Alice Oswald’s Memorial

Alice Oswald’s <em>Memorial</em>

I have never read The Iliad and unfamiliarity with the Classics leaves me confused as to names, relations and stories.  But none of that matters when you pick up Alice Oswald’s stunning new poem which is, as the author says, a lament, ‘a kind of oral cemetery’.  This powerful anti-war poem is a memorial to the dead soldiers of The Iliad.  It begins with a list of the soldiers who died during the ten-year siege of the city of Troy, Greeks and Trojans, their names written in capital letters:

PROTESILAUS
ECHEPOLUS
ELEPHENOR
SIMOSIOS
LEUKOS
DEMOCOON

– the names continue, echoing across thirty-one centuries, for another eight pages.

The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington

The poem is, Alice Oswald states in an introduction,  ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story’. She calls it a ‘reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’.  The way that Oswald goes about this is to draw upon Homer’s stories, briefly eulogising each soldier with a concise description of his death, followed by a simile that is repeated twice as a refrain.

Oswald is a classicist – she read classics at Oxford – and in her introduction she notes that just about every critic since Matthew Arnold has tended to praise the Iliad for its nobility.  She prefers the ancient critics, who praised Homer’s enargeia, his ‘bright unbearable reality’.

Alice Owald and the cover of Memorial

Alice Owald and the cover of ‘Memorial’

The words are as clear as everyday conversation; the twice-repeated similes, each of which begins with ‘like…’ have the force of a blues.  Here are three passages that give a sense of the whole:

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower‐lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus     Iton      Pteleus     Antron
He died in mid‐air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half‐built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads

*****

IPHIDAMAS a big ambitious boy
At the age of eighteen at the age of restlessness
His family crippled him with love
They gave him a flute and told him to amuse himself
In his grandfather’s sheep‐nibbled fields
That didn’t work they gave him a bride
Poor woman lying in her new name alone
She said even on his wedding night
He seemed to be wearing armour
He kept yawning and looking far away
And by the next morning he’d vanished
Arrogant farmhand fresh from the fields
He went straight for Agamemnon
Aiming for the soft bit under the breastplate
And leaning in pushing all his violence
All his crazy impatience into the thrust
But he couldn’t quite break through the belt‐metal
Against all that silver the spear‐tip
Simply bent like lead and he lost
Poor Iphidamas now he is only iron
Sleeping its iron sleep poor boy
Who fought for Helen for his parents’ town
Far from his wife all that money wasted
A hundred cattle he gave her
A thousand sheep and goats
All that hard work feeding them wasted
Grief is black it is made of earth
It gets into the cracks in the eyes
It lodges its lump in the throat
When a man sees his brother on the ground
He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere
Lashing without looking and that was how COON died
First he wounded Agamemnon
Then he grabbed his brother’s stiffened foot
And tried to drag him home shouting
Help for god’s sake this is Iphidamas
Someone please help but Agamemnon
Cut off his head and that was that
Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man
That was their daylight here finished
And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world

****

And HECTOR died like everyone else
He was in charge of the Trojans
But a spear found out the little patch of white
Between his collarbone and his throat
Just exactly where a man’s soul sits
Waiting for the mouth to open
He always knew it would happen
He who was so boastful and anxious
And used to nip home deafened by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running
All women loved him
His wife was Andromache
One day he looked at her quietly
He said I know what will happen
And an image stared at him of himself dead
And her in Argos weaving for some foreign woman
He blinked and went back to his work
Hector loved Andromache
But in the end he let her face slide from his mind
He came back to her sightless
Strengthless expressionless
Asking only to be washed and burned
And his bones wrapped in soft cloths
And returned to the ground

Memorial is a lament for the dead of all wars: the friends who die side by side,

In a daze of loneliness
Their conversation unfinished

or the boy who was a famous hunter but dies

Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands

On the Gists and Piths blog, Simon Turner in Notes on Alice Oswald’s Memorial writes that:

Memorial … doesn’t feel like a reduction of the Iliad, but rather a concentration.  Oswald is forcing the poem to speak across centuries: the numbering and naming of the war-dead is as vital an act of public memorial and mourning now as it was 100, 500, 3000 years ago.

Memorial differs from previous poems that have used Homer’s poetry as a jumping off point – Logue’s War Music and Simon Armitage’s version of the Odyssey spring to mind – because its act of reduction is formal rather than narrative.  Logue strips the Iliad down to brass tacks to tell the story of Achilles’ rage more readily, whilst Armitage recasts Homer in his own blokey idiom, chopping two thirds of the tale in the process.

Oswald is as ruthless in her editing, but her interests lie elsewhere: her intention, it seems to me, is to make the poem more contemporary by, paradoxically, stripping it of all but the aspects of Homer’s work that precede Homer.  Writes Oswald in her preface: “This version . . . takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.  What’s left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers”.  Oswald sees these two poles of the poem as deriving from distinct sources: the pastoral lyric and the formal lament, both with their roots in the oral tradition. […]

The poem itself is startling, relentless in its close focus on violence and death, like the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan spread across 80 pages.  With the narrative gone, the function of the Homeric simile – where the action pauses momentarily and we are whisked away from the combat zone into the realm of the natural world – becomes doubly important: there’d otherwise be no breathing room at all.  Oswald seems to have been aware of this, with the similes in many instances being repeated, like the chorus of a song.  The reader is literally being forced to slow down for just a moment before rushing back headlong into the fray.  It’s very effective, no more so than at the poem’s conclusion, which provides an epilogue of disembodied similes that might be read as collective elegies for the war dead…

As Simon Turner notes, the poem ends with a series of similes of multitudes – leaves blowing in the wind, chaff at threshing time, thousands of water birds massing in the air:

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matters no more than the leaves

And then:

Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone.

