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The Greek Waste Land: Close-Up on Theo Angelopoulos

With each film the Greek master refined his examination of his country and the role of arts and the individual in times of turmoil.
Forrest Cardamenis
Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze (1995) is showing April 27 - May 27 and Landscape in the Mist (1988) is showing April 28 - May 28, 2017 in the United States.
Landscape in the Mist
“We Greeks are dying people. We've completed our appointed cycle. Three thousand years among broken stones and statues, and now we are dying.”
Taxi driver, Ulysses’ Gaze
It seems that no essay on the films of Theodoros Angelopoulos can neglect to mention that, despite being recognized as one of cinema’s masters in Europe, he has repeatedly failed to cross over to the United States. A retrospective at the Museum of the Modern Art in 1990, a Grand Prix at Cannes Ulysses’ Gaze in 1995, a Palme d’Or for Eternity and a Day in 1998, and, most recently, a complete 35mm retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image and Harvard Film Archive have done relatively little to boost his standing stateside.
The reasons for this are not novel. His films are often long—five of thirteen run between three and four hours—and always “slow”; shots last for several minutes, and the people in those shots are dwarfed by their environment—no surprise, given Angelopoulos’ tendency to eschew character psychology. Instead, people and location are used to illustrate connections among politics, culture and history with such specificity that it can be hard to follow for those without prior knowledge of Greece. His films also augment one another, with characters reappearing and dialogue recurring, taking on ironic new meanings in different scenarios, rewarding longtime fans and occasionally leaving newcomers behind. But what often gets lost in discussion of the complexity of Angelopoulos’ style is the specifics that make him unique among his European contemporaries as well as the variety to be found within it; with each film, Angelopoulos developed his technique and refined his politics as he examined his country, its place in the world, and the role of the arts and the individual in times of turmoil.
Landscape in the Mist
Landscape in the Mist (1988) is not without these “difficult” characteristics, but it is the optimal starting point for entering Angelopoulos’ world. It is, in some ways, a profoundly hopeful film, and it marks a reversal in Angelopoulos’ filmography in that politics and history are incorporated to complement a less recondite discourse about the arts, whereas earlier films did the opposite. Its narrative, too, about two children who leave home to find their father, is immensely moving. It unfolds almost like a fairytale, tracing the coming-of-age of the older Voula as she and her younger brother, Alexander, wander across the country and into smaller conflicts teeming with an allegorical importance. Cinematographer Giorgios Arvanitis and Angelopoulos utilize a muted color palette of dull earth and metallic tones, but they nonetheless find countless unforgettable images—the broken hand of a statue gliding across the sky, a single tree amid the mist, awestruck adults gazing at snow falling out of season—all aided by Eleni Karaindrou’s remarkable oboe-driven score, equal parts Arvo Pärt and Mendelssohn.
Greece, as Voula and Alexander traverse it, is deteriorating, marked by the recession of culture and a disinterested public. It is a nation literally without a place in the world—the film posits, somewhat ambiguously, an imaginary border between Greece and Germany, one of Angelopoulos’ more imaginative meditations on borders and nation. Less abstractly, the troupe from The Traveling Players (1975), Angelopoulos’ best-known work, reappears in Landscape in the Mist and in one scene recites, in a disorganized cacophony, monologues centered on history and politics from the earlier film, as if signaling that Greece’s own history is being lost. Indeed, when Voula, Alexander, and Orestes, the actor in whom Voula and Alexander find a friend, watch the statue hand being pulled from the ocean, it embodies a broken cultural link with Greece’s past. In an earlier scene, they watch a bride run into the otherwise empty streets only to be stopped and walked back in by the presumed groom. In the same shot, a vehicle chugs through the snow with a fallen horse in tow, horrifying Voula and Alexander. The vehicle stops, and the children kneel by the horse, talking to it, petting it, and watching as it slowly dies. In the background, a festive accordion tune crescendos and the wedding party begins to sing as they prance down the street, oblivious to the horrors unfolding beside them.
Yet so impassioned is Karaindrou’s score, so striking are Angelopoulos’ images, that even a viewer entirely unfamiliar with the director’s leftist politics and attitudes on Greek culture can still be swept away. Angelopoulos’ aesthetic has a unique effect in Landscape in the Mist. He lingers on the downtrodden horse or the falling snow or the floating hand well after its “point” has been made, breaking through the complex web of signification his films weave to find faith in the image itself. Political as each image might be in context, the length of each shot allows them to function as a purely lyrical one. The fairytale atmosphere and childlike astonishment casts a spell on viewer and character alike.
Faith in the power of the image is, in fact, integral to Landscape in the Mist’s more overt themes. Just as its defining ideas are about art rather than politics, its defining motif is not the floating hand of the statue, but a frame from a film the children find that depicts, ever so faintly, a tree in a misty landscape. It is an almost biblical image that promises happiness that is otherwise absent from the film. Voula and Alexander reach this tree only after being forced to disembark the train to Germany at the border. They come upon a river and begin to cross by boat in a night illuminated by a lone searchlight. As they paddle, an unseen guard yells “halt!” and fires one shot. The next we see of them is their outlines in a feint landscape resembling the frame from the film strip. Slowly the mist dissipates and Voula and Alexander run to embrace the tree. Have they arrived only in death? Or is it reality? Perhaps some imaginary dream space between the two? Angelopoulos leaves the question unanswered, reveling in the hope that film can offer for both character and viewer.
