Land-Surveyor and Time-traveller

1-

The past is never dead;
It isn't even past.

William Faulkner


The historical novel of a Walter Scott or a Victor Hugo, a Fennimore Cooper or Tolstoy, Mickiewicz or Tieck and von Arnim is a product of the late 18th and 19th centuries. It is the way the literary imagination had of responding to the new national awareness. Society, freed from the shackles of throne and altar, reflects as a 'people' on its past, present and future. The historical novel, where it is more than simply a reactionary celebration of a glorious past at the expense of a tawdry present, constitutes a nation's prose epic, the counterpart of classic Greek drama.

The historical film, though, derives more from the historical play than the novel. It has largely remained what it was in the beginning - a costume film, colourful and trivial, a street carnival, at best following on from Dumas's Three Musketeers. Of corse there are exceptions in the work of Dreyer and Lang, Eisentein and Welles, Tarkovsky and Visconti, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, Renoir and Wajda.

The eight great films made by the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (born in Athens in 1935) in his homeland between 1970 and 1988 are all historical films. From the beginning, he has broken the bounds of the genre, by violating the conventional time frame of the historical film or novel. Instead, he has gone criss-crossing through time - generally in one of his "squence shots". And even where he isn't interweaving past and present, his films, like the Trilogy of Silence remain historical films because they study the historical nature of reality, of that "everything that is the case", as Wittgenstein put it.

There are probably only four European directors for whom their national history - again, not in a chauvinist way, but as the subject of a political and aesthetic "history lessons" (Jean Marie Straub) - has been of the first importance in their work: Luchino Visconti, Carlos Saura, Andrzej Wajda and Theo Angelopoulos.

Probably closest to Angelopoulos in terms of their historical continuity is Wajda, who touches on almost all the critical episodes and pivotal moments of 19th and 20th century Polish history in his work. His reach is a little longer than that of Angelopoulos, whose crabwise historical explorations "only" go back to the late 1930's. But, where Wajda "only" narrates certain self-contained episodes of Polish history in their historical setting, Angelopoulos has represented Greek history as a mesh of shifting scenes, as an echo chamber in which the past goes on resonating as a future (even to the present).

What they have in common, the Pole and the Greek - for all their fundamental aesthetic differences - is the similar quality of their national experience: Poland, a buffer zone between Germany and tsarist or Soviet Russia, alternately partitioned, invaded, occupied and kept down;and Greece, the onetime "cradle of civilisation", in the southeastern corner of Europe, with its century-long conflict with Islamic Turkey, the expulsion of the Greeks from the Ionian coastline, the plaything of the European powers, the British, the Italians and the Germans. Both countries have been subjected to foreign and domestic dictatorships. In both, poverty and oppression have driven millions of people into emigration in the course of the last hundred years.

Wajda, born in 1926, is nine years Angelopoulos'senior, but from childhood on, both men have been through a similar range of experiences: disempowerment, opportunism and rebellion, liberation and betrayal, and finally the catastrophe of a socialist utopia. Some of the time at least, both has had to work in the shadow of a dictatorial regime, or in opposition to such a regime.

Wajda's roots are in 19th and 20th century literature - although his "adaptations" have the aesthetic quality of original films. Angelopoulos takes his material from little miscellaneous new items, faits divers, in which he detected traces of Classical mythology. His films are not "remakes" like those of social conditions. Angelopoulos has said that the task he set himself was "to connect non-cinematic Greek traditions - Classical drama, the shadow plays of Karangiosis, popular Greek comedy - with the tradition of European cinema".

The sources of Angelopoulos's inspiration are the language and landscape of his homeland, its music and its gestures. To this day he has remained true to them. When he cast the Italian actors Omero Antonutti (The great Alexander) and Marcello Mastroianni (The Beekeeper) in leading roles, he insisted that they speak Greek.

