Is the EU worth saving?

Is the EU worth saving?

As if there wasn’t already enough to read in the Guardian, what with the acres of print devoted to the revelations from the Panama Papers, I felt obliged to read yesterday’s Long Read: Yanis Varoufakis on ‘Why we must save the EU‘, subtitled ‘The European Union is disintegrating – but leaving is not the answer’. The issue addressed by the former Finance Minister who represented Greece in the negotiations with the EU and the IMF over the terms of the bailout in 2015 is an urgent one for UK citizens facing the decision of how to vote in the June referendum.

Given the mauling that Varoufakis – and Greece – received at the hands of the EU his proposition is, perhaps, surprising. Continue reading “Is the EU worth saving?”


This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings. Continue reading “This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees”

Greece wounds me

Greece wounds me

‘Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me.’
– George Seferis

After the ugliness of last few days in Brussels as we watched a country being humiliated and a new form of economic colonialism being imposed on a people who have struggled to assert their wishes by means of an impeccable commitment to democracy, it really does feel, as this morning’s Guardian editorial puts it, that Europe after the Greek talks ‘resembles a battlefield the day after the armies have stumbled away – wreckage everywhere, and everyone counting the cost.’ Continue reading “Greece wounds me”

Greece: People power or heroes just for one day?

Greece: People power or heroes just for one day?

What should we choose as the soundtrack for the stunning outcome of the Greek referendum? Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’, perhaps? Or David Bowie singing, ‘We can be heroes, just for one day’? Continue reading “Greece: People power or heroes just for one day?”

The ruins of Kefalonia

The ruins of Kefalonia

Ruins are plentiful on the island of Kefalonia – not surprising, given that humans first settled on the island in Palaeolithic times, and important communities arose in the Mycenaean and Classical eras.

Of all the ruins, the most atmospheric and poignant must be those that remain following the devastating earthquakes which struck the island in August 1953. Arriving on the island soon after the earthquake in Nepal made the sight of these ruins especially affecting – more so after a second devastating earthquake hit Nepal while we were there. Continue reading “The ruins of Kefalonia”

Voyage to Ithaca

Voyage to Ithaca

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.
from ‘Ithaca’ by CP Cavafy

On the beach at Skala we joined the queue waiting for the cruise to Ithaca. For Rita especially, this was the culmination of a lifetime’s imagining: Homer’s Ithaca not just an island but the ultimate, universal symbol of the longed-for destination. Continue reading “Voyage to Ithaca”

The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’

The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’

There was a rather silly documentary hidden away on BBC4 on night last week all about the crisis facing Europe. Called The Great European Disaster Movie and set in a not too-distant future after the collapse of the EU, it featured an archaeologist (played by Angus Deayton) on a flight to Berlin beset by a menacing storm, explaining to a little girl what the European Union had been. These unconvincing sequences were intercut with case studies of individuals in 2015, in different member states, affected by the present crisis. Continue reading “The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’”

Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri at the Barbican: songs of faith, songs of hope

Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri at the Barbican: songs of faith, songs of hope

Continue reading “Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri at the Barbican: songs of faith, songs of hope”

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

Capitalism: an infantile disorder

The other night I watched Surviving Progress, a documentary shown on BBC4 that questions the standard view of progress, suggesting that civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – technologies that serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. In the past, civilizations could use up a region’s resources and move on. But if today the global economic system collapses from over-consumption and laying waste the planet’s resources, that’s it. There is nowhere else to go.

The message of the film seemed to reinforce a growing feeling I’ve had in recent weeks that the global capitalist system we live under (‘civilization’ seems to noble a term), far from being, as presented by the practitioners of that dubious discipline economics, one of rationally operating markets that deliver sensible and sustainable outcomes, is no more than an infantile disorder: stupid, irrational, and self-destructive.

Surviving Progress argues that the world has financed an unsustainable growth rate by essentially encouraging whole nations to take out unpayable mortgages on their own futures. In the film, Brazil is taken as an example: huge loans are advanced to the nation, which is unable to keep up the repayments, and is then encouraged to liquefy its own natural assets – the rainforests. When the assets are gone and the wealth extracted, the corporations leave behind a drained nation and the bankers move on to another loan customer.

