In the Shadow of Love

By Geoff Andrew

landscape-in-the-mist-theo-angelopoulos-2.jpgLandscape in the Mist, 1988

The Cinema of Theo Angelopoulos

In 1994 – a year before Ulysses' Gaze won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize, and four years before Eternity and a Day won the Palme d’Or – David Thomson argued, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, that Theo Angelopoulos should be counted among the handful of true masters still working in the cinema. One need not share Thomson’s despondency about the future of cinema to agree that Angelopoulos is special. The key to his work, thematically and stylistically, is his handling of time and place.

Since winning international recognition with The Travelling Players (1975), Angelopoulos has structured most of his films as journeys, physical and spiritual, geographical and temporal; thus, the defining characteristic of his mise en scène is the travelling or sequence shot. In long, complex, fluid takes, the protagonist, like the camera, passes through space and time, as characters and events, recalled from the past or private fantasy, invade the present. The exhilarating, dreamlike result is one of the most recognisable signatures in the cinema.

But time and place are also Angelopoulos’ subjects: again and again he has explored his own country and culture, and how the past has shaped the present. His is not the tourists’ Greece, but a wintry place of grey towns, grim truck-stops and harsh mountains, a nation on the edge of Europe profoundly marked by its turbulent history and by that of its neighbours. But this is also the land of Homer and the tragedians, and he has repeatedly echoed The Odyssey and the great myths in expressing his fascination with home and exile, borders, belonging, identity, loyalty and betrayal.

It is unusually difficult to convey what Angelopoulos’ films are like in words, since rhythm and movement are so crucial to his intensely cinematic poetry. Similarly, it is hard to evoke the tone of his interviews; he is a natural storyteller, adept at giving replies as long, smooth, apparently meandering but expertly aimed at an unexpectedly revealing coda as his celebrated plans sequences. What follows is an edited and abridged version of an interview with myself on-stage at the National Film Theatre in November 2003; the place was packed, but with his quiet, subtly modulated voice, carefully measured pauses, jokes, hesitations, fabrications and poignant confessions, Theo soon turned the 450-seat cinema into a space as hushed, expectant and intimate as a campfire. And like Homer, he worked his spell…

landscape-in-the-mist-theo-angelopoulos.jpgLandscape in the Mist, 1988

Geoff Andrew: We just showed a clip from Ulysses' Gaze, a long sequence-shot in which we travel through several time periods; the main character even changes identity during the shot. Tell us about your treatment of time and preference for the sequence shot.

Theo Angelopoulos: I don’t know if now is the time to talk theoretically. When I began making The Travelling Players, when I had to come to grips with the history of my country, there was a vast amount of material. I couldn’t handle it in a linear fashion – in other words, in a way in which every incident, historically and chronologically, succeeded each other. What is lacking from that, and a problem I had with the history books I read, was that the history got lost as the story headed for the present.

I wanted to create a dialectical relationship with time and history, so that the history of yesterday is not of the past but of the present; so that yesterday is not something forgotten and left behind; it defines the present, and the history of the present. In this way, a manner of working was born and – without being immodest – it’s unique in the cinema: to have at the same time the past and the present, in the same shot, without dividing lines, in such a way as to create confusion between past and present; to produce, as with all dialectics, a third result, a historical confusion.

At the time of The Travelling Players, don’t forget, we were under the influence of Brecht, and undergoing the experience of Marxism. In Marxism there’s no past; everything’s present. I don’t know now, after all these years, what’s preserved of this, because the best part of my hopes and dreams was born of the Left. I remain a lost Leftist! I no longer know what the Left means, but think it’s simply the primordial desire of man for a better world. For me, that’s the Left – to be for a world of justice, renewal. So this relationship between present and past was born.

But to return to Ulysses' Gaze: I also had to face, first, another specific problem. The century began and ended with Sarajevo. What lesson was learned from the first Sarajevo to the second? My question was: do we learn from history? Do we learn from the bloodshed? From everything that happened? To what extent can we say we are advancing, progressing? Is it merely technological progress and not a progress of conscience? But in Ulysses' Gaze there is something else: the story of the gaze. My question was: do I see? Can I still see? After all that’s happened, after so many images, so that they lose their origin and clarity, do I still see clearly? That’s what triggered Ulysses' Gaze.

