This is a wonderful collection of early works by one of the masters of the cinema. Angelopolous made films like no one else's, creating his own language of image and
time. His films, especially these early works can be challenging, and even frustrating at times. They take work, and without a knowledge of Greek history (especially
in the 20th century) they can be down right baffling at moments.
Also, his first films, for me, are less than perfect -- an artist finding his voice, sometimes awkwardly (although there are many who see the first films as outright
masterpieces). I do know his films always grow with re-watching. There are always new details, new connections, new understandings.
It's very sad that this great artist's works are not more widely known and appreciated. Hats off to Artificial Eye for making these films easily available.
I can't think of any other modern film-maker who so deeply and rigorously explored his country's 20th century history, psychology, national myths, politics,
and societal strengths and weaknesses in film after film as Angelopoulos does in his early films. Later, he turns to more personal, humanistic film-making,
just as brilliant in its own way But his multiple films deeply and creatively exploring how his nation came to it's current state represent something
special, even to someone like myself who didn't grow up in that particular culture.
The DVD quality in the set is quite high. There is some controversy as to whether 'The Hunters' is the "right" cut, as it appears to be about 20 minutes shorter than
another extant version (However, that version seems to be impossible to find with English subtitles). On the other hand, Angelopoulos himself is supposed to
have approved this version. We may never know the whole story, but I will say this is the only version I've seen, and it blew me away.
Some comments on the 4 films:
Reconstruction (1970) A beautifully photographed, elegiac meditation on truth, love, change and loss.
While far from my favorite film by Angelopoulos, it is exquisitely shot in gorgeous, stark black and white, and very impressive as a first feature. As mentioned, I
get more out of it on each viewing.
This exploration of the nature of truth revolving around the murder of a husband by his wife and her lover in a tiny Greek hamlet, and the subsequent investigation
by the police and the press is emotionally reserved to the point of disconnection at times. And Angelopoulos' first experiments with time-shifting - which I love in
his later woks - on first viewing left me confused and frustrated more than enlightened. But once I was prepared for its fragmented approach, I found its
sometime confusing density powerful.
I also realized how much more than just a noir murder tale this is. It's the story of the death of a way of life as well, as the rural towns of Greece were abandoned
for money and hope in the big cities and abroad.
Days of '36 (1972) A step towards Angelopoulos' greatness
An even more difficult and abstract film than Angelopoulos' debut, his 2nd feature deals with a man arrested after a political leader is assassinated. The man seems
to have been part of the assassination plot, but it is left somewhat ambiguous what his role was. In jail he takes prisoner of an official who may or may not also be
his cohort. While the hostage situation is at the very center of the plot, we are never in the room with the two men, and never know quite what is or isn't going on
Tied directly to specific events in Greek history of 1936, when Greece fell into dictatorship (I suspect only a deeper knowledge of that history would have let me
experience all the film's many levels), and made during the second period of dictatorship 30+ years later (and so Angelopoulos had to be ginger in how blatant
anti-government his stance was) on the broader scope the film is about the desperate stupidity of power, seen here via the various odd ways in which those in
power try to deal with the hostage crisis; rendering them at first impotent, and then violent.
The pace is very slow. This is a comparatively short film by the director's standards, but actually felt longer than some of his epics. Without an emotional center
or any character(s) we can identify with, using all non-actors as cast, many of whom give fairly stiff performances, the film teeters on the edge between
fascinatingly enigmatic and simply frustrating and confusing. It's all a metaphor for a society going wrong, for the rise of fascism, but it's convolutions, distant
performances, and (for Angelopoulos) naturalistic visual style never really allows us inside as his later, greater, more poetic, theatrical and emotional
But it is beautifully made, shot from always interesting angles. Angelopoulos had yet to fully embrace his trademark super-long, flowing elaborate takes, (often
multi-minute mini-films within a film) but there is a step in that direction from "Reconstruction".
"Days of 36" is a transitional film. Angelopoulos starts to find the voice that would lead to his masterpieces, starting with his next film, "The Traveling Players",
where his intellectual rigor would be balanced by an incredibly cinematic vision, and the beginnings of his expressions of a sense of loss and pain, so one is
drawn deeply in, even as you occasionally get lost on a literal level.
Not a great film, but an intellectually interesting one, and required viewing for anyone interested in the arc of the work of this great master of images. And I
suspect, as with all this film-makers' dense films, I will only get more from it on repeated viewings.
The Traveling Players (1975) Angelopoulos' first masterpiece
Perhaps a flawed masterpiece, but for me his first great film. As with all of his films, it's challenging, and if you want to be cranky you can pick at it. But why?
First and foremost, 'The Traveling Players' is a technical achievement; almost 4 hours long and only about 80 cuts in the whole film! (or 132 depending on the
source. I will admit I didn't sit there and count!) It goes against all we've gotten used to in film story-telling, and does it brilliantly.
The story follows a troupe of actors back and forth through the years 1939 to 1952. They're thrown about by the violent, sometimes absurd tides of Greek
history, with victory over the Nazi's giving way to the rise of local fascists at home.
The film is very Brechtian and distanced in style. We hardly get to know the characters at all, despite the running time. It's much more interested in the great
tides of politics and time than individuals - which is both a strength and its weakness. I was always interested, sometimes horrified, but only occasionally
touched emotionally. Also, some of the good/bad of the politics felt simplistic and polemic.
That said, despite its length, I very much look forward to re-watching it it. I suspect I'll appreciate the amazing scope of it's vision and the bravery of it's
style even more without expecting to get caught up in the people in a conventional way. I will say, to make a deliberately paced, intellectual, 4 hour borderline
experimental film and never be boring is in itself an amazing accomplishment!
Comparing the Artificial Eye version to the highly praised Greek New Star release (which Angelopoulos personally supervised), I found they were nearly
identical in image quality. Perhaps the New Star had a tiny edge, to my taste in the color arena. The New Star is just slightly cooler in tone, faces are less
ruddy. But the image is so similar I imagine they likely come from the same master.