It is not language, however, that is predominant in his epic versions of the world, but the camera's view of persons and landscapes. Sound, unseen and outside of shot, is almost as important as the visual component of his films. Angelopoulos not only revives memories of the silent movie by the beauty of his composition, his depth of focus, the movement and arrangement of his sequence shots; he has also renewed the sound-film, in a way matched only by Godard, making full use of its imaginative, meditative, evocative possibilities - like the Russian mystic and romantic Andrei Tarkovsky.

If the idea of German director Alexander Kluge applies to anyone, then surely to Angelopoulos: "What is not on the film is a critique of what is." The out-of-shot acoustic in his films empowers the visual imagination of the spectator; while the silences in speech become part of a language of natural sound.

The sounds of everyday life figure on his acoustic palette, just as much as music does; and if Theo Angelopoulos ' cinema takes its visual energy from painting, then its rhythm - the rhythm of complex sentences and sweeps of melody - its musical rhythm. He has said he makes his films the same way as he breathes. He comes out of a different sense of time.

His iconography avoids close-up, favours long shots and sweeping pans. It subscribes to distancing strategies of Brecht's epic theatre. But his montage of great, complex sequences is in the epic tradition of Homer's narrative poems. The films of Angelopoulos are reminiscent of Portuguese cinema-geographically, both countries are out on a limb-in the way they have adopted a non-European conception of time, influenced by Africa and Asia. (The music of both countries is similarly autochthonous.)

But the sharing of such characteristics - a little unsettling to Central Europeans, familiar enough to Japanese, who are great admirers of Angelopoulos' film - doesn't mean that he subscribes to "the ancient Greek tradition of fatalism"(Angelopoulos), for which the Portuguese have their own untranslatable term, "saudade". The purpose of the internal organisation of Angelopoulos' films is precisely to work against this resignation. The same is true of the mythological structures underlying some of his films - the house of Atreus in Reconstruction and The Travelling Players, for instance, or the return of Odysseus in Voyage to Cythera. His impulse is actually anti-mythological - a Hegelian preservation, scrutiny and transformation of ancient Greek history - following the watchword that "myth translated into reality becomes history". It is the past that makes the contemporary visible and audible: It is a divining rod, discovering the source of the actual.

This was already the case with his first professional film, which the ex-student at the French film institute IDHEC-where he was expelled for a 360 degree pan-made in Greece in 1970. The title "Reconstruction" is applicable to Angelopoulos' work generally: It is the reconstruction of suppressed history, the rebirth of historical consciousness.

The film is a "reconstruction", on three levels, one of his typical faits divers. In a rainy and remote village, a "grass widow" and her lover murder her husband, who has been a Gastarbeiter- like many of his compatriots - in Germany. Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon on his return from Troy. While the killers try to pin the crime on one another, the prosecution sets about reconstructing the crime on location; there are print and television journalists sniffing out the sensational aspects of the crime passionel; and on a third level, flashbacks reveal something of the background circumstances of the crime - but not to the extent of revealing who committed it. The film ends with the unseen murder; the camera lingers motionless on the front door of the house in which the murder took place.

The film was made in black and white, with a largely amateur cast, in the manner of the Italian neo-realism, which itself began with exactly the subject, in Visconti's Ossesione of 1943, although admittedly that was based on James M. Cain's often adapted novel, The Postman Always Ring Twice. Angelopoulos himself makes a more important connection: with Francesco Rosi's Salvotore Giuliano (1961). In both films, an individual story represents a common destiny: Just as the death of the Sicilian Social misfit remains a mystery, so the identify of the murderer in Reconstruction remains unsolved. But what matters to Angelopoulos is not "the individual case", which the state prosecutor treats as a crime to be solved, and the yellow press as a "story" that will enable it to sell more newspapers. The film is more far-sighted -it sees the country, which is bled by its inhabitants, and "allows the poor to become culpable" (Goethe). It diagnoses the powerlessness and rebellion, the power and the poverty in Greek society.

Like Visconti, Theo Angelopoulos made his debut under a dictatorship, a military junta, tolerated if not actively supported by the U.S. had been power since 1967. As Visconti transcended melodrama, so Reconstruction went beyond whodunit to social analysis. Angelopuolos was playing (aesthetic) poker.

