Throughout his career, the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (1935-2012) set his films in the Greek north, thus seeking the Balkan essence in an area full of borders and limits of which Greece forms part, both geographically and culturally. The film Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) combines the filmmaker’s intimate and personal universe with the historical and generational aspects that have shaken the Balkans since the early 20th century, when the area ceased to be part of the Ottoman Empire to become an object of greed and centre of conflicts that break out time and again in the hands of the European powers. Through the myth of Ulysses and using the figure of the Manaki brothers as a starting point, Angelopoulos sublimely narrates the journey of the protagonist, simply called A., through the Balkans, in a kind of Dantesque descent into the infernos.
Angelopoulos is a man of the south who has always made films in the north. A geographical and climatologic north, but also aesthetic and mental. Athens, the city where he was born and lived, hardly appears in his films, and the Aegean, Greece’s letter of invitation to tourism, is only glimpsed in the scenes of the past in Eternity and a Day (1998). His cinema flows, fundamentally, through the regions of the north of Greece (Epirus, Macedonia), regions shared with other Balkan states (Albania, the former Yugoslavia or Bulgaria).
Despite the passage of time and the efforts to take other paths, the links are still so strong and so close that they inevitably surface, often in the form of confrontation
Ioannina ‒ capital of Epirus and an important Ottoman centre ‒ and its surroundings are more present in the first part of Angelopoulos’ filmography; they were later replaced by Florina, and, instead of Athens, Thessaloniki, with its bay, would be the image of the great city and the place where he shot most scenes. In this geography of the north there is no questioning ‒ until The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) ‒ of the possibility that there could be some limit. His films wandered through Greece and there was no suggestion of anything beyond its borders, at the most a black hole through which the communist combatants who crossed to the other side of the border after the defeat in the Greek Civil War had disappeared.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain there was a major and at the same time subtle change. The geographical setting of his films symbolically moved from the north of Greece to the south of the Balkans. The limits take on form and give place to a here and there, and this has a clear spatial precision. All that is needed is to confront the fabulous and metaphysical border of the end of Landscape in the Mist (1988), which separates Greece from Germany and whose crossing gives access to a kind of tree of knowledge, with the multiplicity of topographical limits that appear in The Suspended Step of the Stork. The central theme of this film is the reflection on limits and the borders and the bridges that can be established to overcome them.
However, The Suspended Step of the Stork is a film fully constructed from the here and in which the there remains just beyond, on the other side. The spaces are perfectly delimited. We will not have access to the other side, but its presence bears down on us at all times, is there, on the other river bank, at the other end of the bridge. And it is also in the people who manage to cross the border and aspire to inhabit our side of the border. This is the first indication in Angelopoulos’ cinema that behind that north of his films there was another land, still vaguely abstract but in the process of materialisation. They are the years of the early waves of Albanese trying to enter Greece and some details let us sense that the old black hole was in reality somehow related to the Greeks. In the hotel where the journalists are staying there is an Albanese waiter who they force to show a mark on his arm. These marks were made by mothers on their sons in Albania to identify them and remind them that they were Greek. From this incipient awareness, that previous black hole will go on taking shape until resituating Greece in its Balkan context.
It is worth digressing to emphasise the peculiarity of Greece as a centralised nation-state. If we locate this format in the history of Hellenism as a whole, we will realise that it is not only a very brief period but also in clear contradiction with the rest of its history, marked by the dominance of the polis and the diaspora, which imposed an awareness of belonging determined by cultural rather than geographical factors. Thessaloniki, the second city of the Republic, barely two years ago had celebrated the centenary of its incorporation into Greece, and the only reason for this incorporation was that the Greek army had arrived a few days before the Serbian or Bulgarian army. Those who entered found a completely multicultural city, although with a clear predominance of Sephardic Jews who had made old Castilian the most common language in the city. In the century that followed the incorporation of these regions of the north into the Greek state, during which, moreover, there were diverse population drains, there was an attempt to sideline its Ottoman and multiethnic dimension and stuff the history of Hellenism into the narrow concept of the nation-state, but it is still bursting at the seams. After the Second World War and the construction of the Iron Curtain, that Balkan dimension of Greece was even more isolated, and the nationalist withdrawal and European and western links were strengthened. But despite the passage of time and the efforts to take other paths, the links are still so strong and so close that they inevitably surface, often in the form of confrontation.
