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Flawed end of the century diasporism
on 13 February 2014
Part 2 of a portentious trilogy on the history of Greece in the 20th century, it's very easy to write this film off as a badly-made over-inflated Euro-pudding. All the dodgy ingredients are there - the huge budget, the international co-production (Russia, Greece, Germany and Italy), the starry international cast (Willem Dafoe, Irène Jacob, Bruno Ganz, Michel Piccoli) playing Greek/German immigrants who all miraculously speak English throughout, the James Bond-like one-country-a-day location-hopping, the heavy-handed melodrama which never seems to settle into a satisfying whole thanks to deficiencies in a vague script which rumbles with deep significance never clarified. Do my eyes and ears deceive me, or does this possibly give a lie to Theo Angelopoulos' greatness? While The Travelling Players seems to display a gloriously uncompromising vision, doesn't The Dust of Time show the director selling out in the opposite direction? Like many critics have said (especially in America where his films are barely released let alone favorably reviewed), could it be that all these years he has been a charlatan hiding behind the talent of others? Detractors point to the excellent cameramen (Giorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos), expert scriptwriters (Tonino Guerra among them), one great composer (Eleni Karaindrou) and big name actors (Marcello Mastroianni, Harvey Keitel, Bruno Ganz, etc) who between them carry every film. I determinedly re-watched the film and have revised my opinion a little. I now see that although not one of his best efforts (it may be his worst), it is still a film of substance with rewarding things in it for those patient enough to look. Certainly, those who have followed this director's films all the way from The Regeneration will be able to pick out themes, ticks and tropes which have stayed constant throughout his work. If the film is not the crowning masterpiece that some of us were hoping for, it is at least a hugely ambitious film which nobody else could have made.
The film has been all but ignored in the English speaking world, and I couldn't find an accurate synopsis of the plot anywhere on the net beyond the standard publicity jargon put out by the film's official website. It's actually important to follow events so before I go into the film, here is a full synopsis. The film takes place in two narrative strands which constantly flit backwards and forwards commenting on (and then finally merging with) each other. The first strand centers on an American film director of Greek ancestry (played by Willem Dafoe and named `A' in the credits, but never in the film proper) who is making a film about his parents. He is professionally and emotionally all at sea in Rome and Berlin in 1999. Production on his film is troubled, producers are worried and he is at a creative impasse. Furthermore his private life is a mess. He has a 10 year old daughter named Eleni (Tiziana Pfiffner) who is a classic `lost child' wandering the streets with a suicide compulsion. Then there is his estranged partner and mother of Eleni, Helga (Christiane Paul), who is going through a vague emotional crisis of her own. Both of these characters have been sacrificed on the altar of A's film career. He says at one point, "My only life was and is in the stories I tell...I feel lost [in the real world]".
The second narrative strand may or may not be the very film A is directing and is shown in a series of flashbacks, starting in 1953 and eventually catching up with A in 1999. A Greek immigrant named Spyros has travelled from the USA to Thessalonika, Greece. We first meet him on a Moscow-bound train en route to Tashkent and Termitou in Kazakhstan to rescue his long-lost love Eleni (Jacob), a Greek communist who emigrated to Russia in 1949 following her imprisonment during the Greek civil war (1944-49). He catches up with her in a cinema where we are also introduced to another important character, Jacob Levy (Ganz), a German Jew who escaped the Nazi camps in 1938. The date of Spyros and Eleni's reunion is firmly established as March 5, 1953, the day Stalin dies, and a massive crowd gathered in front of his statue halts their tram which is taking them across Termitou to catch a train back to Moscow. Later, the crowd dispersed, darkness falls and with `The Great Leader' looking down on them, the couple make love on the tram. A is conceived. Interrupted and arrested, Spyros is sent to prison and Eleni to a Siberian gulag. We skip forward 3 years to December, 1956 when Jacob arrives in Siberia and reunites with Eleni - they were clearly already an item back in Termitou. In the same month Eleni puts her 3 year old son (A) on a train bound for Moscow. He will be picked up and taken to Leipzig to be raised there by Jacob's sister Rachel. Eleni's voiceover at this point also tells us that Stalin's statues are being removed everywhere and that she has heard Spyros will be released soon. It's clear that he goes