Theodoros Angelopoulos

b. April 27, 1935, Athens, Greece

filmography
bibliography
articles in Senses
web resources

In Theo Angelopoulos’ haunting fable odyssey, Landscape in the Mist (1988), an adolescent girl named Voula (Tania Palaiologou) begins to tell a bedtime story to her younger brother Alexander (Michalis Zeke) before being interrupted by the sound of their mother’s approaching footsteps. Disappointed, Alexander impatiently complains, “This story will never get finished.” It is an innocent observation that appropriately characterizes Angelopoulos’ epic and distinctive native cinema as well. From the absence of the conventional word ‘End’ at the conclusion of his films to his penchant for interweaving variations of episodes from his earlier films (which, in turn, are often culled from personal experience) to create interconnected ‘chapters’ (1) of a continuous, unfinished work, Angelopoulos’ cinema is both intimately autobiographical and culturally allegorical and, like the children of Landscape in the Mist, traverses a metaphysical plane where the real and the mythic figuratively (and sublimely) intersect to map the organic and borderless landscape of the Greek soul.

From an early age, Angelopoulos’ artistic role as a figurative chronicler of the contemporary Greek experience seemed fated. A self-described ‘war child’, (2) he was born during the dictatorship of General Metaxas on April 27, 1935 to a middle class merchant family. His earliest childhood memories innately reflected a broader national trauma—the sound of air raid sirens and the sight of Germans entering Athens following the Italian invasion of Greece in 1940—an indelible image that he later recreates from memory for the opening scene of Voyage to Cythera (1983). During the war years, his father, an unassuming and diligent shopkeeper named Spyros, and his disciplinarian mother, Katerina, struggled to provide for young Theo and his siblings Nikos, Haroula, and Voula, but like all Greek families of the time, were profoundly marked by the experience of great hardship, economic austerity, and hunger. The sensitive and thoughtful filmmaker would be further affected by two traumatic events in his youth: the Christmastime arrest and disappearance of his father during the period known as ‘Red December’ in 1944 after being informed on by a cousin for not supporting the communist party at the outbreak of Civil War (an incident that is alluded to in The Travelling Players [1975] and Ulysses’ Gaze [1995]), and the death of his sister Voula from a childhood illness at the age of 11.

Ulysses' Gaze

After his father’s arrest, Angelopoulos began to write poetry—a creative medium that he still considers to be the most important artistic influence in his life—even as he seemed destined to inherit his uncle’s legal practice. Nevertheless, young Angelopoulos proceeded to study law at the University of Athens, but left shortly before graduation for his compulsory military service and, upon returning, decided instead to travel to Paris in order to study literature, film, and anthropology at the Sorbonne under the tutelage of Claude Lévi-Strauss (whose theory on the universal, cross-cultural structure of myth undoubtedly influenced Angelopoulos’ mythically allusive approach to cinema). In 1962, he entered the prestigious French film academy, IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques) but was expelled from the program after his first year, purportedly for arrogance and lack of discipline. (3) He then enrolled in a workshop at the Musée de L’Homme where he studied the techniques of cinéma verité under famed ethnographer and documentarian Jean Rouch. After completing the course, Angelopoulos was inspired to create his first film and sought assistance from his former IDHEC colleagues to shoot a 16mm short film entitled Black and White, a paean to film noir about a man being mysteriously pursued by unknown entities throughout Paris. Unfortunately, his limited budget was insufficient to cover the cost of developing a working print and, consequently, was never able to reclaim his film. The real-life episode would ironically parallel the introductory premise of Ulysses’ Gaze as a disenchanted Greek-American director, known only as A (Harvey Keitel), obsessively searches for three lost, undeveloped reels by Balkan film pioneers, the Manakia brothers that represent the first film from the region: the pure, cinematic ‘first gaze’ that he believes will restore his own corrupted artistic vision.

While still assessing his prospects for a career in the French film industry, Angelopoulos returned home to Athens and, on an impulse, accepted a position as a film critic for a left-wing newspaper called Demokratiki Allaghi, a decision that he explains had resulted from the trauma of being assaulted by the police during a pro-Papandreou student demonstration in 1964. He continued to work for the periodical until its abolition in 1967 during a crackdown on radical opposition by the military junta of Colonel Papadopoulos. It was during his tenure at Demokratiki Allaghi that he was recruited for a promotional film project by Greek composer Vangelis for his musical group Forminx for an upcoming American tour which, despite Angelopoulos’ premature dismissal, proves noteworthy in that it provided the young filmmaker with the funding that he needed to shoot his first (released) short film: an experimental satire on finding (or more appropriately, creating) the ‘ideal man’ entitled Broadcast (1968) which was awarded the Critics’ Prize at the Thessaloniki Film Festival.

