Theo Angelopoulos: a Greek tragedy

If you have ever watched a film by the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos you will have had high expectations for the project he was working on this week – a film on the Greek financial crisis.  Now comes the tragic news that Angelopoulos is dead as a result of sustaining serious head injuries when he was hit by a motorcycle while crossing a road in Athens during the shooting of the film.

Angelopoulos is one of the great visionaries of 20th century European  film, and I would rate his first international success The Travelling Players (1975)  in my all-time top ten.  Born in Athens in 1935,  Angelopoulos lived through the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II and the ensuing 1946-49 Greek Civil War – and these events are recurring themes in his early films, especially The Travelling Players.  His take on the desperate situation that the Greek people find themselves in today would have been invaluable, coming from a man who has documented so much of Greece’s tortured history in the last half century.

Angelopoulos  was born to a middle class merchant family during the dictatorship of General Metaxas. His earliest childhood memories were of the sight of German soldiers entering Athens following the Italian invasion of Greece in 1940 – an image he later recreated for the opening scene of Voyage to Cythera (1983).  The war years were a time of great hardship and hunger for the family, and then, at Christmas 1944,  during the period known as ‘Red December’, his father was arrested and disappeared after being informed on by a cousin for not supporting the Communist party at the outbreak of Civil War.  This incident appears in both The Travelling Players and Ulysses’ Gaze (1995).

After studying at the French film academy in Paris, Angelopoulos returned to Greece to work as film critic for a left-wing newspaper, a decision that he later explained,  arising from the trauma of being assaulted by the police during a pro-Papandreou student demonstration in 1964.  He continued to work for the newspaper until it was shut down by the military junta  in 1967. It was then he turned to film making, directing films that have invariably been concerned with recent historical developments in Greece.  Although his first international success, The Travelling Players, was shot during the last year that the military junta was in power, it was  not screened publicly until after the restoration of democracy in 1975.  Angelopoulos once described the film as ‘the enactment of a series of occupations of Greece that continue to this day’.

In the film, a group of travelling players make their way through Greece from town to town putting on performances of  a traditional drama  Golfo The Shepherdess. The narrative concerns historical events in Greece between 1939 and 1952 as they are experienced by the travelling players and as they affect the villages which they visit. The film interweaves the personal dramas of the troupe with stories from the Greek myths and events under the pre-war fascist dictatorship, the  Italian and the Nazi wartime occupations, the liberation, the civil war between Greek Communists and monarchists, and the subsequent British military intervention.

Angelopoulos portrays these events in a characteristic elliptical style (probably the result of having to film under the strict censorship of the military regime), employing  slow pans, long takes and tracking shots.  The slow pace, long shots (there are only 80 in the film) and extended periods without any dialogue became the characteristic Angelopoulos style – one that did not please all filmgoers or critics.  But, if you allow yourself to be submerged in his slow, reflective and beautifully composed sequences, you will experience film making of great intellectual depth and beauty.  This YouTube clip from The Travelling Players (the entire film can be watched there) reveals many of the archetypal features of a film by Angelopoulos. It consists of one extended shot of an Athens square that includes two 360 degree pans.  Time shifts within the sequence: the massed flags and songs of the Communist resistance are dispersed as police fire into the crowd (symbolising the murderous conflict between the two wings of the nationalist resistance to German occupation); the square is left strewn with bodies through which marches a single bagpipe-playing British soldier; later, the square is reoccupied by the Communists.

At the turn of the millennium, Derek Malcolm, former film critic for The Guardian, explained why he had chosen The Travelling Players as one of his key films of the 20th century:

Why the military police who watched its progress allowed it to be completed is a mystery, since the film clearly examines the turbulent history of its country of origin from a radical Brechtian point of view. Perhaps the colonels’ men thought that this story of a troupe of itinerant actors touring Golfo the Shepherdess, a pastoral folk drama set to music and song, was harmless enough. But it wasn’t, since the period in which it is set (1939 to 1952) warmed the seeds of their masters’ military coup.

Almost four hours long, The Travelling Players has its actors first watch and then get caught up in the political events of the period, so that even the play changes its emphasis. As they progress through the often rainy and wintry provincial Greece in which Angelopoulos usually prefers to shoot, the sequences become longer and longer and the pace seldom changes. The whole film is accomplished in around 80 shots.

But despite that, and even though no one but a Greek can understand all the political, historical and mythic allusions, it is a fascinating progress, enlivened by Yorgos Arvanitis’s often luminous photography, Loukianos Kilaidonis’s throbbing music, including songs and dances adapted from folk sources, and performances that seem utterly truthful.