The stakes were even higer with Theo Angelopoulos' second film. It was only because the regime was so abysmally stupid, and because the director had already "honed his style" (Ernst Jünger) for the censor, that Angelopoulos "coup was able to succeed. So ironic and sophisticated was this next film that quite a few people missed the point of it altogether. In fact, it was classic example in support of Jean Luc Godard's dictum:" It isn't a question of making political films, but of making films politically."

Days of 36 (1972) is a historical film about the present: It captures the transition from failed bourgeois democracy to military dictatorship and a restoration of "order". The past is a mask for the present. A police collaborator, put away for a political murder, is visited in prison by a Member of Parliament and takes him hostage. The authorities are put in a delicate position by their former associate's blackmail: They decide to rescue the hostage, and get rid of their associate. After a farce, in which Angelopoulos pulls out all the stops of a shadow play, a policemarksman steps in to restore "order".

Just as the actual murder in Reconstruction remained unseen, so here the catalyst of the action-most of which is set in and around a secluded prison-disappears behind the door of his cell. He remains invisible. It is Angelopoulos' striking image for an "internalised" censorship, for not being able to speak openly. Just as the action in Classical Greek drama is offstage, the "real action" here is unseen: What we do see is the (transparent) pantomime of politicians and soldiers telephoning and deliberating, waiting and plotting, all wanting to bring their blackmailing prisoner "to justice". The unspoken an unseen comments ironically on what is shown - just as the lead up to the coup of 1936 prefigures the shenanigans of the Junta and the politicians in 1967. By "internalising" oppression, Angelopoulos has revealed its political structure. His film is a play of allusions and strategies, a comic ballet, a farcical pantomime of intrigue "at the top" (like Brecht's Arturo Ui).

The unities of time and place, claustrophobically reduced to a prison in Days of 36 - in Reconstruction they were broken up by flashbacks - are entirely abandoned in Theo Angelopoulos' The Travelling Players of 1974. There is movement, not only spatially in Greek geography (in the way West Germany, Europe and the U.S. figure in the topography of Wim Wenders), but also in time, hopping about between 1939 and 1952. That is the artistic "u.s.p." of The Travelling players. It is an epochal work in the history of cinema, comparable, say, to Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.

The director has always eschewed the tension building technique of shot/countershot, protagonist/antagonist-the cinematic equivalent of dialogue-preferring instead to develop his plots from setting and space. Just like Antonioni in I I deserto rosso, he "reconstructs" space, adding on buildings and facades. In sound, he is polyphonic, especially out of shot. Now, in the 131 sequence shots of the four hour-long Travelling Players, he adds a dynamic of time, sending the eponymous players on achronic journeys, criss-crossing though time and history.

It is Angelopoulos' completely original cinematic equivalent to the many changes of place and time used by Gabriel Garcia Marques in his epic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.Where the Colobian uses tense and sentence structure to work the different names and places into one narrative. Angelopoulos uses sequence shot. Unbroken camera movements-without any cuts that change the angle-leave individuals and groups in one time, and come back to them in another. Max Ophüls used such camera movements as part of his narrative strategy; but no one has dared to do what Angelopoulos has done: to cross time like space, to depict historical continuity and change within one grand panoramic narrative.

The Travelling Players roam through Greek history from 1939 to 1952. The period includes the military dictatorship whose beginnings are shown in Days of 36, the war against Fascist Italy, the bloody civil war after 1945, and its provisional conclusion with the victory of the right, and the imposition of a constitutional monarchy, courtesy of the U.S. It is a story of defeat, destruction, exile and oppression.

The troupe of players keep embarking on the popular folk play Golfo the Shepherd, but over the whole length of the film, they never manage more than the odd scene, because political events are continually disrupting the theatrical process: either it is the secret police going on to the stage to arrest someone after a tip-off, or it is an air-raid warning which sends the audience fleeing from the hall, or it is the partisan Orestes who is alerted by his sister, and shoots his sister, and shoots his unfaithful mother and her lover onstage.

