No Sympathy for the Devil (1997): On the construction of urban imagery, cinematic spaces and filmic narration in Dimitris Athanitis's film
No Sympathy for the Devil: A critical topography of the future
The blog post discusses the filmmaker’s use of two key elements in the film’s narrative: firstly, the adaptation of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that is being set in a near future, and secondly, the construction of a futuristic city by using the materials of the present (1997). I shall examine how the director uses the hidden city as scenery for the adaptation of the aforementioned myth. Moreover, I shall present the characteristics that compose the film’s futuristic symphony, such as scenery and sound. Finally, I shall examine how and why the filmmaker creates an opposition between the visible and the invisible, darkness and light, and in what way those concepts are empowered by the film’s black and white photography. In the first part of the post I discuss the adaptation of the myth as well as the dialectics of darkness and light that are present in the film in many ways. In the second part I examine the film’s urban imagery and the filmmaker’s construction of the futuristic city.
Black and White Cinematic Mythology
The classic version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is the following: Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice, they got married and lived happily together for a while. Hymen was asked to bless the marriage; however, he predicted that their happiness would not last. Soon after that, Eurydice was wandering in a forest, when Aristaeus, a shepherd, saw her and was enticed by her beauty. Aristaeus began to chase her when she attempted to flee. While Eurydice managed to escape him, she was bitten by a snake and died instantly.
Apollo advised his son, Orpheus, to descend to the underworld to look for Eurydice. Orpheus went to the underworld and passed the Stygian realm, which was full of ghosts and people’s souls. Orpheus charmed the three-headed monster Cerberus and presented himself in front of the god of the underworld, Hades. Hades, after hearing Orpheus playing his lyre, allowed Orpheus to take back his wife on one condition: that he would not look at Eurydice before ascending to the light because he would lose her forever. Orpheus failed to follow Hades’s instructions and Eurydice returned to the world of the dead.
Athanitis places the Orphic myth in Athens of the future and creates a modern cinematic topography of the myth. The filmmaker transforms the myth into an allegory of modern times. And he does so by placing a story that belongs to the past into the future. This occurs through the use the material that the present provides, which are the hidden spaces of modern Athens. The choice of scenery becomes one of the film’s motifs as well as a guideline to the film’s narrative. In fact, Athanitis reverses the myth in order to obtain the result that he wants. The protagonist (Orpheus) lives is the underworld. It is thus pointed out that Orpheus lives in darkness, which is presented in the film as a virtual and spectacular world where the only light that shines upon Orpheus is that of the supermarket.
In the beginning of the film an unidentified woman addresses the audience directly in a close-up: “Good evening. The weather is fine today as well, and of course you have a wonderful evening ahead of you. Have you thought about your next move? Don’t worry about it being the right one. Everything is under control. And of course, as always, don’t forget: we are together”. This speech is reminiscent of a television broadcast and it ensures the safety of the citizens/viewers watching it. Also, it creates an atmosphere of control over the viewers, trying to impose emotions of security and safety on them. It could be argued that the broadcast resembles methods that totalitarian regimes use in order to impose their power upon the citizens/slaves, and it is reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).
After this direct address, we are presented to Eurydice and the Inspector, Eurydice’s guardian who acts as a figure of power throughout the film. In the first part of the film (the underworld) he is dressed in black, whilst in the second (the upper-world) his double is dressed in white. The film is set in a warehouse. Later on, we find out that this place is in fact a prison. The guardian is responsible for allocating Eurydice to a specific place, and announces where he sends her: “You’re not like the others. In darkness ... that’s where I’m sending you”. And darkness is the underworld.
As we see shots of Eurydice in the Greek underground, we hear Orpheus’s voice-over narration: “She lived like everyone else in the dark. She came from the light. She did not look like any other girl”. This antithesis between darkness and light is being used in many ways throughout the film. First of all, it is being used verbally. The characters often speak of darkness and light, as we shall see further on. Secondly, the film is shot in black and white, a fact that expresses the opposition between darkness and light, black and white. Here we are dealing with a dialectical synthesis that deploys and projects itself to the cinematic space.
Orpheus lives in the banality of the future. He is leading an ordinary life as a cashier in a supermarket. And that’s where he first meets Eurydice. She enters the supermarket and we see shots of its corridors as well as of the products that are packed on the shelves. The voice-over narration underlines his monotonous existence but at the same time we come across an expression of cinephilia that is intended by the filmmaker. The voice in the narration highlights an opposition between supermarkets and cinemas as Orpheus’s voice-over comments on the shots of the supermarket: “Supermarkets are like cinema theaters. Never closing. There, you buy dreams. Here, all the rest. There, always in the dark. Here, a white piercing light”.
