For most of his career, the films of Theodoros “Theo” Angelopoulos were as difficult to see in the English-speaking world as the grey, fog-shrouded landscapes upon which he so frequently turned his camera, victims of poor commercial distribution and perhaps a certain cultural resistance to any Greek cinema that doesn’t include Melina Mercouri taking a dip in the Aegean or Anthony Quinn step-dancing to the strains of Mikis Theodorakis. Yet Angelopoulos, who died Tuesday after being struck by a motorcycle while crossing a busy street, wasn’t just the most important Greek director of his generation—the one who plunged deepest into the complex tangle of Greek myth, history and national identity—but also one of the last true masters in a dying tradition of 20th-century European modernism. Which may be what Angelopoulos meant when he said, in his 1998 acceptance Palme d’Or speech at the Cannes Film Festival, “I belong to a generation slowly coming to the end of our careers.”
Born into an Athenian merchant family in 1935, he was still a young boy when, during the German occupation of Greece, his father was inexplicably arrested, deported and feared dead, only to return to the family nine months later—an episode that informs the itinerant Odyssean patriarchs of many an Angelopoulos film. As a teenager, he immersed himself in poetry (especially that of T.S. Eliot and George Seferis) and, eventually, movies (Huston, Hawks and Walsh were among his early favorites). But bowing to family pressure, he enrolled in law school at the University of Athens, dropping out before graduation and heading for that bohemian Mecca, Paris.
There, he eventually found himself at the famed film school IDHEC and, perhaps more significantly, in that sacred temple of cinephilia known as the Cinemathèque Française. He devoured the films of Wells, Murnau and Antonioni, and soon tried his hand at making one of his own, a thriller called Black and White, the negative of which remained at the lab when Angelopoulos could not afford to pay for it. Another attempt at a feature, a promotional film for the Greek rock group Forminx, was shut down when the band’s U.S. tour got canceled.
Returning to Greece at the height of the turbulent 1960s, he was drawn into left-wing political activism and worked for a while as a journalist (including a brief stint as a film critic) for a radical newspaper. Yet his true passion remained cinema, and from 1966-68 he worked piecemeal on a short, The Broadcast, the making of which was protracted by political unrest and lack of funding. It wasn’t until 1970 that he was able to complete his first proper feature, Reconstruction, in which a Greek guest worker in Germany is murdered by his wife upon his return home. The noir-flavored story (with flashes of Citizen Kane) was reportedly based on a true incident, but it was also an updated telling of the Clytemnestra story—an early indication that, where Angelopoulos was concerned, what’s past was invariably prologue.
These were years of heavy artistic censorship in Greece, particularly for a filmmaker keen to dredge up contentious events from the country’s past, and to suggest their contemporary relevance. Thus, the masterful Days of ’36 (1972)—a prison film worthy of comparison to Bresson’s Man Escaped—seemed especially canny in its use of a real hostage incident from the 1930s as a way of critiquing the 1967 military junta. Already in that film, one could sense that Angelopoulos had little affinity for the time constraints, linear structure and montage effects of most contemporary cinema. But it was with The Traveling Players (1974) that he fully deployed his ravishing mise-en-scène: long, immaculately choreographed tracking shots in which we move not just through space (as in, say, the opening shot of Touch of Evil) but through time as well. A single shot might start off in one decade and leave us, several minutes later, in an entirely different one, without so much as a single cut or title card to indicate the shift. The style embodied Angelopoulos’ theory that history is less a straight line than an ellipse, a kind of Moebius strip forever doubling back on itself. Watching The Traveling Players, you have the sense that its protagonists—a group of itinerant actors traversing Greece in the years 1939-52—will continue to wander long after the lights in the cinema come up. (To wit, they make a return appearance in 1988’s Landscape in the Mist.)
