By George Vardas.
Theo Angelopoulos is widely regarded as Greece’s greatest filmmaker, having crafted an epic vision of modern Greece and the Balkans through his cinematic odyssey through its turbulent social and political history.
Professor Vrasidas Karalis, Sir Nicholas Laurantos Chair in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Sydney, has just published the definitive reference work on the late filmmaker. The book, The cinematic language of Theo Angelopoulos (Berghahn Press, 2021), was officially unveiled at a presentation held at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney on February 23, 2022 as part of the Sydney Greek Festival.
In an entertaining presentation, Professor Karalis spoke about his passion for Angelopoulos’ work and his first viewing of the 1975 epic, Traveling Players (Ο Θίασος), an epic film of striking beauty and originality which tries to tell the story of modern Greece through the peregrinations of a traveling troupe in the villages interpreting a traditional play by Golfo, the Shepherdess and traces the turbulent history of modern Greece from 1939 to 1952.
When a young Vrasidas went to see the film, he was questioned by his school principal who demanded to know if he had gone to see “that communist film”. It was an act of resistance against political cultural censorship. It was very different from what he had seen before, an abstract film with sublime political and philosophical illusions, mixing history and myth, realism and surrealism. In one scene, two members of the now disbanded troupe visit a friend after his release from prison to mourn the death of the revolution. The friend recites words of a famous anarchist poet which have the effect, according to Karalis, of asking whether the adventure of the Greek civil war was a justified rebellion against depression or a nihilistic utopian vision of self-destruction.
Somewhat by chance, I was first drawn to Angelopoulos as a young university student when I attended a screening of Traveling Players at the Sydney Film Festival in June 1976. I was totally overwhelmed.
For me, that was a defining moment. I had just completed my first trip to Greece two years earlier, in the winter of 1973/74, and was caught up in the immediate aftermath of the Polytechnic uprising, followed by the Cyprus fiasco, the fall of the military junta and of the restoration of democracy (sort of) in Greece. In one four-hour session, I saw it all unfold, replete with Angelopoulos’ fascinating cinematic techniques of long takes and slow camera movements (which Vrasidas aptly describes as “energetic slowness”), continuous shots and of “breaking the fourth wall” where an actor turns to the audience and engages them directly in powerful monologues ranging from the exodus after the Asia Minor disaster of 1922 to the ravages of the Greek Civil War.
According to Vrasidas Karalis, Traveling Players was and still is a great masterpiece of European cinema, arguably the best film of the 1970s decade. The film majestically depicts a turbulent time in Greek history with Brecht and Aristotle juxtaposed and the notion of time suspended . The beginning is the end.
Angelopoulos himself explained his troubled storytelling technique in a 2010 interview when he said, “Present tense, past tense is present in future tense. We, our consciousness, has time, it is time.
The late Dan Georgakas, a famous Greek-American historian, film critic and social activist, observed that in one scene, a group of Greek fascists walk away from a 1946 New Year’s dance singing their hearts out to arrive the same location in 1952 and we see police beating strikers in one time period complete the task in another: a powerful, one-take investigation of the fascist undercurrents in recent Greek and European history.
In Vrasidas Karalis’ book, we learn about Angelopoulos’ life from his birth in 1936 until his unfortunate death (by accident) in 2012 and how some pretty heartbreaking childhood experiences, including the arrest and disappearance of his father during the tumultuous events of December 1944 in Athens. Her father’s sudden reappearance much later was met with an eerie, almost incredulous silence that echoes in some of Angelopoulos’ films.
After studying in Paris, Theo Angelopoulos returned to Greece and worked as a film critic for a leftist newspaper until it was closed down by the military junta in 1967. It was then that he went behind the camera. While living in Greece during the junta years, he remained provocative and irreverent as always, directing the film Days of ’36 on the assassination of a trade unionist shortly before the dictatorship of General Metaxas, under the nose and beard of the fascist censors. A photo of Angelopoulos raising a fascist salute in front of shop window images of junta strongman Colonel Papadopoulos in Athens (taken in 1968) is telling.