Without the underlying myth becoming obtrusive as allegory, the story of the members of the group of players is prefigured by the story of the House of Atreus-used once already in Reconstruction, and earmarked for use later in the character of the angelic protector Orestes, a member of the shabby ensemble of "travelling players " in Landscape in the Mist. Like Faulkner in his southern epics about families in decline, Angelopoulos has put his family of artistes at the centre of his film - not, be it noted, to mythologise Greek history, but to "deconstruct" the very idea of mythical destiny. The story has an epic structure, but the breach with chronology suspends the idea of "fate"; Angelopoulos' procedure is not, as some have said, cyclical, but associative, as he explores the relationships between national culture and politics, between art and reality, and between past and present.

The glissando changes of time, the interweaving and contrasting of theatre, pantomime and ballet, of speech and silence, of sound and music, of history, narrative, statement and dance, include every from of visual and acoustic expression in art --all in the tempo of long camera movements and pans, of gliding, tentative and melancholy movements of narrative.

Movement and stasis: There are moments in Travelling Players in which the images are only comprehensible as sounding boards for the noises off, which gives them an extraordinary plasticity; there are other moments of hesitation before proceeding to a detailed analysis, for instance when a young woman appears to give in to a soldier's desire to rape her, and asks him to undress in the hotel room before her eyes (and the camera). The process of understanding takes in all gradations of expectation, desire and aggressive lust before finally turning into confused humiliation when the woman leaves the room without a word.

In ancient Greece, tragedies were followed by satyr-plays. The Hunter made in 1977, three years after the Travelling Players which Angelopoulos had begun under the junta and completed soon after its demise, became the third part of a trilogy on the theme of the calamitous opportunism of the Greek bourgeoisie, and its collaboration with both the Greek and Foreign military.

The subject of the hunt had already been used by Renoir in his 1934 film La Règle du Jue to catalyse a view of society shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War; and Carlos Saura had used it too, in his The Hunt (La Caza, 1965) for a metaphorical evocation of suppressed memories of the Spanish Civil War.

The group of huntsmen that Angelopuolos assembles in a remote hotel at the end os 1976 are dismayed to come upon a corpse. The dead partisan, who was known to some of them, was murdered in the late 1940s, but the body is bleeding as though freshly shot. The "discreet charm" of this post-junta bourgeoisie flakes off their faces like dried pancake make-up. The hotel, which has its shady past as well as the people assembled in it, becomes a jumping-off point from which the memories and phantas magorias of those present are launched into the past. The huntsmen become the quarry of their past.

The Hunters marked the end of Theo Angelopoulos' survey of recent Greek history in terms of burgeois continuity. It was an ironic conclusion, virtuoso and scathing.

But even before the Socialist tribune of the people Andreas Papandreou was elected Prime Minister with large majority in 1981, and a "new era" began, Angelopoulos, a declared left-winger, came up with a swan song to the cult figure of the liberator. If the structure of The Travelling Players deserves comparison with Gabriel Garcia Márquez' novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, then The great Alexander can be seen as a cinematic parallel to Márquez Autumn of the Patriarch. That is the definitive novel about the Latin American caudillo, endowed by Márquez with the traits of many actual "liberators", from Bolivar to Lenin and Stalin (and Castro, too). The central figure of Angelopoulos' four-hour epic is a bandit escaped from prison immediately before the turn of the century, who takes some English hostages, and takes to the hills with them. As a rebel, he demands an amnesty from the government, and he wants the peasants' property returned to them. Like Salvatore Giuliano-or Robin Hood- the mythical incarnation of Alexander the Great appears to the peasants as an ally of the poor and the oppressed. His charisma and his authoritarian manner also win support from those of the villagers whom where previously in an anarchist commune. The laconic, epileptic Alexander manages the secure a few temporary concessions from the government and the landowners, but his terrorist rule becomes increasingly totalitarian, even Stalinist. When he has the hostages killed, and even his own daughter, suspecting her of conspiring against him, and then sends the disempowered (Italian) anarchists to their death, the army moves against him and his last loyal followers. Badly wounded, Alexander drags himself like a dying animal to the market place, where the people surround him and turn on him. By the time the crowd breaks up again, all that has survived of him is his helmet; in their hatred, the people have, like Maenads, ripped him limb from limb and literally consumed him.

