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Letters from Athens

documentary, HD video, colours, 88' -  2016



With the German Occupation in Greece (1941-1944) as a background, this film tells the love story between my father, an assistant professor at the mysterious German Scientific Institute of Athens - financed by the occupying power, Germany, but which in reality was a refuge for resistant students - and Nelly, a young student in Fine Arts. The film also traces the portrait of their friend Rudolf Fahrner, founder of the Institute, comrade of the Stauffenberg Brothers, and one of the few conspirators of the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, on 20 July 1944, that survived the repression that followed. 

director's note

This film is based on my father's letters to his girlfriend Nelly. These daily letters, written in fine handwriting between 1939 and 1944 - there are over thousand pages -, tell not only the story of their love but unveil an extraordinary picture of two young people's everyday life during the German Occupation of Greece. And finally, my father leaving to Germany at the end of the war, they describe literally the end of a world.

In my film I tried to show the complexity of human experience in a historical situation that is normally depicted in polarized terms (executioners-victims, collaboration-resistance etc...) and thus unduly simplified. In revealing the everyday life of the two lovers and their friend Rudolf Fahrner, who perceived very differently the same political situation and reacted in differing ways to it, I signify the manyfold elements of History

Portrait of my father in times of war tells a story of love and resistance, reflects the mechanism of individual and collective memory and poses a simple, unfortunately still relevant question: how to resist barbarism through poetry and thought?


Fahrner, Nelly, mon père

The German Scientific Institute in Athens is an anomaly in the history of World War II,  an a priori incomprehensible exception that proves a  posteriori and a contrario that things are more complex than one would normally admit.

In the countries they had occupied, the Nazis established propaganda institutes whose purpose it was to bring  German culture  - or what they considered as such - to the well educated, wealthy class that would eventually collaborate. Students who would study in the German Reich could also apply for scholarships

Rudolf Fahrner is assigned the task to found the Athens Institute. Fully aware that Hitler admired greatly ancient Greece, he sets a rule: the Institute must serve only cultural and scientific -on no account political- purposes. He forbids uniforms in its rooms and implements this interdiction during war and occupation. He organizes with my father philosophical seminars, conferences and concerts, translates ancient texts with Alexander von Stauffenberg whom he invites to lecture... in a word he transforms the Institute into a virtually extraterritorial place that, according to the testimonies of all Germans and Greeks having worked or studied there, no officer of either the Wehrmacht or the SS, nor any NS party leader has ever entered.

Seventy years later it is very difficult to comprehend what seems unbelievable on first sight. In a country enslaved by the Germans, students belonging to the opposition and the resistance mouvements meet several times a week in an Institute founded by the Nazis, which according to all accounts however constitutes an oasis of freedom in the occupied city. Tolerance, openness, freedom of speech prevail there without restriction. My father, his girlfriend Nelly and his other students -some of them have become famous: the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis or the politician V. Theodoropoulos, for example- survive the terrible famine during the winter 1941/1942 by discussing the great philosophical questions. The first seminar led by my father deals with the subject : "What is comedy?"





Letters from Athens

... how to express with words the translucent clarity of this film?

                                                          Eva Stefani, film director      

Timon Koulmasis, like his father born in Germany, experienced in close proximity the resistance of his family against the greek dictatorship (1967-1974) and its turbulent history during the seventies. Living today in Paris and in Athens, although memory and cinema are probably his true home, he films with sorrow and hope the letters that his father sent, from 1939 to 1944, to his first love, the painter and sculptor Nelly Andrikopoulou; and like his father he resists barbarism; he puts his faith in the force of poetry and the dignity of human life.  

The city of Dresden, black and white, memory recovering it, a key hole into history; the cosmopolite, a stranger everywhere, in the reflective colours of the German forest; the German Scientific Institute in Athens (1941-1944), the curious figure of its president Rudolf Fahrner and his intimate relationship with the Stauffenberg brothers; tracking shots, sometimes precise, sometimes suggestive, between the handwritten lines, between the countries, glances searching for an interior truth. And the city of Athens, bright and clear - all the same; Nelly regarding the author of the letters, the German occupation, regarding us, unfearful, free, strong.

Her letters to Petros Koulmasis are lost, but Timon Koulmasis lets her reply in his film. And her answer is disarming, reconciles. With the present, the future.  

"In this film, I don't pretend to know, I'm trying to understand," says the director. " I try discover in the relations between the images certain things that aren't visible in the images themselves. So that history is not just a quotation but becomes a matter of reflection. The film is not a chronicle of 'historical' events but a series of lived moments in the course of history.