back to the USA. We jump forward again to December 31, 1973. The dawning of the new year sees Eleni and Jacob's release from captivity and they cross the Austrian border after months of waiting for visas in Italy. These visas take them through Austria and on to the USA. Jacob decides to follow his love (Eleni) rather than go back to his `home' (Israel) and they spend weeks in a New York hotel, Eleni searching all the while for Spyros. She eventually finds him living with another woman. Having drawn a blank she next tries to find her son (A) who is in Canada escaping the Vietnam draft. As the Watergate scandal concludes with Nixon's resignation she meets him (now grown into Willem Dafoe of course) on the Canadian border and decides to stay in Toronto, getting a job in a bar. Having presumably dumped his current partner, Spyros makes the trip to find Eleni, proposes and then (we assume) marries her. Jump forward to Berlin, November, 1989 as the Wall comes down and (it is hinted) A and Helga conceive Eleni. Then we move on to December, 1999 on the cusp of a new millennium. It transpires that Spyros (now clearly Michel Piccoli) and Eleni have been living in the USA since 1974 and are in Berlin to see their son and grand-daughter as part of a final `great return' back to Greece, to the Thessalonika of the time they first `danced by the river'. They are denied this moment however, Eleni (having saved her namesake grandchild from suicide) passing away as a new century begins along with Jacob who commits suicide. Eleni lives on in the shape of her grand-daughter and the film ends on a note of hope as Spyros dances with her before the Brandenburg Gate in slow motion while snow falls.
Those familiar with Angelopoulos will perhaps detect the film's main problem from this synopsis. Conventional narrative and psychological motivation of character has never been this director's strength and he largely avoids it in every film up to The Weeping Meadow. That opening part of this Trilogy was compromised by a failure to integrate the melodrama into the film's historical/mythological framework. Fortunately, the framework was so strong that the film remains strongly impressive, but with The Dust of Time there is too much plot, too much melodramatic incident, and too little skill in relating it. The end result is little short of a confusing mess. I have simplified the plot greatly above with the benefit of multiple viewings, and would challenge anyone to watch it once and get everything that flashes past. Still, it is possible to argue that Angelopoulos's a-chronological approach and confused (as well as confusing) method suits the central theme of what he is trying to say.
Angelopoulos' main subject here is the confusing diaspora of European peoples following the social disruptions of World War Two, the Greek civil war and the break-up of the Soviet empire. By flashing backwards and forwards and overloading the narrative with barely-explained incident perhaps Angelopoulos is deliberately aiming to lose us in the diaspora he presents, confusion being precisely the point. Different characters are deployed to represent different aspects of this diaspora experience and all are people in states of confused personal crisis.
Jacob represents the original Jewish Diaspora. Displaced from Germany by the Nazis and imprisoned in Russia by the communists, he literally has no `home' to return to. Israel is the obvious answer for him as Eleni pushes him to realize, but he chooses Eleni as his home and follows her to the USA even though she is somebody else's woman. Seeing Eleni married he has no choice but to return to the only family he has in Leipzig where his sister Rachel lives. But his parents are dead, his old friends and relatives swallowed up by the Holocaust. In Berlin he seizes on Eleni, tries to stop her returning to Greece ("Don't go!" he screams) and realizes he has nothing to live for once she has gone. Through Jacob's suicide Angelopoulos presents the grimmest aspect of the Diaspora experience.
It is of course the Greek diaspora that comes into greatest focus in the film. Remember the name `Eleni' comes from the root Greek word meaning `Greece' and her story is the story of her country continued on from where The Weeping Meadow left off. That film's Eleni ended up with nothing, both her sons dead and years of imprisonment behind her. Irène Jacob takes the character into the diaspora into which many communists in 1949 disappeared once the Royalists had won the civil war. Disconnected from Greek soil the concept of Greece becomes an abstraction completely at the mercy of other powers who force her into a ghetto in Termitou, imprison her in a Siberian gulag, dump her in Italy where she must await permission to leave, allow her to enter Austria and from there on to America, the great immigrant nation where all diasporas empty out. Check points and border controls become the main locations where Greece is forced to exist. The precariousness of Greece in the modern world is a theme that Angelopoulos dwells on from first film to last.
