Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of

Landscape in the Mist is elemental. It begins with two kids, an adolescent girl and her younger brother, walking towards a train station. They are unsupervised—a bizarre sight in the U.S., yet a familiar one in Europe, and as it turns out, we’re in Greece. The girl, Voula, asks her brother, Alexander, if he’s afraid; he says no, and they’re off. In two long takes, we see them head to the platform, but they’re interrupted by an adult and just miss boarding the train. We’re later given to understand that they’ve been told their father is in Germany, and they’d like to go meet him. Minutes later, they return to the station, in what at first feels like a total retread of the opening scene—only this time, there are no adult obstacles, and they board the train without conflict. This one simple change creates an exhilarating sensation. These two kids are indeed unafraid. They’re motivated, and we’re more than thrilled to join them on their journey, whatever the nature of it. Few if any films have as indelible and as effortless a hook as this one.

More through mood and implication than through dialogue, we learn early on that their mother told them on a whim that their father’s in Germany. In reality, she doesn’t know who the father is. Voula overhears an uncle speak to the effect of this—dismissively, talking to a railroad officer, while toying with knobs in his power plant—and accuses him of lying. Does she believe he’s lying? Or is she in denial of what her uncle says, and preferring to cling onto the myth of having a father? It doesn’t matter. We believe in the myth, too, because it’s what gives these scrappy young kids—and this film—their drive and their will to live, not to mention that film is myth. Landscape was made in 1988, in the twilight of the Cold War, but geopolitics mean nothing to our two protagonists and don’t discourage them. They may as well mean nothing to us, either. The USSR was on the verge of dismantling for good. Not unlike Kieslowski—who would move from his native Poland to France in The Double Life of Véronique one year later—this film’s director, Theo Angelopoulos, gazes westward. Horace Greeley’s urge to “Go West” applies well to the Europe of this time. For these kids, that urge is primal, and we root for them without thought. They are innocent, unadorned, precocious, and beautiful. No setup need be contrived to make them likable to an audience. We can jump into their lives and their travels without a second wasted.

You don’t need to be a film expert to understand why the train is the most critical symbol in all of cinema. Film as we know it owes its existence to the railroad industry more than anything else. Lynne Kirby’s Parallel Tracks, a two-pronged case study of the railroad and its rôle in developing early cinema, is a useful primer on this subject, and I will not sully it by summarizing it. (I used it extensively for my Haverford senior thesis.) So when Angelopoulos shows several interludes of Voula and Alexander riding trains through the Hellenic country—sitting in the aisle, sans tickets, cold and lonely, thinking of what they would say to their father—he’s cluing us in on how their journey is, among other things, a journey through film. The ever-forward movements of people, vehicles and film reels are one and the same in Angelopoulos’ eye, and this is the proper viewpoint. Landscape—like all, not most, all great films—is a commentary on film and hence on itself—its fallacy, its fragmentation, its sense of coming into these lives at a random moment in time, for a random length of time, only to capture an unsatisfying sliver of an eternity. Look at how keenly Angelopoulos isolates and calls attention to each of the bare bones of film production: theatre costumes hanging off a bus roof just like clothes hang off bodies, a violinist who steps into a restaurant to perform the film’s main musical theme for Alexander, a building floor plan in front of which one character holds up a scrap of film found in a pile of trash. That scrap shows a few frames of the title landscape, shrouded in mist, and we’ll see them again later, not as a separate film but as apart of this story. Like the floor plan, Angelopoulos here reveals his story’s structure: it’s a Möbius strip, allowing us to glimpse across at where the end will circle back around to the beginning.

It makes sense, too, for Voula and Alexander’s cinematic journey to intersect with cinematic journeys of past. A biker named Orestes meets them by chance on the road, takes a liking to them, and decides to guide them to the border. He’s an update of a character from another Angelopoulos film, The Traveling Players, a four-hour historical epic in which an acting troupe traverses Greece putting on productions of the show “Golfo the Shepherdess”, which are ceaselessly interrupted by WWII, the Communist coup and lesser quibbles. (The troupe itself is a modernization of the cast of characters from the Oresteia.) We of course see the troupe again here, and they’re in even worse shape than in the first story. They hold an open rehearsal for the two kids on a beach, and they don’t even get beyond their show’s prologue before the news comes that they’ve lost their venue. Later, to Orestes’ chagrin, they pawn their costumes. You see, interruptions are crucial to Angelopoulos—pitch-blackly comical interruptions that stop narratives before they can end, that mercifully stop narratives that seem to never end, yet that initiate their own Sisyphean process by which a story is repeated and dragged out for an eternity. (Compare to the kids trying to retell the Book of Genesis, then admitting, “This story will never end.”) The director’s writing partner here is Tonino Guerra, who also wrote for Fellini. Into this framework, Guerra inserts a jarringly random scene in which Voula, Alexander and Orestes watch as a helicopter lifts a large stone hand out of a bay. This is of course a riff on the opening of La Dolce Vita, in which a chopper, while transporting a statue of Christ across town, pauses above a rooftop to give the paparazzi a chance to flirt with the sunbathers. Here, the statue is reduced to a single appendage, stripped of all religious context and irony, opaquely and pathetically reaching towards land it can never grasp. The erosion of history is inexorable.

