The docu-drama The City and The City focuses on the fate of Jews living in the Greek city of Thessaloniki during World War II. Co-writers/co-directors Christos Passalis and Syllas Tzoumerkas spotlight the seldom-told story of how a city that had been multicultural since ancient times had its Jewish population all but eradicated almost instantly.
In the 1400s, Sephardic Jewish refugees from Spain came to Thessaloniki, helping to shape its cultural and economic life for centuries to come. By the turn of the 20th century, Jews were roughly half the city’s population. During the Second World War, tens of thousands of Jews were removed from Thessaloniki to concentration camps. Most of the Jewish population was killed. The Nazis’ were primarily responsible for these atrocities, but, according to the filmmakers, local betrayal came from Christians and other Greek collaborators who carried out massacres of the Jews. They were attacked and murdered or handed over to the Nazis by their neighbors. It is this egregious violence that left the deepest tear in the cultural fabric of the city.
“…tens of thousands of Jews were removed from Thessaloniki to concentration camps.”
The focal point of The City and The City moves seamlessly from past to present, from color to black-and-white, to emphasize that this open wound from the city’s dark history has never been discussed, addressed, and certainly not healed. Six Chapters unfurl to show Jews being rounded up and killed or transported. Then the story shifts to the present-day city to show the last lasting impact of this human tragedy. The filmmakers are both from Thessaloniki but left in their 20s to pursue filmmaking. They take this moment in their careers to consider and share the history of their home with the world. In some ways, 80 years seems a long time, enough for two generations of people to be born since then. But there’s a direct line between the horrors of the past and now that erases that gap in a heartbeat.
The City and The City is hard to watch. No punches are pulled as the Greek Jews are marched through the streets and made to perform for their executioners, and then led to the countryside where they are methodically beaten and murdered. As we switch back to the modern city, we see ruins of homes and businesses. There’s a great deal of factual information presented, maps, and timelines. Unfortunately, this part of the film drags a bit.
The human stories paint a picture of a dark time for the city, reflective of what was happening everywhere in occupied Europe during the war. There’s a grim genre that has developed out of Jewish annihilation and imprisonment in films about it. It’s painful material to absorb, and it is tempting to wonder when enough has been said and shown about this horrific time in history. There is a balance that needs to be struck between a commitment never to forget and knowing when enough is enough. The story of Thessaloniki in The City and The City shows us that we are not there yet.
The City and The City screened at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival.
"…no punches are pulled..."