Dumb? Absolutely.  The same sense of stupidity emerged from a piece in The Guardian recently, written by Ha-Joon Chang of Cambridge University and author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. Commenting on the eurozone crisis and the unwillingness of the eurozone leaders to alter their austerity policies, even as Greece and Spain fall apart, he noted that it is increasingly accepted that these policies are not working in the current environment. But what’s worse is that there is abundant historical evidence showing that austerity has never worked. What kind of person fails to learn the lessons of previous experience?  Ha-Joon Chang has the answer:

Perhaps they are insane – if we follow Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But the more likely explanation is that, by pushing these policies against all evidence, our leaders are really telling us that they want to preserve – or even intensify, in areas like welfare policy – the economic system that has served them so well in the past three decades.

He concludes that the time has come for us to decide:

Do we want a society where 50% of young people are kept out of work in order to bring the deficit down from 9% of GDP to 3% in three years? A society in which the rich have to be made richer to work harder (at their supposed jobs of investing and creating wealth) while the poor have to be made poorer in order to work harder? Where a tiny minority (often called the 1% but more like the 0.1% or even 0.01%) control a disproportionate, and increasing, share of everything – not just income and wealth but also political power and influence (through control of the media, thinktanks, and even academia)?

If you want a tiny example of how a rich elite are increasing their share of wealth and running the country in their selfish interests, meanwhile threatening the environment, read George Monbiot’s brilliant piece of investigative journalism, published this week in the Guardian.  He writes that ‘the pheasant, rather than the Gini coefficient should now be the unit for measuring inequality.

As Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality, the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich, in which anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet. The aristocracy is back in charge. … In the countryside, as in the towns, policy is becoming the preserve of the 1%. The rest of us pay the landowners to expand their estates and destroy the wildlife. That’s what they mean when they say we’re all in this together.

Worth reading, too, is Larry Elliott’s chilling despatch from Greece last week.  Elliott, along with Paul Mason of Newsnight, is always a reliable guide to the world of financial capitalism.  Just days after IMF Chief Christine Lagarde provoked fury with her outrageous comments about ‘tax-dodging’ Greeks, Elliott wrote:

Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up.  It is a country where the fascists and the anarchists battle for control of the streets, where immigrants fear to go out at night and where a woman whispers “it’s like the Weimar republic” as a motorcycle cavalcade from the Golden Dawn party, devotees of Adolf Hitler, cruises past the parliament building. Graffiti says: “Foreigners get out of Greece. Greece is for the Greeks. I will vote for Golden Dawn to remove the filth from the country.”

It has been interesting, too, to read the reviews of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy.  It’s a study of ‘the moral limits of markets’ in the context of the increasing ubiquity of market ideas.

Michael Sandel

‘Over the past three decades,’ Sandel writes, ‘markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before.’ Sandel is not arguing from a socialist position, and argues that markets can work in the right situation. He asserts: ‘No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity’. But Sandel is interested in what he sees as a critical loss of our collective moral compass in recent times as market thinking has swept the board in economics, and then spread to almost every area of public policy:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.

His central thesis is that markets have a moral impact on the goods that are traded in them. When something which is supposed to be a common good is marketised it invariably leads not only to unfairness, but, just as importantly, it corrupts and degrades the thing being marketised.

He quotes a vivid example that sums up the entire argument of What Money Can’t Buy; an Israeli daycare centre, which had a problem of parents turning up late to collect their children, introduced fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.  Morality had been marketised.  The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing (turning up late) was based on non-monetary values, on morality. Even though the daycare centre went back to the old system, parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Sandel concludes:

The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?

The economic and social progress that has resulted in climate change raises questions of morality in an intractable form.  In a recent article in the London Review of Books, Malcolm Bull wrote:

Adam Smith once noted that we are less troubled by the prospect of a hundred million people dying as a result of an earthquake in some distant location than of losing our little finger, but would nevertheless be horrified by the idea we might allow them to die in order to save it. Climate change effectively transforms the former scenario into the latter, and so places unprecedented demands on our moral imagination. Almost every little thing we do contributes to our carbon footprint, which increases greenhouse gases, which could in turn ultimately threaten hundreds of millions of lives in some remote time and place – the uncertainty only adding to the sublime awfulness of our responsibilities.

Bull’s conclusion was hopeful, though:

Climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined. … Climate ethics is … a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know … but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us.

