What Did You Do in the War, Thanassis? @ Montreal Greek Film Festival

This year’s film festival would not have been complete without a tribute to beloved Greek comic actor Thanassis Vengos. His appeal to people of all ages young and old was universal because he played roles of the “everyday” man’s struggles.  His most famous catch phrase “kale mou anthrope” translated to “my good man” would bring the house down in his theatrical performances. His roles were often also self titled Thanassis and he liked to perform his own stunts. North American audiences were familiar with him in the Theo Angelopoulos film Ulysses’ Gaze, where he co-starred with American Oscar nominated actor Harvey Keitel.

When Vengos played the lead role in What Did You Do in the War Thanassis, it became a turning point in his career.  For those of you that remember the television series MASH, this feature film is also a similar style dark comedy or “dramedy” due to the dramatic material and subject matter presented.

Set in the Nazi occupation of Greece, Thanassis gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity while searching for food in his war torn village. After he is thrown in jail he is subjected to various torture tactics by the Nazi general but to no avail. When a group of detained Cabaret dancers discover that Thanassis is in the neighboring cell, they disguise him dressed as a woman to help him escape. His adventures however do not end there.

Upon returning to his home town, Thanassis is obliged to work in a factory for the enemy. His only source of food comes from a canteen he brings every day to work which is replenished by the factory chef, Haanz. There too, Thanassis is mistakenly taken for a member of the factory’s resistance movement.

This film was produced and distributed at a crucial moment when the resistance against the military Junta began taking root in the national conscience of Greece. Viewers took a liking to the Thanassis hero who became involved in matters beyond his control and personified the oppressed yet restless Greek citizen. Like many of the roles Vengos played, Thanassis also represented a character who forever was able to resist his circumstance and rise above any situation.  It is perhaps not ironic that sadly Vengos died on May 3rd, a day dedicated to World Press Freedom Day.

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