Greece: Under Theo Angelopoulos’s Lens
Midnight: In a dimly lit bus, the poet Alexandros and the boy witness three nameless figures riding their bicycles through the rainy night, their bright yellow raincoats forming a strong contrast with the darkness behind. It is very hard to forget remarkable scenes like these from the cinema of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who shot the aforementioned scene in Palme d’Or-winning “Eternity and a Day” (1998). His films illustrate sheer visual beauty woven into myth-like stories. And what does this profound cinematic gaze capture in the 13 films he created? The silhouettes of his home country Greece.
In his portrayal of Greece, Angelopoulos faced the same challenge that bothered all Hellenes since the formation of modern Greek identity — the quest for this consistent identity across Greece’s vast history equally full of hope and despair. In a similar vein, esteemed Greek poet Giorgos Seferis spoke on the fluctuation of the Greek language at the Nobel Banquet in 1963: “The Greek language has never ceased to be spoken. It has undergone the changes that all living things experience, but there has never been a gap.” Yet, while that language was consistently spoken, Greece had also endured a complex history over the millennia, from the fall of Constantinople to the Nazi German occupation. The distant and recent pasts are juxtaposed with the present in Angelopoulos’s cinema. For example, Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” is re-enacted with an actor troupe wandering through Greece during World War II and the Greek Civil War in Angelopoulos’s “Traveling Players” (1975). Homer’s Odysseus is reimagined as a Greek-American director in the 1990s and travels across the Balkans in search of three mysterious reels in another Angelopoulos film, “Ulysses’ Gaze” (1995). There is also the legacy of medieval and early modern Greece, strange and exotic to most foreign audiences, in the Greek countryside captured by Angelopoulos’s camera, such as in “O Megalexandros” (1980). This film is based on a legendary reincarnation of the Macedonia conqueror Alexander the Great, who often appears in post-Byzantine Karaghiozis puppet shows. The myths and legends that Greeks proudly canonized in their national myth are frameworks that Angelopoulos uses to give chaotic modernity a more familiar form, like what James Joyce did in “Ulysses.” History, meanwhile, is something that refuses to go away, with all its bright and shameful chapters continuously returning to haunt the present-day people.
If Angelopoulos was ever trying to construct a narrative of the Greek nation, it does not appeal to right-wing nationalism. In some of his films, he implicitly criticized the Greek Junta, the military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967-74. He critiqued this viewpoint more subtly in his film “Days of 1936” (1972) before openly doing so in “The Hunters” (1977) after the junta fell. In one scene from “The Hunters,” the bourgeois hunters who benefitted from the right-wing regime sing a joyful nationalist march, before being suddenly silenced when they hear the elegiac folk song sang by people sailing on the river with red flags — the heirs of the left-wing partisans defeated in the Civil War who are yet to be put to rest.
Having worked for a socialist newspaper, Angelopoulos’s leftist sympathy is more than obvious. Yet, he would also reflect upon communist authoritarianism in the portrayal of the titular tyrant in “O Megalexandros.” What these films of his earlier career tried to argue was less a leftist agenda and more so a message about the recovery of another Greece that was long buried by the right-wing government after the Greek Civil War. Angelopoulos visualized this forgotten Greece as the dead communist guerrilla fighter uncovered by bourgeois hunters in “The Hunters.”
On the whole, political ideology does not dictate Angelopoulos’s cinema. He seems to instead have inherited the humanism of authors like Seferis, who said in the same Nobel speech quoted above, “When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man.’ That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.” Angelopoulos’s earlier films depict ordinary, flat characters experiencing the real and brutal events of the 20th century. The later films saw more interiority, but the characters reflect the same humble Greeks who live and love and suffer within the flux of time — a returning communist exile, an aging and hopeless beekeeper, two children seeking their father working in Germany, and refugees. These characters are the lenses through which the audience peeks at history. They are the modern containers of the souls of classical heroes. More than anything, however, they are the children of Greece and witnesses to her misery.
Indeed, this Greece seen in Angelopoulos films is miserable. The director showed his sorrow for both individuals and the nation as a whole. Many of the films can be seen as elegies for this country dragging the burden of its past glories toward a future as unclear as the title of “Landscape in the Mist” (1988). There are more visible miseries like the wars, famines, and dictatorships that ravaged this country. However, the most deadly of them all, as Angelopoulos showed us, is the seemingly irreversible process of this country fading into nothingness. Greece, as shown in “Voyage to Cythera” (1984) and “Landscape in the Mist,” is divided between pale cities and a withering countryside. Villages are being drained as men leave for opportunities in Germany. Ancient Athens is drowning in the influence of Western pop culture, and Thessaloniki is a bleak, rusted port. “Greece is dying,” the taxi driver in “Ulysses’ Gaze” shouted to the blizzard. “We are dying as a people.” However, in the face of this dilemma, Angelopoulos refused to lecture the audience or provide any obvious solution. As a director, Angelopoulos showed and mourned for a once prosperous and iconic Greece that is ending in a whimper.
Thus, the Greece that Angelopoulos depicted throughout his cinematic career is a nation that experienced a long and complex history and is now unsure of how long its tomorrow will last. But still, this is a real nation, a nation that has always existed and still affects the people living there and beyond. And unexpectedly, Angelopoulos ended “The Dust of Time” (2008), his last completed film, with a rare moment of hope for the future: On the first morning of the new millennium, the old man Spyros and his young granddaughter Eleni hold each other’s hands and run joyfully forward together. The snow, as the film’s narrator says, is falling “on all the dead and the living, on time passed and time passing, on the universe.” On any journey in search of a national identity, one may want to reflect on Angelopoulos Greece.