Another narrative runs parallel to this chronological account of the rise and fall of The Great Alexander: The childhood and youth of another, little Alexander, growing up under the wings of the anarchist schoolteacher, who warns him of the evils of "property" and "power", before the tyrant has him murdered. The last sequence shows the young Alexander, mounted on a white horse, riding down from the Acropolis into Athens in the evening. "So Alexander came into the great city", says the commentary. "I thought if myth is dead, there must but some other hope. The hope is in the new generation. The young Alexander has witnessed the failure of one attempt; that is a historical memory for him. But he is a man like other men, an ordinary figure, and he has a wound, which leads him to seek out a new way" (Angelopoulos).

The great Alexander was a suite of grandiose tableaux, turning a landscape into an agora, a village and its market place into a stage for world theatre. The choreography of (mass) movements, the distanced and psychological representations of power and authority, "translated" the political-philosophical discourse (as in Kurosawa's subsequent Ran) into a spectacle both intimate and monumental. The second cornerstone of Angelopoulos' work-after The Travelling Players - it was his setting with the failure of utopian promises and the (actual) crimes of 19th and 20th century history. Angelopoulos' Patriarch formulated an epic ballad and chronicle out of the political twilight of myth, like Wagner's Ring-at once a sweeping pan over the battlefield of left-wing thought and action, and pulled tight between anarchist autonomy and the authoritarian state, between Labriola & Rosa Luxemburg on the one hand, and Lenin & Stalin on the other.

Without guessing at the prophetic political force of Angelopoulos' dismantling of monumental figures-those idols with feet of clay only crumbed ten years later in Europe-Akira Kurosawa admired the innovative power of Angelopoulos' art: "He watches things calmly through the lens. It is the weight of his calm and sharpness of this unmoving regard that give the film its power. In method, it is a return to the origins of the cinema, which is what gives the impression of freshness and validity." The Great Alexander was an artistic and political terminus for Theo Angelopoulos.

It was the historical reflection that seemed to delve most deeply into the past that actually penetrated furthest into the present. He had reached the zero of absolute paradox.

2-

And in the dark times
Will there be singing?

There will be singing.
About the dark times.
Bert Brecht

History is not dead.
It's only having a nap.
Theo Angelopoulos

"When the errors have been used up / As our last companion, facing us / Sits nothingness" wrote the young Brecht. By the beginning of the 80's Theo Angelopoulos had indeed " used up" plenty of "errors", not least the hope of radical social change in Greece, with the accession of Papandreou's Socialists. Just as well the director's past work evinced his "ability to grieve" and his consciousness of the "unfinished business" of history. Ironically, he was also at the peak of his international reputation, with The Great Alexander, the film that won him the "Lion d'Or" at the Venice Biennale (and by rights, his later films should have won the first prizes at Cannes and Venice).

The Greek director had shown the world the landscape, the people and the history of his motherland, but his international reputation did little for him at home. All his films had been made without state funding, and, but for co-production deals with German, British, French and Italian television companies, he could not have made The Hunters, or The Great Alexander. These international co-productions were duly shown on television in the various European countries, but his films failed to make it onto the cinema screen, for which they had been made. That would only change with The Beekeeper of 1986, thanks to the participation of Marcello Mastroianni.

Angelopoulos' next project was symptomatic of the political and artistic impasse he had reached with the end of The Great Alexander. Having so far written all his own screenplays, he now proposed to adapt a novel: To trio stephani (the Third Wreath) by Kostas Tachtsis. Like work by other Europeandirectors (e.g. Bergman, Fassbinder, Rosi) at a time in which television was getting a stranglehold over the European film, it was to be made in two versions: a six-hour television series, and a three-hour version for the cinema.

