Travelling around Greece in December 2012, we often reached a museum in the early afternoon only to find it closed. The museum was working only in the mornings, we were told. In breathtakingly beautiful Delphi, an irate security guard screamed at my daughter who wanted to buy the tickets to the museum. He was pointing to a notice displayed near the ticket office which presumably said – it was all Greek to us, literally – that visitors needed to come before a certain hour. The kindly landlady at the B&B we were staying in explained to me that the government was obliged to cut back on much expenditure because it was seriously short of cash. I was surprised. Didn’t tourism contribute one of Greece’s main income streams? Wasn’t this belt-tightening likely counterproductive, because scaling back revenue-earning expenditure was never a good idea?
In January 2015, a Syriza-led left-leaning coalition came to power in Athens, promising to dump belt-tightening, or austerity, and halt the country’s slide into chaos and disaster. By then, Greece was a chronically indebted, poorly-administered economy, a less-than-wholly-welcome member of the European Union which lived – as legend had it – from one bailout to the next offered by its creditors, Europe’s most powerful governments and institutions.
The new government believed that the bailout packages themselves were, in a real sense, part of Greece’s problem for they were designed not so much to help the economy grow and stabilise as to bolster, in the short term, Greece’s ability to service its humongous debt liability. In other words, the bailouts were a debt trap: they served to salvage the position of German and French banks – which had, over the years, lent aggressively to a profligate and venal Greek oligarchy – by lending Greece just about enough that she could meet her repayment obligations on maturing loans.
At the same time, the bailouts came packaged with onerous preconditions regarding budget deficits, public expenditure and social welfare costs that made steadily escalating austerity an inescapable reality. And this austerity was not just self-defeating, it plunged the economy in a vicious vortex of steadily lower consumption and consumer spending, shrinking GDP, lower tax revenues, wider budget gaps – and, consequently, stiffer austerity measures.
Soon after assuming office, Alexis Tsipras’s coalition government set about trying to break this austerity-indebtedness logjam. It sought to present to the ‘troika’ – the three powerful institutions that happened to be the arbiters of Greece’s destiny, namely the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – an alternative vision of a more sustainable economic model, one that built modest growth aspirations into the debt-servicing architecture.
By deemphasising austerity, this model provided for some monetary expansion coupled with lower tax rates, and for a more nuanced approach to financial and social sector reforms than the troika was willing to countenance. As Syriza’s finance minister, it fell to Yanis Varoufakis, economics professor and first-time parliamentarian, to take up the cudgels for lowly Greece in the power-packed, forbidding courts of the troika. His mission was to persuade the troika that a mindless adherence to austerity was likely to prove suicidal for Greece; and that, unless her massive debt was allowed to be restructured, Greece would likely sink deeper into a morass of bankruptcy from where no amount of future financial stimuli could perhaps rescue her. His was an uphill battle, equally exhausting and exasperating, and in the end, Varoufakis had to give up when his own government decided that discretion was by far the better part of valour.
In a dramatic turnaround, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to sign on the dotted line on the troika’s MOU even as a popular referendum – one that he himself had mooted and organised – mandated him to throw out that same MOU. A frustrated Varoufakis resigned in July 2015. His 2017 best-seller, Adults In The Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment, is a riveting, fast-paced account of his tumultuous six months in office, closing with Greece’s humiliating capitulation to the troika. The book reads in part like a thriller. It is easy to see why a filmmaker couldn’t help being drawn to this narrative of hope and disillusion, heroics and surrender playing out against the backdrop of continental fault-lines.
Indeed, Costa-Gavras, one of the greats of Greek cinema, had gone on record with his intention to make a film around Adults in the Room almost as soon as the book made its appearance. Come to think of it, it was only natural for the master of the political thriller genre to be enthusiastic about this story. In the event, his eponymous film premiered in Venice in 2019, though not in the competition section. Incredibly, Adults in the Room marked the first time ever, in a career spanning six decades, that Costa-Gavras shot a film on Greek soil, although it was the 1969 classic Z which happened to be his first movie made on a Greek story.
For the most part, the film’s characters speak in Greek, but, as the film’s action unfolds as much in Berlin, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels and London as in Athens, German, English and French are also spoken in equal measure. Adults in the Room features English subtitles as well, though, sadly, these subtitles are often annoyingly clumsy, at times even a little misleading. Surely an internationally acclaimed director could do with somewhat better subtitles.
The film opens with video footage of euphoric crowds at Athens’s iconic Syntagma Square celebrating Syriza’s victory in the January 2015 elections. After Tsipras’s rousing acceptance speech – in which he pointedly refers to how the troika was trying to strangulate Greece’s economy – the film gets down to the business of introducing viewers to the main protagonists on the Greek side. Soon Varoufakis is shown outlining to his team the tasks ahead of them, including preparing a contingency plan to be triggered in case of a showdown with an unrelenting troika. And just a few short episodes later, the camera cuts to a shot in which a clearly tired and dejected Varoufakis returns home to his wife one evening in July, to tell her he has resigned his post – a piece of news that she receives with evident relief. Having thus set the boundaries of his narrative, Costa-Gavras then proceeds to trace the chain of events leading up from jubilant January to despondent July, and in this, he tries to stay as faithful to Varoufakis’s text as he could possibly try to be.