The last sentence is accompanied by a shot of lights on the ceiling of the corridor of the supermarket. Cinema can be parallelized to adventure and dream, since we watch Eurydice stealing products from a shelf. The reference to cinema is in a way a reference to what is completely opposite to the everyday banality of the underworld that the character lives in. Additionally, cinema is considered a place of fantasy. In this way, we can identify the female figure/Eurydice with fantasy/dream. This thesis is strongly emphasized in a scene where Eurydice is posing as a model for a photo shoot. The scene is highly sensual and at times has a fetishistic aesthetic. Eurydice wears a plastic jacket which is diaphanous and translucent. The plastic jacket is used as an image of the future and it underlines the fictitiousness of the world that Eurydice lives in. The classical Eurydice becomes a plastic Eurydice of the future.
Orpheus is following Eurydice after she was caught stealing goods from the supermarket. In a dark underpass they have the following conversation:
Eurydice: Where are you going?
Orpheus: Nowhere. You?
Eurydice: Me too, nowhere.
Apart from the humorous aspect of the conversation, the filmmaker aims to point out that there is no real exit from the City of Destruction (as it will be discussed later on). After having sex with Eurydice in a cheap hotel room, Orpheus wakes up in a place reminiscent of a hospital. We see shots of both of them lying down in separate beds, having a dead-like figure, whilst the guardian of Eurydice reappears. The pills that Eurydice takes can be parallelized to the snake that has bitten her in the classical myth.
As mentioned earlier, the filmmaker reverses the classical myth by placing the underworld into the light. Orpheus ascends to the upper-world with a mission: he ascends as a killer. When Orpheus comes out into the light in order to find Eurydice, he exclaims: “I was coming out in the light for the first time. But there was no light”. Orpheus hires a taxi in order to search for Eurydice mentioning that he found himself “in the middle of nowhere”. While he is in the cab, we see shots of port cranes and industrial constructions in Skaramaga, which is close to the area of Eleusis, a city in ancient Greece which is connected to the world of the dead. The tracking shot is accompanied, once again, by Orpheus’s voice-over: “It was hurting my eyes, it was real light like the sea”. The taxi-driver also mentions that the sun “is rotten, like the sea”.
At this point I should mention the vital role that sound has in the film. Sound in No Sympathy for the Devil is complementary to the image. Alongside the scenery, sound constitutes the futuristic imagery of the film. In fact, sound is projected on the images and manages to transform the realistic settings into futuristic imagery. Michel Chion has divided sound in cinema in three categories: music, speech/voice and background noise (Chion 1994). The first two categories are used extensively in the film. Most of the times sound/speech is synchronized with the image and they give information about the environment of the film.
The presence of synthesizer music, which has a strong influence from the aesthetics of the 1970’s and 80’s, creates a futuristic atmosphere and strengthens the imagery of the spatiotemporal location of the narrative. In the second part of the film (when Orpheus ascends into the light) the taxi driver informs Orpheus of the presence of collectors in the city, who are only very briefly identified visually in the film. This oral information creates an atmosphere of mystery as well as an eminent danger in the narration. The collectors could be dangerous figures in this futuristic society. Thus, it may be argued that sound through speech projects a vision of the future into the realistic scenery. In this way sound expands the imagery of the film.
Once again, we come across the dialectics of darkness and light, of the visible and the invisible. The upper-world is the place where light exists but at the same time it is the City of Destruction. When Orpheus comes into the light, he mentions that he recognized the old capital. Later on, he is found with his companion in a typical Athenian rooftop. After referring to the sun as “pure magic”, Orpheus’s companion, who explains that they call him ‘Brother’ because he helps people, describes himself as “king in exile”, whilst he presents the landscape around them as his kingdom. He went to the upper-world before Orpheus and, like him, he had a mission.
The companion’s words are synchronized with a panoramic shot from the rooftop. The shot includes the top of television antennas from the surrounding buildings and ends with a view of the Parthenon in the background. Afroditi Nikolaidou (2012: 109) in her study mentions that this kind of shot is, in terms of the elements that it combines, “a standardized mechanism of recognition of Athens”. A monument like the Parthenon reveals immediately the location of the film and allows the spectators to engage with the film’s setting. Alongside the top of the antennas, we come across a typical urban landscape of modern Athens. Moreover, it can be can argued that this shot is a visualization of a previous voice-over by Orpheus, when he came into the light and he spoke of “the old capital”, and now we come across a standardized monument that is identified as Athens. Immediately after this shot, Orpheus refers to his quest for Eurydice. His companion replies: “A woman here would be like an oasis in the middle of Alaska”. In this futuristic environment women, who are in a way the personification of Eros, do not exist.