The biography of the Manaki brothers provides Angelopoulos with the Balkan, and it should be added Ottoman, dimension he seeks for his film. The two brothers are present in the living and audiovisual memory of the region
Angelopoulos, in his persistence in locating his cinema in that Greek north, was seeking ‒ in the first years unconsciously and later quite deliberately ‒ to capture that Balkan and Ottoman sap that, in contrast to the regions of the south, is still alive, above all in the small towns and rural areas in the north of Greece. Although that awareness blossomed in The Suspended Step of the Stork, it fully grew in his next film, Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), in which, in contrast, the borders are crossed. The Balkans will no longer be that unknown territory seen on the other side, but a whole ‒ despite its fragmentation ‒ new and old space of which Greece forms part both geographically and culturally.
In Ulysses’ Gaze ‒ as previously happened in Voyage to Cythera (1983) ‒, Angelopoulos perfectly combines the intimate and personal register with the generational and historic register. But he also unleashes an interior journey that aspires to regeneration, together with an exterior journey through a space and time that encompasses much of the Balkan territories and their history throughout the 20th century. The filmmaker has a tendency to specify historical and journalistic information, while opening towards the universal and the symbolic. His narrative alternates registers characteristic of the novel and popular tales together with others of poetry. All this is supported by a dual structure: one provided by myth, in this case Ulysses’ journey, although, in the end, more than the structure of returning home proposed by Homer, Angelopoulos will perform an important displacement, whose origin we could find in the episode of The Odyssey where Ulysses descends to Hades and whose development can lead us to the Dantesque structure of the descent into the infernos just as depicted by the Florentine in the Divine Comedy; where, moreover, we can find a Ulysses who, as in Angelopoulos’ film, did not believe that the journey would conclude with the arrival in Ithaca.
The second structure is determined by the biography and work of the Manaki brothers, Yanaki (1878) and Milton (1882), born in the small town of Avdella, then in the province of Monastir, within the Ottoman Empire, and today in the Macedonian part of Greece. Their native language was Aromanian, a Latin language similar to Romanian but with strong Greek influences. The two brothers are considered the pioneers of cinema in the Balkans. In 1905 they bought a film camera and filmed and photographed ‒ as in those years the Lumière operators used to do ‒ everything that was happening around them. The images that open Ulysses’ Gaze are those of their first film: The Weavers (1905) and the old woman they focus on is their own grandmother. Her presence in Ulysses’ Gaze is the legacy of a documentary project that Angelopoulos did not manage to bring to fruition and has a triple function. First, the structural function I mentioned earlier. The brothers provide the trigger for the story and a journey begins through the Balkans in pursuit of three reels that, supposedly, were the first shot by the two brothers and never developed.
Second, the biography of the Manaki brothers provides Angelopoulos with the Balkan, and it should be added Ottoman, dimension he seeks for his film. The two brothers are present in the living and audiovisual memory of the region. Their presence pays witness to life in the era at the end of the Ottoman Empire, just before being fragmented by the different nation-states that fought to close themselves off behind their own borders. Through them we will have an overall vision of the two Balkan wars, the First World War, the constitution of new states and the enormous population drains of the 1920s, the rise of the fascist movements, the Second World War and the division into blocs that took Yanaki (who died in 1954) to live in Thessaloniki and Milton (who died in 1964) in Bitola ‒ the new official name of Monastir, at that time in Yugoslavia and today in Macedonia ‒ in the final part of their lives.
