The Travelling Players and a new Greek tragedy

The Travelling Players and a new Greek tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 1944: the arrival of the Allies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horton concludes his analysis of the film with these words:

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

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

Back where we started; the struggle continues.

See also

Angelopoulos: Days of ’36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also

Theo Angelopoulos’s Reconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that 1993 interview, Angelopoulos said:

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

See also

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.

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