“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.“
– Freidrich Nietzsche
A young man is standing on the beach. He watches the ocean. Suddenly, his face twists in horror. He has seen something amidst the waves. Something terrible. The camera switches to show us something emerging, something unworldly. The whir of helicopter rotors. It is a giant hand, some long forgotten emblem; though for several long and terrible seconds it could have been anything.
There is a similar scene in Roberto Bolano’s 2666: ‘a formless chunk of stone, gigantic, eroded by time and water…And this statue came out of the sea and rose above the beach and it was horrific and at the same time very beautiful.’ Here it is dreamed by a man in the grip of a wasting disease. But the formlessness of the statue, of our tenuous link to former cultures, and to ourselves, is palpable. Regardless of what Tolkien may have believed, many who wander are, utterly, lost.
Angelopoulos has always struck me as a chess player. The human beings in his films have always been pieces to be moved in grand political fables. In this way, I suppose, he has reflected the cruel realities of 20th century Europe, where the individual and the personal became washed away in great tides of collective violence. To pick out the quavering lines of a single victim in this chaotic scribble is difficult. And he is at his best when presenting a tableaux; a vision, in picaresque form, of time’s ceaseless passing, as lesser directors would film motion or a simple conversation, either side of a dining table, in morning light.
But here is Angelopoulos with a heart. He has discovered the miracle of childhood, but he seeks to stamp it out immediately, like a fire in a dumpster. It’s true that the two children here do not act like children, or only when it suits the director’s whims. They are silent wanderers, nomads of the spirit, searching for a father (and a fatherland) that may or may not exist. And along the way? They find the chaos and evil of the world. They witness death. And they are assimilated into the mythology of Angelopoulos’ earlier films (and thus of the vast pantheon of Greek folklore), particularly that of The Travelling Players, who reappear as a ghostly retinue, neither living nor dead, and still doomed to act out the same sad little play across the expanse of Greece. And the children are the players rebirthed, and their search for Germany as hopeless as the eternally interrupted performances of Golfo, The Shepherdess.
The pivotal scene, truly terrible and unforgettable, occurs halfway through the film. The young girl and boy hail a lift from a truck driver. He pulls over on the siding of a busy highway (and does anybody capture the beauty of these awful wintry regions better than Angelopolous?). He is going to take a nap. He disappears. But the camera pans to show him drunkenly reemerging, and we already know what he wants. He takes the young girl into the back of the truck. She tries to run. He grabs her. A car stops to help, but drives on. After several agonising minutes of silence, the truck driver climbs down from the truck. He is shellshocked. And slowly the young girl emerges. She is bleeding. She sketches a tree in her own blood on the side of the truck. Here is the destruction of childhood. It is a scene that will stay with me forever.
The boy and girl meet a kindly man. He shows them a piece of forgotten film, mistlike and empty. He can see a tree, deep in the mists. But they cannot see it. The giant hand is unearthed from beneath the waves and hoisted into the air. A finger is missing. It is the finger that can point the way, give direction to the lost. It is flown away, beyond the horizon. Germany is so very far away. But there are trees there, or in some distant empty country, after the exploding crack of a rifle’s shot.