There's a bigger difference in sound. The New Star has a 5.1 dolby re-mix which I found slightly cleaner and more appealing than the Artificial Eye's simple
dolby stereo. However, one could make a good argument that the theatrical release wasn't mixed in 5.1, so the stereo mix is more true to the original. In any
case, the good news is that this new version lives up to the out-of-print Greek release that was under Angelopolous' direct control.
The Hunters (1977) My favorite film of the set
A powerful, surreal examination of politics, time, guilt and memories. An amazing follow up and companion piece to the epic 4 hour "The Traveling Players",
Angelopolous further refines his complex visual style, jumping backwards and forwards in time, often, remarkably all in the same shot. (There are several
very long takes here that are simply astounding, tracking us right out of the 1970s into the 1960s and then the 1940s and back again without a cut).
A group of hunters in 1977 find a communist revolutionary, dressed in 1940s clothing, freshly shot to death in the snow. But how can this be? All the
Communists were executed or exiled back in 1949.
The subsequent surreal exploration of the past and present - of each character and of Greece itself - is a challenging statement on guilt, denial, moral confusion
and self- deception. This may be the best of all Angelopoulos' films at making multiple time periods dance together in the same scenes, often in the same
shot, sometimes in the same frame (!). He uses cinema in a unique way to examine how the past shapes the present, and how we in the present then
re-shape the past in our memories. I found this the most emotional and moving of the 4 films in the set. And while it is generally serious, the film
also has a bleak, rueful, darkly playful sense of humor.
A difficult, but tremendously rewarding film that has rarely been seen outside Greece before now. There's never been a decent English subtitled DVD
release (that I know of).
There seem to be two versions of the film in existence, both supposedly 'approved' by the director. This 143 minute version and a longer 168 minute
version, which I have never been able to find with subtitles, although there are non-subtitled Japanese and Chinese DVDs that have the 168 minute
version. That's also the 'official' length on the Angelopoulos website. There is a fascinating discussion and debate about the cuts - and whether they
are problematic or not - on the Criterion forum website: [...]
In any case, this is a wonderful set, full of cinematic riches,and images you will never forget (Angelopoulos seems incapable of framing a bad shot).
I recommend it without question to any lover of adult. challenging cinema.
on 3 December 2011
I first encountered Theodoros Angelopoulos ("Theo" from now on, to save my fingers the trouble) as a young, wide-eyed cinephile about 8 years ago with the film Ulysses' Gaze. I felt as if I'd been struck by lightning. It was one of the few truly unique and powerful cinematic experiences of my life to that point as I'd never seen a film with an aesthetic style quite like it. Since then I've seen many films, and encountered many filmmakers, that offered similar experiences, but Gaze stayed with me. I was quite upset to learn that, at that time, it was the only film of his available on DVD. A few years later Landscape in the Mist was also released, and it proved even better. Since then I've lamented the scarce availability of his work, especially the early films that were hailed as masterpieces.
I eventually even bought the New Star versions of his films, but that set was incomplete. But I could finally see The Travelling Players, which proved to be the masterpiece it had been hyped as. Well imagine my surprise when I found out Artificial Eye was releasing Theo' entire filmography! I immediately pre-ordered Volume I and II, and I'll be pre-ordering Volume III soon. Volume I just arrived a few days ago and I immediately put in Reconstruction and found myself, yet again, in complete awe of Theo' mastery of cinematic images. Since then I've also watched the other three films in this set, including rewatching The Travelling Players, and found Days of '36 and The Hunters to be excellent--if lesser--films in Theo' cinema.
But one thing should be stressed about this set and Theo in general: He is a very unique director with a very unique style and voice. He utilizes long takes that frequently stretch on uninterrupted for minutes at a time, even when very little is (superficially) happening on screen. Much like Hou Hsiao-hsien--my favorite director of the last 30 years--he eschews classical exposition, which means that he doesn't take any time setting up the characters and conflict. Instead, he just thrusts you inside the world of his films and expects you to keep up. This can be especially difficult when one is ignorant of recent Greek history as well as classical Greek literature and mythology. The Travelling Players, for example, utilizes Aeschylus' famous Orestia trilogy and adapts it to the sorrows of Greece from 1939-1952.
Theo' cinema is a cinema for aesthetes. The types of people that can stare in wonder at hours at a Monet for the sheer beauty, or get lost in the sensuousness of a Keats poem. People call his films "poetic," but what that means is that he has a mastery over cinematography and mise-en-scene, from the lighting to the compositions to the orchestration ("blocking" in theater terms) of people within the frame. He utilizes silence and space and time to allow one to sink into the atmosphere of his films like one might sink into a hot bath while listening to Mozart. With Theo it's a meditative, feeling thing, more than an intellectual understanding or an edge-of-your-seat thrill-a-minute.
The real question to a newcomer to Theo is: where to start? These three-volumed box sets are compiled chronologically, and going through any artist's oeuvre chronologically always has certain advantages of watching them develop and refine their artistry. Volume I has perhaps Theo' magnum opus, his defining masterpiece, in The Travelling Players, but it's is also perhaps his densest, most challenging film because of the multitude of levels it works on (metafictionally, historically, comedically, mythologically, dramatically, etc.) and because of its 3hr. & 45min. runtime. However, the first film, Reconstruction, is a less painful introductory film. Shot in black & white, it's Theo's only film in the style and it's one of his simplest, most direct, yet most elegantly beautiful. Days of '36 is a political hostage drama that becomes, by the end, almost an absurdist satire. Here one can see Theo developing his magisterial long-take style that he'd perfect in Players. The Hunters closes this set, but, much like Players, it's a difficult film to follow if one is ignorant of 20th Century Greek History, and I find it perhaps the least substantial film here (though still quite strong).
