By Fred A. Reed
May 1957. Jules Dassin’s film Celui qui doit mourir (“He Who Must Die”) was shown at the Cannes festival. Though it won no prizes it was the director’s finest work, and featured—her customary incandescent self—Melina Mercouri in a supporting role as a widow who would welcome lonely men into her bed.
The story unfolds in Lykovrissi (“Wolf Spring”), a prosperous Greek village in Asia Minor that has made its peace with the Turkish authorities who rule the country. As he does every year, the town’s Orthodox priest—a man who enjoys the authority of his black robe and the appreciation of the wealthy—designates those who will incarnate the protagonists in the annual Passion Play, to enact the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ. Roughly, the oppressed Greeks against the overbearing Turks and their enablers who stand in for the “Romans.”
The players are designated and meet to discuss how they will perform their roles. Soon enough, they will certify that their ‘script’ has already been written and will closely adhere—with mortal outcome—to the Biblical original.
Life in peaceful and prosperous Lykovrissi proves too good to be true. From afar rising dust signals the arrival of starving refugees, the inhabitants of another Greek village driven from their homes and land by the ‘Turks’. These Greeks—who are, after all, Turkish citizens—sing the Greek national anthem, and are led by a fiery priest, who calls upon the citizens of Lykovrissi to succour his flock with provisions, and eventually, to welcome them as neighbours after they settle on a dry and rocky mountainside.
The confrontation between the two—starving refugees and comfortable, well-fed villagers—leads only in one direction. The protagonists in the Passion Play are forced to assume not only their roles, but embody the meaning of those roles with their lives. The Christ figure, played by a shepherd with a speech defect, suddenly regains full use of the word and summons the wealthy to assist the poor. His ‘disciples’ do the same: raid the storehouses of the village’s richest man for food and supplies. The widow declares her solidarity with the Christ figure.
Unthinkable. Authority challenged. Wealth scorned. Power flouted. The village headman warns the Turkish administrator, an easy-going raki-guzzling placeholder: beware agha, anarchy threatens. Confrontation cannot be far behind. As Turkish gendarmes drag machine guns into position and mounted soldiers parade through the streets, the rebellious refugees and their supporters from Lykovrissi take up positions behind wine casks and sacks of flour, muskets at the ready. The film ends as flames devour the town.
Just how did Jules Dassin come to create this masterwork?
In a manner not described in Dassin’s Wikipedia entry, in 1955 he encountered the works of Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, and shortly thereafter (or before), Melina Mercouri. The two would send Dassin off onto a tangent that would reshape his career and his life. A surviving photographs shows Mercouri, Dassin at her side, on Kazantzakis’ arm. He is old and diminished, and that same year, after a trip to China where he met Chou En Lai, he returned to Europe where he died from complications of Asian flu.
In the 1950s, Kazantzakis was an author to be reckoned with, not only in Greece but also in Europe and the English-speaking world. After decades of failed efforts to cast himself as a poet and moral philosopher, he turned to writing novels and rapidly emerged as a best-selling writer. Among his works were Zorba the Greek, Freedom or Death, the Last Temptation and Christ Recrucified, entitled The Greek Passion in the USA and Great Britain.
The two had much in common. Dassin’s name at the time adorned the HUAC blacklist, joining the Hollywood Ten, and could not work in tinsel town. A member of the Communist Party, he had cut his teeth directing a socialist Yiddish theatre troupe in New York, and went on to become an influential member of the Screen Directors’ Guild.
Nikos Kazantzakis, as a younger journalist, had reported from the Soviet Union in the early twenties, made friends with German revolutionaries in Berlin and dedicated an early novel, set in Baku, to proletarian internationalism.
No wonder that whoever put Kazantzakis in Dassin’s ear or before his eyes—was it Melina?—knew what s/he was doing. Kazantzakis encouraged Dassin to make the film he wanted to, and sought no input. Dassin eliminated the metaphysical dimension of the story to focus on the book’s powerful political message.
A snarky review of the film in Le Monde criticized Kazantzakis as an apologist for the pro-Nazi Greek government. But the same government that the author had allegedly served dispatched one of its in-house ‘intellectuals’ to lobby against Kazantzakis’ bid for the Nobel Prize, won instead by Albert Camus in 1957. Camus later declared that the man whom he’d defeated by one vote should have won.
Confession time: there is a personal dimension to this story:
The Greek Passion was the book that waylaid me in a bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard one warm morning in the spring of 1959. There it sat, atop a stack of identical volumes, calling out “Take me! Read me!” That, for reasons that escape me to this day, is precisely what I did.
In rapid succession the following things happened: my academic career, which was headed for a collision with the wall of reality, came to a halt; I resolved instead to travel to Greece; to learn Greek and—supreme pretention—to translate Kazantzakis; to challenge, then reject, the family and social pressures that would have forced me into a life I did not desire (for though I did not know what I wanted, I was clear about what I did not want); to challenge the military draft that would have made me complicit in the United States’ crimes in Vietnam.
Living above a garage in an avocado grove not far from Sunset Boulevard, I took night courses in Modern Greek at UCLA, scouted art-house cinema for Greek films and there—O supreme coincidence!—encountered Melina Mercouri, first of all in Michael Cacoyannis’ Stella, a neo-tragic saga of a rebetiko singer who preferred death rather than bend to the will of the man who would force marriage upon her.
A few weeks later, to the same cinema came Celui qui doit mourir. The film blazed with the demonic energy of social conflict, of betrayal, of resistance. Were Christ to return to earth, he would be crucified again, but his followers would take up arms and fight to the death, the film argued with the force of a flow of molten lava.
Several months later, I stepped ashore from the gangplank of the SS Queen Frederica in Piraeus harbour, into that ancient and yet contemporary world that I coveted, a land that had tried it all and seen it all. The same harbour where Homer Thrace, the naïve pseudo-academic in Never on Sunday—played by Dassin—come to discover the “glory that was Greece”, disembarks a few years later and where, instead of classical Greek drama and philosophy, he meets Melina Mercouri, the whore with a heart of gold, a heart that she has given to the Piraeus football team, Olympiakos, the ‘boys of Piraeus.’
Jules Dassin married Mercouri, and continued to make films. During the seven bitter years when the NATO Junta ruled Greece, the couple relocated to Paris, accused of financing the Greek resistance, as proud a badge of honour as any woman or man could hope to wear.
Democracy nominally restored, Melina Mercouri became Greece’s Minister of Culture in the government of Andreas Papandreou, the man whose election the Junta had been charged to prevent. And in her official capacity she presided over the opening, in 1983, of the Kazantzakis Museum, in the village of Myrtia, in the foothills south of Iraklio, Crete’s largest city.
It was a warm summer evening, and my friend Dionysios Skaliotis and I were among the hundreds that thronged the streets of the small town. Melina addressed us with her customary verve and held, if fading memory is still accurate, a bouquet of red roses…or were they carnations. The next day, we visited the author’s grave atop Iraklio’s Venetian bastion: a simple rough hewn cross and, carved on the tombstone the words ‘I fear nothing, I hope for nothing; I am free.”
When his beloved Mercouri died in 1994, Dassin lived on in the couple’s downtown Athens residence, an honorary citizen of the Hellenic Republic until he died in 2008 at age 97.