For his first feature film, Angelopoulos reveals the influence of his documentary training under Jean Rouch, drawing inspiration from a real-life murder of a guest worker by his wife and her lover after returning home from Germany. Creating an episodically non-sequential film-within-a-film entitled Reconstruction (1970), the deeply conscientious filmmaker uses the potentially salacious narrative material to present a broader social and anthropological commentary on the dying of the Greek village—and consequently, the essence of the Greek soul—a cultural preoccupation that he subsequently discusses in an interview with Andrew Horton in 1993:

The village is a complete world in miniature. The old Greek villages had a spirit, a life, full of work and play and festivity. Of course, Greek villages began to depopulate by the turn of the century, but it was really World War II and the subsequent Civil War in Greece that completely destroyed the reality and concept of the Greek village. Our whole way of life was changed by these two catastrophes.

…The changes [to the village-centered nation] would have been made in a much more gradual and gentle way. You have to understand that part of the result of these wars was that in the 1950s over 500,000 village men went to Germany in particular, but also America and Australia, etc., to become guest workers. That meant a big shift in village life. Suddenly the men were gone and the women remained. With all these changes, the spirit of the villages began to die. (4)

Even with his earliest feature, Angelopoulos already provides a glimpse of his innately personal cinema through the opening sequence of the husband Costas (Michalis Photopoulos) returning to Epirus one day after an extended sojourn as an overseas guest worker—an autobiographical incident drawn from the unexpected reappearance of Angelopoulos’ own father after months of uncertainty over his fate following his arrest (the family had already become resigned to the tragic probability that he had been executed).

A Trilogy of History

The Travelling Players

Continuing in the vein of reflecting the dynamic cultural landscape of rural Greece through episodes from contemporary history, Angelopoulos created Days of ’36 (1972), the first film of what would become his self-described trilogy of history that also includes The Travelling Players and O Megalexandros (1980). (5) Ostensibly inspired by an actual prison hostage situation involving a parliament official in 1936, the film is also a subversive indictment of the corruption and incompetence of the then-ruling military junta (1967–1975) whose heavy-handed method of governance and retention of power relied on violence, intimidation, and censorship of the opposition.

While the events depicted in Days of ’36 were compressed over a relatively short period of time, Angelopoulos’ epic masterpiece, The Travelling Players, is pivotally set in the years 1939 through 1952 and provides an expansive framework that spans the pro-monarchy Metaxas dictatorship (1936–1941), the German occupation of Athens (1941–1944) during World War II, and the Greek Civil War (1944–1949). Expounding on the themes of migration and displacement explored in Reconstruction, the film follows a struggling itinerant acting troupe as they repeatedly attempt to perform (but never seem to be able to finish) a pastoral play entitled Golpho the Sheperdess throughout the turbulent unraveling of Greek history during the mid 20th century.

It is interesting to note that Angelopoulos uses members of an otherwise anonymous cast of marginalized traveling players as conveyers of contemporary Greek history through a series of fourth wall monologues in the film: Agamemnon (Stratos Pachis) traces his immigration from Asia Minor to Greece (a reminder of the country’s historically borderless, ethnically diverse population that can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire), Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) chronicles the start of the Civil War after the defeat of the Germans in 1944, and Pylades (Kiriakos Katrivanos) provides a personal account of the torture of political prisoners. In essence, by using the testament of people who are literally transient and homeless (and without identity), Angelopoulos creates a powerful analogy for all Greek people as displaced exiles within their own country.

O Megalexandros

The problematic pattern of foreign intervention in Greek sovereignty that is depicted in The Travelling Players is also visible in O Megalexandros, a densely structured film that interweaves two of Angelopoulos’ predilections—history (the late 19th century kidnapping of aristocratic British tourists by Greek bandits in Marathon) and myth (the bandit leader who believes that he is the reincarnation of Megalexandros (6))—into a provocative examination on the destruction of myth, both as a heroic figure (Alexander the Great) and as an ideology (utopia). Even at this early juncture, Angelopoulos’ cinema had begun to reflect on the failed idealism of his generation, a disillusionment that he would subsequently articulate through the elegiac image of Lenin’s dismantled statue aboard a drifting salvage barge in Ulysses’ Gaze.

Angelopoulos’ use of allusive, iconic representation in O Megalexandros is also evident in the preceding film, The Hunters (1977), a thematic epilogue to the historical trilogy that centers on a group of middle-aged hunters who discover the perfectly preserved, 30 year-old frozen remains of a partisan (bearing an uncoincidental resemblance to the Byzantine image of Jesus Christ) and, compelled to deliberate on its ‘proper’ disposition, spend a haunted, restless evening confronting their past. Set in post-junta era Greece, the film is a contemporary allegory on the nation’s deliberate suppression of painful and unflattering history and collective deflection of personal accountability.