I've only seen Landscape in the Mist and Voyage to Cythera from Volume II, and only Ulysses' Gaze and Eternity and a Day from Volume III, but the others will be new discoveries for me as well. If the other films hold what I've seen of Theo's later style, then Volume II and III may encapsulate his move towards a more metaphysical, mystical cinema reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky. He's still interested in culture and history in a film like Landscape and Gaze, but in these films it remains more in the background. These may be better introductions to newcomers as they don't place as much demand on the viewer's knowledge of socio-historical and cultural context, but I can't speak for the five films I haven't seen. Perhaps an alternate course for those in the US (or for those with region-free DVD players) would be to buy one of The New Yorker releases to "give him a try" before investing in these box sets.
The final matter for interest to potential buyers of these sets is image and sound quality. Well, I can't provide any figures like DVDBeaver can (those interested can check their site periodically), but to my eyes, via my Oppo BDP-83 and Mitsubishi WD-73737 TV, they look spectacular. Maybe because they were a sight for sore and yearning eyes to begin with. But the prints look clean and clear and I don't see any artifacts or nasty pixelixation that often happens with low bit-rate transfers.
Despite the fact that, by now, I've seen almost 5000 films and have even taken up reviewing films for the website Cinelogue.com, Angelopoulos remains one of the few directors from whom each film is an immersive experience. For that alone every cinephile deserved to see him. He won't appeal to every taste, but if you're like me then he may become one of your favorite cinematic artists.
Until very recently The Travelling Players was one of the few masterpieces of world cinema which could not be obtained on DVD in an English-subtitled version. That has now been rectified, and is included here as one of Angelopoulos' first 4 features, all from the 1970s.
The first two films are both based on actual incidents. The black-and-white Reconstruction relates to a crime of passion in a small village in 1970, and already we see some of Angelopoulos' style, with 360-degree pans, groups of people dwarfed by landscape, virtually no close-ups, and jumping back and forth in time. The title relates to the fact that the crime is being reconstructed by the police to ascertain who in fact did the actual killing (of a husband returning from a spell of work in Germany). As with all the director's films we have to work at it, although here we don't need a knowledge of Greek history. An impressive debut.
Days of '36 is about a traumatic event in 1936 when a prisoner, claiming innocence of an assassination, takes hostage an MP who visits him in his cell. The film follows the bungling attempts of the authorities to resolve the crisis. Again there are very long takes, little dialogue for much of the film, sweeping camera movements, etc.
The Travelling Players, nearly 4 hours long, is the highlight of the collection, and the only one of these films I have seen before, though not for a long time. To fully appreciate it you need a knowledge of Greek history between 1939-52, and of ancient Greek myths, and I do not yet have this. Even without that, you can really wallow in the astonishing cinematography in this story of a group of actors, travelling from village to village, over a 13-year period, performing just one play whose performances (at least the ones we see) are always interrupted by the political events which punctuate the period, including of course World War II. The director reaches his full maturity here, with his trademark rival political processions, movements in time within the same shot, several scenes by the sea (including one involving a group of British soldiers), a New Year's Eve party with rival factions singing their songs, scenes in the snowy mountains, all with shots lasting several minutes with constantly-moving camera. I intend to watch this film several times, hopefully having mugged up on the Greek myths and history involved.
The Hunters was a revelation to me. A group of hunters, in the late 1970s, come across a recently-shot man in the uniform of a Communist fighter from the civil war of 30 years earlier. This leads to a long inquest, in which each of the hunters is held to account for his past political involvement. The film's highlight comes in the last half-hour, when at a New Year's Eve party (again!), after some general singing, a woman enacts her admiration for the King to the extent of feigning giving herself to him in an act of love. This is followed, in a highly surreal episode worthy of Bunuel, by the apparent coming-to-life of the dead Communist and the arrival of his former comrades, who proceed to shoot the Rightists who are holding the party. All this, lasting many minutes, in a single take, though I did detect a possible cut, in the style of Hitchcock's Rope, where the jacket of a passing character fills the screen. This scene alone matches anything in The Travelling Players.
Having watched these four films, the directors they most remind me of are both Hungarian: Miklos Jancso, whose compositions of armies of characters moving as in a distant ballet are truly stunning, and, even more, Bela Tarr, with ultra-long takes of characters trudging their way into the distance. If you like this style of cinema, then Angelopoulos is certainly for you. But I would strongly recommend learning some Greek history first.
on 19 September 2013
Theo(doros) Angelopoulos died in January 2012 depriving us of one of the greatest contemporary voices in cinema. In the last 20 years no other director except for Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke, Bela Tarr and Hou Hsiao Hsien has been quite so uncompromising both in his approach to cinema and to the demands he makes on audiences. He leaves a legacy of 13 incredibly rewarding feature films which we are very lucky to have in 3 cheap box sets coming from Artificial Eye. Volume 1 is comprised of his first 4 features, The Reconstruction, Days of '36, The Travelling Players and The Hunters. For the uninitiated Angelopoulos's cinema can seem formidable. His subject (especially in these films) is 20th century Greek history and politics, about which audiences are assumed to know in detail. He also assumes audiences have a thorough knowledge of Greek antiquity, especially Homer's Odyssey, Aeschylus's The Oresteia and the Sophocles Oedipus cycle. His films are autobiographical to an extent and it helps to know that Angelopoulos was born in 1935 a year before the onset of the Metaxas dictatorship, that he grew up through World War II with bombs falling around him, that his sister Voula died early at the age of 11, that his father disappeared in Red December 1944 only to reappear suddenly 5 years later when all his family had assumed him dead, that he is a left-wing socialist (just like his father), and that he studied law and worked for the socialist film magazine Demokratiki Allaghi before turning film-maker. All these things find their way into his films in various guises as re-occuring tropes. His directing style is famously ellusive. He rejects traditional notions of narrative story telling and character psychology, adopting instead Brechtian alienation which distances us from his stories and protagonists. He deliberately uses narrative ellipses, forcing audiences to work hard to interact with his films by withholding simple information. His mise-en-scene is worked out very carefully with his ever-present cameraman Giorgos Arvanitis in which close-ups are ignored in favor of long shots and in which takes tend to be lengthy, slow and incredibly detailed affairs lasting upwards of 5 minutes each. These takes often skip time periods and involve complex tracking shots across meticulously arranged landscapes. He invented this 'sequence shot' technique and in The Travelling Players it reaches perfection.