Through the development of Ulysses’ Gaze we will discover that the two brothers moved, with great ease, through much of the Balkans. From the small village of Avdella they went to Thessaloniki, then to Ioannina, to Bucharest and finally focused their activity in Monastir/Bitola, taken by the Serbian and then the Bulgarian army. From there Yanaki had to flee to Albania, while Milton was arrested and deported to Plovdin/Philippopolis (Bulgaria). They returned again to Bitola and, finally, separated when Yanaki settled in Thessaloniki.
The third function of the Manaki brothers enables Angelopoulos to introduce an interesting cinematographic reflection. The three reels go from being an apparent McGuffin (element of suspense) to a motive of reflection on the gaze and the process that goes from the moment that this gaze is fixed on reality until the later moment when it is revealed in the form of a frame separated from that original reality. This metacinematographic reflection must be put in the context of the year Ulysses’ Gaze was presented‒ 1995 ‒, which coincided with the events celebrating the centenary of the birth of cinema. Moreover, it was originally expected that the images of the three reels could be screened and that they would show Ulysses emerging from the sea and looking towards the land. Thus, the film traces a circular motif that confronts the end-of-the-century Ulysses with the Ulysses whose first gaze had been frozen by the camera at the start of that same century. Ulysses’ Gaze concluded with that shot/countershot that ‒ from the two ends of the century ‒ matched the gaze of both Ulysses. The film that Angelopoulos shot but did not edit in Ulysses’ Gaze became part of the collaborative film Lumière and Company (1995).
Ulysses’ Gaze begins its Balkan journey with a prologue in the port of Thessaloniki, where, after seeing the images of The Weavers, we are told of the possibility that there are three reels that were never developed. But the journey, in reality, begins just where his earlier film, The Suspended Step of the Stork, was set and with a scene in which the protagonist of Ulysses’ Gaze, a filmmaker known as A., attends a public screening of that same film. We are in the small town of Florina, near the border with Macedonia (a taboo name for Greeks). From there Ulysses’ end-of-the-century journey begins.
The old woman heard the voice of her sister, which came to her from Albania, and now goes to meet her. In this way, the life of those Greeks who crossed the borders of the north can now blossom and their memory can be restored
The next stage of the journey, after crossing the border, takes the protagonist to the Albanese city of Korçë(Koritsá for Greeks), where Milton Manaki took refuge when he was pursued by the Bulgarian police. This episode has been considerably mutilated in the editing phase. In it, the vicissitudes with which history moved a generation of Greeks, represented by the old woman they find on the border and her sister, were clearly exemplified. Through them the two great politically-motivated migrations suffered by the Greeks in the 20th century were linked. The migration after the fall of Izmir and the Treaty of Lausannein 1923 is linked with the migration that expelled the left-wing forces towards the north after their defeat in the Civil War in the late 1940s. As the old woman explains, she has had no contact with her sister for 47 years, after they separated at the end of the war. From the script and the material filmed we know that the sister took refuge in Albania and became a popular announcer on national radio. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and Angelopoulos’ decision to cross the border with his cinema, that old black hole took shape and the reestablishment of the connections became possible. The old woman heard the voice of her sister, which came to her from Albania, and now goes to meet her. In this way, the life of those Greeks who crossed the borders of the north can now blossom and their memory can be restored. In the last film completed by Angelopoulos, The Dust of Time (2008), all the action takes place on the other side of that border that the protagonist crossed after the defeat in the Civil War, in that space about which we knew nothing when the old woman of Voyage to Cythera returned.
Based on the story of this old woman there will be a change in the place of origin of the fugitives in Angelopoulos’ cinema. Until that moment, all of them came from Asia Minor and Izmir; now they will come from territories located to the north of Greece. The protagonist of Ulysses’ Gaze ‒ we will later learn ‒ forms part of a Greek family from Constanta, on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea. In his next film, Eternity and a Day (1998), the child protagonist comes from Albania. And even in the next, Trilogy: the Weeping Meadow(2004), the protagonists are another Greek family who fled from Odessa after the arrival of the Red Army.
