Filmmaker Retrospective: The Historical Cinema of Theo Angelopoulos

Trilogy of Borders


6. Suspended Step of the Stork (1991)

Suspended Step of the Stork (1991)

The first film of the Trilogy of the Borders, Suspended Step of the Stork deals with the issue of effects of closed borders on refugees. The film follows Alexandre (Gregory Karr), a reporter, who while on an assignment near the Greece–Turkey border learns about a small town locally known as the “the waiting room.” The residents of this town are all part of a waiting list of immigrants seeking asylum in Greece.

There he meets a recluse (Marcello Mastroianni) who bears an uncanny resemblance to a politician who had disappeared almost a decade before. Alexandre assumes the responsibility of taking the politician back to his land and reuniting him with his “widow” (Jeanne Moreau). He gropes his way as he tries to understand what would have forced a highly educated politician to forsake everything and lose faith in humanity.

Though fascinating the subject matter and brilliant performances by legendary actors Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau are incredible elements, the visual imagery of the film makes it unforgettable. Angelopoulos, in this film, creates poetry on screen.

One initial image is of a man standing on a bridge over the borderline between two countries. He has one of his legs suspended in the air like a stork—one step forward and he can be in a country or he can be shot. The last scene includes a line of clad, yellow-raincoat repair workers climbing telephone poles that seem to pierce the sky. The simple scene alludes to man’s inherent tendency to transcend boundaries or maybe the futility of such an activity.

The most striking scene in the film is undoubtedly that of the wedding. The bride and the groom are from the two different sides of the border and in-between runs a river. They come and stand on opposite banks with their families. A priest conducts the ceremony on the girl’s end while the groom performs his rituals on the other side with an imaginary bride.

Suddenly, two gunshots are heard; both of the parties finish the somber celebrations and hurriedly disperse. The eighteen minute long scene moves at a languid pace sans any dialogue. All one hears is that the sound of the river and a few chirping of birds, making the scene even more poignant.


7. Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)

Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)

After spending thirty-five long years in a self-imposed exile in the United States, a Greek filmmaker (who is never named throughout the film and is played by Harvey Keitel) returns to his native Ptolemais to attend a film screening. His real intention is to find the undeveloped reels of Manakia Brothers’ first film, which he believes could serve as an essential tool to understanding the Balkan history.

Like a modern-day Ulysses, he embarks on an episodic journey, and his quest takes him through the Civil War torn Balkans of the 1990s. He finally finds the object of his desire at a dilapidated archive in Sarajevo.

Cinematographers Yorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos use the wide screen format to brilliantly capture the landscapes of a snow-covered Albania and a bomb-shattered Sarajevo. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when a disassembled statue of Vladimir Lenin floats down the Danube on a barge. Not only is the scene beautifully shot, but it is replete with symbolism.

The Balkans were just coming out of the Iron Curtain, and the colossal statue of half lying Lenin on the Barge was clearly a reference to Ozymandias. In the opening scene, this film parallels two others: Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) where a statue of Christ is seen hanging from a helicopter; and more recently, Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003) where a similar huge statue of Lenin is airlifted through Berlin.

As in Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players (1975), this film, in a single shot, includes a delicious time traveling scenario when Keitel pays a visit to his mother. The year is 1945, and the audience experiences a flashback.

A few moments later, the viewers witness his father returning from the Second World War—the year is 1948. Suddenly, the scene changes, and it is 1950—the Communists arrive. Seconds go by and a family photo opportunity appears on screen, and Keitel is called to join the rest. Who walks in? A little boy!

The second installment of the Borders Trilogy, the brilliant Ulysses’ Gaze won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize & International Critics Prize in 1995.


8. Eternity and a Day (1998)

Eternity and a Day (1998)

This Palme d’Or winner is arguably the most intimate, introspective, and (probably most) accessible work of Angelopoulos. The film presents Alexandre (Bruno Ganz), a terminally ill, aging poet. As he prepares to embrace death, he reconsiders his life and regrets that he has wasted so much time without doing anything worthwhile. However, destiny gives him one last chance for redemption, in the form of an Albanian boy (Achilleas Skevis), whom Alexandre rescues from gangsters. He resolves to take the boy back to Albania, and thus begins his journey.

As a contemplative Alexandre reviews the life he has lived thus far, he revisits his relationship with his (now dead) wife and occasionally slips into reveries akin to Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). However, Angelopoulos’s style is distinctly his own where the past and the present intermingle, timeframes merge, and dreams find ways into reality.

In this third film of Angelopoulos’s Trilogy of Borders, two scenes especially remind viewers of the parting shot in the first installment, Suspended Step of the Stork. In one of the most important scenes of the Eternity and a Day, the men in yellow raincoats make an appearance—on bicycles—as Alexander and the boy take a bus ride. The three bright yellow figures, paddling in and out of the frame against the backdrop of a pitch dark night, lends the scene a surreal touch.

Another scene, and probably the most haunting in this film, is when Alexandre reaches the Albanian border with the boy. As the camera pans through the mist, viewers see a border fence with people clinging to the barbed wire—amid the fog, the shot seems like rows of ghostly figures suspended mid-air. It is a poignant scene that reflects the desperation of the people crossing the border.