Before I examine the films individually, a word about the DVDs themselves. Each film here is transferred with great care, the picture and sound being extremely sharp. I do have a complaint about the complete lack of extras. These films are tough to watch without some prior knowledge of Greek history, politics and culture. I know Angelopoulos considered himself a poetic film maker and expected his audiences to work to meet him halfway, but I really think intelligent commentaries and/or documentaries on all of these films would go a long way to making the set attractive to potential buyers, especially those new to him. The lack of information provided with the set has led me to make an attempt at filling in some of the gaps in the reviews that follow. Also, I note the absence of the 3 short documentaries made by Angelopoulos. These are The Broadcast, Athens Return to the Acropolis and One Village, One Villager. They could easily have been squeezed onto these discs - the last of these would make an outstanding extra for The Reconstruction, dealing as they both do with the disintegration of rural communities. I shouldn't grumble though as we have all the feature films of a quite wonderful director presented here at a very cheap price. All three volumes are mandatory purchases for anyone interested at all in cinema as an art form.
THE RECONSTRUCTION (Anaparastassi)
(Greece, 1970, 97 minutes, b/w. aspect ratio: 4:3 / 1.66:1
Angelopoulos's remarkably assured first feature is the true story about how a man (Michaelis Fotpoulos) arrives back in his home village in mountainous northern Greece having spent years working as a gastarbeiter (guest worker) in Germany, only to be murdered by his wife (Toula Stathopoulos) and her gamekeeper lover (Yannis Totsikas). The title refers to three layers which are incorporated into an expertly-wrought a-chronological narrative structure. The first concerns the simple reconstruction of the facts - the film is even shot in the village where the incident happened and the villagers appear as themselves throughout. The second refers to the police investigation and the reconstruction of the murder done by the inspector (Alexandros Alexiou) in which he forces the accused to re-enact the murder in front of him. The third refers to the TV film crew (led by Angelopoulos himself) who descend on their news story, but end up reconstructing the root social causes of the adulterous murder by recording the feelings of the villagers who recount how the local population has been decimated by poverty, many of the men having moved to Germany to find a better life. The film opens with the stark fact announced by an off-screen narrator (Angelopoulos again) that the village population has shrunk from 1,250 in 1939 to 85 in 1965, and an old man later ponders that "when the villages are empty, that won't be good for the cities either". This final layer turns out to be the film's main theme - a documentation of the emigration-induced decay of rural Greece with the consequent culture-extinction and marginalization of the country's international importance. A mere package tour destination for many in western Europe, Angelopoulos shows here (as he does in all his films) the real socio-cultural crisis that has been consuming Greece since World War II and the Civil War. He said, "the village is a complete world in miniature...It was really World War II and the Civil War that completely destroyed the reality and concept of the Greek village...as a result in the 1950s 500,000 village men went to Germany...to become guest workers...[so] the spirit of the villages began to die". Furthermore, the a-chronological structure and the film-within-a-film device highlights Angelopoulos's concerns with how narratives are constructed, how stories are told. All the characters are in the business of narrative construction - the police inspector, the film journalists and even the adulterous couple who leave the village in order to construct a story (their alibi) to convince everyone back home that her husband has really gone back to Germany. Layered into Angelopoulos's rich narrative are references to Greek myth, especially Aeschylus (The Oresteia recounting Agamemnon's fateful homecoming) and also to autobiography (the director's father turning up after years of absence). As the characters are more important for what they represent (symptoms of a wider societal malaise) rather than who they are as people, as always with Angelopoulos there is no room in the script for personal psychological motivation. The couple barely talk throughout, the director preferring slow takes in which he points his camera for long periods of time at the poverty of the local people, capturing the rain, the mist and the vestiges of 'old' culture (old men breaking into dance on the street, the use of folk songs) which cling on despite the country's slide into obsolescence. When Angelopoulos does evoke character psychology it is usually as a group, as evidenced in this film by the moving way the villagers react as the murderers are taken away by the police. As in ancient tragedy it is the Greek chorus who express (or react to) the emotions the main characters evoke. The couple's adultery and the murder of the returned husband is presented as a metaphor for the decay of village society which the villagers (the chorus) round on so vociferously. Giorgos Arvanitis's extraordinary b/w cinematography makes poetry out of squalor here in support of his director's passionate reaction against the inhuman social situation that prevailed in Greece at this time. Angelopoulos said, "What do I want to happen? I simply want our life here to become more human. We need to return to those places [the villages] to find much of what is still important and authentic to our lives". Made at the highly censorious time of the Colonels' Regime the film was highly sensitive material and it's miraculous that one of the most astounding debut films ever made was released at all.