Returning to Surviving Progress.  The film illustrates the argument of the book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. He was previously known to me as an authority on the pre-Colombian civilizations of the Americas.  Some time ago I read a couple of his books on this subject, Stolen Continents: The ‘New World’ through Indian Eyes and Cut Stones and Crossroads: Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru.  This film continues and develops Wright’s interest in how civilizations rise – and are destroyed. He coins the term ‘progress trap’ to define human behaviours that seem to amount to progress and to provide benefits in the short-term, but which ultimately lead to disaster because they’re unsustainable.

The film argues his case that the exponential growth in human numbers, the development of technologies, and the rapacious exploitation of the world’s natural resources threaten the planet, and the very existence of humanity.  ‘Progress’ – defined in terms of never-ending economic growth – could destroy us.  On population growth, he states controversially:

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and Columbus sailing, it took 13 centuries to add 200 million people to the world’s population. Now it takes only three years. A simple thing like pasteurization, the warming of milk so that the bacteria are killed and the control of smallpox. Things like that have led to a great boom in human numbers.  So, overpopulation, which nobody really wants to talk about because it cuts at things like religious beliefs and the freedom of the individual and the autonomy of the family and so forth, is something that we’re going to have to deal with. We probably have to work towards a much smaller worldwide population than 6 or 7 billion. We probably need to go down to a half that or possibly even a third of that, if everybody is going to live comfortably and decently.

But the film also tackles the more significant aspect of this problem: the footprint of the individuals at the top of the social pyramid who are consuming the most. Somebody in the United States or Europe is consuming about 50 times more resources than a poor person in a place like Bangladesh.  And to sustain the lifestyles of the planet’s rich, the banks and big corporations plunder the natural capital of our home, planet earth.  In the film Wright sums up the problem as he sees it:

Some people have written about natural capital, the capital that nature provides, which is the clean air, the clean water, the, the uncut forests, the, the rich farmland, and the minerals, the oil, the metals. All of these things are the capital that nature has provided. And until about 1980, human civilization was able to live on, what we might term, the interest of that capital, the surplus that nature is able to produce, the food that farmland can grow without actually degrading the farmland or the number of fish you can pull out of the sea without causing the fish stocks to crash. But since 1980, we’ve been using more than the interest, and so we are in effect like somebody who thinks he’s rich because he’s spending the money that has been left in his inheritance, not spending the interest but eating into the capital.

Margaret Atwood appears in the film, and underlines its message with these words:

Instead of thinking that nature is this huge bank that we can just, this endless credit card that we can just keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of that planet and how to keep it alive so that we too may remain alive. Unless we conserve the planet, there isn’t going to be any ‘the economy’.

Surviving Progress argues that faith in progress has become a kind of religious faith, a sort of fundamentalism, rather like the market fundamentalism that has just recently crashed and burned. Wright says:

The idea that you can let markets rip is a delusion, just as the idea that you can let technology rip, and it will solve the problems created by itself in a slightly earlier phase. That, that has become a belief very similar to the religious delusions that caused some societies to crash and burn in the past.

The anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it this way:

Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn’t make sense. It’s a pattern that is bound to collapse. And we keep seeing it collapsing, but then we build it up because there are these strong vested interests, we must have business as usual. And you know, you get the arms manufacturers, you get the petroleum industry, the pharmaceutical industry and all of this feeding into helping to create corrupt governments who are putting the future of their own people at risk.

Towards the end of the film, Ronald Wright sums up his case in these words:

All the civilizations of the past, and I think our own, only seem to be doing well when they’re expanding, when the population is growing, when the industrial output is growing, and when the cities are spreading outwards. Eventually you reach the point at which the population has overrun everything, the cities have expanded over the farmland, the people at the bottom begin to starve, and the people at the top lose their legitimacy. And so, you get, you get hunger, you get revolution.Now, one kind of scary thing about the moment we’re in is that for the first time there’s kind of only one system. So, if the whole thing goes down, you won’t have what you’ve had in previous eras of epic collapse, which is that even a one civilization goes down, and it may take a while to recover, there are other robust civilizations that are kind of the guardians of progress.

As I listened to Margaret Atwood say, ‘all we’ve got is planet Earth, and we are destroying, we are polluting, we are damaging the future of our own species’, I thought of Banga, the new album from Patti Smith that I’ve been listening to this week.  In part, her theme is  environmental crisis and the destruction of the beauty and mystery of the natural world.  The album concludes with her own haunting take on Neil Young’s visionary account of planetary collapse from the 1970s, ‘After the Gold Rush’, which has ‘Mother nature’s silver seed’ setting off in spaceships to a new home.  Only – there is nowhere else to go.