GA: You’ve answered about five of my questions already! So let’s turn to myth. Ulysses' Gaze, obviously, is inspired in part by The Odyssey, but in The Travelling Players, too, there are elements of the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Electra. Orestes turns up again in Landscape in the Mist. Why do you like to use myth in your modern films?

TA: In Greece we are born into an environment where myths are learnt at school; an environment of myths and broken statues. Why not ask about broken statues?

GA: There’s a broken statue at the end of O Megalexandros.

TA: And one in Landscape in the Mist. And there are others. Look, I’m trying to understand my origins, my roots, what they mean to me. I don’t know if I’m a pure Greek; I haven’t done a DNA test. For me, a Greek is someone who speaks Greek; as Heidegger said, our only identity is our mother’s language. So my mother spoke Greek, my grandmother spoke Greek. I’m actually Cretan: a little different, but the Cretans carried on with the history and language. In school we were taught Homer: The Odyssey. I had a problem with it: a terrible teacher I didn’t like. He used to talk of ‘subject/object’ and rules of grammar, so I hated Homer. Then, when I found myself in Paris a few years later, I had nothing but French. I loved the French but it was too much. So I sought escape where I could, and returned – by chance, I assure you – to Homer and this ancient language which most Greeks don’t understand. And suddenly I discovered a music, and felt a strange shiver: yes, I come from there, I am there. And it became the text I loved: the first journey, the first written journey in the history of Europe.

eternity-in-a-day-theo-angelopoulos.jpgLandscape in the Mist, 1988

GA: It’s appropriate you discovered Homer while away from home – The Odyssey is about nostalgia, the desire for home.

TA: I was once talking to Tarkovsky in Rome over dinner. We lived in the same apartment; it belonged to a friend who was both my assistant and Tarkovsky’s. He was making Nostalgia. I said it was a Greek word. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘it’s a Russian word.’ ‘It’s Greek!’ ‘Russian!’ We had a terrible rivalry over ‘nostalgia’… so let’s say it’s neither Greek nor Russian! (laughter)

GA: I say it’s Greek! But I was expecting you to continue on why you use myths in your films.

TA: I’ll reply with a myth. I first went to my father’s village, under the statue of Apollo Epikouros, when I was 16. I was ill, I hated the village and the statue of Apollo. A little later I found myself as a soldier near ancient Olympia, and there was a young tour-guide. I fell in love with her when she spoke about Olympia. I was roaming the area where we soldiers were stationed, and was given a prison detention because I was late. Then I thought: how could I justify this peculiar relationship between Olympia and the statue of Apollo? And I thought – just like Fellini, who invented his biography – that I was born between Apollo and Olympia, in an erotic meeting between my father and mother. Thus the myth! (applause)

GA: Now you were born in Athens (laughter) and your family comes from Crete, yet you make films mainly in the north of Greece where it seems always to be wintry and raining. Your films are not exactly travelogues. Why is it always winter?

TA: If I had a psychoanalyst, I might be able to answer. I don’t know; there’s an immense attraction to the open landscape of Macedonia, the mist rolling into Thessaloniki harbour – because of the films I loved when I first started watching films. They were by Mizoguchi and Antonioni. Perhaps my preferences in film come down mostly to landscape. I think we project a landscape we have inside us. I don’t know why, but it’s a landscape I find magical, which leaves me space to dream and imagine. I have a problem with the sun; the Mediterranean has a problem with the sun!

GA: You mentioned Mizoguchi and Antonioni; there’s a clear affinity with your work. But I know that when you were young, you also loved westerns, crime films and musicals. And I’d like to suggest that maybe the musical has affected you a great deal as well, because there’s so much music and dancing in your films.