The next episode takes place in Macedonia, between the cities of Bitola/Monastir and Skopia, the places most linked to the Manaki brothers, above all to Milton. It is in this episode where Angelopoulos gives us more information about the life and work of the brothers. Among other things, we discover that Milton sold all the audiovisual material to the Yugoslavian government, which deposited it in the Skopia Film Archive. However, the hypothetical undeveloped three reels were not among this material. Therefore, the search must go on. The train crosses Macedonia and, upon arrival at the Bulgarian border, there is a surprising overlapping. A. is still A., with his own attire, but is seen by the others as Yanaki Manaki. Without warning, the era has changed and the characters behave as if they were in the First World War years, as if that time and that scene had emerged from the depths of the century to meet A. This situation will be repeated in other moments of the film and can be interpreted as a variation on the scene in which Ulysses visits Hades and encounters diverse shadows of the past.
Liberated from its superimposition with Yanaki Manaki, the journey enters Romania, without apparent sense, as the missing material cannot be in this territory. When they ask him “Why have we come to Bucharest?” A. can only respond: “My steps have brought me.” The story then suffers an important displacement, abandons the perspective of the Manaki brothers and enters the memory of the protagonist. In Bucharest station there is another change of era and, suddenly, we are in the days following the end of the Second World War. A. recognises his mother among the travellers and she takes his hand, like a small child, and puts him on a train to Constanta. The family house is there. It is a rich family of the Greek diaspora well-established, after many generations, on the shores of the Black Sea and at the mouth of the Danube. Part of the family has come from Braila and Galatsi, two of its river ports. It is New Year’s Day 1945. In the street there is a procommunist atmosphere. In the house they await the return of the protagonist’s father, a prisoner in a German concentration camp. Everyone addresses A. as if he were a small child. He, from his own time ‒ 50 years later ‒, recognises those people from the other end of his life.
The return to the present situates the protagonist in the closing of another of the circles that link the 20th century together
In a sequence shot of more than 10 minutes, the longest and most ritually meaningful of the whole film, we will observe to the rhythm of the music and dance the post-war years. First the establishment of communism, then the purges and Stalinist seizures and finally, in 1950, the authorisation for Greek, Jewish and Armenian families, the main minorities scattered through the old Ottoman territories, to emigrate. The scene ends with the whole family posing for the last photo, the farewell. This will be the most accurate reworking of the visit to Hades.
The return to the present situates the protagonist in the closing of another of the circles that link the 20th century together. In the port of Constanta a gigantic statue of a dismantled Lenin is being embarked on the Danube, the river that crosses the Balkans until its sources in Central Europe. If in the arrival in Constanta we witnessed the establishment of communism, now this cycle closes with the image of a Lenin taken down from his pedestal and bought by a German collector. An image that can also be seen as the counter-image of that other one in which the statue of the Tsar was pulled down at the start of the Soviet Revolution in Eisenstein’s film October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927). This journey along the Danube to Belgrade has a marked elegiac tone and the strength of this image of Lenin cut into pieces and taken by boat to the history museums has a symbolic power that makes it an icon on which the end of the century is focused.
However, in this episode there was another history that could have qualified that elegiac tone and added another key element in the Balkan context that has finally not been represented. In a moment of the journey, still through Romania, the boat stops and is boarded by a large gypsy family on their way to Central Europe. They obviously add colour and music to this sequence and enable a free adaptation of the episode in which Ulysses meets the mermaids. There was also an emotive scene in which the gypsy grandfather hides to avoid being obliged to board and leave his land. Then, one of the children goes to look for him, takes his hand and leads him to the vessel. All this material was shot, but not included in the final cut. This plot between the grandfather and grandson is a tool that Angelopoulos has used on numerous occasions, such as The Dust of Time, in which it was included.In this case, the scene was located on the border of the Iron Curtain that separated Austria from Hungary.