And there the film steps on to somewhat unpromising territory. Of course, Varoufakis’s book is all about his struggles with ‘Europe’s deep establishment’, as his book’s subtitle reminds us. But in his text, the writer frequently travels back in time to uncover many secrets: his own childhood and early youth; his parents; his many interactions with men of power and influence before he himself joined the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics; his many brushes with the Greek establishment, including the media which were intent on pursuing an ultra-conservative path; and, above all, his exposure to, and feel for, the human tragedy that had been creeping up on the ordinary Greek citizen over the years preceding 2015.
Even in asides, his story touches upon different facets of ordinary people’s lives, laying bare the dynamics of a society unsure of where it was going – or perhaps, where it was being led. When Varoufakis dons his ministerial hat, or sits across the table from Europe’s famous and mighty to argue Greece’s case, his every thought, his every action seems to be informed by his accumulated experience of Greece’s recent history. His personal profile thus invests his interactions and confrontations with the troika with a sense of drama that no ordinary dry-as-bone negotiation between a debtor country and her creditors could conjure up.
Costa-Gavras’s treatment chooses to stick to a linear development of the plot, however, eschewing the subplots that mirror the troubled zeitgeist of Greek society. Varoufakis’s seemingly endless negotiations with the troika fully occupy the centre of the film’s stage, but the broader issues surrounding the negotiations are barely etched here. The camera is focussed on the individuals involved in these somewhat tedious, and predictable, discussions, on their rigidities and inanities, the banality of much of their talk and their total inability to put themselves in hapless Greece’s shoes at any point. Indeed, Wolfgang Schauble (the powerful German minister of finance), Mario Draghi (president of the European Central Bank) and Jeroen Dijsselbloem (president of the Eurogroup) come across here as arrogant dimwits, and not much else. (Schauble looks faintly sinister, too.) Now, while the arrogance of power that these men exuded can never be gainsaid, to depict them as little better than a bunch of unscrupulous power brokers is perhaps to miss the point: which is that they represented a world view which was incapable of the imaginative redrawing of monetary and fiscal policies that Greece was clamouring for.
Despite his exasperation with the troika, Varoufakis himself recognises this. Indeed, he speaks of how these men at times came close to an appreciation of the futility of what they were proposing. But, overpowered by a sense of insecurity, and unable to break free from what they had always taught themselves to believe in, they clung to their patently unhelpful positions tenaciously. At one place, he even hints that Wolfgang Schauble’s hand may have been forced on one occasion by his boss, the formidable Angela Merkel. Overall, it is this sense of how tantalisingly close Greece seemed to come to wresting from the troika what she wanted that makes Varoufakis’s narrative particularly poignant.
It is possible that he was not reading the troika correctly at every stage, but his book does not make the point that Greece never seemed to stand a chance in renegotiating at least some parts of the MOU. In the film, however, the protracted negotiations look little other than a charade, all the more so as they go round in circles. That, together with the loss of perspective on the substantive social and political dynamics of Greek society, limits the appeal of the film narrative to an extent.
The book’s – and the film’s—title derives from something that an exasperated Christine Lagarde, then the IMF boss, is believed to have said at some stage of the interminable negotiations. She seemed to suggest that they needed to have ‘adults in the room’ to take the talks forward, and that obduracy was unlikely to achieve that. Incidentally, Lagarde is one person that the film portrays in somewhat kindlier light than perhaps the writer had intended. On at least two occasions, she appears to be endorsing the Greek position quite unreservedly, much to the chagrin of the German finance minister. The book was rather more ambivalent about Lagarde.
By decoupling Varoufakis’s text from a broad overview of recent Greek history and focussing almost exclusively on the meeting rooms of Europe, the film’s script falls short of linking up with the angst and gloom permeating Greece then. Ordinary Greek lives hardly enter the film’s canvas, and that is certainly a regret. But there is an inspired reinterpretation of one episode from the book that restores some of the emotional balance lost elsewhere in the story. One evening in May or June 2015, when the battle with the troika had begun to hot up in earnest, Varoufakis and his wife take a friend out to dinner in an Athens restaurant. In the book, Varoufakis recalls how, midway through the meal, some hooligans – the hoods of their coats pulled menacingly over their faces – arrive with the clear intention of harming the minister physically. They advance on Varoufakis threateningly. A heart-stopping face-off follows. Presumably, those thugs were unloosed on Varoufakis by ultra-conservatives irked by his unwillingness to toe the troika’s line. In his treatment, Costa-Gavras retains the restaurant and the meal, but introduces not hooded ruffians but a large group of sullen-looking young people who crowd around the diners’ table and look on silently, disconcertingly. To Varoufakis’s questions as to what had brought them there, the strange crowd merely stare back at them, without uttering a single word. After a while, they all walk slowly away, leaving the party shocked and dispirited. No explanations are offered – unless the subtitles omitted them – and there is just a hint that the unusual congregation intended to convey a message: that Varoufakis and his colleagues must not lose sight of the sufferings of their countrymen; that they must not forget their pledge to do what was just and right for Greece. The episode clearly strengthens Varoufakis’s resolve not to relent on his stand on the MOU. He would not dream of letting down ordinary Greek citizens for the sake of political expediency. By this one deft touch, the master filmmaker finally posits Greece’s humanitarian crisis as one of his film’s key concerns. The virtuoso remains a virtuoso, no matter that he had turned 86 by the time Adults in the Room was in the can.