Alexander the Great (1980), not about the Macedon king but rather a tyrannical modern-day bandit who uses the mythic weight of his name to exploit those under his spell, completed an informal mytho-historical trilogy. (“Greek people have grown up caressing dead stones,” the director told Sight and Sound at the time, adding, I’ve tried to bring mythology down from the heights and directly to the people.”) After which, having resolved that history was “taking a nap,” Angelopoulos embarked on another series of films (commonly referred to as the “Trilogy of Silence”) where the settings were contemporary and the focus narrowed from expansive group portraits to more intimate snapshots. They are also all road movies of a sort, beginning with the palimpsestic Voyage to Cythera (1983), in which a director turns out to be a major character in the movie he is currently shooting—a movie about the sudden return of a father named Spyros (the name of Angelopoulos’ own father) after a 32-year absence. The Beekeeper (1986) stars Marcello Mastroianni as another Spyros, who wanders off in the middle of his daughter’s wedding and begins a desperate odyssey to his ancestral home town, trying to reconnect with the past. Then, in the magnificent Landscape in the Mist, an intrepid brother and sister make their way towards an imagined border between Greece and Germany, believing the father they have never met can be found on the other side. It stands as one of Angelopoulos’ most beautiful and accessible works and, made one year prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, a prescient tale for the coming, borderless Eurozone.
Eternity and a Day (1998)
Yet another trilogy followed, loosely concerning Greece’s relationship with its Balkan neighbors: The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), where Mastroianni, cast as a missing politician, is now the object of the quest rather than its seeker; Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), with Harvey Keitel as a Homeric filmmaker who travels from America to Greece to war-torn Sarajevo, searching amidst the rubble of Communist Europe for the first film ever made; and Eternity and a Day (1998), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes—from a jury headed by Martin Scorsese, an acknowledged fan—and seemed particularly personal in its contemplation of the legacy one man (a terminally ill poet played splendidly by Bruno Ganz) will leave behind when he dies.
Even as he came to work with (relatively) larger budgets and international stars, Angelopoulos remained faithful to his career-bridging themes—“We make but one film, we write but one book,” he was quoted as saying. So it came as little surprise when, early in the last decade, he announced plans for his most ambitious trilogy to date: an epic survey of 20th-century Greek migration from Russia to Greece to America as seen through the story of one family. Appearing in 2004, the first installment, The Weeping Meadow, featured some of Angelopoulos’ most astonishing set-pieces—including the flooding of an entire village constructed specifically for the film—and a Tolstoyan sense of ordinary people caught up in a violent historical tide.
That was the year that I encountered Angelopoulos himself for the first time, when the Telluride Film Festival asked me to work on a tribute to the director that would be presented in connection with The Weeping Meadow’s North American premiere. Meeting one’s masters is always risky business, and Angelopoulos’ reputation as an exacting perfectionist preceded him (given the films, how could it not?). But we liked each other right away and stayed in touch over the years, meeting for breakfast or coffee in Berlin or Cannes, usually with his devoted wife Phoebe (also his producer) at his side. At first glance, he could appear guarded—he left it to you to make the first move—but once he warmed to you, he was a delight, immensely well-read and happy to talk at length (in his impeccable French) about art, history, philosophy, and of course cinema.
The Dust of Time (2008)
More often than not, those conversations eventually turned to Angelopoulos’ search for financing for his next project—something that had become increasingly difficult in recent years, despite his vaunted international reputation. Five years passed before the sequel to The Weeping Meadow, The Dust of Time, which followed its characters to North America, Canada and back to Europe as the new millennium approached. Alas, the film itself—a touching, sincere work somewhat hampered by the decision to shoot so much of it in English (a language Angelopoulos didn’t speak fluently)—did not travel nearly as far around the world. So it was encouraging to hear late last year that he was at work on a new film inspired by the European debt crisis, with the great Italian actor Tony Servillo (Il Divo) as a corrupt politician who aids in the illegal trafficking of Albanian and Macedonian immigrants to Italy via Greece. Reportedly, he was close to the end of shooting at the time of his fatal accident, which occurred near the set in the port city of Piraeus.
As genre films, pastiche and a pan-global wave of neo-neorealism have become the dominant fashions on the international film festival circuit, there has seemed to be ever less room for Angelopoulos’ brand of large-canvas, symbol-laden, formally rigorous moviemaking. (Most likely due to lack of DVD availability, or comprehensive retrospectives, he has never been taken up as a cause by the same “remodernist” hipsters who have made a patron saint out of Béla Tarr.) But as the invaluable David Bordwell reminds in a 1997 essay on Angelopoulos, “Often majestic, sometimes mannered, almost always melancholic, Angelopoulos demonstrates that, contrary to what prophets of postmodernity keep telling us, cinematic modernism can still open our eyes.” Now that he is gone, as is all too often the case, many new viewers will doubtless open their eyes to his work. To quote T.S. Eliot: “In my beginning is my end.” And vice versa.