Sofia Michailidou - Goethe-Institut

"Portrait of my father in times of war - Letters from Athens" is much more than a documentary film in memory of a father. Timon Koulmasis is creating poetry with images. Filming the letters and recording the simple testimony of the ninety years old Nelly, he "documents" and questions the story of a Greek-German friendship that resisted the barbarism of its epoch. Between the words and the signs and the underlying silence, the film also tells the unknown story of the "German Scientific Institute" and its founder Rudolf Fahrner, a true philhellenenist in the turmoil of war.  

Kostas Kalfopoulos - Kathimerini, 23.10.2016

Letters, narratives, photos and previously unreleased archive material filmed by German soldiers link in masterly manner the great picture and the small, the history of Europe during the war and the everyday life of two young lovers who witness the destruction in a somewhat protected, literary and artistic milieu.

This film is not about the relationship between father and son and still less about the cliché of a "love in wartime". Neither about the emotion of loss, constant change, the small pleasures and the great mourning, generosity and fear, the contingency. "Portrait of my father in times of war" makes us aware that "times of war" have various shades. They are not black and white. Heroes and traitors, collaborators, occupying forces, victims and offenders. There have been Germans who abhorred the Nazis, who saw with great concern what happened in their country, who starved but did not die of hunger, who survived without surrendering to the enemy.

Nothing is just black and white. Where there is no room for doubts, totalitarism is underway.  

Maria Katsounaki - Kathimerini, 30.10.2016

These letters do not describe "only" a story of love. They dissect everyday life in Athens under the German occupation as well as the function of the German Scientific Institute there. (...) A love with "double identities" in dark times.   Kostas Terzis, Avgi - 26.10.2016       I admire the director's courage to make public, in Greece, a story that although very moving challenges the official 'heroic' view of history about the Second World war. His antiheroes are extraordinary... yet men and women so common ...  

Natassa Domnaki - Athens Press Agency

An image outweighs thousand words, according to an old Chinese saying. To describe this film, you'd need countless pages, in colour and in black and white.  

Irene Gavala - kosmonea


How did you get the idea of "Portrait of my father in times of war" ?

Everything began with a phone call. "Timon, I've got a water damage, you must come at once," my friend Nelly - she was only about 88 years old then - told me with a cheerful voice. She called from Athens. I was in Paris.

Nelly had been my father's first big love. They had met in Athens in 1938, experienced peace, war and the German occupation together, before the course of History tore them apart. They met again only 20 years later but remained friends until the end of their lives.

When I called on Nelly in her spacious apartment located on the Lycabetus hill, hundreds of papers lay about on the tables, chairs, canapés, the piano, on the floor... "These are letters from your father", she told me outright. She had found them behind a wardrobe in a cardboard, whose existence she had forgotten about for sixty years, and saved them from the water. "They are yours."  These daily letters, written in fine handwriting between 1939 and 1944 - there are over thousand pages -, tell not only the story of their love but unveil an extraordinary picture of two young people's everyday life during the German Occupation of Greece. And finally, my father leaving to Germany at the end of the war, they describe literally the end of a world.  

It seemed to me that the story of their love and their friendship with this strange figure Rudolf Fahrner, as expressed in these letters, would eventually represent the complexity of human experience in a little known historical period, that in a way my father and Nelly could give these historical events a distinctive face. 

The analysis of individual and collective memory seems to be at the centre of your considerations as a filmmaker.  

Yes. In my work Portrait of my father in times of war stands in a series of films where I confront personal reminiscences concerning my family history with the collective memory of a historical event or epoch.

My first documentary film Ulrike Marie Meinhof (1994) starts from experiences during childhood and youth  - my friendship with the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, the mastermind of Germany's notorious Red Army Faction - in order to uncover the unknown, human side of this woman who had become a myth after her gruesome death, and to elucidate certain aspects of the political history of the armed struggle in Germany, in the seventies.  

In Words of Resistance (2010) our family's exile in the sixties - my mother was engaged in the resistance movements against the Greek dictatorship - forms the initial point of a filmic analysis of what remained in people's consciousness of this fascist episode in their country and of the hope and promises brought about by its fall.  

Portrait of my father in times of war works in the same way. The personal closeness to the witnesses and our mutual confidence made it possible for me to try to fathom through the film the relation between personal retrospection and collective memory.   

How would you define this relation?  

It is very complex. For Proust memory consists of a perception that constitutes a sign. Several signs, even disconnected or distant one from another, will eventually make sense. Saint Augustine considers memory to be a force of one's soul that envisions knowledge and perceptions of the past and thus confers a meaning to one's life.

But memory has its own logic that eludes our volition and our intelligence. It is subject to our emotions. It preserves our present mental balance and does not represent the past in an objective way. Contrary to what one might suppose, the main function of memory is not to recall but to forget. Memory covers the past and lets rise to the surface of our consciousness only what is useful or only bearable for us.   

Then the notion of a historic truth is just a fiction?  