The view from Troy across the plain of Ilium to the Aegean Sea

See also

We are all Greek now

Imagine that this is us: scrutineers from the European Union move permanently into our government departments; international financial institutions insist that our constitution is rewritten to make servicing our government debt the priority; those institutions stump up a fund to bail out our public debt, but pay the money into an escrow account, releasing  funds only under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank, and on condition that key public services are privatised, wages and pensions slashed and conditions of service torn up.

This is what Greeks are waking up to this morning, now that the eurozone finance ministers have agreed the rescue deal for their country’s debt bailout.  It means, as Larry Elliot writes in today’s Guardian, that Greece is now ‘independent in name only’, colonised and policed by the richer members of the eurozone:

In effect, Greece is being stripped of its sovereignty; it will be an independent country in name only. A further condition – that Greece pass legislation making debt repayment the top priority of government spending – may be the moment the worm turns.

Greece is an extreme case, of course.  But the austerity measures being endured by Greeks are only a more drastic version of the medicine administered in the UK and elsewhere in Europe as the response to the 2008 banking collapse.  Everywhere, people are laid off, welfare is cut, the state and public services are hollowed out and privatised.  I’m just back from a short break in London (more about that later this week).  One day I followed the Guardian’s Dickens walk through the heart of the City of London.  It was very revealing, taking me past luxury shops and eateries for the City’s wealthy, such as the Royal Exchange (above) and the imposing edifices of buildings that bear powerful names – RBS, Lloyd’s, Barclay’s, the Bank of England – but also past people sleeping in doorways on flimsy sheets of cardboard, and the site of the Occupy London protest outside St Paul’s, where I snapped the ‘Solidarity – We Are All Greek’ banner (top).

It’s instructive, too, to read (also in today’s Guardian) of A4e (it means ‘Action For Employment’), the private company to which the government sub-contracts the job of getting unemployed people back to work under the welfare to work programme.  Last month, the House of Commons’ public accounts committee revealed that last year the head of A4e, Emma Harrison, paid herself a dividend of £8.6m, while last week police raided A4e’s offices in Slough as part of a fraud inquiry.  The Daily Mail has been reporting that A4e still get paid by the Department of Work and Pensions, even when a job placement has lasted only 24 hours.  In his article for The Guardian, John Harris comments:

The rise of A4e also highlights a very modern fact of public life: handing over large swaths of what the state used to do to the private sector has become so mundane as to barely attract comment, and some people have been doing very well out of it indeed. The management consultancyMcKinsey is tightly bound into Andrew Lansley’s health reforms; such firms as Serco and Capita provide everything from call centres, through supply teachers, to private prisons. The cutting edge of all this can be mind-boggling: as well as being an unlikely Work Programme provider, for example, the security firm G4S is about to sign a contract to run a privatised police station in Lincolnshire. There is, in short, a growing shadow state, which manages to pay its shareholders handsome dividends despite the climate of chilly austerity. Certainly, in the UK, A4e seems to be something close to an arm of government: it depends on the state for all its takings, and hold contracts worth up to £180m a year.

Last week, Real Democracy in Greece issued this Call to Action:

We are all Greeks

When one people is attacked, all peoples are attacked. On the 10th of February, the non-elected Greece Government adopted a hideous and destructive new austerity plan, passed by the parliament (199 MPs voted in favor, 101 against) on the 12th of February. The new austerity measures impose a 22% reduction in the minimum wage, which will remain frozen for the next three years; collective bargaining is simply abolished; 15000 public sector workers are laid off and 150000 jobs will be destroyed through non-renewal of contract…

The people of Greece are bravely rising up against social terror policies. Demonstrations, as well as general strikes, become more and more frequent, despite the violent repression and the media’s deafening silence.

The people of Greece need international solidarity and they are calling for our support. Let’s reply to their call. We are all Greek!

Their mobilization is clashing against the wall of a European and international dictatorship; the dictatorship of the financial markets and the troika: EU, ECB and IMF, who have imposed austerity measures and a non-elected government on the Greek people.

The EU governments are involved in this dictatorship, implementing measures which are in the same line in those in other countries. Greece is being used as a laboratory before applying these measures more generally.

On Saturday, demonstrations took place in cities around the world to show support for the people of Greece as they face the drastic austerity measures.  The mood was captured in this video compiled by Nik the Greek: We are all Greeks now.

Last Friday on Newsnight Paul Mason, just back from Greece, presented a vivid account of what life is like there now for ordinary people.  There was an especially moving moment as the camera panned across the weary faces of impoverished Greeks waiting for attention at a Medecins Du Monde clinic set up to provide health care for migrants who fall through the Greek social security net. Since the crisis, something startling has happened. Greeks have started to turn up here, in ever larger numbers.  As a doctor said, ‘poverty looks and feels wherever you come from, but to see Greeks here in such numbers is shocking’.  On his blog, Mason discusses the ramifications of what is happening in Greece:

During the autumn, Greek commentators began to speak of “anomic breakdown”, where people begin to disobey laws and social norms individually. Back then I reported on small road toll defiance movements, and the occupation of courts trying to repossess homes.

Now it is different. Anomie has been replaced by something much less obscure in the annals of social history: visceral hostility to the Germans and north Europeans who are seen as imposing the austerity. And the hostility has only grown this week, as the euro group threw back in the faces of the Greek government their austerity plans and refused to release the bailout money.

