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Attikon: The Death of a Cultural Icon

Athens' Attikon movie theater survived the Nazis, but not Greek anarchists, who burned it down

ATHENS – As Greeks awoke on Feb. 13 after a night of violence and arson that destroyed 45 businesses in the capital city, they saw nothing was left of one of its most historic venues, the Neo-Classical building that housed the century-old Attikon theater, one of the lushest old movie palaces in Europe, gone now with the ashes that flitted into the night air like celluloid film burning away. It burned along with the adjacent Apollon, restored half a century ago.
A few hundred anarchists infiltrating a crowd of more than 100,000 demonstrators, protesting more austerity measures being imposed by the government so that international aid to keep the country from going bankrupt would keep coming, battled riot police deep into the night as Parliament approved more pay cuts for beleaguered Greeks. The firefights of Molotov Cocktails versus stun grenades and tear gas left Greeks, already inured to violence after two years of protests, riots and strikes, shocked at what they saw in the morning after: banks and businesses gone, livelihoods lost, more people out of work in a country with more than one million unemployed, and the movie theaters where many went to escape the misery of reality in modern Greece reduced to a pile of smoldering debris.
Not lost on most is that the Attikon and Apollo were nearly adjacent to the burned-out hulk of a former Marfin Bank branch that was firebombed by arsonists on May 5, 2010 in the first major riot against austerity. It killed three bank workers trapped inside, including a young expectant woman. No one has been arrested for those murders and riot police watched the movie theater burn away too. The beautifully restored Apollon, a historic 1960’s theatre, and the Attikon just next door, operated year-round showing the latest releases, and also hosted the Athens International Film Festival.
In a city filled with filthy, grey concrete buildings, the Attikon was one of the few neo-classical buildings left, and during the economic crisis had begun offering 2-for-1 admission ticket nights so that Greeks with little disposable income left could get away from their everyday lives and disappear into a movie. It dated back to 1870 and was a mainstay on one of the city’s main avenues, Stadiou Street, where one in four stores has closed during the last five years of recession, and was just around the corner from another theater that was burned, the Asty, whose owner said he was warned by anarchists earlier they would torch his business unless he paid a huge sum in protection money.
Ironically, the Attikon had survived occupation by the Nazis during World War II, who left it alone, while the Gestapo used the underground Asty as a torture chamber. It is adjacent to a WWII museum now gone too. The Attikon began operating in 1912 – now dead on its 100th anniversary. It was reminiscent of the golden days of movie palaces, with thick, lush seats, a giant screen, balcony and side boxes, luxurious and comfortable, a place where you could sink into your seat, the antithesis to boxy mall cinemas, a testament to a time gone past, which it now joined.
Anarchists roam at will during the protests in Greece, looting, burning, killing and destroying banks and buildings and luxury car dealerships. None have been arrested as Greeks complain that police instead apprehend innocent protesters. The perpetrators are not hard to spot: they come to their work wearing hoods, face masks, and often carrying barrel staves or other wooden poles with which to battle police.
Nikos Konstandaras, the respected editor of Kathimerini newspaper, wrote that what Greeks lost in the fires was more than just buildings. “The neoclassical building that housed the Attikon cinema was one of the most beautiful in Athens, among the very few that reminded us of what our city could have become if we had respected its past, if we cared about its present and its future. Perhaps it was a fitting sacrifice – a symbol of our rush to destroy because we cannot create, an expression of our need to abandon memories and pass into the future, blackened with ashes and rage,” he said sadly. Visitors also wrote lovingly of their time at the Attikon, as one earlier noted during an on-line review, stating, “The service was great the atmosphere fantastic and the surroundings were very nice.” It was a site recommended to tourists by the travel guide Lonely Planet, and now it has been lost.
With lit candles in their hand and tears in their eyes, a crowd of sorrowful citizens gathered outside Attikon yesterday to mourn the cinema’s destruction. Among the Athenians in the crowd who had fond memories of watching movies at the Attikon since they were children, were a number of artists who came to commemorate the building’s significance for the arts in Greece.  In addition, reporters from several international media outlets gathered to express their shock and dismay at the burning of the Attikon, and wondered if it was really necessary for such a historic and culturally significant building to be destroyed as a result of Greeks’ rage against the government and additional austerity measures.

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