Of course. Memories - testimonies in general - need to be completed by a global, synthetic vision. In this respect, to incorporate them in a work of art (a film, a novel...) seems to be an appropriate method to approach not an unfathomable truth of an epoch but its characteristic aspects and to shed a light on its intrinsic complexity.  

In Portrait of my father in times of war you deal with a historical break: World War II, Ausschwitz and the destruction of the European humanistic culture. That puts into question the possibility of representing historical reality and thereby the term of an adequate cinematographic language.

I agree. Distance in time is certainly a factor. But the difficulty consists mainly in the simultaneity of History, of each history. To put it in another way: one cannot tell things as they took place, because in order to tell them one has to separate and align what in reality is inextricably intertwined.  

The challenge then consists to find a language that tells the story but integrates and represents visually on another level the silence and the void that the story contains. It seems to me that the fragmentation of a polyphonic narration, the visual treatment of the archive material and a kind of discontinuity produced by the editing could be a kind of solution.  

Discontinuity avoids a biased representation of historical events. In this way History can be comprehended as a continuous process and not as a causality. It is not just quotation but becomes a subject of reflection. the films isn't perceived as a chronicle of "historical" events, but as a series of moments that were lived and experienced in the course of time.

This applies also to the archive material.  

I think so. In order to enter the field of History, we have to reappropriate the archive material in a new way.


Is that the reason why you have  «treated»  the archive material?  

Yes. Some of the archive material in Portrait of my father in times of war has been altered experimentally. Solarizing and reversal processing (of images before the war,  of a already disappearing world) are one example; I also acted on film speed, color and grain and produced gradual alterations of the image texture and the time lapse. The idea is to push the images to the limit of their legibility, to practice an archaeology of the visible, to try to discover what they hide, what is hidden behind the representation, to capture the presence of live (even of things past). 

Directors with a background from the art scene - Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, for example, or Peter Forgasz - have created fascinating works in this domain. And Harun Farocki has pointed out again and again the decisive importance of the conditions of production of an image. 

In Portrait of my father in times of war I have edited previously unreleased images of the German occupation of Greece, filmed by German soldiers. Shot at the same place and in the same historical moment, these images do not show the same things as, for example, the poignant shots that Angelos Papathanassiou had filmed at the risk of his life between 1941 and 1944, more or less the only images we knew until now. It is interesting to shed light on the relation between them.   

The soundtrack of your film is extraordinary suggestive. In your films you generally attach great importance to sound and music.  

Yes, Aurique Delannoy who edit all my films and I permanently work and experiment on that. The  "hors champ sonore", as we call it here in France, gives the audience the possibility of a perceptive, sensorial experience of this space of memory that I try to construct in my films. Its purpose is not to illustrate images or to accentuate dramatic scenes. It should create tension, reflect resonances, create atmospheres. It should form a space of sound that ties the different levels of time and significance in the narration. In Portrait of my father in times of war melodies and noises, snippets of conversation and folksongs, the rumble of tanks, sounds of the big city and classical or contemporary succession of notes are assembled into a complete, new composition.   

Portrait of my father in times of war tells a rather tragic story -the lovers survive but the war separates them- but it's not a sad film. 

I think this is due to Nelly Andrikopoulou's extraordinary presence in the film. She was over 90 years old when we shot, and after all she - she, my father, their generation - has suffered and lived to see, she concludes the film with these incredible words that she adresses to my late father: « What can I say? That's just how it was. But it was beautiful, Timon! You can tell him that. » 

In your film you reflect this beauty in shots of the Aegean light.  

I believe in the permanence of things, an ethical principle if  you like. I am still an optimist.  


Could you give a résumé of your film in a few words?

Portrait of my father in times of war tells a story of love and resistance, reflects the mechanism of individual and collective memory and poses a simple, unfortunately still relevant question: how to resist barbarism through poetry and thought?


War between Germany and Greece! I felt like a sardine cut in half. I could neither the German culture that had defined me since childhood nor deny my Greek identity! We obviously hated the Germans. But something in me resisted that, too. For your father it was just the same.


According to Fahrners instructions, all propaganda material was burnt. These documents were never displayed at public events. Fahrner is an adversary of the Nazis. But remains cautious. Even with me, although we have established a relation of confidence. I am a Greek. And thus suspect to both sides
   mon père


Finally History decided in our place.

  Nelly Andrikopoulou
 writer, director
  Timon Koulmasis
 photography   Odysseas Pavlopoulos
Iro Siafliaki
Timon Koulmasis
 editing and sound design 
  Aurique Delannoy
  Eric Demarsan
 producer   Carl-Ludwig Rettinger, Timon Koulmasis
 production   Lichtblick Film, Aia Films, WDR, ERT
Film- und Medienstiftung NRW, CNC
Goethe-Institut Athen, J.F. Costopoulos

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