Angelopoulos: the trilogy of silence

Voyage to Cythera 1

What do our souls seek journeying
on the decks of decayed ships?
– George Seferis, from Mythistorema

I’ve been revisiting the films of Theo Angelopoulos following his tragic death in Athens whilst working on his new film.  I began with three films that Angelopoulos regarded as a ‘trilogy of silence’: Voyage to Cythera (1983), The Beekeeper, (1986), and Landscape in the Mist (1988).  I’ve also been reading Andrew Horton’s book The Films Of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema Of Contemplation, the only book in English to analyse Angelopoulos’s cinematic vision, and an invaluable guide to its deep roots in Greek culture, history and politics.

These three films marked a significant shift from the epic historical canvas of his earlier films such as The Travelling Players to more personal and individual stories set in contemporary times: history and politics move into the background (though never completely absent, especially in Voyage to Cythera) and the films focus more on the characters.  Discussing The Beekeeper, Angelopoulos said ‘We are … waiting for the world to change but have no idea when this is going to happen.  History is now silent.  And we are all trying to find answers by digging into ourselves, for it is terribly difficult to live in silence’.

Each of these three films involve journeys; they are road movies that share, in some small degree, characteristics with Wim Wenders road movie trilogy (Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road) completed a few years earlier.  Both directors are concerned in their different ways with the recent history and the soul of their nation.

What is important, what has meaning, is the journey… [and] journeys are through history as well as through a landscape.
– Theo Angelopoulos, quoted in The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation

For a Greek audience, Voyage to Cythera would have been highly topical when it was first shown in 1984.  A general amnesty had allowed thousands of exiled Greek communists to return to the land of their birth.  On 2 January 1983, the New York Times reported:

The civil war that devastated Greece from 1947 to 1949 led to the first major United States move to contain Communism in Europe. With the help of $300 million of American military and economic aid under the Truman Doctrine, the war ended in defeat for the Communist rebels.  About 130,000 fled abroad, mostly to Soviet-bloc countries, or were exiled after serving prison terms for crimes against the state.  Last week, Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou fulfilled an electoral promise by inviting back some 30,000 survivors and descendants of those who left.

In Voyage To Cythera Spyros, an elderly Greek man exiled for being a communist after the end of the civil war, returns after 32 years living in Tashkent in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan and tries to reconnect with his past, only to find that now feels like a stranger in his homeland.

During the time that Spyros was exiled, Greek villages like the one that he returns to in the northern province of Macedonia, had changed dramatically.  The rural areas had emptied out as Greeks migrated in search of work and a better life, either overseas or to Athens, which grew to a city of ten million people, half the Greek population. In the film, Spyros finds the villagers about to sell their land to a company that intends to develop a winter holiday resort. He refuses to sign, blocking the deal, arousing old animosities and memories of the civil war.  A villager tells him: ‘Spyros, you’re dead.  A ghost.  You don’t exist.  You were condemned to death in Larissa four times.  You can’t play havoc with us again’.  For Angelopoulos, Spyros represents the country’s communist past, and just as Spyros cannot become reconciled to his country’s present, the villagers’ response reflects a country still not ready to come to terms with its past.  An old comrade says: ‘They made us fight with each other.  Man against man, wolf against wolf; now everything is destroyed’.

[If you read only one book about that period, let it be Eleni by Nicholas Gage, one of the most unforgettable books I have ever read that truly brings home the way in which such Greek villages were ripped apart by the Civil War.   In 1948, in a Greek mountain village, Eleni Gatzoyiannis was arrested by Communist guerillas then tortured and shot by her own village neighbours.  She was one of the 158,000 victims of the Greek Civil War.  Her crime had been to help village children escape from the advancing guerrillas. Nicholas Gage was her son, then eight years old. Eleni is his harrowing reconstruction of his mother’s life and death.]

