22 June 2012

A beautiful but bleak voyage through the Balkan conflicts

Patrick Comerford

And if the soul is about to know itself, it must gaze into the soul
– Plato, Alcybiades, 133B

Last Saturday (16 June 2012), I marked Bloomsday by recalling James Joyce’s account in Ulysses of Leopold Bloom’s wandering through the streets of Dublin, but worked my own way through the city streets by following the pilgrim trail around Dublin churches designed in connection with the International Eucharistic Congress.

Since then, I have been celebrating the Greek football triumph over Russia, following the details of the Greek election results and its political consequences, and waiting hopefully for tonight’s match between Greece and Germany.

How many people in Greece today must feel find in the current crises a resonance with the words of the taxi driver in the movie Ulysses’ Gaze, who talks of Greek civilisation as a 3,000-year fall from glory and says: “Greece is dying. We are dying as a people.”

In the midst of the bleak economic prospects and uncertain political future facing Greece, it seemed appropriate to sit back last night for three hours and watch Ulysses’ Gaze (Το βλέμμα του Οδυσσέα, To Vlémma tou Odysséa) the 1995 epic Greek movie by Theo Angelopoulos.

Ulysses’ Gaze is both a beautiful and a bleak movie, with powerful images and haunting memories. This 176-minute epic is challenging and demanding, with no clear border between imagination and reality. It makes a devastating statement about the tragic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans in the 1990s, and challenges the boundaries between ethnic identities that set up false borders and fail to recognise a shared humanity and a shared cultural heritage.

Angelopoulos, who died earlier this year, believed in shooting in the actual locations of his stories and felt he had no other option to take the risks involved, However, the UN refused Angelopoulos permission to film in Sarajevo, and so the scenes set there – including one supposedly in “Sniper Alley” – were filmed in Mostar, Vukovar and the Krijena region. But all the other scenes were filmed on location in Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom or Skopje), Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.

A key to engaging with this movie and journeying with the main character on his Odyssey may be found in words by the Greek poet CP Cavafy, who opens his poem ‘Ithaka’ (1911) with the words:

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Return from Troy

“A” is an unnamed exiled Greek filmmaker who has been living in exile in the US since his time as a conscript in the Greek army in his late teens or early 20s. He returns home to Florina, like Odysseus returning from the Trojan wars, after a 35-year absence, for a special screening of one of his controversial films. But the true purpose of his journey home is to set out on an epic journey across the war-battered Balkans searching for three lost reels of film by the Manachia or Manákias Brothers.

Yiannákis Manákias (Γιαννάκης Μανάκιας, 1878-1954) and his brother Miltiádes Manákias (Μιλτιάδης Μανάκιας, 1882-1964) were pioneering film-makers in the Balkans at the beginning of the last century, and the search for the mythical reels first filmed by the Manákias brothers around 1905 serves as the backdrop for a search for the shared history of the Balkans.

“Why A?” Theo Angelopoulos asked himself. “It’s an alphabetical choice. Every filmmaker remembers the first time he looked through the viewfinder of a camera. It is a moment that is not so much the discovery of cinema – but the discovery of the world. But there comes a moment when the filmmaker begins to doubt his own capacity to see things, when he no longer knows if his gaze is right and innocent.”

In the early years of cinema, the Manákias brothers criss-crossed the Balkans tirelessly as they recorded the history and customs of the region, and they disregarded national and ethnic strife. But their primitive images were never developed, and “A” must ask whether those three reels ever really existed. And if they still exist, where are they?

In a some way, these films are the first “gaze” into the soul of the Balkans. As the title of the movie suggests, the story is an odyssey, but it begins in Greece and moves through Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom or Skopje), Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Bosnia.

Before the titles, the film opens with an old black and white silent film that shows the brothers’ 114-year-old grandmother spinning wool in their home village. In a voice-over, Harvey Keitel, who plays “A,” comments: “Weavers in Avdella, a Greek village, 1905, the first film made by the brothers Miltiades and Yiannákis Manákias, [who filmed] all the ambiguities, the contrasts, the conflicts in this area of the world.”

We then move to 1954 and Thessaloniki, where an old man stands at the west end of the seafront near the White Tower, preparing to film a sailing ship coming out of the harbour to the east.

The old man is Yiannákis Manákias, and the scene is recounted to “A” by an old man who had once worked with Manákias as his assistant.

