With three remarkable new DVD boxsets of his work released by Artificial Eye this month, many for the first time, Palme D’Or winning director Theo Angelopoulos’s films are works of singular beauty. As renowned for his breathtaking single-take sequence shots as for his willingness to confront Greece’s turbulent political history, his films are expansive, richly poetic meditations on the Greek condition. Currently in pre-production on his fourteenth feature, I had the chance to ask perhaps the greatest living filmmaker some questions about his work.
You appeared to be against the idea of releasing many of your films on video and DVD for some time, preferring them to experienced on the big screen, where the impact of their scale can be best appreciated. What made you change your mind?
Times change and one must accept the fact that today the distribution of films today is not confined exclusively to theatrical release. There are generations that discover films through the Internet or on DVD.
You’ve spoken previously of your love for American genre cinema, can you talk a little about how it’s specifically influenced your work?
In the early post-war years, apart from the Greek melodramatic period films the only cinema present were American films that came along with the Marshall Plan. Most of them were nothing special but there were some that left their mark on subsequent film generations. Later, in the Paris of the Nouvelle Vague, the acquaintance with American cinema and its most important films is well known historically. When we talk about influences there are those that are obvious and those that function beneath the surface as a sort of darkness of inspiration. Let’s say that that’s what happened to me too.
How do you write your screenplays? Do you begin with an idea for a shot or a sequence or with dialogue? Are they intricate shooting scripts from the start?
The point of departure may be an image, a meeting, a journey, an old story that emerges and seeks to become an image. A scene of a wedding that takes place on the borders between two countries divided by a river in the film The Suspended Step of the Stork with the bridegroom on one side of the river and the bride on the opposite side began with an image I saw in Harlem in New York. Two young black boys were rehearsing on a deserted street.
Images are born on journeys. I don’t need to keep notes. They are born with their lines, their colors, with their style. The hundreds of photographs serve as memory. Yet nothing finishes before shooting. During the shooting of the film everything is recreated on the basis of the new reality. Actors, the unforeseen, fortunate or unfortunate, sudden ideas. And yet the beginning of the beginning has preceded it. Long before. When, out of nothing, the idea for a film is born. Out of nothing? No and yes.
How do you go about planning your extraordinary sequence shots? How did you
decide that this technique would form such a fundamental part of your style as a
If we mean the choice to work with long takes I must say that it was not a logical decision but a natural choice. A need to incorporate natural time in the space as a unity of space and time. Space that becomes time. A need for the so-called dead time between the action and its anticipation, which is usually eliminated in the cutting room by the editor, to function musically like pauses. A perception of the shot as a living cell that inhales, delivers the main word and exhales. A fascinating and dangerous choice that continues to the present day.
Is your use of sound and music, and its editing, something planned as meticulously in advance of shooting, or an aspect you focus on more in the post-production stage?
The sound and the music are of course planned in advance of shooting but are completed after shooting is finished, during the editing stage. When the image seems to be seeking its second completion.
How did the political climate in the 1970s affect both the content and production of your films from that period? How much of the elliptical nature of your films; what doesn’t appear on screen, were a direct result of political censorship at the time? How much do you rely on the audience to fill in these gaps?
Many who have done me the honor of occupying themselves with my work think that the way I write is the result of political choice. That’s quite how it is. Of course when I made Days of ‘36, a film on dictatorship, during a period of dictatorship, and it was impossible to use direct references, I sought a secret language. The allusions of history. The “dead time” of a conspiracy. Suppression. Elliptical speech as aesthetic principle. A film in which all the important things seem to be taking place off camera. As regards the audience, I must relate a scene. The period of dictatorship, the screening of the film Days of ‘36. The film ends and there’s the audience and behind the audience the police in plain clothes.
A member of the audience: “In that scene did you mean what we thought you meant?”
The same thing was repeated during the entire run of the film with abstract questions and abstract answers. The audience must be considered as the product of an era and the problems that the era itself has created.