The lightning rod for this hostility has been the call by two Greek octogenarians – Mikis Theodorakis and Manolis Glezos – for an “uprising”.  Mr Theodorakis is, of course, famous as a composer. Mr Glezos is famous for tearing down the Nazi swastika flag from the Acropolis in May 1941. Both were gassed as they tried to march on parliament on Sunday night.

Mason goes on to note the scale of the protests continually taking place on the streets, that are increasingly ignored by the Greek media and an unknown quantity to the Greek political elite, who now rarely venture out from their offices:

I have been reporting the Greek crisis now for two years, intermittently on the ground, and it looks like something changed, tangibly, in the past 10 days.  The established parties lost belief in what the EU is forcing them to do; parts of the EU lost belief in it too; and the people – quite wide layers of society – lost belief in the political class. […]

This is hardly spoken of by Greek ministers and the EU doesn’t seem to want to comment on it. But I can tell you from repeated experience, it feels like a process of collective punishment of a peaceful majority. …

At the start of the demo I saw one other (foreign) TV crew and that was it. Parts of the Greek broadcast media have long since given up telling the story of the streets; for most of them it is too dangerous, such is the popular hostility to a media many believe is in the pocket of a corrupt political class.

That is sad, but here’s the wider problem this creates. If you are Schauble, Rehn, Merkel, Lagarde, you are increasingly flying blind in this crisis. The Greek papers, heavily politically aligned, can only partially reflect what is happening. The Greek politicians you talk to spend their nights shuttered behind grilles in anonymous offices – they cannot appear in public, they cannot get a feel of the streets.

It looks as if our children, or our children’s children, will have to do what our parents’ generation did: build a new welfare state out of the ruins and failures of private enterprise, and restate once again the greater good of public service and taking care of each other rather than private profit.

See also

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

The dream is over: what kind of Europe is this?

‘The dream is over’, wrote John Lennon in 1970 after the breakup of the Beatles, disillusioned with the band, the whole sixties scene, and belief systems generally.  I’m having pretty much the same feelings at the moment about the European Union as the implications sink in of the acceptance of the EU/IMF austerity package by a coerced Greek parliament ringed by desperate protests, riots and burning buildings.

Through the 1990s and into the new century, I taught European Studies, and in that heady decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the launch of the euro, I accompanied young students on educational trips to Brussels and beyond, visiting the European Parliament and other EU institutions, absorbing the lessons of the past at the First World war sites of northern France and Belgium, and encountering the signs of Europe’s 20th century nightmare in other places.  With those ghosts at our shoulders, it felt intoxicating to be able to cross frontiers unchecked, sailing past boarded-up border posts, carrying bright new euro notes and coins that could be spent anywhere.

Today, there are no illusions.  Across Europe, the EU has been transformed in the minds of voters everywhere into an undemocratic regime of bureaucrats imposing spartanism on the less fortunate in the name of the rich and the powerful.  To forge ahead towards EU fiscal union with social tensions and resentment rising seems like madness.

A decade or more ago, there seemed to be a strong case for arguing that the supranational structures of the EU were the only way that national or local populations could retain sovereignty over their territorial affairs and interests, under pressure from the forces of globalization (large multi-national firms, outsourcing of labour, mass migration, ecological disaster, climate change and so on).  Indeed,this was the argument that turned most of the British left and trade union movement (myself included) into ardent Europeans from the 1980s onwards.

That case is still valid today as nation-states increasingly fail to protect their citizens from the depredations of globalisation – more so in the current global recession.  National governments are failing to effectively regulate financial systems, protect the environment, or narrow the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. In other words, democratic states can only retain their sovereignty insofar as they do what the EU was established to do – pool their sovereignty in supra-national projects of coordination and cooperation.

But what is happening now is a long way removed from the ideals of the founding fathers of ‘ever closer union’, indeed current moves seem likely to jeopardise the whole project, with a gulf opening up between Germany and those who live in nations having to endure austerity measures imposed by the alliance of banks and EU technocrats, and a growing sense of alienation from the EU expressed on the street from Athens to Galway. As Maria Margaronis writes in today’s Guardian, ‘this is not the people’s Europe we dreamed of’.  Of course, there was always something schizophrenic about the EU – on the one hand establishing and codifying the rights of European citizens or transferring resources from rich to poor areas under the funds for social cohesion, whilst at the same time battering down the barriers to an open market for multinationals to profit from.

But, the treatment of the Greeks (and of Portugal, Ireland and the rest) really does pose the question of what kind of Europe we want. Because there are other ways out of the financial crisis facing the eurozone than the one being pursued currently by the technocrats in Berlin and Brussels.  If he sticks to his guns, François Hollande, the Socialist party candidate in France’s presidential election, could demonstrate that.

At the EU summit on 30 January a new Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union was finalised by the leaders of all EU member states (with the exception of the UK and the Czech Republic).  It’s an extraordinary document, following as it does the replacement of democratically elected politicians with technocrats in Italy and Greece. Once agreed, mere elections and changes of government will not be able to change the caps on public spending set out in the treaty: even when a majority in a parliament changes, it will be unlawful to overthrow the budget limits. Any new government that tries it will be hauled before the European Court of Justice.  As Kirsty Hughes wrote on Open Democracy, this is a bleak day for European democracy:

This sweeping agreement to move a central economic policy choice – argued over by politicians and economists alike for much of the last 80 years – out of the remit of democratic politics is an extraordinary moment in European political history. If Obama and the US were bound by EU rules, the mildly Keynesian policies that are allowing the US economy to grow while the EU hits recession would be illegal.

