Cinema in the Age of Austerity:
On the Representation of Debt in Greek Cinema
Tom, though depressed and strongly repelled by his father's sullenness, and the dreariness of home, entered thoroughly into his father's feelings about paying the creditors; and the poor lad brought his first quarter's money, with a delicious sense of achievement, and gave it to his father to put into the tin box which held the savings.
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
It is a moral truism that debt must be repaid. In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the son of the main character considers it his personal duty to bail out his bankrupt father. The shame of the financial loss would have ruined the moral standing of the whole family. When the crisis broke out in 2008, Europe started to impose this logic on its communities. Greece had to repay its debt, regardless of whether its citizens voted for the governments that indebted them, whether they ever profited from the debt, or whether they even knew that their government was in debt.
Under international law this moral truism does not hold sway. Sovereign states are not like Victorian families. They are allowed to cancel their debt. This law is guided by the principle that countries are first and foremost responsible for their citizens and only then to other countries or credit markets. To protect the interests of the financial industry and the governments of lender countries, the moral rhetoric of the European sovereign debt crisis has neglected this fundamental right. Banks, international organizations and economically more powerful nation-states have reinterpreted debt in a way that makes citizens accountable for the budget deficits of their past governments.
It is, of course, much easier to justify the massive seizure of everything the Greek citizens may have gained during three decades of democracy, if they feel that they are morally responsible for the national debt of Greece as a whole. The public discourse has thus created various narratives that put the blame for the debt crisis on the side of the ordinary citizen. Tax evasion and profligacy are some of the stigma that have been routinely used to make the Greek working and middle classes responsible for the crisis. This diagnosis serves the cure. It forces those who have supposedly abused the good will of “democratic integration” to accept the adjustment programs deemed necessary to reestablish “credibility” and “honor”, as virtually all Greek prime ministers have managed to point out since the beginning of the crisis.
Many recent Greek films deal with the crisis. But there are only three films that explicitly relate the crisis to debt: in Thanos Anastopoulos I Kori / The Daughter (2013), a teenage girl kidnaps the son of her father’s colleague, whom she holds responsible for the bankruptcy of a lumber workshop; in Syllas Tzoumerkas’ Ι Ekrixi / A Blast (2014) a woman suffers from an emotional breakdown when she has to deal with her parent's loan repayment and unpaid tax bills; and in Alexis Alexiou’s Tetarti 04:45 / Wednesday 04:45 (2015) an indebted bar owner has to confront a bunch of unfriendly loan sharks who want their money back. In all of these films, the characters are portrayed as corrupted bookkeepers and irresponsible borrowers. Blame is put on their materialistic dreams, which apparently lured the characters into enjoying a life beyond their means. Clearly they should pay for it!
The political implications of these films serve those who justify the implementation of destructive austerity measures with arguments about deep-rooted, nation-specific flaws. This moral downgrading is representative for a widespread “fusion” and “confusion” between individuals and their troubled nation-states (Fourcarde 2013: 24). Such perspectives believe that the Greek crisis was a unique aberration and almost unrelated to the 2008 recession and to the eurozone crisis that exposed the European Monetary Union’s structural faults. Greek debt films have, similarly, not found scenarios that go beyond moralizing observations about the rotten core of individuals or families. All of the three films that will be discussed here treat debt as a homemade problem, thereby sustaining the belief that the crisis was a disgraceful national specificity and its cure just punishment.
Tax Evasion and Profligacy
The first Greek film that explicitly dealt with debt was Thanos Anastopoulos The Daughter. At the center of the film is fourteen-year-old Myrto (Savina Alimani), whose father unexpectedly disappears one day leaving his child with nothing but a mountain of debt. Convinced that he left because of the irresponsible accounting of her father's colleague, Myrto decides to abduct the colleague's eight-year-old son Angelos (Angelos Papadimas), keeping him hidden in her father's defunct lumberyard. The kidnapping exposes the way in which the murky finances of her father shape the girl's moral beliefs. Looking up definitions of words like “responsibility”, “guilt” and “disintegration”, she tortures the boy. If Myrto has to suffer for her father's sins, so does Angelos for his.
