“The City and the City hovers somewhere between fiction, essay, and documentary, but in its essence it is a grim poem to the hidden memories and the streets of Thessaloniki burying the secrets of its darkest hour.”
Somewhere between dreamscape, or rather hellscape, and a document of history lies The City and the City, the first collaboration as directors of Syllas Tzoumerkas, already an established director in his own right, and Christos Passalis, perhaps best known for his work as an actor in compatriot Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Fiona Tan’s History’s Future. A disorienting look at the almost overnight disappearance of the Jewish community from their hometown of Thessaloniki during World War II, The City and the City examines this story through six chapters set at different points in history, laying bare the suffering and the sins of a city, then and now, bridging the gap between past and present in an attempt to grasp its fragmented memory.
First, a bit of history. Thessaloniki, the 1930s. The Jewish community is the largest community in the city. But like elsewhere in Europe antisemitic sentiment is on the rise. A storm is brewing. A decade later, in March 1943, with Nazi Germany in control of the city, the first death trains start rolling and the mass deportation of Jews is a fact. More than 95% of the community will not survive the war, one of the highest levels of human destruction during this period. How could this have happened and how does this black stain on Thessaloniki’s history affect the present? The City and the City tries to map out the wounding and the healing, much delayed, in six chapters, each set in specific times but linked by the present, as it mixes fact with a loose narrative of a fictional Jewish family before, during, and after the war.
The six chapters all cover moments in the city’s history, such as July 11th, 1942, known as ‘Black Shabbat’, when all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 were rounded up and underwent physical humiliation on the ironically named ‘Liberty Square’. This is where the wounds are inflicted. One of the larger chapters focuses on a period after the war though, when the healing of those wounds was supposed to happen for the few survivors. But when they returned to Thessaloniki the hurt was prolonged, as they found Christian families occupying their homes, their cemetery destroyed, and a general unwillingness to redress their grievances.
And then we jump forward to 1983, five years after the birth of both Tzoumerkas and Passalis, and the moment of their first memories. Memories that speak of a taboo subject, the extermination of the Thessaloniki Jews. As they reconstruct history, they dig up the bitter sins of the city, of collaboration and hatred, of events swept under the rug. Moving through time, many of the scenes are set in and connected to modern-day Thessaloniki, as if the dark past still affects the present, a present in which there is barely a Jewish community to speak of. Because The City and the City deals in memories, there are gaps and lapses, a jumbled timeline that stumbles forward and sometimes back. Impressionistic imagery and a multi-layered soundscape are punctuated by sharp, cold facts. The effect is something akin to the disorientation felt when watching Saul Ausländer stumble through László Nemes’ Son of Saul, with the deliberate distinction that The City and the City does not contain any scenes of Jewish extermination. This film is about the before and the after, about Thessaloniki never fully recovering from its fall from grace. The City and the City hovers somewhere between fiction, essay, and documentary, but in its essence it is a grim poem to the hidden memories and the streets of Thessaloniki burying the secrets of its darkest hour.