As the assistant recounts Manákias and his work, the films takes on colour and Manákias collapses from a heart attack and dies. His assistant continues to recall the past as “A” arrives at the very place where Manákias had been filing with. In one long scene, Angelopoulos has covered 60 years of Greek film-making, and sets the tone for the whole journey that is about to unfold.

Finding Penelope at home

After the titles, “A” has arrived in a rainy Florina in northern Greece, where one of his controversial films is being shown in the market place. All the cinemas have refused a screening , and religious fanatics are planning to protest in the streets. “A” is advised to leave and as he is about to catch a taxi, a woman in her 30s (Maia Morgenstern) passes by.

The Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern plays the roles of four different women in this film, and “A’s” four lovers also represent the four key women in the story of Odysseus. In this scene, she becomes “A’s” old lover abandoned by him years ago, a Penelope figure. A stunned, “A” follows her, muttering to himself: “I did not expect to see you here.”

But she disappears into the crowds of demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. Like Penelope’s battling suitors, the two groups are marching towards each other, separated only by a thin line of police. But we do not see the clash that follows. Instead, the film cuts to a dreary, snow-covered winter day when “A” has arrived in the taxi at an Albanian border crossing.

As the taxi driver (Thanassis Vengos) looks after formalities with the police, “A” notices a frail elderly woman (Dora Volanaki) standing alone with a suitcase. She asks “A” for a lift to a town across the border, where she plans to visit the sister she has not seen for 47 years.

“A” helps her into the taxi as a group of illegal Albanian migrants, who have been rounded up by the Greek police, arrive on a bus to be forced back across the border. As “A” and the woman cross the border from Greece into Albania, hundreds of desolate Albanians are lining the roadside in the snow, waiting in desolate hope for a chance to slip across into Greece. The taxi reaches Korytsa, and in an empty square “A” helps the elderly woman out.

She has returned from one exile to face a second exile in this vast open space, surrounded by concrete. Her silence gives way to an unseen muzzein’s call to prayer from a minaret, symbolising the return to the old religion in post-communist in Albania.

As the taxi leaves, the bleak image of an empty town creates a compelling sense of loss But non-Greek viewers are unlikely to make a connection with either the history of the Greek minority in Northern Epirus or with the capture of Korytsa by the Greek army in 1912 during the first Balkan War.

Calypso in Monastiri

The taxi continues on to the border with Skopje, but is forced to stop because of snow on the road. The taxi driver decides against crossing and waits for the snow to be cleared. As he and “A” listen to Greek music and drink raki, cementing their friendship, the taxi driver says: “Greece is dying. We are dying as a people.”

“A” arrives by bus in Monastiri in search of the original home of the Manákias brothers. As he stands at their front door, we are brought back to black and white footage by the Manákias brothers from 1956.

The house is now a museum. Inside, “A” meets a young librarian (Maia Morgenstern in her second role), who remains distant and aloof in her refusal to help him. That evening, they meet again on the train to Skopje, and “A” tells her in detail about the purpose of his journey.

The librarian’s name is Kali – and so she is about to become the nymph Calypso who held Odysseus captive for seven years on her island Ogygia. She tells “A” that the Manákias films are not in the archives in Skopje.

In Skopje, “A” boards the overnight express train to Sofia and Bucharest, but he continues talking to Kali on the station platform, telling her of an event two years earlier on Delos, when he tried to photograph the birthplace of Apollo. The train starts to leave and picks up speed, and Kali, enticed like Nausicaa by a story from Delos, is now running along the platform. Finally, “A” grabs her on board. He continues his story, and Kali is so moved they cannot escape a passionate embrace – they are on a journey together.

When the train pulls in at the Bulgarian border, the guards say something is wrong with “A’s” passport. Past and present mix again in a surreal scene as he is questioned by an official in 100-year-old clothing, as though he is Yiannákis Manákias, accused of sedition against Bulgaria. “A” protests that he does not understand, but he is blind-folded in front of a firing squad. He is Odysseus captive to the half-blind Cyclops.

At the last moment, a messenger arrives, saying King Ferdinand of Bulgaria has commuted the sentence to exile until the Balkan war (1912-1913) is over.

He rells the modern Bulgarian border guard he is going to in Philippoupolis, but is corrected. Today it is Plovdiv.

