07 May 2012

‘The Dust of Time’ ... is it falling on Greece this morning?

Patrick Comerford

As the frightening, black results from the Greek elections poured in last night, I put on The Dust of Time (Η Σκόνη του Χρόνου), a 2008 movie by the Greek film-maker, Theo Angelopoulos.

This movie, which runs for just over two hours, is the second in a trilogy planned by Angelopoulos – the night before I watched again the first movie in this trilogy, The Weeping Meadow.

The Dust of Time tells the story of “A”, an American film director of Greek descent, who is making a film that tells his story and the story of his parents. The film, which had its premiere at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, is a Greek-German-Italian-Russian co-production, mainly in English, and featuring stalwarts of European art cinema including Bruno Ganz, Michel Piccoli and Irene Jacob, and American Willem Dafoe.

Angelopoulos’ movies are marked by his metaphysical contemplations on the way people are caught up in the sweep of history, particularly modern Greek history.

In The Dust of Time, past and present intertwine as “A,” a film director in his 50s, finds he has become a part of the film he is making, the story of the life and loves of his parents Spyros and Eleni.

Spyros and Eleni are separated by the Greek Civil War that came in the wake of World War II. Spyros emigrated to America in search of a better life as a musician; Eleni became an exile in the Soviet Union after the Civil War. The historical events that marked their lives have their present-day parallels.

The Dust of Time is a tale that unfolds across Italy, Germany, Poland Russia, Kazakhstan, Siberia, Hungary, Austria, Canada and the US. The main character is his mother Eleni, but while this her story the film is a long journey into the vast history and the events of the previous 50 years – the tragedies of Europe in the second half of the 20th century, from the death of Stalin, through Watergate and the Vietnam war to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the new millennium.

There are great set pieces such as the scene when Stalin’s death is announced in a snow-covered town in Kazakhstan or when we watch prisoners walking up an endless stairway in Siberia.

This is the story of the love of a woman for two men she loved to the end and who loved her to the end. The characters move as though we are reliving a dream in which the dust of time confuses memories. They lose each other and find each other again and again, seeking each other in a journey in space and time.

The film ends with a glimmer of hope for the 21st when, in a deserted Berlin at the dawn of the new century, the snow falls silently on time past and time passing, on the universe.

According to Angelopoulos, The Dust of Time is a film that treats the past as if it were in the present. “It is history written in capital letters and history written in small print. We used to think of ourselves as the subjects of history. Nowadays I can’t say if we are its subjects or objects.”

A few days before The Dust of Time had its premiere, the streets of Thessaloniki were filled with students, watched by teams of riot police, marking the anniversary of 17 November 1973, the day that the military junta sent in the army to crush a student strike and sit-in at the Athens Polytechnic that led to the end of the colonels’ junta.

The last part of the trilogy had the working title Tomorrow. But what are we facing in Greece this morning?

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