On the evening of January 24, 2012, Theo Angelopoulos, crossing a road near the port of Piraeus where he was shooting his latest film, was struck by a motorcyclist; the 76-year-old died in hospital. There’s something cruelly ironic about this sudden bringing-to-a-close of a work where events are anything but so arbitrary and precipitate. When death comes to the protagonist of an Angelopoulos film – for example, Spyros’ suicide in The Beekeeper or Alexander’s implied death in Eternity and a Day – it’s an inevitable one, in keeping with the deliberate pacing of his cinema and the carefully-calibrated, majestic movement of his sequence shots.
Andrew Horton has called Angelopoulos “the last modernist” and in recent years he has seemed a lonely figure, with his absolute dedication to thematic and stylistic concerns that have been consistent since his formative years in the sixties, the great age of cinema’s modernist experimentations. He has also seemed very out of keeping with the cinematic spirit of age, especially with mainstream film culture’s current resistance to anything that smacks of the difficult or the challenging. His work is a reminder of an earlier age of art cinema when a director would challenge you to a direct engagement with the work, to wrest meaning from it in a process that would be active and participatory but also – which should never be forgotten – rewarding and ultimately pleasurable. Angelopoulos was always a profoundly serious filmmaker, grappling with weighty issues of history and politics, of national destiny, of individual responsibility and personal identity. And his films are characterised by a seriousness on a formal level, too, above all in his favoured mode of the lengthy single shot in which space and time – sometimes, multiple times – are explored by a languorously moving camera.
Born in 1936, Angelopoulos grew up during the tumultuous time of the German occupation of Greece and then the savage Civil War. In 1959 he quit the law studies he had taken up under family pressure and, after his military service, moved to Paris to study literature, film and anthropology. (Literature was always a great passion for Angelopoulos, one that has always fed into his cinema, both in the structural referencing to the narratives of Ancient Greek epic poetry and drama and in the direct quotation of individual poems.) In 1962 he enrolled in the French national film school IDHEC but after being expelled studied under Jean Rouch at the Musée de l’Homme while also engaging in the standard cinéphile education at the Cinémathèque Française. Returning to Greece he wrote film criticism for a magazine that was closed down after the 1967 military coup before making his own move into filmmaking with an award-winning short and then his first feature, Reconstruction.
Critics and Angelopoulos himself have divided his career into two distinct phases, and it’s a division that holds true. The films of his first decade after Reconstruction – Days of ‘36, The Travelling Players, The Hunters, Megalexandros/Alexander the Great – are, if you like, his High Modernism period. The development of Angelopoulos’ style no doubt partially derived from the fact that he started at a time of severe censorship of the arts (the Colonels’ junta lasted to 1974). In any case they are elliptical narratives that withhold as much as they reveal to the viewer and, as far as the characters are concerned, deny any easy viewer identification. Indeed, there’s no interest on Angelopoulos’ part in developing psychological depth and distinction to his characters—to the extent that, in Days of ‘36, we almost literally never see Sofianos, the character around which the whole “story” revolves. These films are not portraits of an individual but rather of social groups as emblematic of the movement of History in twentieth-century Greece, with a particular focus on the repression of the Left by right-wing forces within the country in alliance with their foreign sponsors (Britain is the consistent target of Angelopoulos’ opprobrium). The distancing effects of Angelopoulos’ narratological approach are embedded in and reflected by his lengthy, ever-on-the-move sequence shots, a style which reached, in stunning form, its apotheosis in The Travelling Players, a true masterpiece of post-WWII European cinema (yet, it seems not so appreciated today—it didn’t even crack the top 100 in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll). In sum, these seventies films work as a thrilling synthesis of radical politics and aesthetics.
Yet by the end of the decade Alexander the Great gives expression to Angelopoulos’ own waning political commitment. His portrait of a political leader ‘s destruction of a truly socialist, utopian community through his own unbending hubris tells of Angelopoulos’ own loss of faith in political solutions and marks Alexander as the transitional film in his cinema. After this, while the style remains consistent (Giorgos Arvanitis was cinematographer on every film through to Eternity and a Day), the nature of his films changes. History moves to the background, and the narratives become in a sense more conventional, focussing on a psychological portrait of a central protagonist. Antonioni’s co-scriptwriter Tonino Guerra becomes a regular collaborator, as does composer Eleni Karaindrou, whose lilting, mournful melodies, in substance one of the defining features of the post-1980 work, powerfully add to Angelopoulos’ increasingly melancholic world-view. And leading roles are now given to international actors – Marcello Mastroianni , Jeanne Moreau, Harvey Keitel, Bruno Ganz, Willem Dafoe – sometimes dubbed, more often than not speaking English to a greater or less convincing effect (Keitel’s line readings of Angelopoulos’ highly literary dialogue do not form one of the high points of Harvey’s career).
Even if there are minor problematic features to some of these later films, one can’t help but be in awe at Angelopoulos’ enormous artistic ambition and achievement. His films are made to make their mark on the world, intensely serious ruminations on what has been increasingly for him a world of a loss both in terms of individual psychology and family relations and in terms of society, politics and history. At the same time every one of his films contains stunning passages of the most intense pictorial beauty—a beauty that is so dependent on the slow, sometimes hesitant, sometimes inevitable wide-ranging movements of his camera. You could say that, in the end, his major protagonist is that camera, set down to document, explore, analyse and aestheticise a specific time and space. And his invitation to us as viewers is to become at one with the slowed-down, contemplative pace of an inspiring, rewarding, and very distinctive style of cinema.
Introduction by Ian Johnston
Days of ‘361972
Landscape in the Mist1988
Voyage to Cythera1983