The Slovenia Times

Never Say No to Film



With its miniature size and resulting miniature film production, Slovenia could never afford itself true film actors. Generally speaking, it was all about theatre actors who were occasionally hired by filmmakers. However there's one important honourable exception - a man who has built an enviable international career as a film actor.
Demeter Bitenc, born in 1922, divided his youth between Ljubljana and Planica, where his parents moved to run a tourist business. From an early age he developed a passion for sports - specifically tennis, skiing and climbing. Back then, participation in winter sports was limited to the elite. After Planica gained world fame with constantly improving world records in ski jumps, more and more of the nobility went there to relax. In this environment young Demeter came across many opportunities to develop both his social and his language skills. Among others exciting opportunities, he had the chance to offer ski lessons to Serbian Prince Peter Karadjordjevic. He recalls that his mother went to great efforts to make her son look decent among these members of high society and the result was that he quickly developed a sense for fashion and style, reflected in a sort of flamboyance that remains his personal trademark.
He developed his other passion at a very early age too. Never one for remembering movie titles, Bitenc can't now recall the name of the first film he saw. But a few scenes from a silent Tolstoi's Hadji Murat made an unforgettable impression on him while Pat & Patachon were responsible for a good laugh.
When he returned to Ljubljana as a high school student in the nineteen-thirties, film moved from passion into obsession. Kino Ideal (today's Komuna) or Kino Moste with their double bill deals were his territory. "In the 3rd grade year I saw 130 films, and as a consequence failed a year at school," he remembers with a chuckle.
Little wonder that he soon developed an ambition to devote himself to acting. He took lessons from Slavko Jan, a legendary theatre director, to be ready to make his first stage appearance in Ibsen's Vikings of Helgeland at Ljubljana's Drama theatre. The year was 1943. These days, finding an acting lesson is as easy as signing up with takelessons or a similar company. He went on to play some 80 roles in the theatre, most of them in the period before he met the film camera. That fateful moment came with the 1958 wartime classic Good Old Piano. As he would many times again, Bitenc played a SS officer.
But the real turning point for his career came in 1960, when a German producer hired him for a small appearance for a film. Then an actor designated for a much more visible role in the same production dropped out two days prior to shooting and Bitenc was asked to replace him. The successful performance resulted in a contract for another three films for the same producer. Essentially, he had been discovered and things began to open up with incoming offers by filmmakers from Italy to the United States. Despite the tense postwar situation, the political situation didn't impose many limits on him: "Yes there were procedures involved in obtaining passports or visas. But outside I had no problems caused by being Slovene. Over here, yes, a few, but they were more or less related to the envy of other actors. As a colleague of mine admitted [the problem was that] I was making money - the others weren't." Indeed Bitenc has spared himself the hard life of many Slovene actors, firstly because he overcame the small production scale of his home country and secondly because he managed to get into the freelance business: "A few of my colleagues attempted the same, only to safely return to regular theatre employment after a while," he remembers.

Camera sees everything

Bitenc has returned to the stage a few times since 1960, as "excursions out of curiosity to explore the relationship between theatre and film". He sees acting like athletics: "You cannot make a sprinter run a marathon well and vice versa. In theatre you are actually cheating the public, while in film you cannot. You cannot lie to a camera. It sees everything... As such it is a strange thing. It's an adventure. It's a snobbism. It's an industry. Or even a Mafia."
Yet there's another important element Bitenc says is specific to film: contrary to theatre it is international, cosmopolitan. Speculating on film as an art or craft, he doesn't want to end up in philosophical debates: "I have always seen it as an occupation. Everyone decides on his own one, and so did I. Film allowed me a better life. So I take every role simply as a job that needs to be done. If you do it better than just a job - it becomes great. If less than that - you fail. But regardless of whether a film is good or bad it's up to you to do make the best of your role. Nothing should be below you if you working in film." He particularly admires the late French actor Jean Gabin: "He was always different at the end of the film from the beginning and yet he did nothing. He simply was."
Bitenc has never hidden his excitement at the freedom he earned through film acting. "In theatre you are always manipulated by the management," he claims. "My colleagues ended up a little embittered, with unrealised ambition. In theatre you wait and wait for a role you think is meant for you, while in film you avoid this uncertainty and wait for the offer."

