Tuesday, 19 April 2011
Niko on Nico: Papadakis recalls Velvet Underground singer
Here’s an opportunity to see rare footage of Nikos Papatakis, the film-maker I posted on a little while ago, making available two of his films. The clip above is from Susanne Ofteringer’s 1995 documentary Nico Icon, which is about Christa Päffgen, the 1960s German model and singer, better known as Nico, as in The Velvet Underground and Nico. In fact, Nico was a terrible singer and she led a pretty awful life of artistic failure and drug addiction, as the compelling but depressing Nico Icon demonstrates. Papatakis and Päffgen were lovers in the late fifties, before Päffgen – encouraged by Papatakis to take up singing – left for New York, where she eventually became immersed in Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, got to know Lou Reed and so on. Warhol, not an artist I'm interested in, was in fact a practising Greek Catholic, and it's been suggested that the pop art portraits he’s most famous for were inspired by the Byzantine iconography he was exposed to growing up. I’ve left in the interview with Carlos de Maldonado-Bostock, slagging off French actor Alain Delon, calling him a ‘sausage maker’, because it’s funny.
Papatakis died last December and below is his obituary as it appeared in The Guardian.
Nikos Papatakis Obituary
by Ronald Bergan
In the years after the second world war, St-Germain-des-Prés, on the left bank of Paris, was a melting pot of intellectual and artistic life. One of the favourite hangouts for the existential and beatnik crowds was the basement nightclub La Rose Rouge in the Rue de Rennes. It was there that Juliette Gréco made her cabaret debut, and Les Frères Jacques performed their mixture of song, humour, dance and mime.
Among the audiences were André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Prévert, Boris Vian and Miles Davis. Presiding over them all was the club’s charismatic owner, Nikos Papatakis, who has died aged 92. He was also renowned for his distinctive contribution to the world of film.
Known as Nico to his friends, Papatakis, a self-styled subversive, was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Greek parents. Aged 17, he joined Haile Selassie’s army to fight against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. After the defeat by Benito Mussolini’s forces, Papatakis was driven into exile, first in Libya and then Greece, before arriving penniless in Paris in 1939.
A few years later, Papatakis met Jean Genet, who fell for the strikingly handsome, heterosexual Papatakis and dedicated his long homoerotic poem La Galère (The Galley) to “Nico, the Greco-Ethiopian god”. When they were both starving, they did some thieving together, but often fell out over the spoils. On one occasion when Genet received some money for writing, he taunted Nico with a mass of banknotes, then called the police when his friend tried to snatch the money away.
In 1950, when Papatakis was earning a good living from La Rose Rouge, and Genet had published several novels, Genet told him of his desire to direct a film. Papatakis provided the money and allowed Genet to use the restaurant space above the nightclub to construct the sets of the prison cells for Un Chant d’Amour (A Song of Love). This dialogue-free, 26-minute black-and-white cine-poem, which dealt with the mutual sexual longing of two prisoners separated by a wall, and contained masturbation and nudity, was banned in France and thereafter worldwide.
Papatakis, who owned the rights, sold copies of it to wealthy gay intellectuals until, in 1975, it was judged acceptable for public screenings, with a few cuts and added music. When it was awarded a cash prize for the year'’ best new film by the Centre National de la Cinématographie, Genet, who had since disowned it, refused the award and demanded that Papatakis return the money. Papatakis had since become a film director in his own right, and had long ago sold La Rose Rouge.
In 1957, after a three-year marriage to the actor Anouk Aimée, with whom he had a daughter, Manuela, Papatakis left for New York, in disgust at France’s colonial war in Algeria. He had an affair with the German-born model and singer Christa Päffgen, who took the professional name of Nico from her lover, before performing with the Velvet Underground. Papatakis got to know the actor John Cassavetes, who had just completed Shadows (1959), his first film as director. After the initial cold reception given to the film, Cassavetes agreed to reshoot some of it, for which Papatakis put up $5,000.
On his return to Paris, he produced and directed his first feature, Les Abysses (1963), taken from the same factual source as Genet’s 1947 play The Maids, about two alienated sisters who kill their employers. As undisciplined as the servants, the frenetic film, a critique of France’s social and political infrastructure, almost caused a riot at the Cannes film festival.
His second film, Pastures of Disorder (1968), shot clandestinely in Greece, was a tragic love story about a young shepherd and the daughter of a wealthy landowner who dare to question the traditional values of an authority that represents the military junta. It starred his second wife, Olga Karlatos, with whom he was active in campaigning against the regime of the Greek colonels.
Gloria Mundi (1975), was a disturbing drama starring Karlatos as an actor who plays an Algerian terrorist in a film directed by her husband, but who has to face degradation and torture in reality because of her belief in a revolutionary ideal. It was withdrawn when the extreme right threatened to plant bombs in the cinemas where it was showing, and had to wait until 2005 to be screened again in Paris.
The Photograph (1987), in which an emigrant from the military dictatorship in Greece goes to Paris, was a fairly potent political allegory. According to the critic Yannis Kontaxopoulos, Papatakis’s oeuvre “revolves around one single theme: the relations between master and slave, humiliation and revolution, on both a political and personal level”. His last film, Walking a Tightrope (1992), dealt with a famous gay writer who tries to make the young Arab boy he loves into the world’s greatest tightrope walker. The main character, played by Michel Piccoli, was a thinly disguised version of Genet.
Papatakis is survived by Manuela.
• Nikos Papatakis, film director and nightclub owner, born 19 July 1918; died 17 December 2010.