On the previous track Patti Smith explores ideas that touch on the discussion here. ‘Constantine’s Dream’ is a ten minute improvised, half-sung, half-spoken meditation that weaves together Columbus’s voyage to the New World, the life and work of Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, the pastoral ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, and environmental cataclysm.

In Arezzo, Patti has a dream in which Saint Francis weeps at the current state of the environment,then, in the dawn, she leaves her room, ‘stepping down the ancient stones, washed with dawn’ and enters the Basilica of San Francesco:

I saw before me the world of his world
The bright fields, the birds in abundance
All of nature of which he sang
Singing to him
All the beauty of nature surrounded him as he walked

But Patti is senses ‘the call of art, the call of man’ and is drawn to the beauty of Piero della Francesca‘s ‘Legend of the True Cross’, a series of tableaux that includes ‘The Dream of Constantine’, Francesca’s representation of the moment when the crusading Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity after seeing the vision of the True Cross: ‘with this sign shall thou conquer’. In her poem, Patti has Francesca cry out on finishing his painting:

Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure
With a brush and an eye full of light.

The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo

Francesca dies in October 1492, just as ‘a world away, on three great ships, adventure itself’ Columbus arrives on the shore of the ‘New World’. Patti imagines the ecstatic vision of Columbus as he sees the New World for the first time:

And as far as his eyes could see
No longer blind
All of nature unspoiled, beautiful

Columbus set foot on the New World
And witnessed beauty unspoiled
All the delights given by God
As if Eden had opened up her heart to him
And opened her dress
And all of her fruit gave to him

Columbus falls into a swoon and a vision of his own:

The 21st century advancing like the angel
That had come to Constantine
Constantine in his dream

Oh this is your cross to bear …

All shall crumble into dust
Oh thou navigator
The terrible end of man
This is your gift to mankind
This is your cross to bear
Then Columbus saw all of nature aflame

The apocalyptic night
And the dream of the troubled king
Dissolved into light.

The album closes with Patti, accompanied by small children, singing:

Look at Mother Nature on the run
In the 21st century…

The Travelling Players and a new Greek tragedy

The Travelling Players and a new Greek tragedy

Dimitris Christoulas was a retired local chemist , 77 years old and described as decent, law-abiding and dignified. A committed leftist, he was active in citizens’ groups such as ‘I won’t pay’, one of the largest elements in the Greek anti-austerity movement.   Like so many of Greece’s older generation, the retired pharmacist had found himself paying for his debt-stricken country’s monumental crisis after his pension was cut and cut and cut again to below the poverty line.  On Thursday he took his own life in front of the Greek Parliament building, shooting himself in the head.

In a handwritten note, Christoulas said he had decided to end his life because he did not want to be reduced to foraging through rubbish bins to survive. The note continued:

The Tsolakoglou occupation government has nullified any chance of my survival which was based on a decent pension that for 35 years I alone (without state support) paid for.

Christoulas  was comparing the Athens government to that of Giorgos Tsolakoglou who led the collaborationist administration appointed  by the Axis powers after the Nazis invaded and occupied Greece in 1941.  ‘My father’s note leaves no room for misinterpretation. His whole life was spent as a leftist fighter, a selfless visionary,’ said his only daughter, Emy Christoula. ‘This final act was a conscious political act, entirely consistent with what he believed and did in his life’.

The note left by Christoulas was a conscious summoning of Greek memory; I learned about  his tragic act shortly after re-watching Theo Angelopoulos’ great cinematic invocation of Greek myth and 20th century political tragedy, The Travelling Players.

Mourners gather at the spot where Dimitris Christoulas committed suicide in front of the Greek Parliament

Derek Malcolm once wrote of The Travelling Players, Theo Angelopoulos’ monumental, near four hour epic, that it was ‘not everybody’s idea of a good night out’.  It’s true that the slow pace and austere style of the film may put off many viewers: the content is, in common with all his work, is formidably intellectual, requiring some knowledge of 20th century Greek politics and Greek myth to fully appreciate its allusions, while its pace is glacially slow with shots lasting four minutes or more.  Yet, like all Angelopoulos’ films,  it is also inspiring and poetic, an example of cinema at its most exalted.  The Travelling Players is Angelopoulos’ masterpiece, as relevant now as when it was made in 1974.