TA: True. I really came to love them when I first started watching films. The first film I saw was Angels with Dirty Faces – in 1946 or thereabouts. I was young… and short. All the short kids would go to the movies and wait for grown-ups to pass by so we could squeeze past into the theatre. We’d go up to the gallery, people would chase after us, but we were young and short so we could hide. So I saw Angels with Dirty Faces. Michael Curtiz was from Europe, and influenced by German Expressionism, so the lighting was expressionistic as Cagney walked, with his shadow huge on a wall: a gangster, very hard, suddenly breaking to shout, ‘I don’t want to die’. I was nine. That stayed with me for many nights; it was very significant for me.

ulysses-gaze-theo-angelopoulos.jpgUlysses' Gaze, 1995

I loved police films, film noir, Scarface… but, also, of course, the musicals of Minnelli and Donen. You can see that: the scene in Travelling Players where two opposing political factions clash by dancing is a musical. In Ulysses' Gaze: the scene of the arrest, the invasion of the family. As for the policiers, you can also see that in certain instances. The way in which you make a film lies in how you mould these elements; because you love them, they become part of your personal history. Our intellectual or mental biography comprises all these things, and this is how, in the end, we narrate a story. Very few people in the history of cinema have managed to tell a story without having something behind them on that level. Maybe Welles and Citizen Kane, with its use of depth of field – maybe that was original.

GA: I was reminded, when you spoke of Angels with Dirty Faces, of the clip we just showed of Ulysses' Gaze with its crime-movie lighting. But let’s return to The Travelling Players: a miraculous film in many ways, but perhaps the two most striking things are that you made it under the Colonels and that – I think – you made it without a script. Is that true?

TA: First of all, it wasn’t all filmed under the Colonels. Half of it was filmed during that era. One of the things I’ve done in my life was to finish law school; at university one of my fellow students was a man who later became an under-minister for the Junta. When I wanted to make The Travelling Players I’d already made The Days of 36, a film that uses allusion: it talks of dictatorship without naming it, through silence and insinuation. But since then things had exploded – there’d been a student uprising at the National Technical University of Athens – and I wanted to speak openly; to make a film that spoke clearly about ‘the events’. But I had to get a permit. So I went to find my old fellow student. I entered his office. I saw a man. His back. A window. He was looking out the window. I said good morning. The chair turned. ‘What do you want?’ I had no other choice; I said, ‘I want you to approve this script, or to get this script through without reading it, and to order the local prefects in the various areas to help.’ There was a silence. Then he pressed a button. A lady came in and he said, ‘If you please, sign the permit for this script to be made and an order for the director to be assisted by all the local authorities.’ He said to me, ‘In the name of our old friendship, goodbye.’

So I made The Travelling Players, but not without problems: all of a sudden in these streets of Greece, under the Junta, there were rebels. I had to shoot a scene with songs sung by Rightists and Leftists. An innkeeper, when he heard the rehearsals, notified the police. So when I arrived in the afternoon to film, I found the security police. They asked to watch a rehearsal. The musicians told me, ‘We know lots of songs, we’re children of the German Occupation; we know Rightist songs and Leftist songs. We’d hear them at night, from Left and Right, with the same refrain on both sides.’ So we told the police, ‘We are going to sing all the Rightist songs.’ The orchestra played. Behind: the security police, dark faces, motionless, waiting. One song, two, three, four, five, six – the agony mounted. Finally, we ran out of songs. I looked back. They’d left, thinking, ‘These people are okay.’

I remember once meeting Wajda’s scriptwriter in Paris; he said, ‘Andrzej and I saw The Travelling Players and he said, “This film has a new language. But it also has a secret.”’ So what’s that secret? It’s hidden, but it exists. The fact that all of us who made this film – crew and actors – did something that at that time was a form of conspiracy. I felt I was doing something that had nothing to do with cinema; we were making a statement in the name of a nation. That’s how we all felt. And even now when I see the film, I feel there’s something there; it exists but I can’t name it.

GA: I think it’s great passion. And your last film, Eternity and a Day, is about somebody who’s lost that passion. Some people say your films are quite autobiographical. I’m not suggesting you’ve lost your passion for cinema – since you keep making amazingly complex films; – but do you share the frustration of that film’s protagonist, of things always being unfinished?

TA: I’d say deprivation, rather than frustration. But I live with a woman who all the time plays my shadow. I do what I do because I have to; something’s pushing me that’s stronger than I am. Now, it’s no role to play a shadow. But it’s done out of love, great love, the greatest and most important thing I’ve had in my life. How can I walk by and see only what I do, totally selfishly? — my own eternity? (applause)

Geoff Andrew is Senior Film Editor at Time Out London and programmes London’s National Film Theatre. He has written a number of books on cinema, including a study of the films of Nicholas Ray, republished in a new edition by the BFI in 2004.