Teargas in front of the Greek parliament

And now, even after the Greek parliament has voted to accept the terms of the bailout, the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund which drafted the programme of Greek cuts are demanding a signed pledge from all political leaders in Greece that, whatever the outcome of the election in April, the terms of the bailout will be ‘clearly and unequivocally’ upheld.

This has everything to do with the euro, and the desperate need by Germany and the other nations of the EU’s rich north to keep it afloat.  Back in the 1999, at the time when the single currency project was being finalized, Timothy Garton-Ash (always a reliable commentator on European matters) was prescient in expressing his doubts:

The leaders of the Western Europe concentrated their energies on the amazing adventure of monetary union. … Only a fool or a bigot could not see the potential benefits.  But I think it was simply the wrong priority for the 1990s.  After the miraculously peaceful end of the Cold War, we should have concentrated our efforts on building [a] liberal order for the whole of Europe.  And I’m afraid that EMU is a bridge too far for Western Europe itself.  Some of the countries now in monetary union are not ready for it.  I fear the resulting strains will make Western Europe a very bad-tempered place  – perhaps even worse – at some point in the next ten years.
(The History of the Present, 1999)

Let’s recall where it all began: in 1945 Europe lay in ruins and 50 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives in a conflict that dwarfed even the First World War in its level of death and destruction. But, whereas World War 1 exacerbated nationalism and ideological extremism in Europe, World War 2 had almost the opposite effect.  People in different parts of Europe began to dream of a different kind of Europe. Many were from Europe’s linguistic and political borderlands – Schuman from Lorraine, Adenauer from the Rhineland, De Gasperi from northern Italy, Spaak from bilingual Belgium.

Within five years of the end of the war, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, prompted by Jean Monnet, proposed to Germany the first practical move toward European unity, and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed and made support for the principles of European integration the cornerstone of German foreign policy after the War. He wrote:

Though it is often said that mankind is incapable of learning from history, this is not absolutely correct, to judge by our German experience.

As a result of the disaster which two world wars have brought to Germany, the great majority of our people have consciously or intuitively realised that nations cannot continue to live exclusively according to their own desires and inclinations, but must merge their interests with those of the other peoples of the world. There is no longer any important problem which is only a German or even only a European one. We must learn to think and to act in larger terms.

The saying “We are all brothers!” is not an empty phrase and must never be allowed to become one. We must not think of certain countries as far away and therefore of no interest to us. Every country concerns us, for peace is indivisible and unless every country, in its decisions and acts, takes thought of the state of the whole world, this peace will never come.

The age of national states has come to an end. Everyone must feel that a change has taken place, that an era has vanished and that a new age is dawning in which men will look beyond the borders of their own country and work in fraternal co-operation with other nations for the true aims of humanity… And when this Europe, this new Europe, is built, our young people will once more find scope for active and peaceful lives.  We in Europe must break ourselves of the habit of thinking in terms of national states.

– Konrad Adenauer, The End of Nationalism, 1955

While the European Community was being constructed in Western Europe, there were those, such as Vaclav Havel the leading dissident in Czechoslovakia during the Communist years who dreamed of seeing that community extended eastward:

All of us … thought about freedom and injustice, about human rights, about democracy and political pluralism, about market economics and much else besides. Because we thought, we also dreamed. We dreamt, whether in or out of prison, of a Europe without barbed wire, high walls, artificially divided nations and gigantic stockpiles of weapons, of a Europe free of “blocs”, of a European policy based on respect for human rights. … We must not be afraid to dream of the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality. Without dreaming of a better Europe we shall never build a better Europe.

– Vaclav Havel, President of Czech Republic, 1990

Today, though, Maria Margaronis can write from Athens that

Both left and right talk about a new German occupation – an understandable reference given that Germany is calling the shots and that Greeks last queued at soup kitchens in the 1940s …. Both those tropes call up the silent ghosts of the Greek civil war, which launched the cold war in Europe and outlawed the Greek left for the next 30 years. In this story, the west plays the part of the repressive imperial interloper.

She concludes that what is really at stake here is not simply to do with Greece – it’s a question of Europe’s identity:

All eyes are fixed on Athens, but the way out of the crisis requires a choice about what kind of Europe we want. The one we have now, with its deep structural inequalities and its rigid adherence to a failed economic ideology, protects neither democracy nor human rights. Stiff-necked and punitive, it prefers to eat its children.

Can the seemingly impossible become a reality, as Vaclav Havel expressed it?  Is it still possible to dream of a better Europe,  to build a better Europe?

Melancholia: apocalypse now

I enjoyed the apocalypse.  In Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, which I watched last night, a bunch of self-absorbed wealthy individuals are gathered in an elegant  château with its own golf course as a ghost planet on a collision course with Earth approaches in slow-motion.

Watching the film on the same evening that six ministers had resigned from the Greek government in protest at the eurozone finance ministers demanding still more spending cuts in return for a bailout, I couldn’t resist seeing a parallel.  For months now, we seem to have watched transfixed as the likelihood of a ‘disorderly’ Greek default and the economic apocalypse that might mean has approached inexorably, in slow-motion.

The film opens with a breathtaking prologue, a series of dreamlike slow-motion images of the end of the world orchestrated to the intense sounds of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  There are references here to films such as Last Year in Marienbad and painters ranging from Velasquez and Bruegel to Millais. Two moons shine upon the earth casting shadows in two directions, a horse appears to melt into the earth, electrical currents rise from poles and fingers, and the earth collides with a wandering planet.