What exactly these sins are is revealed in various flashbacks that depict the two fathers as careless businessmen. Thus Angelos' father sells the company's planks without giving receipts, presumably to evade paying VAT and/or income tax. In one scene, a client says “as usual” when he asks him to keep a sale “off the books”, implying that unreported transactions are most likely standard operating procedure. In another flashback, Angelos' father retracts 50 euros from a sale. This time he smirks instead of saying “as usual”, handing the banknote to his son. The generous allowance neatly fits the profligacy stigma, which holds that Greeks lavishly consumed whatever they earned for their own aggrandizement (or that of their families) instead of reinvesting their resources more sustainably in the real economy. Another scene, in which Myrto proudly shows her father a new ring she bought, reflects a similar stereotype.
Tax evasion and lavish spending are also major culprits in Syllas Tzoumerkas’ A Blast. Here, too, a small family business is on the verge of bankruptcy, presumably because the parents never declared one cent of their income to the tax office. They also took up a sizeable loan and are struggling to make the payments. Together with the tax bills, their debt adds up to 165,000 euros. Maria (Angeliki Papoulia), the daughter in A Blast, feels ‘responsible’ for putting her parents' house in order, an impossible task that leads to a dramatic mental collapse and the breakdown of the entire family. Like in The Daughter, the flashback in this film primarily serves to demonstrate how Maria's family lived beyond its means, borrowing and spending irresponsibly. Thus when Maria passes the entry exam to study law, her parents hand her an envelope full of cash. If only they had saved it!
Although Maria is much older than Myrto, they are both portrayed as victims of their parents' corrupted bookkeeping. Indeed, the conflict in both films relies on a generational j'accuse, in which the blame for the economic misery of the young is placed on the careless borrowing and excessive spendthrift of the older. Syllas Tzoumerkas, the director of A Blast, explains this social malaise as “a certain lower-middle-class mentality of dreaming of becoming a nouveau-riche” (Marzec 2015). His heroine, if she can be called one, simply calls it “a ridiculous life”.
The dream of becoming rich also haunts Stelios (Stelios Mainas), the main character in Alexis Alexiou’s neo-noir film Wednesday 04:45. It's 2010 and Stelios owns a sinking jazz club and is heavily indebted to a Romanian gangster who gives him 32 hours to come up with nine months of repayments on a mortgage of 148,237 euros; if not, the Romanian will seize the club. Stelios gets another ultimatum from his wife, who wants him to spend more time with their daughter. Having to choose between his family and his dream, Stelios opts for the later thus tearing apart another Greek family over debt. Looking at his luxurious home in a posh Athenian suburb and car (2010 Cadillac CTS Sedan, prices starting at 35,000 euros), one may guess where the money went.
Again, reckless borrowing served only the greed of the borrower. No wonder that the loudspeakers in Stelios' club are out of order. Perhaps his jazzy dreams were simply a pretext to grab more money. Unsurprisingly, Alexiou, shares Tzoumerkas’ diagnosis. “We are responsible”, says Stelios’ towards the end of the film. In an interview the director clarifies who he means. “The middle-class who thought that it belongs somewhere else for a while” he says, describing the pre-crisis era as “a delusion of the nouveau rich” (Χάλκου 2016).
The perception that the crisis was triggered by irresponsible lower and middle class individuals is not only a prominent view in the media, but also among respected academic economists. One image that comes particularly close to the movie characters discussed here, was invented by the economists Michael Mitsopoulos and Theodore Pelagidis, who have come up with "rent-seeking Vikings" in their efforts to understand the crisis: “In Greece”, they claim, “there are numerous groups that act like the Vikings, in the sense that they grab anything they can while roaming freely through various aspects of social and economic activity” (Mitsopoulos/Pelagidis 2011: 8). The authors claim that “daily small illegal acts” in which Greeks “pursue their own aims of personal improvement” is the status quo of the Greek society (Ibid: 12). The situation is endemic and ranges from “tax evasion” to “putting the lives and livelihood of others at risk” (Ibid.) Similar views are also prominent in Germany. The opinion that the crisis was triggered by a “profligate” Greek society that was “living beyond its means” is widespread among economists (Markantonatou 2013: 4).
