When "moving pictures" arrived in Greece in 1897, one- or two-reel films were usually presented as acts in variety shows or as carnival attractions. These foreign imports included the pioneering work of filmmakers such as Georges Méliès (1861–1938) and the Lumière brothers (Auguste [1862–1954] and Louis [1864–1948]). The first known Greek film, Gyanikes pou klotoun ( Women Weaving or The Weavers , 1905), was made by the Manakia brothers (Yannakis [1879–1954] and Miltos [1881–1964]), whose identity and importance would be the subject of Theo Angelopoulos's (b. 1935) To Vlemma tou Odyssea ( Ulysses' Gaze , 1995). One year after Women Weaving [The Weavers] , the tradition of the Greek "journal" film—a fusion of genuine newsreel footage with more formal documentary elements—took form with a short celebrating that year's Olympic games. In 1907, a second journal film and the first with a title, Eorti tou Vasileos Georgiou I (The Festival of King George I), celebrated the virtues of the Greek king. The first movie theaters opened in Smyrna and Athens at this time. Actor Spiros Dimitrakopoulos founded Athini Films in 1910 and began to produce comedic shorts and documentaries celebrating archeological sites.
Golfo , the first Greek feature, was released in 1915. Based on a pastoral play, it is a kind of Romeo- and-Juliet story in a Greek mountain setting. Three more features appeared shortly after Golfo , but the public was far more taken by journal films that dealt with the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and then World War I. These Greek films contain most of the only surviving foot age of events such as the burning of Smyrna in 1922. The immediate impact of Golfo had been negligible, but the mountain romance was destined to be a popular genre. In 1932, Golfo was remade asthe first Greek talking picture. In 1955, there would be three more remakes, one enjoying a huge box office success; and in 1975, Angelopoulos would feature the play as a central theme in O Thiassos ( The Traveling Players ).
Greek cinema began to find a more regular audience with a series of comedies made in the early 1920s. The Greek comedians usually offered characters resembling those associated with American film personalities such as Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The industry's first feature to become a box-office hit was Fate's Disowned Child (1925), an urban melodrama, and the foundations of a viable industry began to take shape shortly thereafter with the establishment of Dag Film in 1927. Thirty silent features were produced between 1925 and 1935 by production companies located in Athens, Patras, and Thessaloniki. Some films drew as many as forty thousand viewers, and the concept of a movie star began to take hold. Daphne and Chloe (1931), a lyrical romance in which the pubescent heroine appears nude during a bathing scene, may constitute a first in cinema, since it precedes the better known ten-minute nude sequence in Ecstasy (1933) that featured Hedy Lamarr.
Despite its limited successes, Greek film production and exhibition through the 1920s and 1930s remained hostage to political events. From 1924 to 1928, there were eleven coups and three general elections that produced no less than ten prime ministers. A relatively stable period during the regime of Eleuthérios Venizelos (1928–1932) was then followed by constant military intrigues that were capped by the dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas (1936–1941). Further social disruption was caused by the absorption of 1.5 million refugees from Asia Minor into a population of less than 10 million. In this climate, film production remained chancy, and post-production often had to be done abroad.
During the occupation of Greece in World War II, Greeks generally boycotted German and Italian films, but when Filopoimin Finos (1908–1977), who had produced and directed The Song of Parting (1939), was able to produce the Greek-language The Voice of the Heart (1943), it drew a stunning 102,237 admissions. Attending a screening of this film was seen as an assertion of Hellenic identity during an occupation that caused the death of 10 percent of the population. Five other films were made during the occupation, but production was curtailed when Finos and others were arrested by the Germans for participating in the resistance. Finos survived and became the leading producer of Greek films for nearly two decades.
From the end of the occupation until the late 1960s, a Greek film industry modeled on the Hollywood studio system produced well over one thousand films. Although directly serving a small language group, Greek cinema of the studio era produced filmmakers and actors such as Melina Mercouri (1920–1994), Michael Cacoyannis (b. 1922), and Irene Papas (b. 1926) who gained international fame and won a world audience for bouzouki musicians such as Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis. It also produced national stars such as George Foundas (b. 1924) (melodrama), Aliki Vougouhlaki (1934–1996) (musicals), and Thanassis Vengos (b. 1927) (comedy).
During the postwar era, the Greek government used a variety of means to discourage political dissidence in the arts. While most of the film industry was content to churn out musicals, comedies, and melodramas that caught the popular pulse without raising any political critiques, a number of filmmakers on the edge of the industry used indirect discourse to challenge the political status quo. Magic City (1954), for example, used a crime film format to deal with the issues of the 1922 refugees and the poor of Athens. Stella (1955) championed working-class music and feminist ideals. O Drakos ( The Ogre of Athens , 1956) used a theme of mistaken identity to critique society. To Koritsi me ta Mavra ( The Girl in Black , 1956) addressed the tensions between rural and urban Greek values with gripping portraits of artists, fishermen, and village women.