DAYS OF '36 (Meres Tou '36)
(Greece, 1972, 104 minutes, colour, aspect ratio: 4:3 / 1.66:1)
Part I of Angelopoulos's 'Trilogy of History' (the other parts being The Travelling Players and Alexander the Great), this film is the 'true' story of a troubled young (possibly gay) ex-drug trafficker, Sofianos (Kostas Pavlou) who is framed for the assassination of a politician at a workers' meeting. While awaiting trial he is visited in prison by a Conservative politician, Kriezis (Yannis Kandilas) whom he takes hostage. He demands to be released or he will kill both Kriezis and himself. This poses a dilemma. If the government does not free Kriezis they will lose the support of the Conservatives. If they do they will lose the support of the Democrats. Sofianos is a Communist-connected police informer, and if he stands trial the corruption of both sides will likely be exposed. The film charts his no-win situation mainly through the futile work of his lawyer (Giorgos Kiritsis) who is the victim of attempts to harass him off the case. When he does produce evidence that Sofianos is innocent it is too late, the government having already decided to kill him. To understand this film we have to know the history. 1936 is important as the year Ioannis Metaxas installed the 4th August Regime in which he ruled Greece as a military dictator until his death in 1941. King George II had returned from exile in 1935 (the year Angelopoulos was born). The ensuing election produced a deadlock, a situation the King solved by appointing Metaxas as Prime Minister in April. Greece was rife with socio-economic unrest at this time and to quell the threat of Communism, the King allowed Metaxas to launch a military crackdown. A state of emergency was declared and parliament was suspended indefinitely, Metaxas claiming to hold "all the powers I need for saving Greece from the catastrophes that threaten her". What followed was a regime based largely on the Italian model of Mussolini. The film is set in the first months of Metaxas's leadership before the August 4th crackdown as the army has yet to take control. Nevertheless, Angelopoulos sees Metaxas as a pure dictator and the film draws parallels between his Fascist regime and the Fascist Regime of the Colonels which was ruling Greece as the film was being made. Both regimes had been initiated to end socio-economic unrest and to crush Communism. Both suspended civil rights and curtailed press freedom. Both saw thousands arrested and tortured (intimated at here, but not graphically shown) and both saw the creation of a police state whose power relied on the psychology of fear. Angelopoulos said: "What I was looking for [in the film] was a certain climate. A reign of terror". Interestingly, both regimes saw periods of high economic growth and low unemployment, and both saw heavy support coming from Britain and the US, this latter point underlined in a beach sequence depicting a party of British diplomats comparing events in Greece with Spain. The film largely plays out in the prison which Angelopoulos makes a metaphor for the police state Greece had become, the governor and the politicians acting as the rulers and the prisoners acting as the Greek people themselves. As per usual, the director ignores individual psychology in favor of the group, giving the most moving scenes to the prisoners who act as a Greek chorus. They react to the action as it unfolds. There is a prison riot, an escape attempt and a demonstration where inmates vent their hostility to authority by banging cups on their cell window bars. Angelopoulos isn't interested in Sofianos or his hostage. Their fate is oddly depicted. Kriezis may even be in league with Sofianos as shown by his request for the prisoner not to be held in a normal cell, and then later by the two overheard by guards laughing together - hence a possible gay subtext. Also as we don't see either of them in the room throughout the film, it's possible that Kriezis may be holding Sofianos hostage, and not the other way round. The director is much more interested in lampooning the weak incompetance of the government as shown in the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the new Olympic stadium in a desolate piece of wasteland which nobody turns up to. Then the government responds to the hostage situation with farcical weakness rather than strength, killing the problem with murder rather than with diplomacy. Even this they botch at the first attempt. The film ends with three anonymous prisoners being executed in a barren field. This is 1936, but it could be 1972, or indeed any time during Greece's bloody and very tragic 20th century history. For Angelopoulos, violence is ever-present in a society given to socio-economic and political instability with history repeating itself in endless cycles of bloodshed. Giorgos Arvanitis wraps his director's cold depiction of a Fascist state in ironic bright, warm and very beautiful images. Full of narrative ellipses and obscure references, the film is somewhat opaque, but it cries out for multiple viewings for this is exceptionally bold, courageous political film-making of a very high order. Angelopoulos has acknowledged this film's importance on his way to the dialectical political complexity of the masterpiece that followed it.
THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS (O Thiassos)
(Greece, 1974-75, 222 minutes, aspect ratio: 4:3 / 1.66.1
Part II of the 'Trilogy of History', this film is justifiably regarded by many as Angelopoulos's masterpiece. The narrative is a left wing history of Greece from 1939 to 1952 told on three basic levels which dialectically relate to each other. The first is the level of history. Greece in 1939 was 3 years into the Metaxas dictatorship which continued until his death in 1941 just before the German occupation. Greece was liberated in 1944 only for the British to move in and orchestrate elections under the auspices of the soon to return King George II who had been living in exile in Egypt during the war. All the allies except Russia had recognized the King and in the election of 1946, thousands of Greeks influenced by the far left boycotted the vote and the country slid into a terrible civil war which lasted through to 1949. The Royalists prevailed with the help of Britain and in 1952 the first 'free' election saw the elevation to power of Field Marshal Alexander Papagos. Views differ on Papagos. He was a Greek patriot who had orchestrated the defeat of Italy in 1940 and had fought against the Germans. He had been imprisoned by the Nazis and was liberated by the allies from Dachau concentration camp in 1945. However, he was elected in 1952 with a mandate given by Britain to take a hard line against the Communists, and (left winger as Angelopoulos was) Papagos is depicted as a harbinger of the Fascist Regime of the Colonels which would rule Greece from 1967 to 1974. The film was made under the noses of this regime and it was only its collapse that enabled Angelopoulos to release it in the form he had originally intended. Like Days of '36, the film talks about the Fascism of the past, but is really talking about the Fascism of the present and the possible future as well. Angelopoulos saw 20th century Greek history as 'a series of occupations' - the Turks, the Fascists, the Italians, the Germans, the British, the Fascists again, and then the Americans. These endless cycles of bloodshed looked set to revolve forever in a society tragically incapable of establishing any socio-economic let alone political stability. All the Greek people could do was stand back and watch their country be destroyed again and again. In the film the people are symbolized by the travelling players of the title, a theatre troupe who travel around the country witnessing this destruction. Their viewpoint constitutes the second level of the narrative structure - theatre. On their travels they perform only the one play, Golfo the Shepherdess by Spiridos Peresiadis, a peasant folk tale about a shepherd who abandons his sweetheart for the daughter of a wealthy landowner, and which was chosen by Angelopoulos because he saw it as "daily bread" for the Greek people. The way the performances of the play are constantly interrupted by the surrounding conflicts shows how Greek culture had been stunted, denied expression, and how the Greek people had been reduced to mere 'travellers' in their own homeland. This sense of displacement within one's home runs thick through all of Angelopoulos's work and nowhere more obviously than in this film. We never get to know any of the players personally, the director remaining as uncompromisingly negative about adopting traditional notions of character development and plot exposition as ever. They wander Greece, witnessing and commenting on events as they happen as another of Angelopoulos's Greek choruses.
