On the morning of January 24th 2012, Theodoros Angelopoulos was seriously injured by a passing motorcycle during a break of the filming of his movie “The Other Sea”. The same night he passed away in a hospital in Athens. On that day, Greek and world cinema lost a great auteur. He won countless awards, including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 for the film “An Eternity and a Day”. Moreover, almost all of his films, including The Travelling Players, have received awards at the world’s biggest festivals.
However, the film that changed Greece’s cinema history and established Theo Angelopoulos as the leading Greek filmmaker and one of the most important of his time, is The Travelling Players. The first screening of this film which was in 1975. Shooting of the film had begun during the Greek dictatorship period, under particularly difficult conditions. Angelopoulos, in order to get approval for filming, submitted a vague script about the myth of the Atreides.
Filming would begin in the fall of 1973. However, Angelopoulos participated in the Athens Polytechnic Uprising to overthrow the dictatorship. He avoided the arrest and the exile, because he managed to hide in a building before the police arrived. Filming began in December and finished in 1974. The dictatorship collapsed in 1974, but the democratic government did not allow the film screening at Cannes. Their justification was that the film was partial and leftist and insulted Alexandros Papagos, a general and greek prime minister of the 50’s.
Nevertheless, the film was screened at the “Directors’ Fortnight”, winning the International Critics Association (Fipresci) Award. The German director, Werner Herzog, went on stage and kissed Theo Angelopoulos’ feet!
The Travelling Players is the second part of Angelopoulos’ “History Trilogy”. The trilogy began with “Days of ’36” (1972) and ended with the film “The Hunters” (1977). The film follows the adventures of a group of actors touring in Greece from 1939 to 1952. The group stages Peresiadis’ bucolic drama “Golfo, the Shepherdess”. At the same time we follow the private lives of its members. Through the adventures of the members, we follow the socio-political situation of Greece during these 13 years.
The last days of Metaxas’ dictatorship in 1939. The beginning of World War II and the Italian invasion in Greece. Nazi occupation and Greece’s liberation. The December of 1944 events and the Greek Civil War. The defeat of the leftists in the civil war and the elections of 1952. These are the historical events depicted on the film. The heroes of the film, named Elektra, Orestes, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Pylades, Aegisthus, Chrysotheme, are also related to the myth of Atreides. During the film, we follow their actions on the events that take place in Greece.
But let’s start with the film’s analysis. November 1952 in a small provincial railway station. From a voice over we hear that we are in Aegio, a small Greek town. The travelling players had been there before. Then, as the group wanders around the town, a distant voice over a loudspeaker propagandizes the General Papagos, while along the road there are pictures of the general everywhere. With a cutting in action, we are suddenly in 1939. Over there, the group, with suitcases in hand, is walking in the middle of a small town square.
These scenes are typical of how Angelopoulos will handle space and time relationships throughout the film. Angelopoulos frames landscapes, which are present on everyday lives of his heroes. Cafes, squares, streets, everything has a role and a purpose in the project. Space is always linked to the time of the plot. However, not through a linear narrative, but through various changes in time. These are only unraveled through the common treatment of space and time as a common sequence. The viewer is to recognize the historical period covered by the film at any given moment.
Angelopoulos breaks the unity of time within the sequence itself, making even more imperative the need for the viewer’s constant observation of the unfolding action. For example, while in the opening scene we hear a voice over a megaphone propagandizing General Papagos, in the next scene, in the same town, we hear a man announcing the arrival of the Third Reich’s propaganda minister, Goebbels. In classical cinema, each scene hinges on the other. An event at the end of a scene acts as a cause that leads to an effect, that is, the event with which the next scene begins. However, in Angelopoulos’s cinema, there is not a single continuum. Each sequence has its own dynamics. Angelopoulos’ time jumps usually have an internal coherence, an internal connection, which is only perceived through the dialectical treatment of history.
As Tarkovsky states:
“The director reveals his personality mainly in his sense of time, in the rhythm. The rhythm colors a work with style points. One cannot invent it, compose it on an arbitrary, theoretical basis, because it is born spontaneously, as it responds to the inner experience of the director, to his own “quest for time”. I believe that time in a shot should flow independently and seamlessly, so the creator’s ideas will find their place without fuss, confusion and haste”.
Angelopoulos, with the way he perceives the concept of time and rhythm, manages with his slow, long shots to set another sense of time, making it his trademark throughout his work.
Each sequence places us in a situation both historical and personal. Man learns something in every moment and changes through it. In the autumn scene of 1939, we have the presentation of the house of Atreides’ myth. Electra sees her mother, Clytemnestra, making love to Aegisthus. The next day, during the play, the police chase to arrest Pylades, who Aegisthus has pinned to the police for his leftist political beliefs.
The leitmotif of the unfinished performance will occur several times throughout the Travelling Players. It is important to state that Angelopoulos’ script structure in three levels of reading are presented to us within the first half hour of the film. On the first level (literal), we see the story of a group of actors in pre- and post-occupation Greece. On the second level (inferential), we see the relationships of the actors that refer to the myth of Atreides, while on a third level (evaluative) we see the image of Greece throughout these years, both in political and social spheres. The script is also a completely personal view of the author on the events he describes.
Angelopoulos, clearly influenced by the Brechtian theater, will completely and radically disengage from the three-act Aristotelian structure. He will create the famous plan-séquence, where each sequence is independent from the rest and has its own dynamics. Angelopoulos does not drag the viewer into the stage action, but on the contrary, he makes the viewer an observer by awakening his intellectual activity, confronting him with the images presented to him.
