Filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is haunted by violence and war, so those are the stories he tells.
By HANNAH BROWN
If you had to guess what film had the most impact on director Theo Angelopoulos when he was a child, you probably wouldn't pick Angels with Dirty Faces. Angels is a gritty Thirties drama starring James Cagney as a street kid who grows up to be a killer.
"As Jimmy Cagney is being led to the electric chair, he starts screaming, 'I don't want to die!' That haunted me," says Athens-born Angelopoulos, who visited Israel last week to receive an achievement award at the 26th Jerusalem Film Festival.
Angelopoulos's films deal with serious questions of history and the passage of time. They feature their share of violence, but are meticulously crafted works of art - not genre movies like Angels. Still, Angelopoulos is haunted by violence, particularly violence in 20th-century Greece, just as he was haunted by the killer's cry and moved by the tough onscreen gangsters.
When he saw Angels, he recalls, it was during the Greek Civil War, just after World War II, and violence and conflict was a fact of life. "To see someone dead in the street was a daily event," he says. "But still, the movie scared me."
He was so moved that he decided, at the age of nine, to devote his life to making films.
He came to Israel to present The Dust of Time, his latest film and the second part of a trilogy about the Greek Civil War and its aftermath. It stars Willem Dafoe as a filmmaker making a movie about his parents' lives. The filmmaker's parents fled Greece during the war, but were arrested, separated and ended up in Siberia. His mother (Irene Jacob) spends many years with a trusted Jewish friend (Bruno Ganz). Eventually, she is reunited with her husband (Michel Piccoli) and all the characters meet up in Berlin just before New Year's 2000.
Asked why he chose to set this film entirely in the 20th century and to end it at the very end of the century, Angelopoulos replies: "I lived the majority of my life in the 20th century, did the majority of my work then, had my loves, took my journeys. During the Sixties, I had the feeling I could change the world, and I realized that was a deception during that century, too."
Greek history - both ancient and modern - has a strong hold on his imagination, which is reflected in his work. The previous film in his trilogy, The Weeping Meadow (2006), begins in 1919 as Greeks who fled to Odessa during World War I return home, and ends at the close of the Second World War. His 1995 film, Ulysses' Gaze, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, focuses on a filmmaker who is looking back into history for answers to questions that torment him. Angelopoulos also won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1998 for Eternity and a Day, the story of a dying Greek writer who takes in a boy who is an illegal alien from Albania, while looking back on his life.
Recent Greek history is not a well-known subject outside of his birthplace, but this doesn't disturb Angelopoulos. "Jewish history - the whole of it is very well known," he says. "Greek history is much less known."
Young people especially, he says, don't understand the conflict between a dictatorship and the Communism that plagued Greece for years. "I read what young people write about me in Internet dialogue," he says. "They are often very blunt and not very nice... And they have absolutely no interest in history. They live in the present. But it's good to see what they are writing."
Although he makes sweeping epics at a time when there is a shrinking audience for serious films, he is already at work on the third installment of the trilogy and has no plans to change his style.
"The cinema I love tells stories. It has a reason to exist... To make a film was never a profession for me. I have no profession, except to tell stories."
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