Film Review: Adults in the Room
by Phil Butland
Syntagma Square, Athens. Its election night, and SYRIZA has just won. The square is full of jubilant demonstrators. Many carry the white SYRIZA flag (how apt that colour choice is in retrospect), but there’s some Greek flags, rainbow flags and an awful lot of red. Now’s the time to implement SYRIZA’s radical electoral programme.
There is one slight problem. A combination of the outgoing government and the banking crash left Greece in so much debt that they can’t even afford to keep up their interest repayments. Most of this debt is to the Troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF. The problem is that the Troika is much more sympathetic to the banks which helped cause the crisis than to a radical reforming government.
Enter Yanis Varoufakis (Christos Loulis with way too much hair), Greece’s new finance minister. When asked at a press conference whether he was prepared to deal with the Troika, he says “sure, but not with the unelected bureaucrats that try to speak in its name”. This is viewed as a political masterstroke and Varoufakis is congratulated by protesters outside.
The thing is, though, that the problem with the Troika is institutional and systemic. It acts on behalf of Capital, not on the whim of a couple of bureaucrats, but because this is exactly what it is supposed to do. This will not be the last time that Varoufakis and cohorts try to negotiate themselves out of a class war by appealing to the better nature of their enemy. Its not much of a plot spoiler to say that they are never successful.
Most of the film takes place in debating chambers and hotel rooms where Varoufakis and his team offer compromise after compromise. There is a protracted series of scenes in which the difference between the adjectives “adjusted” and “amended” is discussed at length. This may sound deathly boring, but is in fact both fascinating and a sharp indictment of the Troika’s unwillingness to grant the slightest leeway to allow an elected government to deliver any of the promises on which it was voted in.
I still haven’t got round to reading Varoufakis’s book of the same name, but from the reviews I have read, the film seems to share both the book’s strengths and its weaknesses. It is damning about the role of the Troika, and particularly of German minister finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble in condemning millions of Greek people to miserable poverty. At the same time, it seems unable to present a credible alternative strategy.
Early on in the film, Varoufakis and Prime Minister are filmed inside a taxi. Pointing to protestors outside, Varoufakis says “we need these people”. Maybe, says Tsipras, “but we will end up betraying them.” It turns out that they were both right, but neither minister ever seriously attempted to mobilise the forces which swept them into office.
This is evident in the content of the film. After the initial scenes of electoral euphoria, the film is dominated by politicians or bureaucrats discussing the Memorendum of Understanding (MoU) – a summary of the cuts that the Greek government must make as a condition of staying in the EU. “Ordinary people” appear only twice, both times towards the end of the film.
In one scene, Varoufakis is dining with his inner circle in a fancy restaurant, discussing whether he should resign. Suddenly, someone notices that something is happening outside. A large crowd starts to assemble, staring in disappointedly. Slowly, each turns their back on the plotting ministers and marches slowly away.
The other scene follows the referendum called by Tsipris asking the Greek people if they support the MoE. 62% voted OXI or “no”, and assembled hoping to fight for change. Yet Tsipras dismisses his stage army and votes for Yes anyway. Varoufakis resigns, but without proposing any alternative strategy.
SYRIZA was elected on a radical programme and vocally denunciated the Establishment, yet they always worked within the rules set by that Establishment. Even while Schäuble is at his most intransigent, all – including Varoufakis – refer to him chummily as “Wolfgang”, and cling to the hope that Angela Merkel will rein him in. Tsipras’s relationship with Merkel starts to get very cozy, although she offers him nothing concrete.
The film is shocked, shocked, that the European Mandarins who are fighting SYRIZA’s challenge to neoliberal capital say one thing in private and another in public. Yet again and again, SYRIZA’s negotiators think that maybe this time the Troika will accept a new compromise, even though they have neither the interest nor the need to budge an inch.
Meanwhile, the Greek ministers speak in fearfully hushed voices about a possible “Grexit”. This reinforces the idea that any solution which involved Greece leaving the EU or the Euro was unthinkable, Now leaving would not be an easy solution either, but surely the first stage of breaking an abusive relationship is for the abusee to no longer accept the impossibly unequal power relations,
What we see is the gospel according to Yannis – an honest account by a decent, if slightly self-regarding man. This means that it often fails to break from its political limitations and too often ends up blaming individuals for systemic problems. So, we are encouraged to believe that everything could have been different if Schäuble were a bit nicer, and Tsipras is played as a bit of a ditherer, when he was only able to deliver the final sellout because of widespread respect for his integrity.
Indeed, Loulis and Alexandros Bourdoumis lack the preening charisma of the real life Varoufakis and Tsipras, whocome across as ordinary politicians, which probably does them a disservice. But there is enough here to give us a reasonable account of what happened.
Its a real shame that I missed the Q&A with Costa-Gavras afterwards, as the portrayal of Varoufakis is open to interpretation. He appears in nearly every scene, so what we see is largely through his eyes. Early in the film, Varoufakis’s wife bemoans that he didn’t resign earlier. This is an issue, but I do believe that his main error was not to stay in office but to fail to build any organised opposition (this in a country where general strikes were regular events).
The director obviously supports Varoufakis, but it is unclear to what extent he endorses the strategy which ultimately ended in failure. As a result, as the end credits say, the Greek people still suffer but the Greek people fight on.
This review first appeared on the CinePhil Berliner Film Blog. Reproduced with permission