Angelopoulos introduces the systematic use of symbols, allegories and allegories, while for the first time the use of monologues is introduced in Greek cinema. Agamemnon looks straight into the camera and narrates the Asia Minor Catastrophe, his arrival in Greece and the difficulties he faced in the new country. The comparisons with the myth of Agamemnon are clear. Agamemnon after the Trojan War feels like a stranger when he returns to his homeland. In the end, his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, will murder him.
The same will happen also in the Travelling Players, when Aegisthus will hand over Agamemnon to the German conquerors as the man who helped the English rebel collaborator. All these events take place in the winter of 1942. Before the execution of Agamemnon by the German soldiers, there had already been another interruption of the play. On the night of October 28th, 1940, the performance stopped because there was a bomb shelling nearby.
The leitmotif of the unfinished performance recurs throughout the film. This pattern, however, does not only refer to performances in front of an audience, but even when the actors are rehearsing. For example, while walking and rehearsing and suddenly they see the corpses of two rebels in a tree in the entrance of a town. Moreover, the performance does not have to be planned, as for example, when they are on the beach and some English soldiers stop them, asking the group to play for them.
The English soldiers themselves will become part of the group and begin to dance. Suddenly, shots are fired and the soldiers take up their arms. The same pattern with the unfinished performances takes place after the end of the Occupation. Orestes, who was a rebel in the mountains, returns to take his revenge. He kills his mother and her lover during a performance, but the audience, not realizing that these are real deaths, bursts into applause. We see, therefore, once again Angelopoulos using allegories and irony as tools to express himself.
We have already mentioned Agamemnon’s monologue. Now, it is Electra’s turn, assisting in the film’s development. The monologues also have a continuity within history, because they examine 3 different historical moments. Agamemnon’s describes the Asia Minor Catastrophe, Electra’s the events of the autumn of 44 that led to the December events, while the third monologue of Pylades refers to the island of Makronisos, the exile there and the final defeat of the leftist forces.
One other Angelopoulos’ theatrical influence is the way he represents space in his work. Not only in the scenes when a play takes place, but also in various other scenes. The camera remains at a distance with extreme wide and wide shots, reminiscent of theater. Over there, there is distance between the viewer and the actor, thus enabling the viewer to better examine the stage space presented to him and focus his attention wherever he/she wishes.
The Travelling Players, beyond all the innovations it brought in narrative and structure, it creates also a new relationship between cinema and music. Loukianos Kilaidonis, who was responsible for the music, used over thirty songs and instrumentals, which differ in form and content. From folk and traditional music to military and guerilla songs, and even a swing song!
According to Kilaidonis: “Each song’s choice was a symbol of the genre it belongs to and the situation it expresses”. A characteristic leitmotif of the film, is the song “Giaxebore”, which acts as a prologue to attract the audience to come and watch the performance. “Giaxebore” was an Italian greeting addressed by the first comedians and actors of the variety show in Greece and it means “Hello, my love”.
The variation of the songs becomes very intense on stage in the plan-sequence of the New Year of 1946. In a night club, a group of leftists on one side and on the other side a group of far right-wing people, fascists and royalists (only men). The scene starts with Electra entering the night club and goin near the orchestra. From there, we have the opportunity to follow the scene. Directing our gaze sometimes to one side and sometimes to the other.
Thus we see how in a single scene songs that start from the folk end up with marches in favor of the English and the king. Οn the other hand guerrilla and communist songs and mockery of the right-wing are juxtaposed. The “leader” of the right-wing, unable to tolerate the whole situation, shoots in the air to assert himself, while all the leftists are unarmed, causing them to leave the center. The scene closes with the fascists dancing together and then drunkenly walking out into the street.
Once again, Angelopoulos takes a position in the development of the story. He mocks the fascists who dance with each other, since there are no women to dance with them. Finally, it is worth emphasizing that Angelopoulos makes a time transition within the plan-sequence itself, as he had done before. We transfer from 1946 to 1952.
Pylades is not spared from his choices either. Exile, torture and finally forced to sign the declaration of repentance. Defeat has come for good. Only Chrysotheme’s son will show that there is hope for resistance. This happens when he reacts to his mother’s marriage to the American sergeant by taking the white tablecloth with him, throwing down plates and glasses and heading for the sea. The tablecloth, like a white spot on the sand, drags like a defeated flag.
1951. Electra faces the lifeless body of her beloved brother Orestes. She did not manage to meet him alive. The execution happened in the blink of an eye. Electra as a heroine from a tragedy, recites the words of Golfo: “Good day Tasso…”. Definitive defeat on a personal level now. In the end, the Travelling Players end as they began. The group is at the railway station of Aegio, in 1939.
Angelopoulos, influenced by great directors, such as Godard, Tarkovsky, Jancso, etc., creates a historical and political film. He lets the images and the narrative do the talking for him and he does it brilliantly.
And to close this article, we will once again mention Tarkovsky’s words:
“Sooner or later, time relentlessly shows the emptiness of any work that is not an expression of a personal worldview. Artistic creation is not a way of formulating information, a way that exists by object and requires some professional expertise. In the final analysis, it is the very form of the artist’s experience, his unique way of expression. In cinema there is only one way of thinking: the poetic. Only with the poetic approach can everything irreconcilable and paradoxical be resolved, only in this way does cinema become an adequate way of expressing the thoughts and feelings of the creator”.
If we accept Tarkovsky’s definition, then The Travelling Players is not only an artistic creation that has won the test of time, but even touches on the Poetry that Tarkovsky refers to.