The Travelling Players was filmed in Greece in 1974 when the military dictatorship was still in power.  Somehow Angelopoulos managed to hoodwink the military police who occasionally observed the shoot by telling them he was making a film about the myth of Orestes adapted to the time of the German occupation – which was, at least partially, true.  Perhaps they thought that a story about a troupe of itinerant actors performing an old folk drama Golfo and the Shepherdess was harmless enough.  But it wasn’t, since Angelopoulos’ intention is to demonstrate that the period in which The Travelling Players is set (1939 to 1952) contained the seeds of  the military coup that brought the junta to power in 1967.

When the Greek regime came to see the finished film it refused to sponsor it on the grounds that it was ‘too leftist’.  But it met with universal acclaim elsewhere in Europe, winning the International Critics award at Cannes,  and voted Best Picture of the Year by the British Film Institute.  By which time the junta had fallen.

The film operates on three levels.  Firstly there are the players performing the drama of  Golfo and the Shepherdess.  Then there are the conflicts and tensions within the troupe that parallel the ancient myth of the family of Agamemnon. Finally, as the players traverse Greece they become involved in the terrible political events that unfold around them.

Angelopoulos  chose to have the players perform Golfo and the Shepherdess because it has long been popular entertainment in Greece: in his words, it is a tale that is as common as ‘daily bread’ to the Greek people. Based on a folk tale about a shepherd who abandons his sweetheart for the daughter of a wealthy landlord, the performance of the play is repeatedly interrupted by the political violence of the period. This is Angelopoulos making the point that Golfo is an escapist play about an idyllic Greece of happy peasants that never existed.

The players themselves bear the names of the characters in the ancient Greek myth – Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra. Electra, Pylades, Aegisthus and Chrysothemis.  The complex family relationships and the events surrounding them unfold in a way similar to the original myth, but with significant differences. In the myth, Orestes’  father, Agamemnon, on returning from the Trojan Wars, is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to obtain favorable winds during the Greek voyage to Troy.  Absent when these events take place, Orestes return seven years later and, with his sister Electra, avenges his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover, Aegisthus.

The Greek people have grown up caressing dead stones. I’ve tried to bring mythology down from the heights and directly to the people.
– Theo Angeolopoulos

In The Travelling Players  the myth is transposed to the historical events of the period 1939-1952, and rather than reflecting the working of fate and the myth’s contradiction between love and hate, Angelopoulos uses the story to illuminate the conflict between revolutionary and reactionary political tendencies in Greek political history.  So in his retelling, when civil war breaks out, Orestes leaves the troupe to join the Communist partisans in the mountains.  He returns and walks on stage during a performance and shoots dead his mother, Clytemnestra, and his uncle, Aegisthus, a fascist collaborator.  Together they have betrayed his father, Agamemnon, to the Germans who executed him.

Three other members of the troupe are involved in the EAM, the Greek Resistance movement – Electra, Pylades, and Chrysothaemis.  In the film’s most horrifying scene, Electra is seized in her hotel room by fascist thugs wearing clown masks.  She is dragged to a taverna where four of the men hold her down while the fifth rapes her as they attempt to extract information about Orestes’ whereabouts.  The rape seems to last an eternity as Electra refuses to tell her interrogators anything.

The next scene is one of three monologues, spoken direct to camera, in which a character narrates a period of recent Greek history.  Here, Electra, abandoned by the fascists on a riverbank, gets to her feet and gives a description, over five minutes long, of how the civil war began once the Germans had left.  In his book, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos, Andrew Horton comments:

The juxtaposition of the rape and the speech is important.  The contrast is complete: from victim to a woman historian, and from a person denied individuality to a complete human being before us who, iun the way she recounts her history of events, demonstrates that she is strong enough to survive it all.  This is her finest performance, and it is not onstage but in the open, by a river, for us, the viewers, and it concerns history.

In a later monologue, Pylades tells of being captured in 1947 and thrown in prison.  He says that prisons all over Greece were full of political prisoners like him.  He speaks of the torture he suffered and the efforts of the guards to get him to sign a confession renouncing his beliefs.  He did not sign.

