Theo Angelopoulos - A Traveller in Time
by Walter Ruggle
There is one of these fundamental question in life, that can appear every now and then, it’s the question: What was first, the chicken or the egg? I was thinking of this question when I asked myself, what was first for the filmmaking of Theo Angelopoulos: The History, the one with with a big H, or the cinematographic language? Did he love to make “plan sequences” as a cinematographic approach to life (and did he continue because the teachers at IDHEC in Paris didn’t let him do that) or was it the wish to talk about History, seeing only one solution in approaching it in long shots?
I’d like to give you some thoughts about the question of „time“ as this seemed to me a more cinematographic approach to his work - with the given two themes I was afraid, the discussions could be too historically and mythologically orientated. What ever might have been first: For me Theo Angelopoulos was a master in travelling in time, and therefore a master in cinematographic approach to life of the human kind. He showed us - in German we say: he “puts us in front of our eyes” -, how the human being becomes a “zoion politicon” by growing into a society. I cannot see any other filmmaker in Europe, that documented in fiction so continuously the fundamental changes that took place in our societies within the last 50 years, the hopes, the struggles, the solidarity, the disappointements, the migrations, the emptyness, the lonelyness. The movies of Angelopoulos speak about the human condition in public as in private senses, they show us the inner side of existence projected into landscapes and depicting at the same time what is happening around us.
It is more than 40 years that Theo Angelopoulos started with his first feature film «Anaparastasi» (The Reconstruction), which was a reconstruction of facts by travelling back into space and time of a mountain village. He said, that he continued his work like Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges did “for the friends and to sweeten the passage of time”. In this quotation there is not only an essence of life, there is also an essence of the work of Angelopoulos - and this coincidence is not a casual one. He understood by watching movies in the end of the 50s, that film is the art sculpturing time and the art of passing time. Have you ever thought about how much of your lifetime you have spent in other lives by simply sitting in a cinema house? And how many hours of your life you sweetened on a kind of second level, consuming art of time structuring by others? Or, too often, destroyed by bad films.
Time itself is fundamental for filmwatching and for filmmaking. Without time there is no cinema, film is the art of time. Whether in the wild west or the melancholic east, whether by timetravels into the past or into the future, whether by approximation to the feeling of real time or the shortening time into filmtime by the means of montage, whether in suspense or philosophical game: If films are made and seen, the factor time has a very crucial role to play. Otherwise then in literature, theatre or painting in cinema it is the artist that determines your time and the notion of time you get. That means: Time is an elementary part of content, time itself becomes a meaning, time is part of the aesthetics.
We all know: The impression of film is accomplished only by the fast movement of singular pictures, what made Godard say: “Film is truth in 24 pictures per second.” This means: We need time in order to observe truth. And that’s what Angelopoulos was working on: Take your time, watch and see. In music you can achieve a similar state but restricted on listening, and so it became important at a certain stage in his filmmaking to work together with a musician that could help him in an auditive way to insist, to give length, to breath to even stop the movements of live. Eleni Karaindrou made this wonderful combination possible, that Theo Angelopoulos achieved what just a few in modern filmhistory did: He makes time in its largest sense visible and through this visibility perceptible.
«Ti ine o chronos?», the boy asks in «Mia eoniotita ke mia mera» (The Eternity and one Day) which is, I think, the most personal of the films of Theo Angelopoulos and one of his elementary questions in every thinkable sense. What is time? He shows us in a scene in this film just by the way, how time is a question of perception, a jumping shadow. In the apartment of the daughter there is this big watch projected on the wall. It can remind us of a dialog about time in Dostoiewskis “The Demons”, saying that the moment, when every human being will be happy, is reached, when there will be no more time. Time would not even have to be hidden, as it is not a thing but an idea.
Therefore it will never be possible to catch time, the only thing you can be able to is to get a feeling of it, to watch it passing by and, thanks to cinema, to enter in different kinds of time flows. Where else you can travel back in time without even realizing it on first sight? Where else you can put different times together in one flow and being part of their combination? Where can you make, by doing that, out of different periods one and by doing that show how a certain phenomena in human behaviour is timeless? Where else time can even stand still like in the lake-plansequence of „I Kynighi” (The Hunters), where we leave this planet of Bourgeoise troublemaking with the sound of “To Axion Esti” by Theodorakis, or in this breathtaking and bloodflowstopping bus-sequence in „The Eternity And One Day“? It was rarely that I felt in cinema so close to existence itself like in that scene, seemingly out of time and space and in the meantime travelling or should I say glyding through it. My heart almost stopped beating with the sound of the mandolin.