A Trilogy of Silence

Having brought his provocative re-evaluation of 20th century Greek history to modern day Greece, Angelopoulos then sought to capture the human toll of its tragic legacy. The result is a series of haunting, incisive, intimate, and deeply moving odysseys that navigate through consciousness, myth, and memory that the filmmaker describes as the trilogy of silence: the silence of history (Voyage to Cythera), the silence of love (The Beekeeper [1986]), and the silence of God (Landscape in the Mist). (7)

Voyage to Cythera

Voyage to Cythera follows the plight of a returning political exile (Manos Katrakis) during the general amnesty of the 1970s, a communist and Civil War partisan fighter who, 32 years earlier, had re-established a new life in Tashkent in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Similar to Reconstruction, the film-within-a-film narrative of Voyage to Cythera provides a structural metaphor for a displaced father (who, like Angelopoulos’ long-absent father, is also named Spyros) attempting to rebuild his former life and reconnect with his family, only to find that in the wake of devastating wars, abandoned villages, and commercial development, the idea of home has become a myth.

In contrast to the poignant, yet affirming and transcendent parting image of the cast-off and adrift, but reunited aging lovers in Voyage to Cythera, The Beekeeper is a dark and somber portrait of profound disconnection, loneliness, and obsolescence. The film chronicles the aimless life of a middle-aged, recently separated schoolteacher named Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni) who, dispirited by the loss of his beloved daughter through marriage, embarks on his family’s traditional vocation of apiculture and travels southward on an undefined, instinctual springtime migration. Desperately attempting to connect with the realities of an unfamiliar modern world through a promiscuous, rootless, Western pop culture-addicted young hitchhiker (Nadia Mourouzi) who seems oblivious of the past, Spyros represents the lost generation of Greeks who, like Angelopoulos’ father, have become irrelevant, anecdotal relics within their own country after decades of divisive wars, economic turmoil, and unstable governments.

As Spyros searches for elemental connection by following in the path of his forefathers, so too is Landscape in the Mist a journey towards a mythical origin as two siblings, Voula and Alexander, attempt to find their unknown and essentially nonexistent biological father who, their mother evasively (and conveniently) explains, lives in Germany. Guided by daydreamed, unanswered missives to their eternally silent father, the children’s odyssey is an existential quest for ancestral identity and community. From this perspective, the reprised roles of the itinerant, traditional stage actors from The Travelling Players in the film may be seen, not only as a self-referential farewell to the trauma of mid 20th century Greek history, but also as a melancholic observation on the nebulous direction and seemingly inevitable extinction of Greek cultural identity towards the end of the 20th century: an uncertainty that is symbolically encapsulated by the children’s surreal observation of a large, spinning, disembodied stone hand with a missing index finger rising from the sea.

A Trilogy of ‘Borders’ (8)

With the escalating ethnic turmoil in the Balkan region during the 1990s, Angelopoulos returned to the theme of the nation’s historically organic, cross-cultural migration in The Travelling Players to examine the artificially divisive nature of geographic borders. In The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), a reporter named Alexander (Gregory Carr), on assignment near the Greece–Turkey border, encounters a refugee (Marcello Mastroianni) who bears a resemblance to a politician who, years earlier, had abandoned his wife (Jeanne Moreau) and disappeared. Culminating in the memorable wedding sequence of the refugee’s daughter (Dora Chrysikou) marrying her childhood love from the opposite side of the Evros River, Angelopoulos illustrates, not only the painful absurdity and human consequence of arbitrary, man-made frontiers, but also humanity’s innate capacity to transcend these restrictive barriers: a theme that is illustrated in the parting shot of a line of yellow jacketed (a familiar, idiosyncratic image in Angelopoulos’ cinema) repair workers climbing telephone poles that extend beyond the horizon.

The refugee’s resigned sentiment, “We’ve crossed the border and we’re still here. How many borders must we cross to reach home?”, carries through to the makeshift, outdoor cinema in Angelopoulos’ next film, Ulysses’ Gaze, as A arrives for an unauthorized screening of his film. Like the adrift Spyros in The Beekeeper, A’s devastating emotional odyssey through his ancestral homeland is also a personal journey to reconnect with his cultural past, striving to recapture the purity of human vision that has been tainted by romantic loss, artistic controversy, familial estrangement, ideological disillusionment, and the ravages of war.