The next stop is in Belgrade, where the protagonist meets an old comrade again, now a correspondent in the Serbian war. This presence facilitates a dual action in the development of the film. On the one hand, it introduces us, by way of prologue, to the war in the former Yugoslavia. On the other, it opens the story to a new territory, that of generational memory. If Constanta had unleashed the family memory of the protagonist, the meeting with Nikos, the journalist, will do the same with the memory of a generation that met in a Paris in a state of flux, which believed they were going to change the world but, in the end, it was the world that changed them. It is the memory of friends that left, the old political ideals, music and cinema that dominated everything, of a youth, in short, long gone. It is also the only reference (apart from the protagonist who for the last 35 years has lived in the United States) who takes us back to a context removed and distanced from the Balkans themselves.
In another register ‒ as a gateway to the war that dismembered Yugoslavia ‒, more than new details, the chapter encourages us to penetrate the final circle of horror. The visit to the former director of the Belgrade Film Archive serves, for the first time, to confirm that the three reels exist and are held by the curator of the Sarajevo Film Archive. It seems he had found the formula to develop them, but the war destroyed communication and any possibility of completing the project. He is the bearer of a very old memory and devotes himself to inventorying films from the time Yugoslavia existed and Tito was the guide and unifier who led the destinies of all Yugoslavians. In a more secondary shot, in the press conference, we witness an unsolvable discussion about whether the Serbs or Albanese arrived first in the Balkans. The chapter closes with A.’s firm determination to continue his journey towards the besieged Sarajevo. Once again the rivers, which on other occasions were barriers and borders, must now facilitate the connection through their tributaries and channels to reach the capital of Bosnia.
In Belgrade, where the protagonist meets an old comrade again, now a correspondent in the Serbian war. This presence facilitates a dual action in the development of the film. On the one hand, it introduces us, by way of prologue, to the war in the former Yugoslavia. On the other, it opens the story to a new territory, that of generational memory
But before entering Sarajevo, new delays await the journey. What follows is probably the chapter that has come off worst because of cuts in the final edit. If in other cases I have mentioned that the edit meant only the absence of information that could be of greater or lesser importance for the film as a whole, in this case I think that it affects the comprehension and transcendence of this chapter, just before the entrance into Sarajevo. Just as we can see in the film, after A. expresses his desire to leave Belgrade, in the next shot we see a woman waking him up who calls him “Greek”. With the development of the scene we discover we have changed era yet again. We are back in the years of the First World War and A. is newly assimilated to Yanaki Manaki when he was in exile in Philippopolis/Plovdin. He seems to have escaped and the woman who awakens him, characterised as a Bulgarian peasant, helps him to get away and take refuge in her village, abandoned and destroyed by the war. This is what happens in the chapter before A. leaves again and enters Sarajevo in a small boat. The material filmed and edited showed A. arriving in the ruined town of Vukovar, in the confluence of the Danube with the Vuka. This is a Croatian town, so the journey goes from Serbia to Croatia and then to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the three territories involved at that time in the war. There they take refuge in a building to spend the night where a group of women are also hiding. Later, a group of soldiers bursts in and rapes and carries off the women. After this scene the woman wakes up A. In the denouement of the chapter, when he leaves the Bulgarian peasant, still during the years of the First World War, there was another scene in which A. crosses a battlefield scattered with bodies and takes the arm of one of those dead soldiers; he enters Sarajevo with him, just as Ulysses did upon returning to Ithaca: with somebody’s clothes. With all the material filmed, the episode acquired an important presence and strengthened the superimposition of the current war in Bosnia with the First World War, both with their epicentre in Sarajevo. Another new circular motif that linked together the two ends of the 20th century.