Only a few have reached that point of holding the time flow in their filmwork, beside Angelopoulos I’d like to mention Andrei Tarkowski, who guided us in a film like “Stalker” with a simple but long travelling out in a sphere where existence itself could be questioned. It was him who noted in his book entitled „The Sealed Time“: “Spectators buy tickets in order to fill up vacancies of their own experience”. And: “They are chasing after that lost time, that means they are eager to fill that intellectual gap that emerged in a modern existing of full restlessness and contact poverty”. Film understood as a kind of look-up after the “lost time”? The vacancies about which Tarkowski talks, are physical as intellectual adventures. It was Tarkowski who defined film in the context of his “Andrei Rubliow” as being the art of “sculpturing of time”: He compared the sculpturer to the filmmaker in the sense, that they both see the surface of what they are going to model and start to remove everything that is useless for the sculpture to be done. In cinema it’s a virtual one, that grows in a head and will be accomplished in another head by simply transmitting lights, shadows and sounds.
„Time is a child, that plays with the marbles on a beach“, says the boy in „The Eternity And One Day“. That’s a dreamful and fragile picture for time, that’s a innocent picture also. And it means: Time itself is innocent. It’s the human being that steals it’s innocence. In this sense we can also understand, that the films of Theo Angelopoulos do not give answers. His films offer spaces for questions to be asked. Essential questions. The camera of Giorgios Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos does not fix things, it touches them softly, as if it would caress life itself. And it leaves us enough space to stalk inside his images and this means nothing else then: It gives us the time to become a stalker inside ourselves.
Time is also space, as it takes time to reach from one point another one. Many directors prefer to shoot in a film studio, as there it is not the architecture that determines the duration of a scene, its them to determine the architecture. Angelopoulos did put his architecture usually together in reality, that was another aproach: The architecture of the reality determins here the time of moving within it. Genius people like Ernst Lubitsch made a sort of game out of the fact, that not everything can (or should) be shown by just leaving the public out in front of closed doors, what made their imagination work - a game, that Angelopoulos played in “Meres tou ‘36” (Days of 36). It helped him in talking about things you could not talk about in a certain period. And he must have loved it also, because he was always aware of the fact, that a film is a virtual thing, getting accomplished only in the moment, the lights and shadows reach the retina of a viewer, the brains of a spectator – and if there are any, something can happen.
In such a way Angelopoulos sculptured within the time he uses for a shot the space, and in the space he used he sculptured the time. He did this always open towards the public. That’s like a stage, but in his case the stage itself is consistently moving - and moving means also: changing. In “O Thiasos” (The Travelling Players) and other movies he had practiced to move throughout time in plansequenses in any thinkable direction. He moved backwards by travellings or lateral cameraturns, he jumped within a continuety of scene from one time to annother by cutting and always he showed by doing so the timelinks in a political sense. Faces may change, behavours remain. It’s the filmic element he used. He did no flashbacks, hewrote the past in the presence, he accepted the past as part of the present, and that means: He could write in the filmic present with elements of any time present or past.
Of course there are special moments on the timeline that interest a filmmaker like Angelopoulos. The New Year’s Eve is one of them, a constant moment appearing in Angelopoulos movies, a point, where people meet in a kind of ritual sense, and therefore changing’s can be visible. A moment of closing down and fresh beginning, where in the today the yesterday reappears, both together willing or just simply bound for the future still uncertain. In “O Megalexandros” (Alexander the Great) it’s the beginning of the film and there the beginning of a whole century, a century of great dreams that turned out to be phantasms. Time appears also in a private sense in Angelopoulos later movies. It is the 3. December 1994 when Erland Josephson as the director of the Sarajevo cinemathèque registers the lines from Rilke, saying that he would live life in growing circles, one growing out of the other one and maybe the last one will not be fulfilled, but he wants to try it. The 3. December 1994 was the day when Gian Maria Volonté died on the set playing the role that was overtaken later on by Josephson. Among the guests in the party in Konstanza appears the actress Eva Kotamanidou, that played Golfo/Elektra in “Travelling Players” and gave this outstanding performance in „The hunters“, where she had this love-act with a virtually arriving king in an 19-minutes-shot as wife of a militaryofficer. Only for technical reasons, Angelopoulos explained me once, this scene which is also a incredible camera movement of Giorgos Arvanitis had to be cut and could not be continue out of the hotel to the lake side.
“Everything passed by so quickly”, Alexander remarks in “The Eternity And One Day”. She “should have captured that moment like one captures a butterfly in its flying” wrote his wife before she died. And when he asked her, how long the tomorrow would last, she used to say: “The eternity and one day”. The film itself seams to ask us, what exactly we are doing with that one day that separates us every day from the eternity? We are presently not able to know what we soon will know, says the theorem of Popper, otherwise we would already know it.
© Walter Ruggle, born in Zürich (Switzerland), publicist and head of the trigon-film-foundation in Switzerland, that publishes its own Magazine (www.trigon-film.org). Several essays on the works of Theo Angelopoulos and author of the monographic book „Theo Angelopoulos – the filmic landscapes“ (German and Japanese editions). He edited 12 of Angelopoulos' movies on DVD.