A's daughter carries on Greece's hope for the future. At first she is suicidal, completely out of touch with her parents, one of whom is too obsessed with his career and the other is yet another outcast adrift in a diaspora of her own. Helga is a refugee who defected from East to West at the age of 15 and her emotional crisis no doubt reflects the German crisis of having to reunite East with West once the Wall comes down. What happens to those refugees who run from their country only for their country to catch up with them? She is as displaced as any of the other characters in the film. Eleni was conceived in the shadow of the Wall coming down in 1989 by German/Greek parents and her feelings of confusion reflect both the confusion of what was happening within Germany and of her ancestral homeland of Greece - she embodies both countries. The wintry urban hell Angelopoulos depicts (replete with murderous bikers, drug addicts and street gangs) not only reflects the suicidal state of Greece at this time, but also the instability of the whole of Eastern Europe where the effect of the Soviet Empire's collapse was endemic.
The film then is at heart a depiction of the diaspora experience of peoples displaced in the second half of the 20th century. Angelopoulos searches for a solution to the anguish caused by this phenomenon through the use of angels and something called `the third wing'. This is not clearly presented at all, but I sense an understanding of it is essential if we are to get the director's purpose which boils down to a search for spiritual unity which can bind the displaced peoples of Europe together. This ties the film very firmly with his other film about spiritual search, Ulysses' Gaze.
Early in the film A returns to his Rome hotel to find mayhem. He learns that a terrorist group has trashed a room, spreading broken TV sets everywhere and leaving a mysterious picture on the floor. The picture shows a white angel reaching out for a third wing. Angelopoulos clearly stresses the importance of this scene by staging it with a reverse zoom from a high angle away from A as he enters the room and studies the scene to the crescendo of a Puccini aria on the soundtrack. Later in the film when Eleni waves goodbye to A as she puts him on the train for Moscow, Angelopoulos cuts from her fluttering fingers (wings?) to the figures of people on a roof throwing paper and shouting "And the angel cried `the third wing'". This cry is repeated again from outside a building as Jacob and Eleni go to translate for a German man come to fix an organ. Then, still later as Jacob celebrates the New Year on the Austrian border with Eleni, we are reminded of the paper-throwing as he recalls throwing poems with others from a prison roof. He quotes one poem which he found in the snow at length: "As we walked on amid the clamor and the crowd we were troubled by the sirens of the angel. It dipped its wings to touch the earth, in the mud, and cried `the only utopia is the third wing'". Finally, at the film's conclusion Jacob is leaving Spyros for the last time and is no doubt contemplating his imminent suicide when he screams up from his descending elevator, "The third wing, Spyros!"
In the context of the film these references seem obscure, but two levels of meaning can be read into them. The first is political. I was reminded of the words of the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek who said "The only true utopia is that things can go on like they do now indefinitely", meaning that no solution to the world's problems can be found from the right wing (fascism) just as nothing can be offered from the left wing (communism). A solution must therefore be found by following a third wing wherein people continue maintaining the status quo without extreme protest either one way or the other. Clearly, the immigrants isolated in Siberia have learned the lesson that extreme political protest does not pay, the face of communism (Stalin) being every bit as monstrous as the face of their old enemy, fascism (Hitler). The protest A encounters in the hotel might be interpreted as the demonstration of a group campaigning against the `new fascism' of anti-immigration laws that Italy were enforcing at the time. These are laws similar to ones enacted in other western European countries who were also struggling to contain the refugees fleeing from Bosnia and the collapsed Soviet empire. Many intellectuals like Zizek were campaigning against this resurgence of the right wing - a stance taken up by Angelopoulos himself in Eternity and a Day.