Characters from the troupe (or chorus) are only made known to us by names taken from mythology, the third of the narrative levels that course through the film. In this case it is the great myth from antiquity of the House of Atreus as described most clearly in The Oresteia by Aeschylus. Angelopoulos had to tell the Fascist authorities in 1974 that his new film was an adaptation of The Oresteia set in Nazi times to avoid noses being poked in, but it would be a mistake to say the film refers only to Aeschylus as that doesn't explain the characters of Chrysothemis (who doesn't appear in Aeschylus at all) or Pylades (who is given a very important soliloquy towards the end, but who barely figures in The Libation Bearers). Angelopoulos is referring to the myth of the House of Atreus which existed in oral tradition originally, was first noted down in the Nostoi (now lost), mentioned in Homer's Odyssey and then adapted in very different versions by Sophocles and Euripides as well as Aeschylus. Committed viewers will have to research all these sources to find the inspiration for all the action that transpires in the film. Basically, the story of The Oresteia is one of love and hate, jealousy and betrayal which in the film comments dialectically on historical events as well as the Peresiadis play. Agamemnon (Stratos Pachis), a Greek refugee from Asia Minor, goes to war against the Italians in 1940, joins the resistance against the Germans, and is executed by them after being betrayed by his wife Clytemnestra (Aliki Georgouli) and her lover, Aegisthus. Aegisthus (Vangelis Kazan) is an informer and collaborator working with the German occupiers. Orestes (Petros Zarkadis), son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, fights on the side of the leftists, avenges his father's death by killing his mother and Aegisthus. He is arrested in 1949 for his guerilla activities during the Civil War and is executed in prison in 1951. Electra (Eva Kotamanidou), his sister, helps the leftists and aids her brother in avenging their mother and Aegisthus. After the death of Orestes she continues the work of the acting troupe and her relationship with Pylades (Kyriakos Kativanos). Chrysothemis (Maria Vassiliou), Electra's younger sister, collaborates with the Germans, prostitutes herself during the occupation, sides with the British during liberation, and later marries an American. Pylades, close friend of Orestes, is a Communist who is exiled by the Metaxas regime, joins the guerillas and is arrested and is exiled again. Finally he is forced to sign a written denunciation of the left after torture by the right wing and is released from prison in 1950. By using myth Angelopoulos stresses the constancy of human emotions that never changes - the old litany of love, hate, murder and revenge. These emotions sweep down the ages and are as relevant now as they were when Aeschylus was writing. Of course, the director is also establishing a specifically Greek context where everyone knows the story as it unfolds. This removes the necessity of having to bog down in traditional narrative construction and character development, enabling a distance between us and the members of the troupe to be maintained throughout. For this reason it seems natural when three of the characters address soliloquies directly to the camera to relate particularly horrifying stories. En route to the 1940 war against Italy, Agamemnon describes the defeat of the Greeks by the Turks in 1922. Having been raped and dumped on waste ground, Electra picks herself up and describes the events of December 1944 and the Battle of Athens which saw the betrayal of the Democratic 'Government of National Unity' (it was at this time that Angelopoulos's father disappeared). Then in 1950 Pylades describes his imprisonment and torture in graphic detail which leads into the discovery of Orestes's execution. Far from sticking out as stylistically anachronistic (as similar soliloquies do in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 for example), the monologs flow out of the narrative organically and are very moving as a result.
These three levels of history, theatre and myth operate seamlessly throughout the film's almost 4-hour running time in an a-chronological manner not unlike that of The Reconstruction, acting as a Brechtian alienation device which distances us from the narrative, but conversely involves us even more, inviting us to reflect, perceive and synthesize our emotional response. In the scene of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus's murder the three levels come together spectacularly - the re-enactment of The Oresteia (myth) interrupting a performance of Golfo the Shepherdess (theatre) in front of a live audience (history). Angelopoulos's treatment of mise-en-scene also makes sure the various levels operate together, the film consisting of around 80 shots, most of which are hugely challenging very slow 'sequence shots' which last upwards of 5 minutes at a time in which the camera tracks across meticulously organized panoramas which transcend time itself. In the same shot the film segues from one time zone into another. The opening shot of the film has the troupe arriving in a country town in 1952 at the time of the Papagos election, but as they walk down the street into a square suddenly we realize we have slipped back to 1939 with an announcement that Goebbels will accompany Metaxas on a trip. In typically sly fashion Angelopoulos has equated Papagos with Metaxas (a dictator) and has suggested that the Fascist rule of the extreme right is something Greece will never extricate itself from, cycles of history viciously recycling. Near the end of the film Angelopoulos shoots the Civil War conflict as a song and dance contest between the Communists singing and dancing to songs about Colonel Scobie (the officer in charge of the British occupation) and the Fascist Royalists who sing patriotic songs about the King. These Royalists win the contest (as they do the war) and march down the street, singing as they go, in one huge tracking shot which starts on New Year's Day 1946 and finishes in 1952 with the election of Papagos. Again we are aware of the continuation of Fascism which will climax again later in 1967. The result of these time shifts within single shots is the feeling that we are watching past, present and future all at the same time. The view of Greece and her prospects is extremely bleak as Angelopoulos makes clear by the way the film finishes, contrasting ironically with the outcome of The Oresteia. In the Eumenides the trilogy finishes with Orestes having been acquitted of matricide and returning to the family fold. The Furies and Athena bury their differences in a paean to Athens and the conviction that Greece will be forever strong. The Furies say: "And the brutal strife, the civil war devouring men, I pray that it never rages through our city, no that the good Greek soil never drinks the blood of Greeks, shed in an orgy of reprisal life for life - that Fury like a beast will never rampage through the land". Athena's final words are: "So the love this family [of Greeks] bears towards our land will bloom in human strength from age to age". Contrast these sentiments with the events of the film - Orestes (the traditional figure of hope-everlasting) has been tortured to death, is buried in a staggeringly moving scene where the rest of the troupe applaud his life's work, and whose name is passed on to Chrysothemis's son as the troupe continue a performance of their play. It is a futile hope as the final scene is the same as the first, the troupe gathering outside a station on a street, a people made homeless within their own homeland with the continuing power of the Fascists still denying them a homeland worthy of the name. The film coming out so soon after the Athens Polytechnic uprising had been put down so brutally by Dimitrios Ioannides in November 1973 and when events in Cyprus were coming to an ugly head, there's no denying the power and tragic conviction of the sentiments presented by Angelopoulos here.