The Golden Years

Asked which to name the best period in his career, he quickly points to the nineteen-sixties. "Films took longer to shoot, actors had a few days of between shootings, leaving time for relationships to develop," he remembers. "You had ten days of shooting, but you lived in Rome for two months. After that period television rushed in and took over B-production. It was an uncertain time. The Winds of War was the most expensive television project to date costing 192 million dollars. At that period, there was no time anymore. For six months ahead everything was scheduled by the hour. Time shrunk by a half." The Winds of War indeed was the biggest project involving Bitenc playing the German Ambassador to Lisbon.
During the 'golden age' he appeared in many co-production features filmed all over the world. He was nothing if not versatile. The knowledge of languages he built up during childhood paid off, leaving him able to speak Serbo-Croatian, German, English, Italian and French. "Americans were asking for English with German accent. I also had a few lines in Chinese, playing an 18th century Jesuit officer in a German TV series. The extras in that series were Chinese students and we had fun learning to say it properly." He always quick to learn any additional skills he needed to get roles: "An Italian producer asked me if I could ride and my answer was - 'When do we start shooting?' I had three months to learn and I did not hesitate to contact my stunt friends to teach me. As a consequence I became a fan of riding and this contributed greatly to my future engagement in westerns. You should never say no to a film."

The German

For 45 of his roles he had to put on a German World War II uniform. That means that for many Slovenes, Bitenc will always be a Nazi officer. It was a character he had the opportunity to meet in person a couple of times when a young actor in occupied Ljubljana. At that time he probably had no idea he was destined to have a "brilliant career" in the German Army - he jokes he started as Obersturmbannführer and was quickly promoted to General. As well as fictional army officers, he has played many real people from history including the infamous General von Kleist. "When you put on a German military uniform it automatically gives you a certain strictness. At first Germans were portrayed as black and white. Later on the human character entered these roles," he says about the evolution of these parts. It is clear he has paid attention to every detail of them.
The exciting life story of Demeter Bitenc certainly covers many periods and changes in the film industry. His typical role as antagonist extended his lifespan on film he thinks. "The antagonist always changes and you don't get bored with him, while the protagonist - especially if a lover - lives up to a certain age, and then falls out." He had the chance to work and make friends with many great names, from Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Peter Finch, Stewart Granger or Christopher Plummer, to Yugoslav legends such as director Veljko Bulajić and actor Bata Živojinović.
As for the state of the industry today, he regrets that stunning visuals are stealing attention from the actors and blames it on American sci-fi and fantasy movies. "These films are so dumb, but visually so great they just make you watch them. Before, film was more static. More demanding. In the past, a crash or explosion had a short shot of an actual mess, the rest was the reactions of characters. Today it is the opposite - it is pyrotechnics all over." Regardless, he remains a film buff. The most recent films he recommends are Terrence Mallick's Tree of Life and How I Ended This Summer, a recent masterpiece of Russian cinematography, which he greatly respects.

Defying Age

Having performed in so many roles, from the notorious German officers to Spanish Generals or British Commandos, asking about his favourite part becomes rather trivial. "It's like you have 11 kids in family - you cannot neglect anyone," he responds. "Yet now I'm beginning to realise there was not a single year without a role. From 43 up until two years ago I didn't spend a year without some appearance in theatre or in film."
His career might have slowed down in recent years but the same can't be said for his personal life. He is a dear guest of social events and widely admired by the media for his vitality at the age of 89. In good mood, charming, well dressed, with a glass of whiskey and a cigar, but most of all an excellent interlocutor. You cannot help but wonder how he maintains such a condition. Bitenc attributes it to his constant sporting activities, which even today involve trekking, cross-country skiing and cycling trips of up to 20 kilometres a day. He also mentions spending time with his much younger lady-friend: "Women are very important here and have always played an important role in my live. It is also important to keep mentally fit. I used to regularly follow fine arts exhibitions, although I may now be losing track of it with this new kind of installation art." Occasionally, he still makes an appearance in front of a camera. "If you ask me which is my favourite role I'd say my latest - because it suggests I'm still in the industry. I never wanted to accept the fact that any film could be my last one."


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