The second level of meaning is religious, the angels quoted in the script and seen throughout the film surely referring to The Book of Revelations. Angels appear throughout the book and act as warnings that Man must heed in order to avoid the Apocalypse. The Third Angel says, "If anyone worships the beast, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God" (Rev. 14:9-10). Angelopoulos would appear to be saying in his film that the key to spiritual unity among displaced European peoples must lie in returning to the primitive worship experienced by Adam and Eve before the fall. This lays great importance on Man's observance of the commandments and a commitment to disengage from extremist politics. The `beast' is present in many forms, in fascist dictators, communist overlords and in the policies carried out by western European countries today, and the diaspora that we are given in the film is the place which more than any other needs a find some kind of unity in order for people to attain their utopia. This is what Jacob cries out for when he says "the only utopia is the third wing".
The threat of the Apocalypse is present throughout the film. In addition to the characters being embroiled in personal emotional crises, all big events are showcased in the shadow of bigger potentially catastrophic events - Stalin's death, Watergate, the Berlin Wall coming down, the turn of the millennium Y2K crisis. The whole film takes place in winter, usually at the end of December and on locations indicative of instability - border lines and check points. Then there's Eleni's room that doesn't change whether it's in Rome or Berlin. With all the posters on the walls of social change and 60s/70s radicalism, young Eleni's emotional crisis and the fact that her grandmother eventually dies there show the room is less actual location than `state of (unsettled) mind'. Then of course there are all the angels that we see on the screen and hear referred to in the script. Eleni, Jacob and Spyros drink in a Berlin bar called `The Blue Angel'. Leaving the bar they walk past a huge statue of an angel in front of a U-Bahn station entrance. Young Eleni contemplates suicide jumping `like an angel' from high places while Jacob commits suicide with his arms spread imitating an angel's wings. Bruno Ganz may even have been cast by Angelopoulos knowing he played an angel for Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire. The German title of that film was Der Himmel über Berlin, literally The Heavens over Berlin. Looked at closely, Angelopoulos presents the diaspora experience as something close to Apocalypse. Unless the characters (and countries) involved do something about it - search for a sane third wing political solution and go back to fundamental Christian values, everyone will indeed "drink the wrath of God".
It's possible I have given this film closer attention than it deserves. The way it moves from melodramatic incident to melodramatic incident in `slabs' of scenes which connect only tenuously tends to leave the spiritual search for unity I have outlined far from clear. The characters are sapped of believability by Angelopoulos' refusal to psychologize effectively. As in The Weeping Meadow when they exist to represent something other than themselves, the grand panorama all but drowns the human drama leaving the actors stranded. Willem Dafoe and Michel Piccoli have thankless roles which go nowhere while it's difficult to believe Irène Jacob's transition from young girl to dying old woman. For Angelopoulos she is a country, not a real person. Only Bruno Ganz manages to make something from his role because he is given sufficient room in the narrative to do so. For the director the Greek diaspora was tough but clearly not as tough as the Jewish Diaspora with which it is contrasted. The usual compensations are also in shorter supply than usual. Eleni Karaindrou supplies a beautiful score which is poorly used and even those trademark long shots of Andreas Sinanos are less impressive than usual. Occasional visions explode from the screen, especially the Siberian scenes - the gulag existence as established by one long zoom in on an iron stairway up which drones climb endlessly in the cold, train tracks disappearing into the distance of an industrial factory scene impressively rendered. The best sequence of the film comes in two shots. The first is a long (in terms of time) shot on a tram taking Spyros and Eleni across Termitou in which tension is built by the use of the finale of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony which we finally realize is being played from loud speakers to mourn the death of Stalin. The next shot is a long crane shot of a mass of people shot from the point of view of the dead dictator's statue. These two shots together provide an epic sweep sadly lacking elsewhere. Not a great film then, but certainly an ambitious one unique to this director. I wouldn't recommend buying this as a single DVD even though the picture (aspect ratio: 16:9) and sound are both ideally clear. There are no extras and I can't see even the most ardent Angelopophiles wanting to see it often. You should buy it as part of the third volume of complete Angelopoulos also released by Artificial Eye. That includes Ulysses' Gaze, Eternity and a Day and The Weeping Meadow as well. The first two at least are unqualified masterpieces and should be in every collection.