Electra is a powerful presence, especially in the second half of the film.  In a later scene it is 1951, and Electra is seen entering a prison where she is led to the morgue.  There she is shown the body of her brother Orestes, the Communist resistance fighter who has been  arrested and executed in prison.  Later, the travelling players attend the burial of Orestes.  As his body is lowered into the grave, Electra begins to clap and the others join in.  The camera draws back with the group continuing to clap, as if for the liberated soul of Orestes.

What were to become the distinctive features of an Angelopoulos film are apparent from the outset of The Travelling Players.  The troupe are seen leaving a railway station (top), and the way their movements are choreographed as they cross the square and walk towards the camera, carrying their cases, will become emblematic of Angelopoulos’ style, with its shots held for minutes at a time as the camera slowly tracks the characters’ movements.

In The Travelling Players, too, there will often be a time shift within one sequence. For example, in this opening shot, the players enter a town during the 1952 election campaign, but as they arrive at the town square, without a cut, it is 1939 and blaring loudspeakers make it clear that Metaxas, the military dictator is in power. In another superb example, a group of fascist collaborators leave a New Year’s Eve celebration dance in 1946. The camera tracks them for several hundred yards down the street as they undergo a gradual transformation from a group of singing, drunk, staggering right wingers to a full-fledged fascist group marching in step to martial music. As the uncut seven minute shot ends, the camera continues to track the group as they merge with the crowd at a victorious rally celebrating the victory in the 1952 election of Field Marshal Papagos, heading an extreme right wing government backed by a continuing American presence and US aid.

September 1944: the arrival of the Allies

Another fine example is the sequence shown in the YouTube clip below.  A town square is packed with a crowd waving Greek, American and Communist flags.  A resistance song is being sung when shots ring out.  The crowd flees, leaving the square littered with bodies.  Then a Scottish soldier crosses the square, playing the bagpipes.

This sequence represents the end of the German occupation and the arrival of the Western Allies in September 1944, by which time most of Greece had already been liberated by Greek partisans.  The Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) controlled virtually all of the country and awaited the arrival of Georgios Papandreou, the leader of the government in exile, agreeing not to occupy Athens or oppose the British intervention.

However, General Scobie, the British officer in charge of the occupation, demanded the disarmament of ELAS overruling earlier agreements. The Resistance EAM resigned from the government.  Then a mass demonstration on December 3 resulted in bloodshed when police fired into the crowd (the incident represented in this scene) . This began the Battle of Athens, represented in the continuation of the sequence, during which the British helped prevent the seizure of Athens by the leftist EAM, eventually securing an amnesty and the disarming of the EAM.

Some ELAS groups refused to accept the terms of the amnesty and returned (like Orestes0 to the mountains to carry on the fight. In the chaos that followed, Papandreou’s government collapsed, and the British forced an election despite the withdrawal of all democratic parties, with the result that the royalists won an easy victory in March 1946. The guerillas formed the Democratic Army and the Civil War raged on. In February 1947 the British informed the United States of their intention to withdraw. A month later, President Truman announced the American policy to ‘support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures’.  Military and economic aid helped defeat the Communist-dominated ELAS.

Angelopoulos’ intention is always to encourage the audience to see the parallels between the history depicted in his film and the present.  It would not be lost on Greeks that Georgios Papandreou, the leftist Prime Minister forced out of office by British manoeuvering, was the father of Andreas Papandreou, forced out of office by King Constantine II prior to the coup of 1967 that brought the military to power, and also the man whose election in 1981 ended a 50 year period of power exercised by conservative forces.

It will not be lost on Greeks watching the film in 2012 that Andreas Papandreou was, in turn, the father of  George Papandreou, who resigned as Prime Minister in November 2011 after being forced by European Union leaders to drop his plan for a referendum on the terms of the EU debt crisis relief package.  He was replaced by a national unity government headed by an unelected economist and former Vice President of the European Central Bank.