Theo Angelopoulos produced a trilogy of history, a trilogy of silence, a trilogy of frontiers and an (unfortunately) unfinished trilogy of modern Greece. Each confronts different social, economic and cultural legacies, including Greece’s occupation and independence from Ottoman Turkey; Greece borders on fascism; the advent of military dictatorship and the onslaught of civil war; the plight of refugees in Europe and the repercussions of the Balkan wars.
Along the way, we encounter Greek literature and mythology grafted onto modern Greek history and the director’s own life experiences fused into the artistry of slow motion cinema. As Angelopoulos biographer and friend Andrew Horton reminds us, Theo Angelopoulos’ movies matter.
And Angelopoulos was widely admired by many. According to Karalis, the great American director Martin Scorsese described Angelopoulos as a “masterful filmmaker” who really understands how to control the setting:
“There are sequences in his work – the wedding scene in Le pas suspended de la cigogne; the rape scene in Landscape in the Mist; or any given scene in The Traveling Players – where the slightest movement, the slightest change in distance, sends reverberations through the film and through the viewer. The total effect is hypnotic, drastic and deeply emotional. His sense of control is almost supernatural.
As Karalis showed during his presentation of the night, there are many memorable images in Angelopoulos’ films. Pure visual poetry is just awesome.
There is an extraordinary sequence in Gaze of Odysseus in which a funeral barge carrying a huge statue of a dismembered Lenin plods along the Danube, heightening the mood of an “imploding world”.
In The stork’s suspended step there is a scene where lovers separated across borders marry in a service celebrated on either side of a river. One of the actors asks “how many borders do we have to cross to get home?” Unfortunately, this question still resonates today.
In Landscape in the mista symbolic, disembodied sculpted hand of a fallen deity is fished out of the bay of Thessaloniki and lifted by a helicopter into the sky
And then the film’s two main protagonists, young children who have been on a disturbed journey trying to locate the father who only exists in their dreams, approach a border post amid the sound of gunfire. We then see them, hand in hand, running towards a tree that has emerged colorless from the mist. Is it a dream or is it real? The viewer is left to contemplate because, as with all Angelopoulos films, there is no “The End”.
Then there are the haunting images in The crying meadow of the tree with slaughtered animals above a lake with a sinking village.
And finally, in eternity and a day, a a dying writer and a young child approach a border. According to Vrasidas Karalis, the scene with people hanging from the border fence is probably one of the most startling and disturbing pieces of modern cinema, a chilling depiction of the doomed struggle to escape that “comes too close to the daily and tragic situation of contemporary life”. people”.
For, as another critic noted, what makes us human according to Angelopoulos is found in traumatic memories, in the desire to preserve an imaginary beauty, and in the eternal returns perpetually frustrated.
The Angelopoulos cinema is timeless. His epics of the chaos of Balkan and Eastern European dislocation (The Traveling Players, Ulysses’ Gaze, The Weeping Meadow) involve, according to Karalis, “the collapse of history” in a sea of futility and anarchy. The tragic events currently unfolding in Ukraine sadly reflect this “disintegrated and broken reality”.
Towards the end of his presentation, Vrasidas Karalis screened an impromptu short film, Lower Céu (Sky Below)directed by Theo Angelopoulos in 2011 for the São Paulo Film Festival in Brazil as part of the theme “Mundo Invisivel” (invisibility in the modern world).
Angelopoulos captures a Christian preacher from the back proselytizing to commuters watching in a São Paulo metro station, then films two street artists putting the finishing touches to graffiti on a wall with a poignant message: “the people have been deceived”. The gaze of lost causes.
At the end of the presentation, an audience member asked if Vrasidas was an Angelopoulian or an anti-Angelopoulian given that the late director had created considerable controversy through his films, both among critics and among his peers. Vrasidas Karalis hastened to assure the questioner that he was and always would be an Angelopoulian.
As I am.
The genius of Theo Angelopoulos lives on through this scholarly work by Vrasidas Karalis. His book takes us on an incredible cinematic and literary journey through the life and work of Theo Angelopoulos within what has been described as the “organic, borderless landscape of the Greek soul”.
Great cinema forever in the mists of time.