Does the rest of the film live up to this jaw-dropping opening? Is it of such greatness that it becomes possible to overlook the terrible reputation of Lars von Trier – his misogyny, his disdain for people with disabilities, and his stupid remarks about Nazism?  I must say I liked the answer that Philip French gave in the hugely enjoyable opening words of his review for the Observer:

Woody Allen once said: “If I had to live my life again I’d do everything the same, except that I wouldn’t see The Magus.” By the same token, if I was told that the end of the world was nigh, I wouldn’t waste my time seeing Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s celebration of the imminent extinction of planet Earth. I’d do something more pleasurable like taking an axe to a cigarette machine and smoking my first fag for 40 years, an activity I still associate with movie-going.

The body of the film is, in the  words of a Time Out review, ‘under-developed, uninteresting and underwhelming’.  It concerns the last few months in the life of two sisters (and, indeed, everyone else on the planet), Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  It is in two parts: the first, ‘Justine’, deals with her disastrous wedding reception, that provokes recollections of Festen, one of the early films that was shot following von Trier’s Dogme precepts.   The second part, ‘Claire’, shifts attention to the other sister, as she, along with her husband, her child and Justine await the approach of the planet named Melancholia.

As the planet approaches, the depressive Justine emerges from listlessness and seems to welcome the collision as bringing a fitting end to an evil world. ‘The earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it’, she observes, perhaps voicing the feelings of the film’s provocative director.

Along with the prologue, the most visually striking moments of the film comes in its closing moments as the two sisters and the boy huddle together, clasping each others hands in the ‘shelter’ that Justine has made, the planet of the apocalypse looming behind them.

There’s a poem, ‘Darkness’ written by Lord Byron  in July 1816, the year known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’ because of the pall of darkness cast across the earth following the eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indies the previous year.  It shares the same apocalyptic atmosphere as von Trier’s film:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires–and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings–the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire–but hour by hour
They fell and faded–and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash–and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless–they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought–and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails–men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress–he died.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died–
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless–
A lump of death–a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge–
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them–She was the Universe.

Meanwhile, thousands of homeless Greeks huddle on pavements and park benches, in metro stations and shopping arcades, doorways and cars, the visible sign yet of an economy in freefall and of the approaching economic apocalypse.  Reporting from Athens for the Observer, Helena Smith writes:

The truth – as unpalatable as it may be for the IMF, EU and European Central Bank, Greece’s “troika” of creditors – is that, far from plugging the country’s budget black holes, the harsh austerity pursued in the name of deficit-reducing goals has pushed it towards economic and social collapse. Relentless wage and pension cuts, tax rises and cost-cutting reforms have left the country a shadow of itself. In its fifth successive year of recession, Greece is a hollowed-out version of what it once was, coming apart at the seams a little more with each day. Men and women forage through rubbish bins late at night. More sleep on the streets.

While Giorgos Kyrtsos, a Greek political commentator is quoted as saying:

Nothing functions. Nobody pays anybody any more and the state is not just crumbling but in complete stasis. These guys [officials in the troika of European agencies negotiating the bailout] should really lose their jobs. They’ve miscalculated everything. I understand on Friday the police trade union called for their arrests. Well, maybe they are right!

A homeless man in Athens. The graffiti reads: 'We shoud not live as slaves.'

There are times
When the only thing you can
Do is not to hope

–   Dino Siotis

Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me

– Giorgos Seferis

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

Poseidonians: how low they’ve fallen now

I’m no great fan of referenda (clumsy, too easily manipulated) but it’s a bit rich when leaders in a Union that claims democracy as its most sacred founding principle suggest that allowing the Greek people a say in the fate of their country is outrageous. The saddest aspect of the current deepening crisis is, as Seumas Milne suggests in his piece today in The Guardian:

…the controversy goes to the heart of Europe’s problem with democracy. It’s not just fear of the risks of delay on febrile bond markets that has caused apoplexy, but the danger that Greeks might vote the wrong way. Voting is not how things are done in the EU. And whenever a state does actually consult its people – Denmark and Ireland had a go – they are made to vote again until they get it right.  But the democratic deficit has now tipped over into a democratic crisis. To protect the banks that lent to Greece and protected its elite from unwelcome tax demands, the country is being systematically stripped of its sovereignty, as EU and IMF officials swarm over its ministries drafting budgets, setting policy deadlines, “advising” on tax and pushing through state selloffs.

For many years, in my job teaching students preparing for university, my subject was European Studies and back then, in the 1990s, after the Wall had fallen and the Maastricht Treaty had created the European Union, there was a positive, optimistic buzz around the project – something me and my students sensed particularly when we travelled to Brussels to observe the EU institutions at work.  There was talk then of the ‘democratic deficit’ – but a heady feeling that the problem would soon be overcome.  And much of the discussion around the single currency was of the benefits that would flow to the ordinary citizen – an end to having to change money (and lose money) as you crossed borders, easy cross-border shopping, that kind of thing.

But as Seumas Milne observes:

the loss of credibility created by the crisis goes beyond the eurozone to the economic ideology that has shaped the whole European Union for decades: of deregulation, privatisation and the privileging of corporate power, regardless of the modest employment rights introduced to limit social dumping.

Milne concludes that ‘none of the mainstream political parties across Europe is facing up to the failure of that model or the crisis of democracy it has sparked. … Everywhere the crisis is turning the orthodoxies of the past generation on their head – and it’s going to be a different world by the time the debris has cleared’.