The film finishes with Orpheus holding Eurydice in his arms. Eurydice is dead and he exclaims: “Tunnels. Countless Tunnels. Lights. Countless lights. And then dark. In the dark is where I want to return. In the world with her”. The return journey to the world of the dead begins. The film’s ending clearly points to a pessimistic point of view: Orpheus returns to darkness.
The City of Destruction
Although the film is set in the near future, we do not have any information about the exact date that the narrative of the film takes place or if a major change and/or destruction has occurred in society, as it usually happens in various sci-fi films. On the contrary, the scenery is extremely realistic and does not contain any special and/or artificial construction of settings neither any special effects. As the director mentions “I’ve made a futuristic film, using only realistic spaces, without intervening in them at all” (Athanitis 2017).
The spaces that are projected in the film are warehouses, dark underpasses, cheap hotels, strip-clubs and decadent café-bars. Even when Orpheus comes out into the light, we see industrial buildings, port cranes and mechanical structures. This is a composition of unknown and hidden places in Athens. The aforementioned places were highly ignored at the time (in the 1990’s) and have been considered as the unattractive side of Athenian architecture and urban geography. In No Sympathy for the Devil, the future is already here, taking the shape of a present that is hidden and unknown. The film’s setting re-creates itself and thus it is projected in the film’s imagery. These places, as seen in the film, have a personality of their own: they exist as constructions that have their own history in the narrative. Further, the filmmaker creates a black and white futuristic environment, through the isolation and the fragmentation of those particular places. The hidden and unknown places of reality become spaces of the future.
The film begins with a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “Not a great while ago, passing through the gate of dreams, I visited the region of earth in which lies the famous City of Destruction”. The quote reveals in a poetic manner the chronotope[i] of the film: a city that decays in an unidentified black and white future. We come across a deformed city in the near future. As pre-mentioned, the futuristic city of No Sympathy for the Devil is composed of fragments of spaces of modern Athens (Athanitis 2017). Thus, the film’s scenery is characterized by a high level of realism.
The intentional fragmentation of places through editing paves the way to a virtual re-building of those places. It is an intentional filmic construction that aims in mapping out what the director calls “the black and white topography of a future that is already present” (Athanitis 2017) [ii]. The transformation of actual places into futuristic spaces is the basic element of the narration. In fact, we witness how places that exist in reality become virtual spaces in a fiction film. As Luana Babini points out
[…] in cinema the representation of space becomes the production of virtual space, which to the spectators indicates proximity without actual presence. The spectator is in close proximity without being able to touch or grasp it, and so experiences a unique sense of captivation and fascination. That is probably what makes cinematic cities what they are: a virtual and sometimes more intense experience than real ones (2005: 47).
Is Athanitis making Athens a more intense experience in No Sympathy for the Devil? The answer is yes, if we consider that the filmmaker manages to create a futuristic environment through the use of real locations and sound, and more particularly speech, as discussed earlier.
The filmmaker talks about an unknown and hidden city that lies within the actual city. The city that the filmmaker refers to is an invisible one that exists in the core of the visible city. The film is based on this distinction, this opposition between the visible and the invisible, both in profilmic terms (the intention of the filmmaker before the shooting of the film) and as far as the film narrative is concerned. Tom Gunning (2009: 319) mentions that “the visible city shadows an invisible city, not simply as a formal device, but as an essential structure of our modern environment” when talking about classical noir and neo-noir films. In No Sympathy for the Devil we witness the reverse of this phrase since Athanitis uses the invisible city in order to speak about the visible one. And that is where the film obtains its allegorical meaning. The hidden City of Destruction, the dreamscape that the filmmaker constructs is a topographic criticism of the actual city. As he mentions “a world of autarchic structure is being described in a crude and clear way. The erotic myth is being used as an excuse in order to comment on a society” (Athanitis 2017).
As mentioned earlier, the film is based on the distinction and the opposition of visibility and invisibility, of light and darkness and expands this distinction with the use of black and white. Since it is rare to construct a futuristic film by using only realistic and no artificial settings or visual effects, the use of black and white photography adds a specific quality to the narration, since the effect of grief is produced. This is a possible underlying of the city’s ugliness as well as a way that we can look at the not so far away future that lies before us on the screen. Moreover, black and white photography indicates the pessimistic and dystopian chronotope of the film which finds its expression in the film title.
The filmmaker uses in the soundtrack the song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Slovenian avant-garde band Laibach, which in its turn is a cover of the original Rolling Stones song. The song is narrated by Mick Jagger, who personifies the Devil whilst he recounts his control over the events of human existence as well as over history. As far as the film title is concerned, the word no, which is a determiner in noun phrases, is added in front of the song title. This transformation, or rather, this negation of the song title leads us to conclude that the filmmaker does not identify neither with the song nor with the concept that lies behind the song. This happens because the film focuses on the purity of the couple’s passion in a world where evil rules. The title, also, underlines Orpheus’s struggle to get Eurydice back.
