Filmmakers, especially those who do not have the resources of a major studio in Hollywood or elsewhere behind them, depend on visibility. Particularly in (for want of a better name) “arthouse” cinema, a reputation can stand or fall on ready availability of the films, especially as there never was a time in my lifespan when you could rely on world cinema's back catalogue to appear on television with any regularity. A case in point is the Hungarian Miklós Jáncsó, many of whose major films of the 1960s are being brought back into distribution by Second Run, and to whom stylistically Theo Angelopoulos has a definite debt. Angelopoulos owes his presence in the UK solely to one distributor, Artificial Eye. His third feature, and the one that made his reputation, The Travelling Players, was one of their very earliest cinema releases. Yet even so, they have not been able to give all his films a big-screen release, as economic logistics affect arthouse distribution as well as any other kind. After that, you would have had to wait until feature number seven, The Beekeeper, to see an Angelopoulos film in a British cinema, outside festivals and retrospectives. (Alexander the Great, all three and a half hours of it, was shown on Channel Four in September 1984, starting at 9pm. I wonder how many people watched it? I'm afraid I wasn't one of them.) But Artificial Eye have clearly kept faith with their great Greek director, and are releasing all thirteen of his features to date on DVD in three box sets, of which this is the first.
Let no mistake be made, Angelopoulos's films make demands on their audiences. The basic unit of his cinematic vocabulary is the sequence shot. As his career develops he will, if at all possible, cover a scene in just one shot, as often as not a mobile one: tracking and panning back and forth for minutes on end, sometimes slipping from reality to fantasy and back again, or travelling in time, without a cut. There's something of the older Jáncsó in this – also the younger Hungarian Béla Tarr – though Angelopoulos claims Welles and Murnau as influences. And maybe Hitchcock too – twice in The Hunters Angelopoulos disguises a cut by having something dark, like a man's jacketed back, fill the screen, as Hitchcock does in Rope. Earlier on, there's an undeniable bravura, a young director's showing us what he can do, behind some of these elongated sequence shots – particularly the third shot of Days of '36, which executes a double 360-degree pan along its way – but by the time of The Hunters he is able to direct a stunning climactic sequence which goes on for some twenty minutes with just the one disguised cut. Some of these shots test the limits of one reel of 35mm film, around ten to eleven minutes. (Before anyone nitpicks, that' would be 35mm shot in a four-perforation format. Steve McQueen was able to achieve a sixtheen-and-a-half-minute take in Hunger by shooting in two-perf Super 35. And longer takes have always been possible by shooting on video or 16mm and more recently HD.)
The result of this sequence-shot style are films that are very long (nearly four hours in about eighty shots for The Travelling Players) and very slow by commercial standards. An adjustment needs to be made but once you have, Angelopoulos's films become engrossing.
Angelopoulos is an unapologetically Greek filmmaker. Some grounding in Greek history and politics is certainly useful, as the films contain references a local audience would be expected to pick up. The Travelling Players adds another layer to this by having each of the players embody one of the major characters in The Oresteia. I'm sure there are plenty of references which went over this non-Greek's head (having a friend who came from that country around while watching Eternity and a Day and Ulysses' Gaze in the cinema was very helpful) but plenty of the films' power comes through instead.
I mentioned the great ancient play-cycle by Aeschylus above, and despite his grounding in documentary – evident in the real locations and the naturalistic lighting of his first three features – there is something undeniably theatrical about Angelopoulos's work. Not least he shows the influence of Brecht, as Angelopoulos sometimes breaches the fourth wall – with each one of the travelling players talking to camera about their experiences in a relevant part of twentieth-century Greek history – amongst other alienation effects. He is open that we are watching a film, and you could say that part of the purpose of those lengthy sequence shots is to allow us time to consider what we have seen and heard.
Theodorus Angelopoulos was born in 1935. He initially studied law but dropped out to study film in Paris instead, returning to Greece to work as a journalist and film critic. He completed his first short film, Broadcast (Ekpompi) in 1968. The black and white camerawork was the work of Giorgos (aka Yorgos) Arvanitis, who would go on to be one of Angelopoulos' most vital collaborators, photographic all his films except the most recent two, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow and The Dust of Time. Two years later, there followed Angelopoulos' first feature and the first film in this set.
Reconstruction (Anaparastasi) (released 1970, running time 97:16, certificate 12)
Angelopoulos' first and shortest feature, his only one in black and white, was inspired by a true story. Costas (Mihalis Fotopoulos), a Greek who has been a migrant worker in Germany is murdered by his wife Eleni (Toula Stathopoulou) and her lover Christos (Yannis Totsikas). However, they are suspected and arrested. A magistrate reconstructs the crime, which we see in flashback (though not the murder itself). This is interspersed with a documentary that a TV unit are making about the village. Reconstruction shows Angelopoulos' style still in development, though the theatricality – playing off the documentary realism of the settings and photography – is already in place. More than just a crime story, Reconstruction is in part an elegy for the dying of the traditional Greek village.