Last week, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of essays, State Of The Union, in which writers and journalist from five member states mused on the present crisis.  The prevailing tone – whether the writer was Irish, Italian or French was that of an elegy for the prosperous and hopeful days of the 1990s.  In the final essay, the Greek novelist Ersi Sotiropoulos, mused that

Autumn this year in Greece is darker than in other years – a season of insecurity and distress. The signs of recession are everywhere: in the centre of Athens shops are closing one after another. Immigrants squat in dilapidated buildings, the trash piles up in the streets. … I walk through a collapsing city, a city paralysed by the strikes, where rubbish from the past several weeks still sits uncollected in the streets and wonder – is this place really a part of Europe?

She went on to detail the huge social consequences of the austerity programme forced on the Greek people:

Steep cuts in Greek social programmes, wide cuts across the public sector, tax increases requiring even minimum wage workers to pay much higher taxes, cutbacks in pensions, so-called reforms… Greece’s state assets were to be privatised and sold to priavte banks and investors at heavily discounted prices – the telephone company, Greece’s two main ports and the National Lottery.  These decisions were made without any kind of consensus, and what the government was being asked to achieve was close to impossible. People weren’t prepared to accept the measures and took to the streets. The protestors feel doubly betrayed – not only by successive administrations which through waste, abuse and mismanagement brought them to this point – but by their European partners who borrow at rates of 1.5 to 3% and then lend to Greece at 5 or 6%, making money from Greek misfortune.

Then Sotiropoulos raised perhaps the most significant and depressing point about these events – that the European Union is steadily becoming associated in the minds of citizens across Europe with an elite far-removed from the street and the experience of ordinary people.  Events at the Cannes Summit this afternoon reinforces a sense of increasing division and hostility in the EU, as the Merkozy axis sternly admonishes Papandreou for daring to call a referendum and threatens that, if push comes to shove, Greece can be banished from the eurozone. Ersi Sotiropoulos:

Then there is the German Question. Of all the European nations, Germany is the most strident in demanding that the Greeks be punished for their fiscal irresponsibility. Yet Germany was the world’s largest debtor after both World Wars – and in both instances owed its economic recovery to debt relief on a massive scale. The Greeks have reopened the matter of Germany’s debts to them, which date back to World War II.  …  When it occupied Greece, Germany confiscated all the gold in the State Treasury as a “war loan” to cover the costs of the occupation. Today this loan, which was never repaid, would be worth $95 billion US dollars.  The only reason Germany refuses to pay it back is that this would create a precedent – in other words, other countries might seek a similar restitution.

The hope for the future that forged the European Union was that there should be no return to the barbarism of nationalism and war on the continent.  But for those born in the last 20 or 30 years, this increasingly is not a felt emotion, but just something in the history books. Six years ago, in his magisterial history of Europe since 1945, Postwar, Tony Judt warned of this:

If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us.  The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to the past.  If Europeans are to maintain this vital link – if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose – then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation.  ‘European Union’ may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.

In her Radio 4 essay, Ersi Sotiropoulos concluded:

Amidst all this turmoil, the Greeks feel abandoned, confused: their country is on the brink of disaster. In their panic, some people are stockpiling canned food and milk in their homes. Others have withdrawn all their savings from the bank. If years of corrupt governments, clientelism and favouritism prevented Greeks from developing a sense of citizenship, that doesn’t mean that all Greeks are corrupt or thieves.  Though we know that other countries on the periphery of the eurozone will soon follow in Greece’s wake, that doesn’t make us feel any more European. … The Treaty Of Rome – intended to create a peaceful Europe, independent from the U.S. and founded on mutual support and development – seems today like empty words. There is no solidarity between member states.

She had begun her talk by quoting the poem Poseidonians, written by Constantine Cavafy in 1906:

The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival’s end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remembered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.

Links

Where are we headed?

Greek trade unionists block the entrance of the Greek Labour ministry in Athens

It’s the strangest sensation – for week after week, watching as the global financial system inches steadily closer to the abyss and the world’s politicians repeatedly kick a resolution to the European debt crisis a few weeks or months down the road.  Today, the Greeks are on general strike, battling to resist  measures that have pushed Greeks to the brink of penury. How bad can things get?  Your salary halved (if you’re a public sector worker)? The imposition out of the blue of a property tax of €1,500, payable this month, and if you don’t pay your electricity gets cut off (everyone)?

Larry Elliott’s piece in today’s Guardian was jaw-droppingly apocalyptic:

Welcome to the new normal. Billions of pounds were wiped off the value of shares in London on Tuesday 4 October. Dexia, a bank jointly owned by the French and the Belgians, teetered on the brink of collapse. One of the main barometers of Wall Street sentiment slid into bear-market territory. An emergency press conference called by Greece’s finance minister was delayed because the building was being picketed by civil servants. […]

The panic-stricken reaction of the markets over the past few days reflects a growing mood in the financial markets that the default will not be managed and orderly but messy, with knock-on effects not just for the rest of the eurozone but for the entire world economy.

Banks will go bust, credit will dry up, trade will wither, jobs will be shed. Greece, Lehman Brothers 2.0, will be the prelude to the second Great Depression, something policy-makers were congratulating themselves on avoiding only a few months ago. […]

Hence the concern about the alternative, much darker scenario in which the financial market pressure on Greece becomes intolerable and triggers a default for which the politicians are not prepared. Market interest rates for the other struggling eurozone countries go through the roof. Banks in the US refuse to extend lines of credit to Europe, where the banks go down like ninepins. Greece decides that the only long-term solution to its problems is to leave the euro, thus triggering a rapid unravelling of monetary union. As in the 1930s, deep economic distress has profound political consequences, fostering the growth of extreme nationalist parties.  This is the doomsday option, and over the coming weeks and months finance ministers and central bank governors will do all in their power to prevent it from coming to pass.