But the project, which to Angelopoulos was "primarily political", failed to get off the ground, because of the director's reputation for quiet obstinacy. He was only able to make a couple of short autobiographical documentaries for television, one about Athens, the other about deserted village. The harked back to the final sequence of The Great Alexander, the other was an anticipation of Voyage to Cythera, where selling up and quitting the land would be one of the themes.

What Angelopoulos would later refer to as his Trilogy of Silence- the silence of history - is made up of three films about the present, but a present still resonating with historical echoes. The visual time-travelling of the earlier films is over, but the people in these films (like The Travelling Players) emerge from the past into the Greek present (Voyage to Cythera), they spell out their past lives by returning to their roots (The Beekeeper), or they flee the sadness of the present day for the promise of a future (landscape in the Mist). The main characters in Theo Angelopoulos' trilogy are two old people, two veterans - enfants perdus, "doomed in forward positions in the war for freedom" (Heinrich Heine) - and two lost children.

Voyage to Cythera begins with the difficult attempt to establish a narrative position, after the loss of the subject of society, and the stalling of the dialectical process of history. "In the silent prologue, a boy is looking for somewhere to hide from a soldier in the lock-up Athens of the Occupation. But even in this first scene, the action is interrupted by Angelopoulos' own voice off, giving the boy directorial instructions on how to enact a fictional past. The prologue turns out to be the dream of one of the heroes, the director, Alexander" (Walter Ruggle).

The boy from the time of the Occupation is the alter egoof the elderly director. Alexander - who is given Angelopoulos' own voice - who is planning a film about return of expatriated Communist civil war fighters from the Soviet Union: this is the basic dual situation from which Angelopoulosoperates. In the course of the film, the alternating of these two fictional levels - the preparation of a film, which then seems "actually" to unfold before our eyes - becomes increasingly blurred. Then, out of the fog of dreams and directorial instructions and searching and mise en scene, there emerges - almost without commentary - an overwhelming apparition: a tall, gaunt and serious old man. This is Spiros with his suitcase and violin case, a partisan exiled in the U.S.S.R. for decades. (It was one of the Socialist government's "gestures of conciliation" to permit the return of exiles.)

Played by the celebrated Greek actor Manos Katrakis, who died soon after the filming was completed, Spiros is more than political ghost emerging from history: He is Odysseus, the mythical embodiment of exile.

Voyage to Cythera could also be called an (attempted) homecoming of odysseus. However much Angelopoulos' contemporary version owes to the last chapters of the Odyssey, the "return of the aged warrior" to his wife and his grown son fails to end with the restoration of harmony and the expulsion of the parasitical "suitors".

Quite the opposite: When the old man disembarked from the Russian steamer, its only passenger, he was welcomed by no filial embrace. Spiros has become a stranger. Only his dog recognized him (like Odysseus), and he can only communicate with his old comrades by the old partisan method of whistling. The country for whose future he once fought has changed out of recognition: and his smallholding is just being sold to a tourist enterprise, together with the rest of his depopulated village. When he refuses to sign the contract, and starts digging up the roped-off allotments, he is deprived of his citizenship rights. "Stateless", a nuisance as far as the police are concerned, a "fossil" and "out of touch" to his old comrades, the silent and crazy old man is finally put on a pontoon in Piraeus, with his son looking on. Only his "Penelope", finding her lover again after decades of separation, demands to be brought to him on his raft. The authorities are "magnanimous" enough to allow her to join her lover in his final exile. Holding each other in a tight embrace, the two old people drift out into the misty open sea on their raft: cythera, the lover's island, remaining invisible: what can be seen is that home is no longer home-neither for memory, nor for social utopia, and least of all for the man who personifies them both. For the past, there is no place on earth.

After the family torn apart by history and its "bad timing" - emblematic of a broken country - there is the family destroyed by itself from which another Spiros, the "beekeeper" played by Marcello Mastroianni, takes his leave in the twilight of his life.

