Topio stin omichli
France / Greece / Italy, 1988
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 07 December 2006
Source New Yorker DVD
Twenty minutes into Landscape in the Mist comes a quintessential Angelopoulos moment. Brother and sister Alexander and Voula, he barely of school age, she on the cusp of adolescence, have run away to join the father they have never known, who lives according to their mother in Germany. Finally plucking up the courage to jump on a Germany-bound train, they are quickly detained, taken first to their uncle, through whom we learn the mother’s story about the father is a complete fabrication, and then handed over to the police.
Now, they sit on the first-floor landing of a police station, outside one of the offices. Angelopoulos’ camera carefully frames the composition: the stair banisters intruding at the bottom of the frame, the two children sitting on the left of the open door balanced by a silent woman in black sitting on the left, while through the door we observe a flurry of activity inside the office as individual police officers gather excitedly at the window to observe a sudden fall of snow.
The camera holds on this single, static shot as the police officers file out to enjoy the snow outside, the woman in black suddenly speaks, and then the children themselves leave. Outside, another long take shows the adults all standing in frozen, unnaturalistic poses, each one turned in a different direction, all transfixed by the light fall of snow, as the camera slowly zooms back and pans right to reveal even more figures in this tableau, through which the children make their escape.
Landscape in the Mist is Angelopoulos’ third film of the eighties, after Voyage to Cythera and The Beekeeper, to mark a change from the kind of filmmaking with which he first made his name on the film festival circuit, above all with his 1974 four-hour Brecht-inflected epic The Travelling Players. Gone is Angelopoulos’ weighty confrontation with modern Greek history; as if to underline this point, the eponymous travelling players themselves make an appearance in Landscape in the Mist, only this time they have no audience to play to. These actors intone the same scenes of critical moments in Greek history that were the subject of the earlier film, but that History has no place in Angelopoulos’ modern Greece. The climate may still be the same — in Angelopoulos’ films there is no sunny tourist Greece, only cold, grey landscapes, rain, snow, mist, and cloudy skies — but the world has moved on.
In these eighties’ films (and, for that matter, subsequently) there is now an emotional investment in the protagonists, in Voyage to Cythera’s elderly returnee from political exile, in the existential crisis of the beekeeper, and in the situation here of the children Voula and Alexander. Even if, in keeping with his High Modernism, Angelopoulos keeps a certain withdrawn distance (at times, we are given no access to what one or both of the children are thinking or feeling), his touch here is of great delicacy.
That delicacy is in evidence in the gentle revelation of the children in the first scene after the opening credits, as they sit talking in complete darkness. The camera smoothly follows the sliver of light from an opened door that illuminates them, then holds on them as the light sources are all gradually extinguished. There’s a similar delicacy and restraint, and an admirable feeling on Angelopoulos’ part not to intrude on Voula’s pain, in the scene of her rape by the truck driver they have hitched a ride with.
In Figures Traced In Light, his recent study of the masters (Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, Hou) of the long take, David Bordwell singles out for praise the shot taken from in front of the parked truck where the diagonal line it creates up the centre of the image focuses attention on the driver’s pursuit of Voula. But it’s the following shot, this time from the rear of the truck, depicting the rape (unseen by us) that’s even more striking, for Angelopoulos’ powerful deployment of his long-take aesthetic, for the emotional force that his restraint and control bring to the scene, and for the utter respect that he shows for his protagonist.
Voula is the centre of another scene of direct emotional impact when she and Alexander farewell Orestes. He is the youngest of the travelling players and soon to be drafted into the army, and he takes the children under his wing for a time, ferrying them about on his motorbike. Standing on an empty highway in the middle of the night, Orestes gives Voula a hug and the camera tracks in and then circles them again and again as Voula breaks down into racking sobs — an accumulation of the trials she has been through and the sign, now, of her crush on Orestes — as he comforts her with “Little loner, that’s how it is the first time.” It’s a sweet and moving scene, especially in the way it allows Voula’s previously repressed emotions to rise to the fore.
I’m not sure that the character of Orestes entirely works. It’s an attempt on Angelopoulos’ part to bring a younger generation, a world of roaring motorcycles, discos and rock music, into his films, as he did with the less-than-convincing character of the unnamed girl hitchhiker in The Beekeeper. But he’s too sweet and pretty, with a strange asexuality about him, in the end not much more than a narrative convenience. Angelopoulos doesn’t seem to connect with him as he does with the children or a host of minor, older characters; there’s far more depth, complexity and emotional charge, for example, to the character of the young soldier whom Voula approaches for money, with his furtiveness and shame, than we ever get from the rather bland Orestes. It’s not for nothing that in the scene on the beach when Orestes tries getting Voula to dance with him, the sounds of the rock music associated with him are drowned out first by a snatch of Eleni Karaindrou’s soundtrack music and then by the natural sound of the waves rolling in.
In spite of the social realities (single-parent families, the phenomenon of Greek fathers working as Gastarbeiter in Germany) that the story reflects, Landscape in the Mist operates very far from realist cinema. The journey for Angelopoulos is a symbolic, mythopoetic one. There’s a deliberate overlay of associations with classic Greek history and mythology, with names like Alexander and Orestes and even with a narrative-stopping scene where a broken piece of sculpture (a hand) is lifted out of the harbour and ferried away by helicopter.
“Germany” doesn’t exist in a realist sense in the film. In an early scene the madman Seagull asks, “What’s Germany like?”, a question that will never be answered. The children’s uncle states categorically that “there’s no father, there’s no Germany,” that all of this is just “so they have something to dream about.” Indeed, the children’s voiceover letters to their father have the appearance of dream, heard on the soundtrack over images of them sleeping on trains.
The concluding scenes of the children’s “arrival” in Germany are blatantly unrealistic. With no indication that any other country has been passed through, the children sneak past a checkpoint and cross a river as gunfire booms and a searchlight sweeps across them in their frail little boat. “We’re in Germany.” They’re shrouded in mist, the mist both of the film’s title and the subject of a joke Orestes had played on Alexander. He’d picked up a piece of filmstrip, claiming it showed a landscape of mist: “Can’t you see? Behind the mist… in the distance… can’t you see a tree?” In fact, there’s nothing on this film, but Alexander still keeps it, holding it up against the train window to seek out the image hidden within it, a testament to the power of creative imagination.
Now, it is Alexander himself who becomes the storyteller, taking up Voula’s narrative from the film’s first post-credits scene: “In the beginning was the darkness… And there was light.” The film’s journey for the children (underpinned by a secularised Christian symbology) has been from that scene where they lay in their darkened bedroom to the point now where the mist rises, and the mythical tree of Orestes’ joke stands alone on the horizon, which the two children approach at a run and around which they lock themselves in an embrace, giving us in the film’s final image a cathartic, mythopoetic epiphany.