Believe it or not, it is possible to be deeply moved by this film without any knowledge of Greek history or of The Oresteia, but a little research will deepen your response to it without a question. Probably only Greeks will catch all the nuances, but that doesn't detract from Angelopoulos's staggering achievement. This is a historical drama like no other. Unique its structure, unique its vision, it is one of those films which simply has to be seen to be believed. It well deserved the prize that year at Cannes and is one of the greatest political/historical films ever made.
THE HUNTERS (I Kinighi)
(Greece, 1977, 143 minutes, colour, aspect ratio: 4:3 / 1.66:3)
Alexander the Great may be the final part of 'The Trilogy of History', but really we can include The Hunters as well, making for a default tetralogy. If Angelopoulos uses the trilogy to refer back to antiquity then this is only fitting as The Oresteia (the only surviving trilogy) was originally a tetralogy anyway, the last part (Proteus) having been lost. The Hunters continues the previous film's dialectical investigation into Greek history spanning from World War II through to 1976. It amounts to an examination of the guilt stirred in members of the far right coming from their conduct during the years of civil war and Fascist dictatorship. On New Year's Eve 1976 a hunting party are walking through a snowy mountain waste when they happen upon the corpse of a Communist soldier who had been killed in 1949 at the end of the civil war. The party take it back to their lakeside villa. All the party members are Rightists - Fascists who had prospered since 1949 with the aid of the British and the Americans, and who had fought at their imperial masters' behest against the Communists. The body is laid out on a table to resemble the corpse of Orestes laid out in the prison at the end of The Travelling Players. After a fanfare welcomes the arrival of a senior colonel by boat at the villa, a kind of police inquiry takes place. The corpse is still bleeding after 27 years have passed. How can this be? The hunting party is obviously a metaphor for the conscience of the bourgeois members of the far right, each member symbolically representing different parts of it - the colonel and his wife, the businessman, the ex-head of police (now turned publisher), the ex-partisan informer who is now a wealthy contractor, the politician, the film actress Nazi collaborator and the Royalist noblewoman. Each one takes turn to recollect and reconstruct their participation in various political events of the past. These events are shown but explained only obliquely so that audiences again have to know the politics of the period to grasp the meaning of the film. The Royalists won the civil war and the Papagos administration that came in after it shared many of the Fascists' sympathies. Most importantly Britain and the US were concerned with using Greece as a pawn in their Cold War politicking and supported this group financially (and probably militarily). The Communist left wing still retained immense popularity but whenever they became too powerful, the right wing always had the power to put them down. The 1958 elections saw the United Democrats win, but their leader Grigoris Lambrakis was assassinated in 1963 and the party disbanded by the Colonels' Regime in 1967. November, 1963 saw the election of the Centre Union Party's Giorgios Papandreou, but he was ousted by the Apostasia (a group of rightist polticians allied with King Constantine II) in the Royal Coup of 1965. This in turn gave way to the April 21, 1967 coup d'etat of the Colonels which the King at first resisted, but the Americans continued to support right through to 1974. Amnesty International reckon 8,000 people were arrested in the first month after the April coup, out of which 2,000 were tortured. Atrocities were numerous, the most infamous of which being the Athens Polytechnic uprising in which 24 students were killed by Dimitrios Ioannides. The colonels responsible for this period of Fascism were tried and sentenced in 1975 and this film was made in that trial's shadow. Basically, The Hunters documents how the Fascists kept democracy from succeeding in post-war Greece and their consequent guilt. Angelopoulos is up to all his usual tricks here with time shifts taking place within his trademark complicated sequence shots which spin away from the court room in the villa back to past events as they are recalled by the witnesses. The set-ups are more elaborate and therefore more challenging for the audience as well as the film-makers than anything in his previous film. Also, the director maintains his customary distance between us and the characters making it difficult to make out exactly who is doing what to whom. There are no close-ups and no psychological characterization. No sympathy is shown for any of the characters (who mostly go un-named) apart from the guilt-ridden ex-partisan who is given a moving scene of contrition. Angelopoulos is dealing with symbols of Fascism here and he obviously disapproves of his subject. The correct moral response is given by the Greek chorus of the Communists who sail past the villa twice on their boats mournfully displaying their red flags. Justice comes at the end of the 1976 New Year's Eve party when (after the noblewoman has faked dancing and making love to the King to great applause) the camera does a 360 degree sweep around the room in which all the guests except for the original hunting party vanish and a band of Communist partisans burst in, the time having wound back to 1949. The partisans force the Fascists outside to witness the final sail past of the Communist boats before gunning them down for their sins. The tone of the film returns to the satire of Days of '36 with many scenes played out with Angelopoulos's dead pan 'humor' thickly in evidence. There is even an attempt at French farce as a fixed camera in a corridor observes group members going in and out of rooms, opening and closing doors - the politician even trying to escape only to be stopped by the ex-policeman, the most brutish of the group. When the politician claims to be a Liberal over dinner, the table is swished away and the other table containing the corpse is wheeled back by the other members who have now become stagehands aiding the mise-en-scene. He is then obliged to act out the part of Papandreou leaving office in 1965. Then there is the ex-partisan's sex scene when he admits to impotence (induced by guilt?), the camera panning right to reveal the rest of the group in the room with the corpse watching him. In terms of style the film sits somewhere between Salo (1975) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). It's not trenchant enough to measure up to the disgust of Pasolini, and it's not funny or cynical enough to match Bunuel. Instead we have a stream of obscure scenes which appeal to a sense of humour I don't share. Still, there are scenes in the film which really work, notably the 1967 coup d'etat and the framing device of the hunt which eventually sees the corpse returned to the snow which shows the bourgeois/Fascist response of hiding and ignoring their crimes. The film is a bit of a head-scratcher and is the most intractible of the four films presented here, but it still deserves careful attention.
on 19 February 2013
Having only seen a couple of later Angelopoulos films (& caring for neither) I was hoping to really get to grips with this director via this box set containing TA's first 4 films, the films that made his reputation. There's some interesting reviews & discussion of these box sets on Amazon from long-time fans, so it might be worth posting the opinions of someone relatively new to Angelopoulos, a non-convert, now that I've had a chance to watch each film in box set #1 at least twice.