Trilogy on modern Greece


9. The Weeping Meadow (2004)

The Weeping Meadow (2004)

Set during the same timeframe (World War II and the Greek Civil War) of the The Travelling Players (1975), the Weeping Meadow tracks the journey of a teenage orphan girl, Eleni, who elopes with her soon-to-be bridegroom’s son. The son, never named in the film, is also the father of her illegitimate twins whom she had to give up for adoption.

Like of many other Angelopoulos films, the story (in medias res) meanders through various timeframes and stumbles upon some of the key events in the history of the nation. The film boasts some of the best examples of Angelopoulos’s famous tableau shots, and the sheer poetic quality of its visuals makes this film a must watch.

Eleni bids her husband farewell as he is about to board a ship to America. She regrets that she couldn’t finish the sweater she was knitting for him. As a small raft carries him toward the waiting ship, The Young Man—as he is often referred to in the film—catches hold of a thread of wool hanging loose from the unfinished garment.

The yarn keeps unwinding as the distance grows between the two. The allusion is that of Theseus’s spool—maybe this thread will keep The Young Man from getting lost inside of the new world’s Labyrinth into which he enters; or maybe the thread will bring him back to the safety of his home. The scene, pregnant with symbolism and deeply elegiac in tone, is a stunning piece of art in itself.

In addition to the artistic symbolism and tone, many scenes of this film are visually stunning, For instance, the scene in which the village floods and the natives abandon their homes via small rowboats portrays slow moving inky black figures on the backdrop of white and muted blue. Another unforgettable image is the macabre sight of a flock of dead sheep hanging from the branches of an enormous tree.

These images of mundane rural life remind one of Jean-Francois Millet paintings. Moreover, water is not only an important motif in the film (symbolizing the power of nature), but it also plays an important role in the composition of most of the shots. For example, it renders an overall sogginess to the film, thereby making its very texture reflect its title: The Weeping Meadow.


10. Dust of Time (2009)

Dust of Time (2009)

The second installment of the Modern Greece trilogy, Dust of Time is a story of three generations spread over seven countries and three continents. The film, spanning half a century, encompasses some of the world’s historical highpoints—from the death of Stalin to the dawn of the new millennium.

One of Angelopoulos’s most ambitious films, the director illustrates images of the Siberian gulags, the Nazi concentration camps, the Vietnam War, Nixon, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The narrative of star-crossed lovers, which unfolds against the backdrop of World War II, was never meant to be the director’s swansong. Nevertheless, the film (as a result of tragedy), became the last completed film of Theo Angelopoulos.

The film depicts an unnamed Grecian-American author who is making a film on his parents’ love affair. Eleni and Spyros meet just before World War II and are soon separated. Spyros settles in New York, while Eleni takes asylum in Stalin’s Russia. Spyros sneaks into the country via Germany and reaches Tashkent, where Eleni is staying in a colony created for Greek expatriates.

On the night of Stalin’s death, they have a brief rendezvous in a tram during which they conceive a child. Before the night ends, officials find out about Spyros and arrest him. Eleni is deported to Siberia where she meets Jacob, a German Jew who eventually falls in love with her and helps her out in turbulent times. As the story progresses, past and present converge, time and space abruptly change, reality trips over a dream, and dreams disguise themselves as reality.

Dust of Time trembles on the brink of being a masterpiece, but falls short for several reasons, the first being the below average performances of the lead actors. Ironically, the film boasts the most ambitious star cast to date— Willem Dafoe (the anonymous director); Irène Jacob (Eleni); Bruno Ganz (Jacob); and Michel Piccoli (Spyros). Notwithstanding Ganz, the rest of the actors lack the depth of their respective characters.

However, Angelopoulos transcends the awful performances with his characteristically stunning frames of images. Shot entirely outside Greece (a first for the director), the cinematography is as brilliant as all of his other films. What seems like a desperate attempt to become more “accessible,” the auteur leaves (in Greece) his trademark long shots and visual set pieces. However, he tries to redeem himself with some absolutely spectacular tracking shots. At 125 minutes, it can best serve as a teaser to the master’s oeuvre.

Epilogue: Is it ironic or coincidental that many of Angelopoulos’s films feature the agony of characters whose works of art are often left unfinished? In Eternity and a Day, Alexandre struggles to complete a poem. The play The Travelling Players try to stage time and again is always disrupted midway. In Landscape in the Mist, Voula says to her brother, “This story will never get finished.”

The audience will decide the irony or coincidence, especially since the director’s last film trilogy is left incomplete. In January 2012, tragedy unfortunately occurred when the director was killed in a road accident while working on the third film. Titled The Other Sea, the film reportedly deals with the economic crises of present day Greece.

Author Bio: Ananya Ghosh is a senior copy editor with one of India’s leading newspapers. An obsessive-compulsive traveller and an occasional travel writer, she is also a film addict who watches every movie with an analytical eye. She is as enthusiastic to catch the first day show of a Bollywood blockbuster as she is to attend four back-to-back screenings at a Buñuel or a Bela Tarr Retrospective. Although she is having a passionate fling with Lars von Trier films at present, Cary Grant comedies remain the true love of her life.