Like many of Angelopouos’s films, Voyage To Cythera is a variation on Homer’s Odyssey, with Spyros as the Odysseus figure returning at last to his Ithaca and his Penelope, here in the form of his wife Katerina.  But whereas Homer has Odysseus and Penelope eventually united in their bed, here Spyros, a ‘displaced person’ with no nationality is exiled once again to a raft in ‘international waters’, to be joined by Katerina who insists, ‘I want to be with him’.  In the film’s final shot we see the elderly couple, adrift on the raft out at sea.  They turn away from land, backs toward us, looking to the sea ahead.  The camera pulls slowly back, and they become tiny figures on the watery horizon.

The Return of the Exile by Giorgios Seferis

‘My old friend, what are you looking for?
After years abroad you’ve come back
with images you’ve nourished
under foreign skies
far from you own country.’

‘I’m looking for my old garden;
the trees come to my waist
and the hills resemble terraces
yet as a child
I used to play on the grass
under great shadows
and I would run for hours
breathless over the slopes.’

‘My old friend, rest,
you’ll get used to it little by little;
together we will climb
the paths you once knew,
we will sit together
under the plane trees’ dome.
They’ll come back to you little by little,
your garden and your slopes.’

‘I’m looking for my old house,
the tall windows
darkened by ivy;
I’m looking for the ancient column
known to sailors.
How can I get into this coop?
The roof comes to my shoulders
and however far I look
I see men on their knees
as though saying their prayers.’

‘My old friend, don’t you hear me?
You’ll get used to it little by little.
Your house is the one you see
and soon friends and relatives
will come knocking at the door
to welcome you back tenderly.’

‘Why is your voice so distant?
Raise your head a little
so that I understand you.
As you speak you grow
gradually smaller
as though you’re sinking into the ground.’

‘My old friend, stop a moment and think:
you’ll get used to it little by little.
Your nostalgia has created
a non-existent country, with laws
alien to earth and man.’

‘Now I can’t hear a sound.
My last friend has sunk.
Strange how from time to time
they level everything down.
Here a thousand scythe-bearing chariots go past
and mow everything down.’

Cythera, the island at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese, is the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love,  an island of dreams where a person can dedicate themselves to the pursuit of happiness. Although some critics have suggested that the Voyage To Cythera is a journey that never takes place, this last sequence suggests otherwise: unable to feel at home any longer in their homeland, Spyros and Katerina journey, beyond the bounds of the film, toward his unfulfilled dream.

This sequence is just one of very many stunning visuals in the film. As usual in Angelopoulos’s films, the cinematography is strikingly beautiful – dreamlike and poetic, with a painterly sense of composition, marked by his customary extended takes.  Memorable scenes include one where Spyros walks through the mountainside cemetery of his old village, calling out the names of friends from tombstones he passes, and another where Spyros is silhouetted on his land beside a tree illuminated in a shaft of sunlight, whilst beyond mountains are shrouded in mist (top).  As in every one of Angelopoulos’s films the cinematography is by Giorgos Arvanitis, enhanced by the haunting and elegiac music of Eleni Karaindrou who was to score every Angelopoulos film from this one onwards.  Scenes from Angelopoulos films haunt the memory, a perfect fusion of image and sound.

Spyros is played with haunting dignity by Manos Katrakis who was very ill with cancer at the time of the filming and who died shortly after shooting ended.  Spyros is the name of a leading character in many of Angelopoulos’s films: it was the name of his father who was condemned to death by the Greek Communist Party in 1944 when Angelopoulos was 9 years old.  His father escaped death, but Angelopolous would remember going with his mother to look for his father’s body, searching amongst those of many murdered Greeks.

The Beekeeper

The Beekeeper is a sombre portrait of a man who is profoundly alienated, lonely, and unable to express his emotions. And there lies my problem with this one Angelopoulos film that I have been unable to warm to: it is extremely difficult to engage with a film whose central character is so uncommunicative, so expressionless, so wooden. The synopsis of the film on the official Theo Angelopoulos website aptly states:

In The Beekeeper, alienation and despair have so metastasized in the film’s central figure that he’s virtually one of the walking dead.