Telemachos greets his father

“A” and Kali are reunited and board another train for Bucharest. As they step off the train, it is the 1940s and a young women (Mania Papadimitriou) comes forward and speaks to “A” as if he were a child. She is his mother, and he apologises for missing her funeral. They are back in his childhood, and they travel on to their old home in Constanţa on the Romanian Black Sea. There, all his dead relatives are dancing. Like a well-mannered child, he greets each in turn.

His father appears in rags, back from a concentration camp. It is 1945, and “A” is not only Telemachos, welcoming home his father Odysseus, but his memory has merged with that of the Manákias brothers. We witness a dance through a period of five years, 1945-1950, that signifies the end of the presence of the Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities in Romania and the arrival of the new Stalinist regime.

Farewell to Calypso

“A” and Kali wake up together in bed in a modern hotel in Constanţa. They go down to the harbour, where a larger-than-life but broken statue of Lenin is being loaded on a barge, to be taken up the Danube to Germany. A tear-filled “A” tells a sorrowing Kali: “I cannot love you” – as Homer’s Odysseus tells Calypso when he leaves her. He boards the barge, leaving a bewildered Kali behind on the quay.

As the barge makes its way up the Danube, groups of people on the riverbank stand in awe of Lenin, paying their respects and many crossing themselves. This long travelling shot, with Lenin’s severed head gazing at the skies – almost like the floating ruins of Ozymandias – is a stark reminder of the ruins and failures of the past, the confusion created after the collapse of the Communist system. Like the muzzein’s call in Albania, the people on the riverbank crossing themselves as Lenin passes symbolise the passing of an old order and the return of the old religion.

Odysseus in Hades

When “A” arrives in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, he is met by an old journalist friend from Greece, Nikos (Giorgos Michalakopoulos). Nikos greets him quoting the Greek poet George Seferis (1900-1971): “When God created the world, the first thing he made were journeys.”

“A” replies: “And then came doubt … and nostalgia.”

In an old people’s home, they meet Yovisitsa, an old man who was in charge of the Belgrade Film Archives for many years. He admits he failed to develop the Manákias films but tells them they are now in the Sarajevo Film Archives in Bosnia.

In a café in Belgrade, Nikos and “A” drink to the memory of old, now-dead friends, to poets and revolutionaries, to Cavafy, Che Guevarra, May 1968, and Santorini, and the departed giants of cinema: “To Orson Welles! To Dreyer! To Murnau!” They continue their voyage into nostalgia while drinking ion the tram tracks and n the street. For “A,” Belgrade is Odysseus’ descent into Hades in the Odyssey, where he meets old friends and is given instructions to complete his journey. He decides, despite the dangers, to journey on to Sarajevo.

Nausicaa washes Odysseus’ clothes

Nikos helps “A” to find a boat on the River Sava that will take him to Sarajevo. It is night time when “A” is woken on the boat by a young woman (played again by Maia Morgenstern), who now is Naursicaa. Together they row up the River Sava in a small boat towards Sarajevo.

But we are brought back to 1915 and they are back in Philippoupolis (Plovdiv) in Bulgaria. They arrive at a ruined village and walk to the charred remains of the woman’s ruined home.

The grief-stricken woman cries out: “Vania! Vania! Vaniushka!”

In the debris, “A” finds a framed wedding photograph. Is this the woman and Vania?

In the evening in the rubble, a table is set and she and “A” dine together to the sound of gunfire and explosions in the background.

When he awakes, “A” wraps himself in a blanket and walks outside to see the woman, like Nausicaa, washing his clothes in the river. Back in the house, she gives him her husband’s clothes, and then goes down to the river to break up the boat with an axe – now she is Circe is trying to keep Odysseus captive. She returns to the house, sees “A” dressed in her husband’s clothes, pulls him to the floor and they make passionate love. But in the darkness, “A” escapes and in the night drifts down the river in a small boat.

Nausicaa and Penelope in Sarajevo

Two hours into the movie, “A” arrives at dawn in Sarajevo, where the siege has left the city in ruins, and people risk their lives each day, braving Serbian snipers to fetch water.

“A” finds his way to the Film Archives, where a young boy takes him to meet the Jewish curator, Ivo Levy (Erland Josephson). Together, they walk back to the damaged archives building, each carrying a container of water.

“A” tells Levy he is in Sarajevo to find the three Manákias films. Although Levy has the films but has never been unable to develop them. Now he agrees to try one more but last time.