Ulysses’ Gaze
If Landscape is an elegy to a fading idea of Greek nationhood, Ulysses’ Gaze is a quest for Balkan solidarity. It is Angelopoulos’ first film shot mostly outside of Greece; Harvey Keitel’s character travels through Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia before finally making it to war-torn Sarajevo. Most of the dialogue is English, further internationalizing the film as different Balkan nationalities aim to communicate across borders. The film concerns itself explicitly with the work of a middle-aged, modernist filmmaker concerned with the form’s art and history. It begins with footage from films by the Manaki Brothers, the first filmmakers of the Balkan Peninsula, whose undeveloped early films pique the interest of the unnamed protagonist (played by Keitel), leading him to embark on a journey across the region to find them. The Manaki Brothers, he says, “weren't concerned with politics, racial questions, friends, or enemies. They were interested in people,” and perhaps their work can illustrate what Balkan solidarity would look like.
When we first meet Keitel, we learn that his most recent film, currently being shown in the town square, is causing something of a ruckus. “We've crossed the border, but here we still are. How many borders do we have to cross before we reach home?" we hear on the soundtrack. Those who have seen Angelopoulos’ previous film, the equally brilliant The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), will recognize the dialogue. While such a use could easily be viewed as self-congratulatory, in context it reveals Angelopoulos’ commitment to political film. Angelopoulos was a lifelong critic of materialism, but he maintained belief in the power of the filmic medium to sway people—a four-hour runtime and avant-garde techniques didn’t stop The Traveling Players from breaking attendance records in Greece—and he never forsook that faith in the image.
As in The Traveling Players but unlike in Landscape in the Mist, a single shot might take the film across decades, as in an early scene where Keitel appears in the place of a dying Manaki Brother as a sailboat glides by, hinting at what’s to come. Footage from Manaki Brothers films break-up scenes early in Ulysses’ Gaze, as if commenting on the narrative, but they eventually integrate themselves more fully in the story. When Keitel reaches Romania, he is greeted by a woman in 1940s dress and sees Russian soldiers from World War II. Keitel goes home, and we learn that the woman is in fact his mother, and he is now living in a state that combines his own memory and Manaki Brothers films, which take him from 1945 to 1950 in another single continuous shot.
Ulysses’ Gaze
Ulysses’ Gaze
This technique is one of Angelopoulos’ trademarks and arguably the cornerstone of his aesthetic. In general, Angelopoulos distinguishes himself from his European counterparts through a steadfast commitment to his prolonged wide shots and moving camera. While countless contemporary European directors employ some combination of long takes, long shots, and moving cameras, none, except perhaps for Miklós Jancsó, employ all three together so unwaveringly (in this regard, as well as his interest in the limits of representation and the link between politics and art, his closest analogue is not a European, but Hou Hsiao-hsien). Characters remain the focus of the tracking shots of Ophüls and Renoir, Straub-Huillet’s camera tends to remain static, and even early Wim Wenders, often superficially linked with Angelopoulos, was far more forgiving in the length of his shots and generous with his close-ups and amount of dialogue. This meditative approach lent itself naturally to Angelopoulos’ more Marxist, group-oriented early films, in which individual agency is largely suppressed. By foregrounding landscape, the films signal a resignation to historical determinism and a constant affirmation of broader national and political implications as they play out in public spaces. By extension, the time-traveling tendency signals a form of stasis, a rebuff to the idea of things constantly getting better in its literal demonstration of how little has changed. Voyage to Cythera (1984) however, saw Angelopoulos acquire a renewed recognition of the individual (likely thanks in no small part to Karaindrou and screenwriter Tonino Guerra, whose previous scripts include numerous Antonioni and Fellini films) that would stick with him. In Ulysses’ Gaze, the entwining of the individual within the culture and history of the nations is essential, locating a shared Balkan history, only for it to be rendered amidst the siege of Sarajevo.
Angelopoulos illustrates this last point beautifully. One foggy morning in Sarajevo, Keitel wakes up and, instead of the sounds of mortar shells, he hears music. “Foggy days are festive days here,” explains Ivo (Erland Josephson), the archivist in possession of the undeveloped Manaki films, because the snipers cannot shoot. The music is a band of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, Christians and Muslims alike, making music together. Wandering around the city, he notices singing, dancing and even an impromptu Romeo and Juliet performance. The music transforms into something from the 1950s, and Naomi, the latest of Keitel’s love interests, all played by Maia Morgernstern, transforms into Penelope, the first of them. As they dance, Ivo and his family come to join, but suddenly the sound of a jeep disrupts the harmony, and armed men drag off Naomi and the children. Off-screen, we hear gunshots piercing through the fog. We hear orders to dump the bodies of the children in the river, the splashes, the jeep again, and then nothing. Keitel sought the films of the Manaki Brothers as a shared origin, and he found it. But while the Manaki Brothers may not have been interested in politics, just in people, Angelopoulos, by contrast, is acutely interested in politics, and it is politics that shatter the hope of Balkan unity that film, music, theater, dance—the arts—provided, if only for a moment.
There is a paradox in these two films: Landscape in the Mist, the hopeful one depicting the recession of Greece’s cultural and historical identity, and Ulysses’ Gaze, the despairing call for pan-national fraternity.When Keitel’s cab-driver paraphrases the words of the great Greek poet George Sedaris, We Greeks are dying people. We've completed our appointed cycle. Three thousand years among broken stones and statues, and now we are dying,he mourns. But Angelopoulos sees opportunity, and his films help us to recognize it.


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