Particularly suspicious is the selectivity of this view. Despite the claims of the director of Wednesday that Greek cinema has disproportionally focused on the upper-classes (Χάλκου 2016), a film relating tax evasion or profligacy to, say, financial traders is yet to be made. It is certainly justified to be angry at the constitutional tax privileges of the Orthodox Church or of Greek ship owners. Yet, this kind of legal tax avoidance, is not what Greek debt films are about. In fact, Greek cinema has disproportionately focused on domestic dramas, in which ordinary citizens and petty family-structured gangs go up against each other in a war of all against all. While a focus on those who really benefited from the credit-growth period and became involved in the financial sector would still not provide an adequate explanatory framework for the crisis, it would, at least, avoid stigmatizing the crisis as a national peculiarity that is supposedly unique within the EU.i The scapegoating of ordinary citizens in Greek cinema verges on a crude form of internalized racism. Indeed, self-hatred, more than anything, connects all films.
But let us for a moment assume, in good Aristotelian spirit, that the families in these films are not families at all but cinematographic models of the state. Speaking about his work, Alexis Alexiou, for example, has said that “the family is a metaphor for society” (Χάλκου 2016). Let the tax evasion of Maria’s parents, then, stand for the assumption that Greece was forced to take up exorbitant amounts of debt to compensate for lacking tax revenue. The fact is that Greece's public revenue only slightly fell during the first decade of the 2000s, to 37.3 percent of GDP, but not below OECD average and scarcely below EU average. Virtually all European countries substantially increased their debt during this period, simply because public spending exceeded public revenue (Streeck et al. 2013: 28). The reason why public revenue decreased, however, is not because people found creative ways to avoid paying taxes, but because governments everywhere reduced taxes. Greece, for example, reduced its corporate tax rate from 40 to 20 percent immediately upon its admission to the EMU (Markantonatou 2013: 15). Far from representing a "special" tax scheme, the reduction complied with the competitive fiscal standards of the EU.
Furthermore, let the diagnosis of lavish spending stand for the assumption that Greece irresponsibly budgeted public expenditure.ii In this family-equals-state scenario, Stelios' eagerness to drive around in a CTS Sedan he cannot afford would be akin to the Greek state importing expensive German security equipment. Certainly, Greek governments may not have always used state budget efficiently. But Greece’s public expenditure was below the European average during the pre-crisis period. Total expenditure amounted to 46.9 percent of GDP as compared to EU’s 47.4 percent. In short, neither tax evasion nor excessive public expenditure explain the crisis.
What they do, however, is feed into the rhetoric of the architects of Greece's “structural adjustment programs”. Indeed, both tax evasion and overconsumption are part of a discourse that has reinterpreted the burden of Greek citizens to pay off government deficits as a moral duty. On the one hand, emergency taxes sucking up the savings of pensioners and workers in the public and private sector are being morally rationalized under the pretext of endemic tax evasion.iii On the other hand, fiscal discipline, with its catastrophic consequences on education, health care and the welfare state as a whole, is justified because it supposedly puts an end to state profligacy. More than making accurate psychological observations on the political economy of Greece, the blame put on the ordinary citizens in these films sustains the idea that they should take on the responsibility and endure the costs of assisting Greece's exhausted creditors. Guilt asks for punishment. In the age of austerity, cinema has become a successful ideological instrument for the propagation of destructive neoliberal policies.
Hidden Problems, Homemade Responsibilities
The debt films discussed here, have found “explanations” for the debt crisis that are even more exotic than tax evasion and overconsumption. They thus appear to regard the crisis as a cultural necessity. Such fatalistic claims relate the crisis to inherent structural shortcomings in Greece's history or culture. If these idiosyncrasies had been properly examined, “one could have known”. This perspective has also been widely advertised in the media and in "specialized" circles. German diplomats Ulf-Dieter Klemm and Wolfgang Schultheiß, for example, have assembled academics in Germany and Greece to write an anthology about the “crisis of the entire political and social system” (Klemm & Schultheiß 2015: 17). Looking at Greek history, the authors discover “endemic distrust”, “self interest”, and “endogenous corruption” wherever they look. They believe that such deplorable conditions must have started with “Turkish foreign rule”, lamenting that Greece had missed out on western European “enlightenment” (Ibid.). These morally and economically “devastating” cultural practices had lasting impacts, even with the most diligent efforts of democratic governments to establish “discipline” (Ibid: 220).