Can you talk a little about the relationship between cinema, realism and theatricality in The Travelling Players and The Hunters? The role reversals in the beach scene in The Travelling Players for example, the use of the stage in both films…
The use of long takes is usually considered theatricality on a superficial level. What are known in the French terminology as “plans-séquence” (sequence shots). In these shots, when they unfold in an interior space, the space appears to take on the character of a scene and the actors move freely, as though on the stage of a theater. These characteristics give the person looking at it narrowly the impression of theatricality. But that’s not what defines theatricality.
If I were to attempt to define it I would say that it is a degree of hyperbole, as regards speech and movement. On the other hand a stage is a restriction, not a choice and viewing is head-on. Speech comes first and of course the actor who is performing. One could say that what the spectator unconsciously does during a play, namely focusing his attention on the actor who is performing or on whatever specifically interests him on the stage, is to create shots shifting his interest visually and mentally from one element to the other. In cinema this is done with the different shots which are not determined by the audience but by the director of the film. The function, however, is the same – a voyage of the gaze in an imaginary space.
These films seem less inclined to individuate the characters, more concerned with the effects of history on a kind of collective conscience or memory than more specific psychologising. Can you talk about the use of such explicitly Brechtian techniques in your early films?
A Brechtian approach certainly exists. Besides, that period was strongly influenced by so-called alienation in Brecht, not just in my work but also in that of many other film directors of the previous generation and of mine. Of course we cannot talk about a method in cinema but rather of an approach that can bear a distant or closer relation to what is called alienation, in which there is no individual psychology.
Can you talk about the function of myth in your films?
Beyond incorporating within the framework of the film an archetypal element loaded with implications of primordial conflicts and existential vanity, the presence of myth in my films forms the basis of the unquestionably materialistic relationship with tradition. The key to this relationship is not the mechanical reproduction of myth and its external embodiment in the fabric of a modern tale for the purpose of affirming its eternal and unchanging nature. Quite the contrary, it is its critical abolition by confining it within a purely fictitious narrative without the fundamental implication of necessity.
We live in a culture that has inherited these myths and we must destroy them at all costs and give them a human dimension. I don’t accept destiny or the idea of fate. By entering the historical reality myth becomes a real story with a different dimension. It is not interpretation: I give it a human dimension, because it is man who makes history and not myth.
Do you ever find there’s a degree of conflict between the exquisite beauty and control of the images you create and the message or statement you’d like these images to express? At which point does the instinctive overtake the intellectual?
As far as I’m concerned, to a very great degree. Even when there’s conflict I prefer the first thought, the first choice. Let’s say for that which comes as an impulse to impose itself. Of course the danger of beauty undermining expression is always present.
Your early films especially are deeply political in content. Were you ever concerned that the singular nature of your cinematic language prevented what you wanted to communicate from reaching a wider audience?
I couldn’t answer the question because it has never been something that
How has the climate changed over the years in terms of getting films made?
It has changed a lot. But mostly for coming generations and those who are demanding, those for whom there are no easy choices. When I first entered the landscape of cinema it was almost magical. For quite some time now it is changing dramatically. Economic circumstances are contributing to this change in climate.
Do you have any interest in digital technology?
To the extent that it offers possibilities, yes. Besides, it is obvious that the road leads almost fatefully in this direction.
What are your views on the films responsible for the current boom in Greek cinema? Those of the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Tsangari…
I found them exceptionally interesting, as I also find the rest of their generation of filmmakers interesting. I hope that this new generation will lead to a true Nouvelle Vague.
Are we likely to see another Angelopoulos film soon?
I am in pre-production for the third part of the trilogy which I began with The Weeping Meadow and continued with The Dust of Time. Its title, temporary or permanent, is The Other Sea.
The Theo Angelopoulos Collection Volume One is reviewed here
The Theo Angelopoulos Collection : Volume 1 is available here now, with Volume 2 available here from January 9th, alongside The Dust of Time. Volume 3 will be released on February 27th.