Who is to blame for this crisis?  Politicians?  Banks?  Speculators? Regulators? It surely isn’t your ordinary joe or josephine, Greek, American, Irish, Italian, or a citizen of wherever.  There was a clue, maybe, in an interview the BBC broadcast last week with some sort of trader, Alessio Rastani, who spoke with such brutal honesty from the perspective of a speculator, that his interview was initially suspected to be a Yes Men hoax (it appears it wasn’t):

The governments don’t rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world.

The savings of millions of people are going to vanish in less than a year

For most traders we don’t really care about having a fixed economy, having a fixed situation, our job is to make money from it. Personally, I’ve been dreaming of this moment for three years. I go to bed every night and I dream of another recession.

When the market crashes… if you know what to do, if you have the right plan set up, you can make a lot of money from this.

The Yes Men later issued a statement:

Who in big banking doesn’t bet against the interests of the poor and find themselves massively recompensed – if not by the market, then by humongous taxpayer bailouts? Rastani’s approach has been completely mainstream for several years now; we must thank him for putting a human face on it yesterday.

If  we don’t know who caused this whole mess, we certainly know who are getting it in the neck: the 99 percent.  That’s the number (the 99% of Americans who together own only twice as much wealth as the other 1%) that is now galvanising a movement that began with the Occupy Wall Street sit-in (now three weeks old) and is now spreading worldwide.   They say:

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

The 99 percent website features lots of images like this one – handwritten summaries of lives devastated, held up to the camera by the victims of what may turn out to be the second Great Depression.  They say:

Who are we? Well, who are you? If you’re reading this, there’s a 99 percent chance that you’re one of us.

You’re someone who doesn’t know whether there’s going to be enough money to make this month’s rent. You’re someone who gets sick and toughs it out because you’ll never afford the hospital bills. You’re someone who’s trying to move a mountain of debt that never seems to get any smaller no matter how hard you try. You do all the things you’re supposed to do. You buy store brands. You get a second job. You take classes to improve your skills. But it’s not enough. It’s never enough. The anxiety, the frustration, the powerlessness is still there, hovering like a storm crow. Every month you make it is a victory, but a Pyrrhic one — once you’re over the hump, all you can do is think about the next one and how much harder it’s all going to be.

They say it’s because you’re lazy. They say it’s because you make poor choices. They say it’s because you’re spoiled. If you’d only apply yourself a little more, worked a little harder, planned a little better, things would go well for you. Why do you need more help? Haven’t they helped you enough? They say you have no one to blame but yourself. They say it’s all your fault.

They are the 1 percent. They are the banks, the mortgage industry, the insurance industry. They are the important ones. They need help and get bailed out and are praised as job creators. We need help and get nothing and are called entitled. We live in a society made for them, not for us. It’s their world, not ours. If we’re lucky, they’ll let us work in it so long as we don’t question the extent of their charity.

We are the 99 percent. We are everyone else. And we will no longer be silent. It’s time the 1 percent got to know us a little better. On Sept. 17, 2011, the 99 percent will converge on Wall Street to let the 1 percent know just how frustrated they are with living in a world made for someone else. Let us know why you’ll be there. Let us know how you are the 99 percent.

Three weeks ago, a few hundred people rolled out their sleeping bags in a park in New York’s financial district in a protest against corporate greed and corruption, now there are thousands, and they are gaining the backing of trade unions.  A union-backed coalition will today rally in support of the protesters, and they are being joined by supporters in cities across the US and beyond.  The core group, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), claims people will take part in demonstrations in as many as 147 US cities this month, while the website occupytogether.org lists 47 US states as being involved. Around the world, protests in Canada, the UK, Germany and Sweden are also planned.

And it looks like the movement is heading this way: Liverpool will host its own protest, Occupy Liverpool,on Saturday 15th October.  Wonder if the financial system will have crashed by then?

The dog trots freely

We first noticed him the other night on the TV news showing the riots in Athens: a dog, nonchantly trotting between the lines of riot police and protesters. It turns out that this dog has been seen at nearly every demonstration in Athens over the last two years and has appeared again during the protests against the EU-IMF austerity measures. Naturally, there’s a Facebook page devoted to the dog, which is apparently called Kanellos.

The photos of this Greek rebel dog brought to mind Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s rather wonderful poem, Dog, from the mid-1950s that honours a similarly ‘real live / barking / democratic dog’ that ‘doesn’t hate cops / He merely has no use for them’. The poem is a swipe against corrupt political bosses and the activities of one Congressman Doyle, a member of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee at the time. For the dog, as for Ferlinghetti, ‘Congressman Doyle is just another / fire hydrant’.

The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality

Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees

The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away

The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself

The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen

He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market

He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do

And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself

But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled

Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him

The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
barking
democratic dog
engaged in real
free enterprise

with something to say
about ontology
something to say
about reality
and how to see it
and how to hear it

with his head cocked sideways
at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
his picture taken
for Victor Records

listening for
His Master’s voice
and looking
like a living questionmark
into the
great gramophone
of puzzling existence
with its wondrous horn
which always seems
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
to everything

Dog, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Footnote, June 2011

Paul Mason meets the riot dog in this YouTube clip from Newsnight.

Angelopoulos: The Weeping Meadow

Went along to FACT last night to see The Weeping Meadow, the first part of Angelopoulos’ planned Trilogy – and what a masterpiece! Possibly greater than the Travelling Players. Sheer visual poetry.