This analysis may appear particularly cartoonish. However, it represents the research of respected scholars, not the opinion of German tabloids. While Greek directors do not go as far back in time as the Ottoman Empire, they often use flashbacks to search for prognostic signs. Reminiscing the pre-crisis era, directors also discover foul culture-specific conditions in their characters and come to similar conclusions. Psychological intangibles such as selfishness, distrust and dishonesty give the impression that the crisis, whether it is financial, emotional or both, could have been prevented. If only Greeks were not Greek. This cultural or national approach completely decontextualizes the crisis from its European and global context. Placing the blame for the crisis on the idiosyncratic behavior of collective identities does not only border on racism. It also provides a convenient justification for neoliberal reforms. If Greeks are “greedy” by nature, deregulating the social state, for instance, can be reinterpreted as protecting citizens from their own proclivity to “grab” state resources.
Cinematographically, the flashback is an effective tool to illustrate the crisis as an endogenous condition. In one scene of The Daughter, the father thus tells Myrto how the trees are growing up with her and how one should only cut down sick trees or those that obstruct other trees from growing. Ironically foreshadowing his own behavior, “the trees”, like his daughter, will be handed over to the laws of nature. Unprotected from “bad trees” such as his colleague and himself, they will fight against each other in a violent struggle for survival. Understandably, Myrto feels betrayed. Her father made her believe in a promise he supposedly knew he could not keep. In the jargon of economic analysts, he lost his “credibility”. The possibility that the bankruptcy of the lumberyard could have taken him by surprise is ruled out. He should have known.
The montage in A Blast juxtaposes the film's catastrophic ending, in which Maria's father burns down a forest, with scenes of Maria's boyfriend's excessive graduation party. The cross-cutting establishes the moral rationale of the entire film: the crisis as a foreseeable hangover from years of excessive partying. Tzoumerkas relocates many contemporary Greek problems in the past. In another scene Marias's sister laughs about gypsies and immigrants rummaging through garbage for food. No wonder that she and her husband later join the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. All of these flashbacks are presented like evidence. They are supposed to explain what brought Greece to its current state of crisis. What they really do is moralize essentially trivial everyday experiences like sex, drinking, politically incorrect jokes and dreams of becoming rich. And yet Tzoumerkas tries to convince us that he has uncovered the “core” (Ibid. 2016) from which to explain the events that lead to the crisis.
Alexis Alexiou's Wednesday does not use flashbacks but the character narrates his impressions of the pre-crisis era in two voice-overs which open and close the film. Like the characters in the other two films, he feels “that nobody told him the truth”, although this time there is no father figure to fill up the place of the liar. “You failed to see the truth” is the concluding sentence of the film. What exactly “the truth” is may be open to interpretation, but it seems likely that it is based on Stelios' incapacity to see through his own corrupted personality. Once again the whole narrative development aims at giving a proof for a succession of events whose tragic outcome could have been foreseen and prevented by those who brought them about.
To be sure, moral decay and civil-war like conditions can be seen as consequences of the crisis. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Statistics about increasing suicides, burglaries, and homicides are well known. However, these films do not construct their crisis scenarios in this way. Instead they depict the pre-crisis as a period of impending calamity, in which characters are portrayed as guilty before they have even committed any deed. The inspiration these films draw from crime movies certainly makes it difficult to avoid framing the crisis as a morality play. But even traditional crime films usually question the moral status of their characters. How many gangster films are memorable because they portray high-profile mobsters as likeable everymen and police officers and state attorneys as corrupted villains? The criminal disposition of the characters in Greek debt films could also be seen as a particular creative reversal of common beliefs about ordinary Greeks. But it seems more likely that it confirms an already pervasive prejudice. Attributing mens rea to an entire generation, they sustain the belief that the debt crisis was fundamentally built into the structure of the Greece society.
It is hard to understand why Greek cinema has not found alternative explanations for the crisis. Debt involves debtors and creditors. A starting point to understand the Greek crisis would be to seek partial responsibility for the country's indebtedness on the side of its lenders. Greece’s biggest lenders, however, are not to be found in Greece. Thus one way to understand the Greek debt crisis would be to look beyond the Greek borders. One could, for example, find the “core” of the Greek crisis in the 1990s, when the European Union stopped extending financial assistance to Greece. Up to that period, Greece, Spain and Portugal had received considerable cash transfers (around 4 percent of GDP), which Europeanized the political elites and kept them from turning communist after the fall of military dictatorships in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the focus shifted to the Eastern Bloc, which needed similar “development”. Joining the Monetary Union enabled Mediterranean countries to replace missing revenue from European fiscal transfers with cheap credit. They could now borrow from international financial markets without interest rates soaring.