“A” falls asleep at the archives, and is awoken by Levy’s daughter, Naomi (Maia Morgenstern in her fourth role). Naomi is his Nausicaa, and we realise “A” has projected his past lovers onto every woman he meets. When Naomi leaves, “A” finds Levy at work in the lab. Later, Levy is successful and he and “A” are overwhelmed with joy that, after almost 100 years, an image of Greece from the early 20th century has been brought to life again.

Outside in the fog, they walk through the streets of Sarajevo, where a lull in sniping allows a small orchestra of young Muslims, Croats and Serbs to perform in a small square, while a small group of actors nearby us staging Romeo and Juliet. The lull in sniping also allows Muslims and Christians to bury their dead.

Further on, some couples are dancing to pop music, and Naomi appears through the fog, inviting “A” to dance. The music changes to a 1950s tune, and Naomi becomes Penelope, left behind in Florina by “A” so long ago.

“A,” Naomi and Levy are joined by Levy’s family and they walk together in the fog towards the river, with Levy and “A” straggling behind. Suddenly, a car pulls up, doors slam, and men shout. Levy tells “A” to stay where he is and runs in the fog towards the rest of the family. Naomi cries out: “Not the children!” Gun shots are followed by splashes as bodies are dumped in the river. The car reverses and then speeds off.

There is total silence. We are left staring, guessing what has happened, what we have not seen.

“A” rushes to the scene of the massacre has taken place and be the riverbank he finds Levy dead in the snow, and then Naomi. He embraces her, embracing all the women he has loved and lost, and in primal screams we hear his helpless rage and anger.

As he walks back slowly to the archives, the orchestra is still playing in the snow-covered square in Sarajevo.

In the final scene, a film has just been shown on a blank projection screen, perhaps one of the Manákias films – if they ever existed. But the film reels have been burned and he faces the camera in tears, speaking the words of Odysseus to Penelope: “When I return, it will be with another man’s clothes.”

Fulfilling a vow

Ulysses’ Gaze received the Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, but has been largely ignored by film critics and distributors in Western Europe.

This was a response by Angelopoulos to the Balkan crises following the break-up of Yugoslavia. With the many allusions to images in Greek poetry that bring together the values of classical Greece and modern Greece, Angelopoulos is claiming a continuity between the ancient and modern Greek worlds, between the Hellenistic and the Byzantine worlds, but also expressing a nostalgia for a Balkan world once shared by all irrespective of religious or ethnic identities.

“A’s” believes the innocence of Manákias brothers’ creative gaze may hold the key to lost innocence and essential truth, to an understanding of the Balkans. In his journey, this modern Odysseus is not seeking to return to a geographical homeland but is searching for rue meaning and true identity. Indeed, “A’s” journey in search of the Manákias reels is less of a practical quest and more like the fulfilment of a vow, almost like a pilgrimage religious people undertake to honour the memory of a saint.

His wanderings have taken “A” on a double journey: a journey through space, as he wanders across the Balkans at war; and a journey across time, as he revisits his past, the past of the Manákias brothers and the past of the Balkans. Those journeys across take him through a landscape peopled by ghostly figures and broken dreams, and take him to the heart of darkness.

Our modern Odysseus has reached his Ithaka, but his odyssey may not be over.


Harvey Keitel (“A”).
Maia Morgenstern (woman in Florina, Penelope; Kali, Calypso; widow, Circe; Naomi Levi, Nausica).
Erland Josephson (Ivo Levy) – the actor Gian Maria Volonté died during filming and was replaced by Josephson.
Thanassis Vengos (taxi driver).
Giorgos Michalakopoulos (Nikos).
Dora Volanaki (old lady in Albania).
Mania Papadimitriou (“A’s” mother in Romania).


The score by Eleni Karaindrou, featuring Kim Kashkashian on viola, was recorded in December 1994 at Sound Studio, Athens, and was released on the ECM label in 1995.

Kim Kashkashian, viola soloist.
Vangelis Christopoulos, oboe.
Andreas Tsekouras, accordion.
Socratis Anthis, trumpet.
Vangelis Skouras, French horn.
Christos Sfetsas, cello.
Georgia Voulvi, voice.
Lefteris Chalkiadakis, conductor.

Theo Angelopoulos (1935-2012) died in an accident in Athens earlier this year while working on a new movie.

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