Angelopoulos: Days of ’36

What do you do if you are a film director of leftist inclinations and a right-wing military dictatorship imposes strict censorship on your country?  That was the problem that faced the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos embarking on his second feature film in 1972, the fifth year of rule by the military junta.

In Days of ’36, Angelopoulos treads carefully in his attempt to make a film that a Greek audience will recognise as a veiled critique of dictatorship and enfeebled, collaborationist political parties without incurring the wrath of the censor. He does this, firstly, by telling an apparently banal story, based on a real-life incident that took place in 1936 in the atmosphere of crisis in which IoannisMetaxas seized power, dissolved Parliament and imposed a military dictatorship.  Though Angelopoulos makes no reference to Metaxas, Greeks would have understood the parallels instantly.  The Metaxas coup came to be known as the 4th of August after the date of its proclamation; just to underline the point, Angelopoulos shoots the outdoor scenes in the glare of midsummer sun.

Secondly, in Days of ’36  there is barely any dialogue whatsoever, with what there is being mainly limited to whispered asides and enigmatic utterances.  The meaning of the characters’ utterances is often ambiguous, an ambiguity that removes any obvious correlation with historical reality.  Angelopoulos later commented, ‘The dictatorship is embodied in the formal structure of the film. Imposed silence was one of the conditions under which we worked. The film is made in such a way that the spectator realises that censorship is involved’.

The film recounts the events that follow the assassination of a trade unionist by a convicted drug trafficker and police informer, who is arrested and imprisoned.  When a conservative politician visits him in prison, he is held hostage at gunpoint by the prisoner.  The government flounders: if they free the MP they will lose the support of the democrats, if they don’t, they will lose the support of the conservatives. The government decide to hire a sniper to shoot the prisoner.

What actually happened in 1936 was that the elections that year resulterd in deadlock between democrats and conservatives. The political situation was further polarized by gains made by the Communist Party. Fearing the Communists, the king appointed Metaxas as prime minister on 13 April 1936.  Widespread industrial unrest was used by Metaxas as justification to declare a state of emergency on August 4, 1936. With the king’s support, he dissolved parliament indefinitely and suspended various articles of the constitution. In a national radio address, Metaxas declared that for the duration of the state of emergency, he would hold  ‘all the power I need for saving Greece from the catastrophes which threaten her’.  Metaxas proclaimed a ‘Third Hellenic Civilization’, following ancient Greece and the Greek Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages.

Days of ’36 tells a banal story in a mundane manner.  Angelopoulos used amateur actors, and their performances are decidedly wooden.   As if to reinforce the flatness of the film, Angelopoulos films many of the scenes with his camera at a distance from the action.  The best one can say about this film is that it is an interesting historical document; it is certainly not one of  the great Angelopoulos films.  Significantly, Andrew Horton in his essential study of the director’s work, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation, makes not one reference to Days of ’36.

The film is the first part of Angelopoulos ‘ ‘Historical Trilogy’, followed by The Travelling Players and The Hunters. The next film, The Travelling Players, would represent a huge leap forward, now being regarded as one of the top films in the history of cinema.  Allowances must be made for the difficult circumstances (and restricted finances) under which Days of ’36 was made.  What Angelopoulos succeeds in representing is a process in which trade unions and political agitators are systematically silenced,  scandal is suppressed, and social order brutally enforced.  In drawing a discreet parallel between the events of 1967 and 1936, Angelopoulos hints that dictatorship was forged through an alliance of right-wing, monarchists and centre parties as a means of neutralizing the influence of the left and the Communist Party.

It is significant how much of film takes place in the prison – a metaphor for the situation in which Greeks found themselves in 1972.  At one point in the film a song played on a gramophone in the prison yard gives voice to all the prisoners crowded at their cell windows, and to a nation suppressed:

I’m tired of your false caresses
Your vows, your kisses, your airs and graces
I’m tired of a love I dreamt of
In your blue eyes
I was fooled and mislead
By all your wicked games
But now, towards the end
I’m telling you truthfully
I’m tired of you

Days of ’36 is a film made on the cheap, shot quickly and mainly with an amateur cast that examines and satirises an important period of Greek history that was highly relevant to the circumstances of 1972. The British (who have played a highly significant role in Greek history, a theme to be taken up again by Angelopoulos in The Travelling Players) are mercilessly satirised in one scene in Days of ’36 in which the British ambassador uses the sea for target practice, watched intently by his faithful acolytes.

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