It would go beyond the scope of this paper to go into more details about the structural problems of the EMU. It should be clear, however, that Greece's debt is not homemade but a structural problem of interdependent market societies. Granted that it is conceptually difficult for filmmakers to visualize these interdependencies, other than in a very abstract way, it would nevertheless be a starting point for filmmakers to focus on the political and financial elites. Technocrats in Brussels are certainly more directly involved in the decision-making processes affecting Greece’s lower and middle class than the unpaid tax bill of an Athenian shop owner. The story of how the investment brokers of Goldman Sacks “helped” Greece meet the criteria to join the EMU are well known. What is less known is the fact that Lukas Papademos was the President of the Greek central bank at the time. He then went on the become the Vice President of the ECB. During the crisis, he became the Prime Minister of Greece appointed by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the ECB to make sure that Greece shall repay its creditors. It seems highly unlikely that Papademos and his likes were unaware of the way in which Greece used its EMU membership to replace shortcomings in domestic and international fiscal revenue with credit from, among others, Goldman Sachs. Former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors put it quite bluntly: “We have long been aware that the Greeks had concealed the real figures” (Delors, 2010).
It may have been more adequate to dramatize the lawful power struggle of Greece with its international creditors as a historical drama. Instead, Greek films have focused on the petty crimes of ordinary citizens. It is of little importance what crimes they have committed, even though real illegal action, such as tax evasion, sometimes shows up as half-hearted evidence. The “core” can be seen in small acts of everyday life. Selfish, dishonest and corrupt, the loss of “credit” is portrayed as an inevitable consequence of the decadent lifestyle Greeks enjoyed during the pre-crisis era. They should be ashamed. Sociologists of power may find empirical evidence in Greek debt films for what has been alternately called “stigmatization of poverty” (Sennett and Cobb 1972: 213), “the fall from grace” (Newman 1999: 8), “shaming of those who fail” (Sayer 2005: 959), in short a form internalized contempt against those at the bottom of the economic scale. That public shame makes debt collection easier has been shown time and again (Graeber 2011). In the context of the sovereign debt crisis, public shaming plays into the hands of Greece's creditors, who demand responsibility for the debt of Greece's past governments from the ordinary citizens of today. It is a form of symbolic violence that forces pensioners, patients, public servants, and the proletarians of Greece to “pay the price” for having enjoyed a life on undeserved income.
It is unlikely that the directors of these debt films deliberately support the reform policies that have been imposed on their country. But their films are as punitive in spirit. This shows how dominant the moral rhetoric of the European debt crisis is. That Greece’s ongoing repression may have nothing to do with the neurotic nature of the generation of the filmmakers’ parents - and per analogy little to do with the domestic specificities of Greece's political economy - is never questioned. It also shows how little efforts are being made within the cultural industry to seek for alternative scenarios. A first step would be to recognize that the creditor may share a responsibility for the losses of the debtor. This would provide a more complex account of the pre-crisis period, and would locate many villains outside the Greek society. It is a particular cruel feat of real-life irony, that the one-sided emphasis on the debtors reflects the “market demands” of the film industry. It may thus not come as a surprise that A Blast and Wednesday are German co-productions. In what way the film bureaucrats of Eurimages, ZDF/ARTE and of Germany's regional film funding institutions have exerted their influence over the production process of these films is speculative. They make it unmistakably clear, however, that their vision of Greek debtors complies to the repayment imperatives that are particular strong in creditor nations such as Germany.
i Public indebtedness in Greece was mainly due to private-sector rather than public-sector borrowing. In 2007, the year before the financial crisis began, Greece’s external balance had amounted to −14.67 per cent of GDP, to which public-sector borrowing contributed only −5.3 per cent.
ii The view that the fiscal crisis was expenditure driven was especially prominent among the IMF. See for instance International Monetary Fund (2010: 23).
iii In the meanwhile, the reduction of taxes for export orientated firms and other special tax costs were implemented in the name of treating the “Greek Problem” with market liberalizing policies
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