Eternity and a Day

Following the epic scope of Ulysses’ Gaze, Angelopoulos then created what is perhaps his most intimate and introspective work to date, Eternity and a Day (1998), the story of a terminally ill writer and poet named Alexander (Bruno Ganz) who settles his personal affairs and bids farewell to family and friends, having decided to admit himself into the hospital on the following day where he will spend his remaining days awaiting death. Alternately struggling to reconcile with his emotional abandonment of his late wife Anna (Isabelle Renauld) and aiding the plight of a young Albanian orphan (Achileas Skevis) living on the streets, Alexander finds a greater, redemptive purpose through the literal exchange of words—poetry and communication—and is able to transcend the corporeal bounds of his unfinished existence.

The three evocative words received by Alexander from the Albanian boy during the course of their journey capture the film’s nostalgic and contemplative tone. The first is korfulamu, a delicate word for the heart of a flower, a literal ‘word of comfort’ for his physical suffering. The second is xenitis, the feeling of being a stranger everywhere that reflects his occupational distraction and estrangement from his family. The third is argathini, meaning ‘very late at night’, a word akin to the metaphoric ‘twilight’ of one’s existence. Inevitably, the words express the poetic essence of Angelopoulos’ indelible cinema as well: the soul of the Greek village, the sentiment of perpetual exile, and the dying of a culture.

At the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, during which Angelopoulos received the coveted Palme d’Or for Eternity and a Day, the filmmaker remarked, “I belong to a generation slowly coming to the end of our careers”. (9) Nevertheless, despite his seemingly resigned statement, he continues to work diligently at his craft, having begun filming the first installment of an ambitious, large-scale romantic trilogy on the star-crossed destiny of two people from Odessa during the early part of the 20th century. The century-spanning, international three-part epic—the latest chapter in Angelopoulos’ evolving, ‘work in progress’ oeuvre—is scheduled for completion in 2004.

Theodoros Angelopoulos

Filmography

The Broadcast (E Ekpombei) (1968) short film

Reconstruction (Anaparastasis) (1970)

Days of ’36 (Meres Tou ’36) (1972)

The Travelling Players (O Thiasos) (1975)

The Hunters (E Kenege) (1977)

Alexander the Great (O Megalexandros) (1980)

One Village, One Villager (Chorio Ena, Katekos Enas…)
(1981) television

Athens: Return to the Acropolis (Athena, Epistrophi Stin Akropoli) (1983) television

Voyage to Cythera (Taxidi Sta Kithira) (1983)

The Beekeeper (O Melissokosmos) (1986)

Landscape in the Mist (Topo Stin Omichli) (1988)

The Suspended Step of the Stork (To Meteoro Vima Tou Pelargou) (1991)

Ulysses’ Gaze (To Vlemma Tou Odyssea) (1995)

Eternity and a Day (Mia Eoniotita Ke Mia Mera) (1998)

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Trilogia: To Livadi pou dakryzei) (2004)

Bibliography

Dan Fainaru (ed.), Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 2001

Andrew Horton, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1999

Andrew Horton (ed.), The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 1997

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Angelopoulos’ Gaze by Bill Mousoulis

Precarious Boundaries: Affect, Mise en scène, and the Senses in Angelopoulos’ Balkans Epic by Anne Rutherford

Web Resources

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to online articles can be found here.

Theo Angelopoulos Internet Library
Links to many interviews with Angelopoulos.

Theo Angelopoulos at Strictly Film School
Short expositions on The Traveling Players, The Beekeeper, Landscape in the Mist and Eternity and a Day. Near the top of this page are two links to related readings on Angelopoulos.

Theodoros Angelopoulos

A transcript of Angelopoulos’ speech upon receiving an Honorary Degree from the University of Essex.

Theodoros Angelopoulos
From the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, the Angelopoulos section contains short overviews and images of several of his films.

Click here to search for Theodoros Angelopoulos DVDs, videos and books at

Endnotes

  1. Dan Fainaru. “…And About All the Rest” (1999), Theo Angelopoulos Interviews, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, p. 135
  2. Fainaru, p. 125
  3. Angelopoulos attributes his dismissal from IDHEC to a personal conflict with an instructor who disapproved of his perceived overconfident and cavalier attitude after his projects received overwhelming praise from both faculty and students.
  4. Andrew Horton, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 97–98
  5. Although filmed between The Travelling Players and Alexander the Great, The Hunters is episodically considered as an epilogue to the historical trilogy.
  6. Angelopoulos makes a distinction between the fact-based Macedonian historical figure, Alexander the Great and the mythically evolved, folkloric Greek hero, Megalexandros, who is depicted in traditional Karaghiozis shadow puppet theater as a larger-than-life, Christ-like figure.
  7. Gabrielle Schulz, “I Shoot the Way That I Breathe: Eternity and a Day“, reprinted in Dan Fainaru (ed.), Theo Angelopoulos Interviews, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, p. 117
  8. Schulz, p. 117
  9. Joan Dupont, “A Golden Ray in Theo Angelopoulos’ Winter”, The International Herald Tribune, May 26, 1988, p. 20