Weird wave, 2009’s Dogtooth can be viewed as a bizarre allegory set in the confined space of a family’s house, with the claustrophobic feeling being enhanced by an absurd screenplay and the intended unrealistic acting by the protagonists.
In Dogtooth, Lanthimos introduces a setting soaked in dismal imagery, with the cloistered space commanding the screen and the highly stylized frames adding to the story’s weirdness. Nevertheless, the focus remains on universal themes, something that made many cinemagoers draw parallels between Lanthimos’ work and the Ancient Greek Tragedy: “The plots have all a sense of commitment and confinement, with the heroes being subjected to certain rules or situations above their powers, reminding us of their origins in Greek tragedies.” (Marilia Kaisar/Medium.com)
The rules and restrictions dictated by the tyrannical father (Christos Stergioglou) act as a mirror and metaphor for those imposed by the Greek government in its attempt to contain the bleak consequences of the Crisis. In his book about the Greek Weird Wave, Papanikolaou stresses the significance of the term “biopolitics”, a necessary concept for those who want to grasp the essence of the movement in all of its extent: “One thing that surely brings these films together (…) is a culture of late capitalism, biopolitics, and crisis neoliberalism in which they participate and which they often thematize.”, while elsewhere tags the Greek Weird Wave as the “paradigmatic cinema of biopolitical realism”.
The term has its roots in Philosophy, and more specifically in the work of the French intellectual Michel Foucault. The concept of biopolitics is a natural extension of another Foucauldian term, that of biopower, used to describe the power exerted by governments over the populations and the regulation of an ever-expanding set of actions and behaviors by the State. In his “Society Must Be Defended” lectures (Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France), Foucault defines biopolitics as “a new technology of power…[that] exists at a different level, on a different scale, and [that] has a different bearing area, and makes use of very different instruments”, while Papanikolaou labels the notion as “the management of human life from the large scale of the population – its categorization, health, livability, and/or proscription to the minutiae of a human body”.
So, biopolitics concerns the individual and the collective as the modern form of oppression/tyranny in contemporary societies. This is another point of contact between the new Greek cinematic movement and the Ancient Tragedy: people are too powerless to define their own destiny and condemned to strive in a society regulated by rules and laws imposed by superior beings. The only difference is that now it is not the Gods who dictate what happens and to whom, but a faceless, detached system of power/governance.
In Dogtooth, the family, as the fundamental social structural unit, it is the microcosm mirroring the macrocosm and the sociopolitical reality as the Greeks experienced it during the years of the Crisis: “As such, the Greek Weird Wave examines authoritarian power structures both at the national and familial level, often through the lens of an alienated protagonist,” writes critic Violetta Katsaris.
Indeed, family is one of the recurring motifs of the Greek Weird Wave movement, as we realize if we take a look at other films such as Athina Tsangaris’ Attenberg (2011) or Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence (2013), both stories cauterizing, among else, the ills of an abnormal familial upbringing and the lies and hypocrisy that envelops so many households in Greece nowadays. The combination of a dysfunctional familial environment and enclosed locales transforms the purportedly holy Greek household into a space of imprisonment for its members, especially the younger ones.
The spatial aspect is critical for the directors of the Greek Weird Wave, and each time, the setting plays a major part in the story’s development and the atmosphere. Kaisar writes: “Dogtooth introduces a game of borders, which enhances the idea of spatial dipoles. It is a study on social isolation and embarked spaces, where the meaning of the ‘house’ is transformed from a shelter into a space of imprisonment.”
The main characters, boiling in alienation from their surroundings and the others, try to navigate their way through a colorless, dull, quotidian existence, and, in some rare cases, they exhibit the strength to defy the norms. However, the cost is almost always too high, and, in the end, the audience watches the system crushing the individual. Take Lobster, for example, another winner by the Lanthimos/Filippou dyad. The protagonist, shy and timid David (Colin Farrel), manages to escape the Hotel, avoid his transformation into an animal of his own choosing, and join the Loners in the woods. However, he soon realizes that this group is also governed by equally strict and undisputed rules whose violation can potentially result in the utter destruction of the one.