How does Angelopoulos achieve this magic? It is partly the utter conviction with which he steers his work towards an inner as well as an outward relevance. But take a look, if you want to see how he manages individual sequences, at the closing passage of this film, when one of the actors is executed for sedition and his fellow performers raise their hands above their heads to applaud his life at the graveside. Nothing could be done more simply – though in most successful simplicity there is a great deal of artfulness. But the sequence, perhaps because of all that has gone before, is far more moving than the myriad funeral scenes in movies manage to be. It has a grace that is almost totally absent from most of today’s cinema.

Angelopoulos went on to make more great films that collectively chronicle the contemporary Greek experience.  In a heartfelt appreciation on The Guardian website, Costas Douzinas of the University of London writes:

In his dreamlike historical films, he chronicled the melancholic nature of a nation torn between an invented tradition of classical glories and a traumatic history of repressive state policies, dictatorship, corrupt and dynastic politics. He narrated the lowly lives of the defeated in the vicious civil war 1946-9, the degradations and melancholy of exile, the Odysseus-like return of people who go back to a place they nurtured in their memories but turns out alien and unwelcoming.  In his mesmeric long sequences, a simple gesture, a silence or smile acquire philosophical depth and historic significance. This is epic cinema made out of the fragments of everyday life.

He did this through magical films such as Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), Eternity and a Day (1998)and The Weeping Meadow (2004), the latter two being the first two parts of a trilogy that was to be completed by the film he died while making this week. Those are the films that I have seen; there are others I must see in the near future: Voyage to Cythera (1983), The Beekeeper (1986), Landscape in the Mist (1988), The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) and his most recent film, The Dust of Time (2009).  A sense of these films can be gained from this 12 minute tribute to Angelopoulos on YouTube:

There’s an extraordinary sequence in Ulysses Gaze in which a barge carrying an enormous statue of Lenin (surplus to requirements after the transformations of 1989) makes its way along the Danube:

Costas Douzinas comments:

Coming from the left, as did most of the Greek cultural renaissance of the second half of the 20th century, but ascribing to no orthodoxy, Angelopoulos described the degradations of ordinary people both in the hands of rightwing governments and in the Stalinist regimes where the defeated partisans retreated but found no haven.  For Angelopoulos, humanity survives in the memories and dreams of exiled, travelling people who never fully make it back to Ithaca. What makes us human, Angelopoulos tells us, is found in traumatic memories, in the desire to preserve an imaginary beauty, and in eternal returns perennially frustrated. Angelopoulos was both the Homer of modern Greece, and the country’s magical realist storyteller.

At the opening of his book The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation (1999), Andrew Horton wrote:

 The films of Theo Angelopoulos  matter. They matter because they dare to cross a number of borders: between nations; between history and myth, the past and the present, voyaging and  stasis;  between  betrayal  and  a sense of community,  chance and  individual fate, realism and surrealism, silence and sound; between what is seen and what is withheld or not seen; and between what is ‘Greek’ and what is not. In short, Angelopoulos can be counted as one of the few filmmakers of cinema’s first hundred years who compel us to redefine what we feel cinema  is and can be.

Peter Bradshaw, in a eulogy for The Guardian, draws attention to the irony of Angelopoulos’ death whilst filming leaving behind an unfinished work, and speculates on whether the film might be completed by another director:

This very fact has an enormous irony and poignancy: so much of his work is about the unfinished story, the unfinished journey, the unfinished life, and the realisation that to be unfinished is itself part of the human mystery and an essential human birthright and burden. This was part of what he conveyed to audiences, in a cinematic style that was poetry and epic poetry, steeped in the tumult of Greek history from the time of the second world war, and yet his movies were anything but frenzied or dramatic. They addressed not history’s surface action but its spiritual causes and effects; he created long, dreamlike takes in long, dreamlike films, visual compositions of great beauty and delicacy, and a tempo that was largo, rising occasionally to adagio.

“This story will never get finished,” says a young girl, Voula, to her brother Alexandros, at the beginning of 1988’s Landscape in the Mist. The story she is trying to tell him keeps getting interrupted by the appearance of their mother, and as the siblings try to unravel the painful mystery of their father’s whereabouts in Germany, Angelopoulos appears to be saying that a human story is broken at both ends: a clear, definitive closure is out of reach in front of us and behind us, with our beginnings also shrouded in mist.

See also

One thought on “Theo Angelopoulos: a Greek tragedy

  1. “the melancholic nature of a nation torn between an invented tradition of classical glories and a traumatic history of repressive state policies” – I think the Classical Greek Tragedy has never and will never stop questioning the human predicament, our follies and triumphs; our place in the world, but mostly our pathos – and is as relevant today as it was millennia ago.

    ‘There is in the worst of fortune the best of chances for a happy change.’

    ~ Euripides, ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’

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