Death of a Beekeeper is the title of the last volume of a five-part cycle of novels which the Swedish novelist lars Gustafsson completed in 1978. It is the story of s prematurely retired teacher, who, following his divorce, withdraws to the country and takes up beekeeping. The sequence of novels it concluded was called Craks in the Wall, a chronicle of the form of several biographical miniatures.

Originally the intention had been to make an adaptation of this novel, but the final screenplay, co-written by Theo Angelopoulos and the noted Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra - whom he had met in Rome while visiting the exiled Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky- has only two things in common with it: "A style in which there is no symbol that is not also a real thing"(Gustafsson), and the subject of an old man withdrawing from the world.

Angelopoulos' "beekeeper" is a recently retired village schoolmaster, who, immediately after the wedding of his youngest daughter to a soldier, sets off with his bees on an annual migration. His wife, with whom his relations are poor, is taking their son to Athens, where he is studying: his daughter is following her new husband to Crete. Old Spiros embarks on his journey in the rainy and foggy north of Greece: by back roads and through small towns, he goes ever further south- and finally he crosses the sea, to the island where he was born (and where, alone, he will hear his parents' voices echoing in the ruined setting

The returning Odysseus - Spiros in Voyage to Cythera - drifted out on to the misty sea with his wife. The "beekeeper" fled south from the chilly north of Greece, towards light and sunshine (and to look for death). In the last film of Angelopoulos Trilogy of Silence, the 11 year old Voula and her 5 year-old brother Alexander leave their dark nursery in Athens on a perilous, meandering journey towards the cold north. They cross the "landscape in the mist" searching for their father, of whom their unmarried mother supposes "he is living in Germany" or in other words, "over the hills and far away". It's a voluntary leaving of Paradise: The paradise of childhood as well as that of the Bible, which Alexander will talk about with his sister in their dark bedroom: and it's "a departure for what cannot be rehearsed in life" (H.E. Nossack).

What Angelopoulos is doing in Landscape in the Mist is fairly explicitly telling a fairy-story. It is "a fairy-story" when the children manage to get away from the police because there is an unexpected snowfall that charms everyone, and the children move between the entranced figures and slip away. But this fairy-tale is no Miracle in Milan (de Sica): it has a time and a place. Already in Angelopoulos first film, Reconstruction, "Germania" was a magical word. A doom-laden word, because so many men were forced to emigrate there to work, for a while or permanently, to provide for their nothing more than an excuse for her own failing, but for the children it is the longed-for faraway place of a father they don't know.

At the end of film, when Voula and Alexander cross a river border by night in a boat, in the shadow of a watchtower, the screen goes black and a voice cries "Halt!" A shot rings out; it remains dark for a while longer, until a slow milky fog rises, from which the outline of a single tree on the horizon slowly detaches itself. The two children go up to it and embrace it. Landscape in the Mist freezes on this image of achieved utopia, an embrace, an arrival.

But at the same time, this final apotheosis remains ambivalent. Have longing and determination finally helped them to this moment of triumph? Are the children embracing their long lost Father in the Tree of Life? Or might this coda-where for the first time the film's dingy browns and cool blues are shouldered aside by a clear optimistic green, while the light remains dazzling and diffuse-might this coda not be a deception, a trick of the light? In other words: a sequel in the hereafter, a return to paradise beyond the Acheron, which they have just crossed?

Angelopoulos wants this "landscape in the mist" to be taken as an open ending. In fact, one can even read it as the triumph of young Alexander's imagination. Because he had held onto a piece of film that Orestes had given him with the remark that there was a picture of a tree in the mist on it, even though he couldn't see it. Might that not be the redemption of the utopian faculty, which every film achieves through its audience's desire to imagine? Perhaps a more optimistic revision of the gloomy apocalypse of the dead cinema in Angelopoulos' previous film, The Beekeeper?

For all that Landscape in the Mist ends ambivalently, the journey of the children leading up to it had been through Angelopoulos' clearly marked terrain: An unpleasant small-town Greece of wretched diners, noisy motorways, monstrous factories and gigantic waste tips like open sores. It is a "Land of Silence and Darkness", to quote Herzog's title for an attempted depiction of the world of the deaf and blind, just as Angelopoulos shows a landscape both real and fairy-tale, altered by the child's eye view of it.