In 1919, Greek refugees from Odessa arrive in Greece, among them Spyros; his wife, Danae (Thalia Argyriou); their son; and a younger orphan girl called Eleni. They are given land beside a river and build a village. Some years later, Spyros is prospering but Eleni, who has become pregnant by Spyros’ son, returns after a secret birth. Her twin babies, Yorgis and Yannis, have been adopted. When Danae dies shortly afterwards, Spyros becomes obsessed with Eleni and a marriage is arranged. But Eleni flees the ceremony with Spyros’ son and, with the help of travelling musicians led by violinist Nikos, they flee to Thessaloniki.

That’s the story: but it’s the way it is told which is pure magic.

This is Angelopoulos talking about his films and Greek Myth (from Artificial Eye information pack):

I do not believe that my films are pessimistic. There may be a slight sense of melancholy, but I would never characterize it as pessimism. On the other hand, I dislike the words pessimism and optimism. I try to see clearly. My generation, and all those who lived through the adventure called post-war history and hope for a new world, witnessed a series of disappointments. The changes that came to the world brought no results, nor opened the way as we had expected. Our feeling of melancholy is the dignity of the heart facing the defeat of a vision…

I do not know why, this is my personal view of the world. Even in my owncountry I feel like an exile. I find myself in a kind of internal exile. I have not yet found my home, and by that I mean a place where I am in harmony with me and myself, with myself and the world. My temporary home may be sitting next to someone driving a car with the landscape fleeing behind the windowpane. I feel that I find there a lost sense of balance. It is the only home that accepts me and that I accept… The past is not past. This triple dimension of time, past, present, future, for me does not really exist. The past is only past in time; in reality, in our consciousness, the past is present, and that which we call future is nothing else than the dreamlike dimension of tomorrow experienced in the present…

Music in my films does not accompany the narrative musically. It is a dramaturgical element, it narrates, it participates, it is an integral part of the films’ text. Without it, there would be a lack of something essential. In this sense music is an actor in the movie, a living element. In most of my films, the music belongs to someone, emerges from someone, constitutes his obsession. Sometimes dreamlike, sometimes a broken voice, sometimes fragmented speech, sometimes a symphony, sometimes an expression, sometimes the pursuit of the unsaid. The composer sits at the piano, we work together, we listen, we make changes, we change tone and range, I stop her while she improvises, I single out musical phrases that she then reworks into a finished melody. Musical instruments are introduced. The musical landscape is fragmented in order to be pieced together again and transformed, in this way, into the final result…

Often in my films, there is rain, mist, winter, snow, a pact with winter. Why? I couldn’t say why. What I can say though is that the landscape you see is not an external one, it is an internal landscape, most of the mist is created by me, most of the rain is artificial rain, the snow is mostly artificial snow, the colors of the houses are recreated, and the choice of locations does not correspond to a particular geography, it reflects internal landscapes.

Greek myths, Greek mythology is a history we learn at school, we live with it; it has influenced our daily life. Greece is a country full of ancient stones, ancient temples in ruins, lost civilizations, that left in their wake texts and broken stones. This is something we discovered as soon as we opened our eyes, at our first moment of awareness, something that we grew up with. We have learned to love ancient stones, and the myths through which our personal history has passed, continues to pass and to be filtered…

In what concerns my age and experience, I have emerged from a period of Greek history that included the 2nd World War and the ideological conflicts of my generation. I have inevitably been influenced by all this. Historical events are not detached from us, they are inside us, they determine, influence, shape our life, our way of thought, our perspective. How do I feel in Greece? Strange. At times very close to her, but to a Greece of my own, an internal Greece that probably does not exist, but it is this Greece that often reconciles me with modern Greece, which wounds me to an unimaginable degree…

I consider myself a thinking individual, and since the problems of mankind remain the same since the creation of the world, and the questions of mankind are the same and still remain unanswered, I believe that all the questions, thoughts, and the philosophical view of the world present in my films, are nothing more than a repetitive reinstatement of these age-old questions about eros, death, birth, dreams, the perspective of a better world, youth and old age, love.. . La condition humaine, the fate of man.

I would like the world to remember my work as a musical moment, as a musical phrase, suspended, that may reach some people. The important thing in my life is what I do, my work, what I see, feel, what I dream of. At this moment all my thoughts are reflections in a mirror. At some point, tomorrow, or the day after, when shadows will acquire an outline, when the tear becomes a river, another story may be born, yet another story of mankind…

Speaking about me once Tonino Guerra said that I am a valley that sheds little teardrops on the grass, that join together and become water, a stream that flows away to join the great river.

December of  ’44, the civil war broke out. My family divided into two factions, some siding with the leftists and the others, like my father, an old liberal, with the old order of things. The battle of Athens. 33 days. A battle that turned into a slaughter. My father tried to maintain a neutral stance, one that was almost critical of both sides. But in vain. He was arrested by the leftist rebels led by my cousin and taken outside the city to be executed. For days my mother and I searched for his body among the hundreds of others lying scattered about in muddy fields and abandoned building sites. I can still feel her trembling hand in mine. With the defeat and retreat of the Democratic Army, the army of the rebels, towards northern Greece, we learned that they had taken him with them as a hostage like hundreds of others. In my days here in Greece Homer and the ancient tragic poets constituted part of the school curriculum. The ancient myths inhabit us and we inhabit them. We live in a land full of memories, ancient stones and broken statues. All contemporary Greek art bears the marks of this coexistence.

It would be impossible for the path I have followed, the course I have taken, for my thinking not to have been infused by all this. As the poet says “they emerged from the dream, as I entered the dream. So our lives were joined together and it will be very difficult to part them again.”