Once more we are on a journey – this time with Spyros, a middle-aged, schoolteacher who, on the day of his daughter’s wedding abandons his position as a schoolteacher, his wife, his home and his city to follow the traditional beekeeper’s springtime route one last time, looking for flowers that will produce the best honey, just as his father and grandfather did before him.  He travels through Greece to the town in which he was born and where he first learned to tend the bees.

As Spyros drives from town to town revisiting old haunts and reliving his past life in his memory, he encounters the signs of a rapidly changing society that leave him uncomfortable and uncomprehending.  He picks up a rootless young hitchhiker who lives for the present and

seems to represent a new generation without memory and unconcerned with the past, drifting from one place to the next, flitting between the blinking lights of motor vehicles, gas stations, diners, cheap hotels and traffic signs along the dark, wet glistening roadways of present-day Greece.

The young woman both irritates and entices Spyros, but in their fumbling, inarticulate relationship there is only the profound despair of a man feels he has no future and who cannot communicate and cannot love.  For Spyros the past is everything, for her it is nothing. In Angelopoulos’ words, ‘It’s the conflict between memory and non-memory’.  In the long run she only reminds him of his loneliness and isolation.

Angelopoulos seems to present Spyros to us as representative of an older generation of Greeks who, in the era of the restoration of democracy and joining the EEC, were seen as irrelevant, relics of an earlier era of civil war, poverty and instability (so, echoes of the same theme explored in Voyage to Cythera, though unlike in that film there is no past history of political involvement).

Isolated, silent and unable to come to communicate or come to terms with the present, Spyros one morning goes out to his hives and overturns them all, releasing the bees and abandoning himself to their stings. In the final moments the camera closes in on his twitching hand, then pans up to the sky pullulating with the freed bees.

Landscape in the Mist

There is no father…
There is no Germany.
The whole thing’s a big lie.

The final film of the trilogy is Landscape in the Mist, one of Angelopoulos’s best.  It’s a haunting film of another journey, this time undertaken by two children, Alexander who go every night to the train station to watch the train leave for Germany where they believe their absent father is living.

In the darkness the young girl tells her younger brother the story she has told many times:

In the beginning was the darkness…and then there was light.  And the light was divided from the darkness…and the earth from the sea…and the rivers, the lakes…and the mountains were made.  And then the flowers and the trees…the animals… the birds. Footsteps approach.  It’s Mummy!
This story will never finish.

In this simple scene, played out in total darkness, the grounding of the film in myth and story-telling is introduced. The re-telling of the creation myth is the prelude to the two children setting out on their own odyssey, in search of their origins and a father they have never seen.  The film begins in darkness and, as we shall later see, ends in light.

One night the children finally catch the train to the border. On their journey they will meet with danger and disappointment, but also love and hope. They will sneak onto trains, hitchhike in vans and lorries as they traverse the familiar landscape of Angelopoulos films  – the deserted beaches and shabby, rain-drenched streets and cafes of the towns of northern Greece.  The film is filled with extraordinary, unforgettable, almost hallucinatory passages.  In one, the children emerge from a railway station and, as Eleni Karaindrou’s rich theme music swells, we see the children, insignificant and dwarfed by a huge power station.  They run down a road through a bleak and blasted landscape, and before them looms a giant earth-moving machine, like something from a science fiction movie.

Landscape in the MistLandscape in the Mist

On the road the children encounter the the troupe of itinerant actors from the earlier film The Travelling Players.  Thirteen years later, unable to find a stage to act on, their costumes are being put up for sale. Orestes (who was a child performer in The Travelling Players) says to the children: ‘They’re sad. Times have changed. Everything’s changed. And ravaged by time they wander stubbornly all over Greece…always performing the same play’. It seems that, in the new Greece of the 1980s, culture and history have become irrelevant.  Those who remember the past, like the travelling players with their tableaux of scenes from Greece’s turbulent past, are redundant, exiles in their own country.  Echoes, here, of the Communist exile in Voyage to Cythera.