Human beings are no less unpleasant than the nature they have poisoned with their industry. The children's uncle, a factory worker to whom the police bring the runaways, wants noting to do with this "disgusting" sister's brats; and a lorry-driver who gives them a lift rapes Voula in the back of the lorry at dawn after failing to get his way with a provocative waitress the night before. Only Orestes, roving around the tacky countryside on his motorbike (like the Angel of Death in Cocteau's Orphee) offers the children love and assistance, compassion and understanding. Once he picks them up from the side of the road, shaken after Voula's experience, another time it is his unexpected arrival that saves them from the police. Is he their guardian angel?

But at the same time he remains Orestes-only he's not avenging a parricide. He has kept a job as props man for that group of "Travelling Players" whom Angelopoulos once had going this way and that through Greek history; but today they too have reached their journey's end, no one wants to see their play any more, venues are closed to them and even their costumes, fluttering like scarecrows on the harbour front are unable to find buyers. One ageing actress hopes to get by as a prostitute in the city. The old (folk) art form is finished.

The morning after the company has been wound up, a mesmerised Orestesis transfixed by the sight of an enormous white hand rising out of the sea, being hauled up by a helicopter into the cold blue sky over the gleaming sunlit city. We see that the hand's index finger has broken off, a telling metaphor for a trackless situation in which all gestures of authority have lost their validity.

Eventually and for the first time, Voula falls in love with Orestes, the protector of the children. When she realises this, she feels ashamed of herself. Later, when she sees him in a disco, looking for a quick homosexual encounter with the buyer of his motorbike, she feels betrayed by him. But he is careful with the girl, a woman by now-later she will seduce a soldier for some travelling money-and sees that she gets a good "education sentimentale".

Landscape in the Mist is a medium for complicated allegorical associations, but it is also true to say that Angelopoulos, in his unreligious way, is in close artistic proximity to the intense meditative art of Andrei Tarkovsky.

But Angelopoulos - whose work has always been characterised by its classical proportion and rational construction, rather than the natural philosophy and surreal visual sense of the Russian - has always been an artist who has gone his own way. What the shares with Tarkovsky is his trust in the creative slowness of the moment. His poetic medium is time. This allows the viewer to make his own images from what is projected on the screen - yes, it almost forces him to - while he remains critically aware of the technical means employed: the long shots, sequence shots, slow pans and long takes. They are scenes from a voyage through the world. Their complex structure sends the viewer of on his own, inner journey.

It is poetic " lack of focus" that permits such a multitude of forms to be used at the same time: realistic snapshots, metaphorical heightening, explosions of surrealism, symbolic hints and allegorical echoes. As in postmodern literature - polyvalent, multi-encoded - "readings" and "object" alternate: now the one dominates, now the other. Thus, Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist appears in several different ways: as a summing-up of an iconographically and metaphorically organised oeuvre; as an allegorical stock-taking of contemporary Greece; as a fairy-story about two children travelling the world to find their promised father; as an initiation into the world of adult experience or as a great metaphor for man's urge to come from darkness into light, as little Alexander says at the beginning and end of the film: "In the beginning there was chaos and darkness, then it grew light".

With Landscape in the Mist, Theo Angelopoulos has left the "darkness" and completed his Trilogy of Silence. But, appropriately to the historical moment, he has "only" gone so far as a zone of twilight, death and utopia. The contemporary cinema has little to compare with the aesthetic scrupulousness of Theo Angelopoulos.

Wolfram Schütte
Translated by Michael Hofmann
ECM RECORDS

biography
filmography
time traveller
angelopoulos'gaze
film critics
review
awards
real video interview
links
enter your email to receive update news
Mr. Nobody (Jaco Van Dormael) ?
Perfect
Good
Ok
Boring
Awful
  
results 
other surveys 



this month's featured album

composer | soundtrack | movie | director | forum | search | musicolog

CONTACT

© musicolog.com 1998 - 2017
design, content and code: mete