Describing The Travelling Players as one of the major neglected movie masterpieces of our times, the American critic Michael Wilmington wrote in 1990:

The Travelling Players is about dramas that can never unfold without interference, about governments that fall, revolutions that are aborted and entire streams of history that are diverted… It is about the world that lies just outside the viewpoint of the drama, ever thwarting or changing it. And it is about the transcendence of time… The form gives The Travelling Players its distinction; history and contemporaneity give it intensity; the execution gives it its beauty. […]

In The Travelling Players, the characters are less individuals than groups, less groups than figures of the Earth, lost in what surrounds them: the land, the sky and the sea.  Angelopoulos – and his virtuoso cinematographer Giorgio Arvanitis – give us bewitchingly lovely landscapes, made increasingly significant because of the terrifying events enacted against them. National betrayals echo personal ones. The Metaxas dictatorship falls with its Hitlerite allies; the resistance fighters are duped into giving up their arms; the British assume greater control; the left splits; finally Papagos, a scant improvement, takes over.

The Travelling Players, melancholy, profound and humane, is a great anti-fascist epic. Incredibly, most it was shot in a country under the tyranny of a military junta. The ellipsis and indirection, even the parallels to Aeschylus, were all part of an elaborate strategy to dupe the censors and speak to the audience, right over their heads. The film, one of the biggest popular hits in Greek history, did just that – though the ‘colonels’ fell before its release.

Poetry in the movies is always rare; Angelopoulos’ is to be particularly cherished because it is wedded to such profound intelligence, such stunning sensitivity and courage. The Travelling Players has … high artistic significance…. A classic of our times, it is a work whose purpose … is to make you hear and feel: above all, to make you see.

In The Films of Theo Angelopoulos, Andrew Horton describes the richness of this great film:

So much is presentation and representation, and it takes many forms.  There is history as spectacle: marches, gatherings, battles. There is violence disguised as ‘play’,’ as in the rape of Electra by fascists wearing clown masks. There is direct camera address in long monologues to us,  the viewers, by Agamemnon, Electra, and Pylades, a technique that alienates and thus distances us from the narrative while simultaneously allowing us to glimpse another vision of these characters. There is the presentation of history and life as a ‘musical’: folk songs, Greek blues (rebetika), political hymns – from the Left and Right – show tunes, American jazz, and British melodies as well as Nazi marches become, instead of direct
dialogue between characters, a primary form of communication and means of ‘fighting’ in The Travelling Players. And there is the constant double vision of events and characters that the viewer must experience because the characters echo the ancient myth and tragedy of the house of Atreus.

Horton concludes his analysis of the film with these words:

No simple dichotomies exist in The Travelling Players. While the film is interwoven with threads of triumph in which Orestes and his spirit survive and in which Electra becomes a focus of strength and integrity, we must note that Angelopoulos presents no simple Marxist dialectic of good and evil, Left and Right, conservative and radical realities   with the ‘workers’ winning out against the ruling class. Greek history and culture caution against such reductionism. … Angelopoulos’s vision as presented in The Travelling Players suggests a complex, troubling, yet finally replenishing view of reality in the twentieth century.

The film ends with the same shot that opened it: the travelling players, suitcases in hand, back at the same train station in 1939.  We hear a voiceover by one of the players: ‘It was autumn 1939, and we had reached Aigion.  We were tired. We had two days to rest’.

Back where we started; the struggle continues.

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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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Theo Angelopoulos’s Reconstruction

Although The Travelling Players was the first film to alert most of us, in 1975, to the work of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, it was actually his third feature film.  The first, made in 1970, was Reconstruction, and I watched it this week, courtesy of the Artificial Eye box set that collects together his early work.

Reconstruction is shot in black and white, and is a kind of rural film noir whilst also being a lamentation for the decline of the traditional Greek village and its culture.  The opening shot has all the characteristics of Angelopoulos’ later, distinctive style:  it’s a long take of a bus pulling up on a muddy road below a mountain village.   A small group of people get off the bus and start trudging uphill towards the village through pouring rain.  The way the people move, across the frame and circling around each other, will evolve into the inimitable choreography of his future films.  And with this first glimpse we are in what will remain familiar territory in an Angelopoulos film: the rain-lashed mountains, villages and towns of northern Greece, rather than the more familiar tourist locales. Interesting to note, that Angelopoulos’ film, released in 1970, contradicted a series of films – Zorba the Greek, Never on a Sunday, and so on – that reinforced the stereotype of Greece as a land of sun, passion and lively music.  Instead, Angelopoulos shows that the stereotype is already a fading memory.