The film clearly has several dystopian elements that point out the narrative’s allegorical meanings. But I also consider No Sympathy for the Devil to be an expression of urban phantasmagoria in a minimalistic way. As I have mentioned before, the settings are being used intentionally and can be found in the cultural environment of Athens of the 1990s. By isolating them, through the use of editing, the filmmaker manipulates those spaces in order to create a futuristic urban imagery. The virtual realization of the film leads me to talk about an urban phantasmagoria. The benjaminian term ‘phantasmagoria’ expresses a plausibility of a city or of a way of living to come, but its tools can be found in the actual reality as well as in the city that we live in. As Duarte, Firmino and Crestani have argued:
There is a strong connection between urban phantasmagorias and the real and contemporary city. Fantastic cinema productions are usually too detached from our actual world to be true, but in contrast the realities depicted by phantasmagorias contain a significant level of truth which is absent from urban fantasies. Phantasmagorias are intentionally embedded in indexes of the world the audience lives in (2015: 133).
I argue that the film’s urban imagery contains a “significant level of truth” (Duerte et al. 2015: 133) since Athanitis manipulates spaces of the hidden city in order to construct a futuristic city.
We can consider Athanitis’s use the aforementioned hidden spaces as a comment on the spectacular organization of the Greek society. Athanitis’s mentioning of “the middle-class stereotypes of the surface” (Athanitis 2017) is an explicit reference to the way modern urbanism, as a form of authoritarian control, enslaves individuals. At this point we need to consider Guy Debord’s 165th thesis in his book The Society of the Spectacle:
Capitalist production has unified space, breaking down the boundaries between one society and the next. This unification is one the same time an extensive and intensive process of banalisation. Just as the accumulation of commodities mass-produced for the abstract space of the market shattered all regional and legal barriers and all the Medieval guild restrictions that maintained the quality of craft production, it also undermined the autonomy and quality of places. This homogenizing power is the heavy artillery that has battered down all the walls of China (2014: 94).
No Sympathy for the Devil is an attempt to overcome, both aesthetically and ethically, the unification produced by modern Greek urbanism. And unification, as it has been stated before, implies a hegemonic culture that exercises power over its subjects through the creation of abstract spaces. Athanitis reverses the separation that occurs in reality and transforms it into a unified cinematic reality. In other words, he appropriates what is left aside by capitalism, what is being considered as non-productive by hegemony. Athanitis romanticizes in a way those hidden, and sometimes, abandoned places that exist outside the visible city and turns them into a unified scenery, where an underground romance takes place.
Athanitis, D. (2017), ‘Kamia Sympathia gia to Diavolo: to enigma tis tainias’/‘No Sympathy for the Devil: the enigma of a film”, elculture.gr [online], Saturday 21 October. Available at http://www.elculture.gr/blog/article/καμιά-συμπάθεια-για-τον-διάβολο-το-αίν/. Accessed 17 March 2018.
Babini, L. (2005), ‘The Urban Soul of British Cinema of the 1990s: London as Cinematic City in Mike Leigh’s Naked and Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth’, in Everett, W. and Goodbody, A. (eds), Revisiting Space, Space and Place in European Cinema, Bern: Peter Lang, 47-60.
Chion, M (1994), Audio-vision, Sound on Screen, translated by Claudia Gorbaman, New York: Columbia University Press.
Clark, D. B. (ed.) (1997), The Cinematic City, London: Routledge.
Debord, G. (2014), The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Ken Knabb, London: Rebel Press.
Duarte, F., Firmino, R., and Crestani, A. (2015), ‘Urban Phantasmagorias, Cinema and the Immanent Future of Cities’, Space and Culture, 18: 2.
Gunning, T. (2009), ‘Invisible Cities, Visible Cinema: Illuminating Shadows in Late Film Noir’, Contemporary Critical Studies, 6: 3, 319 -332.
Konstantarakos, M. (ed.) (2000), Spaces in European Cinema , Exeter: Intellect Books.
Nikolaidou, A. (2012), Poli kai kinhmatographikh morphe. Oi tainies polhs tou ellinikou kinhmatografou (1994-2004)/City and cinematic form. The city films of Greek cinema (1994-2004), PhD thesis, Panteion University.
[i] “‘Chronotope’ literally means time-space in Greek and indicates the way time and space is represented in narrative’.” (Konstantarakos 2000: 3). I’m borrowing the bakhtinian term from Myrto Kannstantarakos. While Konstantarakos analyses the term, she points out the major difference between Kant’s perception of space and time and Bakhtin’s perception of them, which is the specificity of ‘different time’ and ‘different space’.