In another scene the children stand with Orestes watching the sea as a giant white object begins to emerge.  We realise that it is an enormous ancient marble hand, a fragment of Greece’s classical past, being borne away by a helicopter.   We are reminded of lines from George Seferis, who was Angelopoulos’s favourite poet:

I woke with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbow and I don’t know where to put it down.
It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream
so our life became one and it will be very difficult for it to separate again.
I look at the eyes: neither open nor closed
I speak to the mouth which keeps trying to speak
I hold the cheeks which have broken through the skin.
That’s all I’m able to do.
My hands disappear and come towards me
mutilated.
Giorgios Seferis, from Mythistorema

According to Andrew Horton, Angelopoulos confirmed that the spirit of his films absolutely reflects the spirit of this poem: the sense that echoes of the past reverberate constantly in modern Greece, but how to respond?

The image is a metaphor for the Greek past – now an irrelevance whose remains can be dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder.  Indeed, watching this film now, with the current Greek  crisis in the forefront of one’s mind, it seems to take on a whole new significance.  It seems no coincidence that, just years after Greece joined the EEC, it is a mythical Germany which the children are attempting to reach, while images of the despoilation of Greece for profit are repeated throughout the film.

Some day I’ll open my mouth…the gardens will fill with waterfalls…
in the same courtyards… the arsenals.

For, alongside its beautiful imagery, the children’s journey is also one of fear and brutality.  As Andrew Horton remarks in his book, ‘there is the sheer, stark reality of two children alone in a bleak and cold world, searching and wandering, wandering and searching’.  Two scenes stand out in this respect.  In one, the children are watching a wedding celebration across a snow-covered town square.  Suddenly, a tractor enters the square dragging a dying horse.  Alexander weeps uncontrollably as the horse dies. His sister, Voula, is unable to comfort him.  Angelopoulos has explained that this scene came to him as an expression of the grief that overwhelmed him as a child when his younger sister, named Voula, died.

In another scene, Voula is raped by a truck driver who has given them a lift.  Angelopoulos stages the violation of innocence in a way that emphasises its horror without showing it: all we see is Voula slowly emerging from the back of the truck, legs first and with her stockings pushed down.  In an interview Angelopoulos observed that Landscape in the Mist ‘is not just about two children looking for their father.  It is a journey which is the initiation into life. On the road they learn everything – love and death, lies and truth, beauty and destruction. The journey is simply a way to focus on what life gives us all’.

Angelopoulos underpins this reading when a figure speaks the (unattributed) opening lines of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy:

If I were to cry out,
who in the hierarchies of angels
would hear me?

The poem continues (though not on screen):

And if one of them should suddenly
take me to his heart,
I would perish in the power of his being.
For beauty is but the beginning of terror.
We can barely endure it
and are awed
when it declines to destroy us.

For a while the children fall in with the actor Orestes, and one day, as they walk along a street in a silent town, Orestes picks up a piece of 35mm film. He holds it to the light and we see that it is blank, but he says to the boy, ‘Behind the mist… in the distance…can’t you see a tree?’  Alexander, asks to keep the film.

At the end of their odyssey, the children reach the border. In the dark they cross a river.  A shot from the border guards rings out. In the morning the children wake in a mist.  Voula says she is afraid, and now it is Alexander who tells Voula the same story from that she told him at the start: ‘In the beginning was the darkness…and then there was light’.

In the distance,  a tree appears through the mist and the children run to embrace it.

More than anything in any of Angelopoulos’s films, this lone tree, embraced by two children in the mist, becomes an image of hope … for them and for us.  Their odyssey is not over, and yet they have arrived somewhere.
– Andrew Horton

Landscape in the Mist

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

– Constantine Cavafy, Ithaca (1911)

See also

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