The essence of the story can be stated briefly: a police investigative team have been sent to the village to stage a reconstruction of the murder of a man who has returned to the village after working in Germany as a gastarbeiter.  While his death, at the hands of his adulterous wife and her married lover, is re-staged a news crew (with the reporter played by Angelopoulos) follows the breaking news story. Disrupting the chronology of events, and interweaving interviews by the news team, Angelopoulos isn’t presenting the audience with a conventional police thriller.  Instead, he manages to turn the story of the crime into a bleak portrait of the gradual extinction of the Greek village.

Over the opening images we hear a snatch of the narration by the TV news reporter (the voice is that of Theo Angelopoulos) outlining the stark demographics of this ancient village:  its population has dwindled from 1,250 people at the 1939 census to 85 in 1965.  It’s a trend that has continued mercilessly, not only in Greece but across Europe’s rural areas, as the young have left the villages for jobs and modernity in the cities.  Today, roughly 66 % of  Greeks live in urban areas (still a smaller proportion than other European countries).  Like the murdered husband in the film, people leave to find work or educational opportunities, leaving behind a dwindling population of  elderly inhabitants. The village literally dies as the school, the church, the surgery and the shops close.  The older people will die and everything will be abandoned. Untended, the fields will decay as rain washes away once fertile soil. At one point in the film an elderly village resident says to the TV crew:

In the old days these villages were better off. There was plenty of work around. Now all the young ones are leaving. It’s only us old ones who are left.  Then we’ll die and the villages will be empty…and when the villages are empty, that won’t be too good for the cities either.

Village culture dies, too, including the traditional songs and communal dances.  It’s not without significance that after the opening narration, the next thing we hear on the soundtrack is an old mountain song from Epirus, this area of northern Greece. Epirus has its own tradition, expressed in songs, dances and local costumes.  The song on the soundtrack, ‘The Little Lemon Tree’, is one of the most characteristic songs of the region.

What was it that attracted Angelopoulos’ interest in the dying traditions of these Greek villages?  In an interview in 1993, he said:

The old Greek village had a spirit, a life, full of work and play and festivity.  Of course, Greek villages began to lose population by the turn of the century, but it was really World War II and the subsequent civil war in Greece that completely destroyed the reality and concept of the Greek village.  Our whole way of life was changed by these two catastrophes. … Part of the result was that in the 1950s over 500,000 village men went to Germany, but also to America and Australia and other places to become guest workers.  Suddenly the men were gone and the women remained.  With all these changes, the spirit of the villages began to die.

It’s important to note, however, that Angelopoulos is not a city romantic who idealises the village.  The film builds a sense of the closed-in, oppressive atmosphere of the village, its prying and its gossip.  Nowhere is this sense of repressive values more evident than in the penultimate scene where the adulterous and murderous wife is attacked by the screaming, vengeful village women as she is led away by the police.  As always, Angelopoulos harks back to the ancient tales of Greek myth: this might be Clytemnestra attacked by the Furies.

As the film unfolds, we watch the murder scene re-enacted, separately, by the two suspects – the wife Eleni, and her lover Christos.  Key witnesses and members of the investigative team are interviewed on film by the TV reporter.  But we never truly learn how the murder was carried out.  In the final scene we are returned to the moment of the murder as Eleni’s husband, back from Germany, walks to their house and enters.  A dog howls as the camera remains focussed on the front of the simple stone cottage.  There is silence.  Then Eleni’s three children come into the yard and play, soon joined by Eleni herself.  Christos leaves, and Eleni and the children go inside and close the door.

Reconstruction was made at the point when the Greek military junta had been in power for three years.  The junta had imposed strict censorship on the arts.  The leaders of the junta were all village men who believed that the moral fabric of the country was under threat, and who aimed to restore village morality and Greek Christian values.  It was a difficult time for a leftist like Angelopoulos to make a film that raised critical questions about those values.  Angelopoulos senses something lost with the decay of the Greek village, but he also succeeds in smuggling into the film a critical perspective on the repressive nature of the traditional values proclaimed by the military regime. One way in which this achieved is through the compelling central performance by Toula Stathopoulou as Eleni, a woman who is rock-like in her inexpressive determination.  It is through her portrayal that we begin to feel the oppressive weight of the male-dominated society in which she lives.  In one of the few sentences she utters, she appeals to her brother, ‘Help me, I’m lost’.

In that 1993 interview, Angelopoulos said:

What do I want to happen? I simply want our life here to become more human. We need to return to those places to find much of what is still important and authentic to our lives. Theo Angelopoulos

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