There is nothing cinephiles like better than a box set series rounding up a director's complete works in chronological order, so Artificial Eye are to be congratulated for their efforts - the only criticism of these no-frills boxes might be the lack of the kind of booklets labels like Masters of Cinema / Second Run / BFI tend to include. These films need a little bit of contextual info more than most - so it's worth checking out interviews with TA about each film in books or online before watching.
THE RECONSTRUCTION (1970)
A peasant wife murders her émigré husband - the case is investigated & repeatedly reconstructed by police, journalists & film makers.
A low budget black & white film, but excellent grimly evocative cinematography. This film carries all kinds of resonances about the poverty of Greek provincial village life, emigration & the socio-economic backwardness of Greece as a whole under the post-war military dictatorship. The film is also very self-reflexive, blurring the lines between fiction & reality, questioning the documentary `truth' of cinema. But these various layers of allegorical meaning never distract from the enigmatic power of the central storyline (Kairostami & the Iranians must surely have seen this film back in the 1970s....) A good if challenging film which was even better on second viewing.
DAYS OF '36 (1972)
Greece 1936: A union leader is assassinated by an agent provocateur who then takes a hostage. The army / government must free the hostage but how? And are they politically complicit with the right wing assassin?
A bigger budget & colour - impressive elaborate choreographing of scenes & camerawork. Very elliptical narrative. A rather confusing film on first viewing despite a simple central plot situation. But the film is a lot more comprehensible on second viewing & Angelopoulos certainly knows how to portray the paranoia & pervasive violence of a fascistic society in political crisis. A good film - worth persevering with (but maybe worth reading up on the historical background first).
THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS (1975)
An acting troupe travel around Greece across a couple of decades, always performing the same scenes from the same antiquated play in various political contexts before & after WW2 (ie performing under successive foreign occupations & the basic civil war split between right wing militia & communist partisans).
This is generally regarded as Angelopoulos' masterpiece & obviously I appreciate the achievement of putting all this repressed Greek history on the screen while the military junta era was coming to a close & I appreciated the clever narrative structure (weaving back & forth between time periods within long takes). Nevertheless, watching the film for the first time in 2012 rather than 1975, I found the film rather arduous & unsatisfying & it didn't improve much on second viewing. It reminded me of the Brechtian agit-prop theatre of the 70s & 80s - fine on stage but inherently uncinematic. Much of the film is like a cursory potted history & the characters mere ciphers (yes I understand the intention is to block empathy or psychological identification but it seemed simplistic to me on that level). Even politically I'm not sure there is any real depth to the analysis. The long sequence shots & camera set ups seemed inconsistent to me - lacking the authority of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Jancso et al.
THE HUNTERS (1977)
In the 1950s a group of bourgeois holidaymaking hunters accidently shoot a communist partisan - from the 1940s! How could this historical impossibility have happened and what should they do with the body?
Again this seemed more like a Brechtian theatre piece based around a simple conceit - more suitable for the stage than the screen. Some of the film is quite blackly comic & the basic political `joke' is quite well achieved, but the set pieces in the latter half of the film seemed increasingly contrived to me. An uneven film. There's something disturbing about how Angelopoulos presents sexuality / sexual violence too, aside from what is intentional.
Overall conclusion? Well, having gone on & ordered Box Set volume 2 I must have been partially converted, but still remain an Angelopoulos agnostic - only really liking Reconstruction & (to an extent) Days of 36. There's often something flat, ponderous & superficial about the sensibility & execution - and from his cinematic style (eg the sequence shots) there's little of the sheer thrill to be had from the classic modernists or from recent `late modernists' like Bela Tarr, Bilge Ceylan, Jai Zhangke, Kairostami. At the very least, given the current crisis in Greece, the films certainly help to provide an interesting historical education & it's obviously worth picking up these box sets at Amazon discounts while they are available, but, speaking purely as someone new to the films, I'm not (yet) convinced that Theo belongs in the first rank of directors.
on 12 April 2015
Despite the tragic circumstances of his death Angelopoulos left us a huge legacy in films such as The Travelling players and Eternity and a Day.
I have been blessed to have visited Greece many many times over a twenty year period,travelling widely within the country with my Greek partner and Angelopoulos' films were always there as a backdrop.
It is therefore sad to observe what is happening there now and one cannot help but wander if Capitalism is coming to an end as young people search for a more ethical philosophical ideology that integrates within it the globalization fact that we are all responsible for each other, nor must we sit back as Sartre said for others to make our lives meaningful...we must make the kind of choices that give our lives meaning and those choices will go far beyond our personal concerns.
on 5 January 2013
To get the full benefit of these films you need some knowledge of Greek 20th century history. You can make a short-cut by reading the synopsis which will be available on the net. Then allow yourself to be mesmerized and drawn into the scenes that are so slow that you become part of the story, watching it all from a sideline. Wonderful, powerful but very sad stories about a country and its people who are their own worst enemies.
Not everybody loves Angelopoulos, but I do.
on 17 April 2012
5 stars for Theo Angelopoulos 1 for Artificial Eye. There is no a single extra feature (they are essential for understanding Theo's films) and sadly The Hunters is 143 minute version, the official length is 168 minute.
on 16 October 2014
on 30 September 2015