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The City and the City

A brutal reimagining of true events that befell the Jews of Thessaloniki will shock you with cruelty, while also hypnotising you with beauty - from the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival


The untold story of the life and perils of the Jewish community of the Greek city of Thessaloniki is told over six chapters. It is a gruesome watch, but a horror that needs to be experienced, one that will stop you in your tracks and leave you short of breath long after it culminates. As soon as the film starts there is a sense of atmosphere; a strange chill circulates the air, and we are quickly introduced to enough grit and mystery to drag us in and keep us seated – the opening five minutes is a great inkling of how the rest of the film will evolve.

It has an experimental edge to it; the cinematography is alluring, beautifully rustic, and the framing is an unconventional treat, coupled with an eerie sound design and an interweaving colour palate that traverses through the film, turning a very harrowing and unsettling film into a gripping and even gorgeous experience. It is the variety of colours that first comes to your attention though, with a mix of black and white, and back to colour in the blink of an eye – a very distinctive style choice. Or even the added flair of some gaussian blur, simply signifying the possibility of a dream, but the cracks of sharpness instantly pull you back into reality.

This film is also an informative one – a little history lesson, if you will – because assisting the “re-enactments” (because that’s basically what they are), is a collection of messages, fragments of information about the history of the city and the Jewish community living there, like the fact that in 1931, the 55,000 Jews living there were no longer the largest community of the city, due to the inflow of Christian refugees from Pontos and Asia Minor – and if you hadn’t noticed by now, there is some… hostility, to say the least.

But as the film progresses and the years go by, the message is clear, the treatment of the Jewish community by the Nazis and how it is represented was brutal, degrading and very unsettling. Aided by haunting pictures from back in the day and with evil quotes like, “It’s time the Jews learn to do something else with their hands, other than counting money”, they are meant to shock, to leave you feeling slightly nauseous, and yet, it is but a fragment of the real pain – it’s not even a fragment. These sequences look so authentic that it has a documentary feel, and that’s the scariest thing because it very well could be one.

In what is an already powerful film are a handful of incredible scenes scattered throughout; prolonged periods of time where nothing is said – not a single word – but are so enthralling, so emotional, and incredibly immersive – they are just so simple and yet so beautiful, you’ll know exactly the ones I mean. There is one moment that eclipses them all though, as a lonely girl shares her experiences and treatment at the hands of the guards, whilst the camera slowly zooms in, and her mental and physical angst is now in full view – a hard 10 minutes to endure that’s for sure, but you cannot take your eyes off her for a second.

But even a film with all this beauty can have its faults, and this film can be a little hard to follow at times. It is difficult to differentiate the separate narratives and time periods, which flutter between one another so frequently. Coupled with the mix of colours, the switch in the narrative, the multitude of characters, it can be quite tricky to grasp it fully. And this is not a film for passive viewing on a chilled Sunday afternoon, so you can easily become lost if it is not given your full attention.

What Christos Passalis and Syllas Tzoumerkas have created here is a heart wrenching but intricately nuanced piece of art. A little rough around the edges, but filled to the brim with emotion, truth, and even a little humour at times, because sometimes a laugh can be just the thing to keep your spirits up. An incredibly humanistic film that covers a difficult subject, but does so with great respect, ambition, and a whole lot of beauty.

The City and the City premiered at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival.

By John McDonald - 17-02-2022

Failing from the seaside town of Southport but now living in Liverpool, John McDonald has had a passion for cinema since he was a small child. The westerns of John Wayne were his gateway into the cine...

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