The entrance into Sarajevo takes place just at the start of the last third of the film and occupies a total of 56 minutes. It could not be filmed, for security reasons, in the capital of Bosnia and all the exteriors in ruins belong to the Herzegoviniancity of Mostar, where, at the time, the Spanish blue berets were stationed. There, in another receptacle of memory, the Sarajevo Film Archive, also in ruins, the three never developed rolls of the Manaki brothers were found.
A new figure appears: the curator of the Film Archive, Ivo Levy. Once again, his presence covers several fronts. In the Odysseic structure he occupies the place of Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians, in the same way that his daughter Noemi occupies that of Nausicaa. Both are tasked with meeting the traveller in the final part of his journey and leading him home. Here another fundamental minority in the Balkan region is introduced: the Jewish. This is indicated by the surname of the curator and the name of his daughter. His own name recalls the Bosnian novelist Ivo Andrich, and his character is inspired by the director of the Cinémathèque Française when Angelopoulos was working there: Henri Langlois, a Jew from Izmir.
Sarajevo is a besieged city, the last infernal circle in this descent into the infernos undertaken by A. An uninhabitable city where the public space can only be recovered when the mist covers everything and deprives the snipers of vision
Sarajevo is a besieged city, the last infernal circle in this descent into the infernos undertaken by A. An uninhabitable city where the public space can only be recovered when the mist covers everything and deprives the snipers of vision. In these moments, its inhabitants try to recompose the links that the high stratum of politics has broken. An orchestra made up by Serbians, Croatians and Muslims performs Eleni Karaindrou. The funerals, one Muslim, another Catholic and a third Orthodox, are held in a cemetery. Life strives to emerge in those brief moments in which mist seems to protect the city from the scores never settled with history. But this same mist also protects the latent hatreds that the armed conflict has unleashed and, in a striking scene because of the position adopted by Angelopoulos through his camera, some armed voices liquidate the family of the film archive curator. As in many other moments of Angelopoulos’ cinema, a barrier stops us from seeing what is happening on the other side, the mist becomes a border for the eyes and, at the same time, a firing pin for the viewer’s imagination.
But in the midst of horror, once A. has descended into the last infernal stratum, light emerges. The projector is lit and on the screen the first gaze appears ‒ a primitive and innocent gaze ‒ that is cast over the Balkans fixed on celluloid. We can only perceive its revelation reflected in the face of A., but it is the confirmation that at the end of the journey, the journey continues. With it, another circle is closed. The gaze printed in the early century is revealed when that same century ends, but the journey continues.
Ulysses’ Gaze is the film that concludes and encapsulates the 20th century. A century that began with the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and concluded with another war in which the conflicts were resolved in the same way. A century in which we continue paying for the problems inherited from the dreadful resolutions that put an end to the Ottoman Empire. From Iraq to the Balkans, and Palestine, we are still prisoners to the greed and robbery of the European powers in dividing up the left-overs of a territory that, since the 19th century, was considered the sick man of Europe.
Ulysses’ Gaze is the film that concludes and encapsulates the 20th century. A century that began with the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the AustroHungarian throne and concluded with another war in which the conflicts were resolved in the same way
Ulysses’ Gaze has the ambition, density and scope to outline, as has rarely been done by the cinema, a diagnosis of the 20th century seen from the Balkans and to do so, moreover, with a great visual and poetic dimension, amalgamating myth with history. Thus a story is constructed that allows us to move between different times and spaces, embracing the key moments that, perhaps, offer an insight, from this corner of the continent, into how Europe is built and destroyed.
Ulysses’ Gaze is also ‒ seen from Greece ‒ the recovery and recognition of Greek geographical and cultural belonging to the Balkans as a whole. Like the diverse film archives that have appeared during A.’s journey, the film is a receptacle of memory of the region, tracing the multiplicity of links and crossed paths that the centuries have established and that the 20th century has destroyed.