Days of '36 (Meres tou '36) (1972, 104:31, 12)
With his second feature, Angelopoulos began his Trilogy of History, which continued with his third and fifth features, The Travelling Players (see below) and Alexander the Great (which will be on the second box set of the Collection). It's worth pointing out that when Angelopoulos began his directing career, Greece was under the control of the Colonels, who had staged a coup d'état in 1967 and who would remain in power until 1974. Therefore, Angelopoulos had to be subtle in order to get his criticisms of the state past the censors – here, the direct suggestion that the State can only resort to murder to restore order. 1936 is a significant year in modern Greek history, as on 4 August, General Metaxas led an earlier military coup and seized power. Days of '36 is set shortly before then, and begins with the assassination of a trade unionist. Sofianos (Kostas Pavlou), a former drug smuggler and police informant, is suspected of the crime and arrested. When a conservative politician visits Sofianos in jail, Sofianos with the aid of a smuggled gun takes him prisoner., throwing the authorities into turmoil.. As mentioned above, Angelopoulos and Arvanitis achieve some striking sequence shots here, in their first film in colour, using a more vibrant colour scheme than the pastel shades they would later favour.
The Travelling Players (O thiassos) (1975, 222:01, 15)
The Travelling Players competed at Cannes, winning the FIPRESCI Prize and establishing Angelopoulos' reputation overseas. It marks a big advance, taking the themes and techniques of the previous films and taking them about as far as he possibly could. At not far short of four hours, it has an undeniably epic feel, and (unlike Béla Tarr for example) that length is a milestone he would not approach again. (Alexander the Great is some twenty minutes shorter, but is the only other Angelopoulos film to break three hours.) The plot is on the surface quite simple: a group of itinerant actors travel through Greece perfoming the popular drama Golfo the Shepherdess. However, Angelopoulos uses this as a framework to explore recent Greek history and its impact on the players and the villagers they meet. It begins in 1939, the final year of the Metaxas dictatorship, and covers the war against Italy, World War II and the German occupation, civil war and British and American intervention. In addition, Angelopoulos delves back into Greek culture: as mentioned, the players are analogues of the major characters in the Oresteia. Even if you don't get all of that – and I'm sure plenty went over my head – there's plenty to admire and several stunningly executed scenes. (We're back to those sequence shots again.) As with Tarr's work, there's no getting away from the fact that this is a very long film and a very slow film by conventional standards. But you should set aside the time to watch it in one go. (I'll allow you an intermission, as this would certainly have been shown with one in cinemas.) But if Sátántangó does not feel like seven hours, Travelling Players sets its own pace and, given the adjustment needed, feels shorter than it is.
The Hunters (Oi kynighi) (1977, 143:21, 15)
The Hunters is usually thought of as a pendant to, and an interlude in, Angelopoulos's Trilogy of History, but it certainly shares many of its themes. And while The Travelling Players is the acknowledged classic of Angelopoulos' career, to my mind The Hunters is at least its equal. In the present day, a group of hunters find preserved in the snow the perfectly-preserved body of a partisan fighter killed during the civil war in 1949. They carry it back to a lodge where an inquest takes place. The Hunters is an exploration of guilt, particularly that of the Greek Right after World War II, as each member of the hunting party is confronted with his or her own wrongdoings, with the exhumed corpse of the partisan being a silent accusation. This culminates in an extraordinary sequence (just three shots, the first two taking up some twenty minutes with a disguised cut between them) which is either dream/nightmare or anticipation, or both. The Hunters marks an advance in Arvanatis's lighting from the documentary-like camerawork of the early features, and away from the somewhat vibrant colours of parts of Days of '36 and The Travelling Players to the more pastel shades that are characteristic of his and Angelopoulos' later collaborations.
The Theo Angelopoulos Collection Volume 1 comprises four discs, all encoded for all regions. The Reconstruction disc is a DVD-5 while the others are DVD-9s. The 15 certificate for the box is confirmed by Artificial Eye, though none of the films has appeared on the BBFC website as I write this. [Update: BBFC certificates have since been confirmed and are listed against each film.] The running times given above are those of the DVD transfers. There does appear to be a discrepancy between them, even allowing for PAL speed-up, and published running times elsewhere, such as the IMDB. For the records, Angelopoulos' own site gives the running times of the four films in this set at 110, 100, 230 and 165 minutes respectively. That does beg the question as to whether The Hunters is a shortened version, but on the other hand the first two films appear to be longer on these discs that their director claims. As I had not seen any of these films before, I'll mention this without comment. Certainly nothing seemed to be missing.
Each film is presented in 4:3, and Academy Ratio seems to be is correct for all of these films. (The IMDB gives 1.66:1 as the aspect ratio of The Travelling Players. By eye, it's certainly feasible to show the film in that ratio without compositions looking too much cropped. It is also true that Angelopoulos would widen his frame to 1.66:1 in later films, from Landscape in the Mist onwards.) The four transfers are solid. There is some print damage visible in the form of specks and scratches, but nothing unduly distracting.
The soundtrack is mono in all cases, in the original Greek. The Travelling Players and The Hunters have some scenes in German and English. The optional subtitles translate the Greek and the German but as these are not hard-of-hearing subtitles, they leave the English alone.
There are no extras.