Filippou allows diachronic questions to infiltrate Lobster‘s screenplay, such as the meaning and essence of love and the torment of loneliness. In Tsangari’s Attenberg, the young heroine, played by Ariane Labed, who won the Volpi Cup Award for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival (2010), is a disconnected, thoroughly detached outsider who resents contact of any kind, physical or emotional. She spends most of her time watching Attenborough’s documentaries (hence the film’s title) while her father prepares to exhale his last breath.
She lives in a white-colored housing complex, dull and uninspiring, with Tsangari attempting to comment on the decadence of the modern urban way of living. Thematically, the notion of death permeates the totality of Attenberg‘s runtime. As Kaisar writes, Attenberg “is lyrical and sensitive, speaking about coming of age and the always present death: the death of modernism, the death of childhood, and the death that slowly comes to all human beings”.
While Dogtooth and Attenberg established and solidified the Greek Weird Wave’s reputation internationally, more noteworthy productions have been released since. Yannis Economides, Alexandros Avranas, Panos Koutras, and Yorgos Zois are only a few of the respected filmmakers who evolved the Greek Weird Wave. In Economides’ 2010 film Knifer, the director and co-screenwriter ponders on the outburst of domestic or otherwise violence that escalated since the beginning of the Crisis, and focuses on the dark side of the human condition. Economides said about his work: “The darkness of the human soul has been ever present. There is no reason why. That is how human beings are and jealousy, hatred, arrogance, avarice are archetypical facts of human nature. I try to shed light on the Greek version of all this.”
In his 2013 feature Miss Violence, Alexandros Avranas examines the secrets and lies lurking in the backdrop of a modern Greek Family, with the suicide of a teenage girl signaling the starting point of a depressing chronicle. The meticulously crafted façade of the girl’s family is relentlessly deconstructed throughout the film’s runtime, leaving the audience reeling from the brutality behind closed doors. Avranas provides a peep through the keyhole of the family’s residence, and the audience becomes complicit in a particular form of voyeurism that invokes only sorrow instead of pleasure.
Regarding the inspiration for creating the film, Avranas has stated: “In the year of 2002, I was living in Berlin and heard about the story of an 11-year-old girl who had committed suicide. I was shocked beyond measure and I simply couldn’t imagine any reason why such a young kid would take her own life away. I guess Miss Violence is my way to try to understand such a tragedy.”
Greek Weird Wave films share another similarity: the vast majority of them were produced on a tight budget, a direct consequence of the dire financial consequences of the Greek Crisis. However, the extravagant, avant-garde aesthetics, extraordinary subject matters explored, and the ubiquitousness of the stories attracted international attention and rendered this newfangled cinematic movement an autonomous genre. The films express Greek youth’s emerging need to disentangle themselves from the onerous fallout of the Crisis and the government’s strict anti-austerity measures, and the tyranny of the nation’s history. This burden sets the bar too high for the contemporary Greek population.
Greece is considered by many outsiders as “the quintessential archive of a perennial past”, and the Greek Weird Wave is, among other things, a rebellion against the despotism of the old times that deems any comparison between past and present negative for the Greeks of today. More films bearing the trademarks of the Greek Weird Wave are in the making, and global audiences will soon have the opportunity to experience more deep dives into the bizarre and uncanny by the Greek auteurs. Indeed, the latest film by the trailblazer of the Greek Weird Wave, Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things, releases this December.
Kaisar, Marillia. “Weird Greek Wave Cinema: a new aesthetic era of Greek cinema”. Medium. 20 May 2018.
Katsaris, Violeta. “How Yorgos Lanthimos Defines the Greek Weird Wave”. Collider. 30 April 2022.
Papanikolaou, Dimitris. Greek Weird Wave: A Cinema of Biopolitics. Edinburgh University Press. April 2021.