So, fragmented as it is, the story is by essence told in vignettes, which are paced with extreme care across just eighty-five takes (give or take a couple) in a hair over two hours. I could wax rhapsodic about any one vignette. Instead, I’ll focus on three, which stand out as some of cinema’s greatest set pieces:

#1: The horse. Like all journeys, Voula and Alexander’s involves experience, learning, coming of age. Film often portrays such things through sentiment and cliché. Yet, the lessons that these characters learn in this narrative are often painful and challenging, and Angelopoulos does not shy away from them. This is clear from one miniature mortality drama, in which the kids stumble into a town and find their path crossed by a carriage dragging a dying horse behind it. The horse’s suffering moves Alexander to tears. Meanwhile, a jubilant wedding party goes by, dancing, drinking, laughing, unaware of a life coming to an end nearby them. (Weddings are a big deal to this filmmaker, too.) They’ll never know that they could’ve witnessed this animal’s death, yet it is telling that Angelopoulos includes them in the scene, as he refuses to let their oblivion stand as an excuse to their ignorance. We must be vigilant, he seems to say. We must understand and never deny that there is death amidst life. Voula and Alexander understand that, and they take the time to mourn the horse and exhaust their grief, even when it hurts. The way Angelopoulos melds and juxtaposes these two spheres of feeling—joy and agony—is ingenious. 

#2: The truck. [Trigger warning.] The people who the kids encounter on their odyssey run the gamut from humane and genuine to vile and predatory. At the low end of that spectrum is a truck driver who the kids hitch a ride from in a rainstorm. The driver’s a creep—that much is made clear rather quickly—but that’s little preparation for the scene when he pulls off the road and orders Voula to get out. She senses something afoot and runs away, but the driver outruns her, carries her into the container, and rapes her. The incident takes place in one long static shot on the back of the truck, which has a tarp covering it. We see nothing. The truck itself looks hideous, but if you were flipping the channels and coming upon this scene and taking it out of context, you wouldn’t know what was going on. Nothing seems to happen. Cars keep driving. Alexander leaves the truck and calls for his sister. Two of them pull to the curb, and a brief exchange occurs between their passengers before they get back on the highway, oblivious to the trauma occurring nearby them. Our suspicions are only confirmed after the truck driver reemerges from the container, unfazed yet unsatisfied, followed by Voula, bleeding from the legs and stunned. There’s a case to be made for this being the best depiction of rape in cinema—not for the purity with which it fulfills the Hitchcockian ideal of leaving the trauma off-screen to make it even more terrifying, but for its perfect demystification of rape as a real-world issue. We as the audience are the drivers on the highway, absorbed in mundane banality. Somewhere in this world right now, as I write this and as you read this, someone is likely getting raped, and we may well never know a thing about it.

#3: The dance. Voula’s innocence protects her, somewhat. She’s been hurt physically, yes, but she cannot yet fully register the significance of her trauma, as she does not yet comprehend sex. Neither she nor the film dwell on her rape; she and Alexander abandon the truck driver and keep on heading north, pressing towards the border, eventually reuniting with Orestes. The assault is only referred obliquely, in two more scenes. The first is set on a beach, on which some furniture is set. Nearby speakers are playing a Western punk tune—of course, since as the kids go further west, so does the music. Orestes invites a hesitant Voula to dance with him, and he barely does a two-step before she is moved to run away and collapse in tears. One might think that she’s struggling to trust him because of what she has endured. But when one listens to what Orestes tells a concerned Alexander right after, another shade of meaning is added to the scene: Voula is in love with Orestes. The pain of her trauma doubles the pain she feels amidst falling in love with her guardian, and Voula—once an innocent blank slate—is transformed into a character of enormous depth and palpability. This is not least because—and I think she knows this—her romance with Orestes is doomed from the start, as he is older and intends to join the Greek army soon, and the later scene of their final parting is shattering. Oh yeah, and there’s that second scene, when Voula runs into a figure that has been called the antithesis of the truck driver, the other end of the moral spectrum, a figure of charity and honor. This scene, which I better not spoil, portrays a complex scenario of misunderstanding with little dialogue and provides a tremendous emotional payoff.

Landscape is among the rare breed of film that’s so good, you cherish all the small details: the way a snowfall slowly freezes everyone in a town, the way Yorgos Arvanitis’ camera and Yannis Tsitsopoulos’ editing juxtaposes columns on a train station platform with mammoth smokestacks, the haunting motif of long roads curving off to the right and disappearing in mists of fog and darkness. You wonder about all the little people captured on film and where they are today and what they might be doing right now if they’re still alive, as if this were a documentary. That long row of cars driving along Thessaloniki Bay as the stone hand broods over them—who are their drivers? Where did they come from? What errands are they on? Where did they go? Such is the power of this film, to seem like life even at its most fantastical moments, to make you imagine the abstract and unknowable. Even this film’s principal actors have a touch of obscurity to them, at least here in the U.S. Stratos Tzortzoglou (Orestes) has had a solid acting career, yet Tania Palaiologou (Voula) has only had a few other roles, all of them in Greece, and this is the only known film role of Michalis Zeke (Alexander), on whom the Internet hardly has any information. All three give dynamite performances here. It’s astonishing how much these young actors put their bodies into the task of fleshing out the lumbering gravitas of the journey, and the physical toll of time. It would be an honor to get in touch with any one of them today. As for the late Angelopoulos, he was and remains honored in Europe—having won the Silver Lion at Venice and the Best European Film Award for this—and has been championed by the likes of Scorsese and Kurosawa. In the U.S., he is criminally unknown; no film of his but this one has been distributed in U.S. theaters. I imagine he felt that neglect. Observe the scene where the violinist plays the main theme (by Eleni Karaindrou), and the owner of the diner kicks him out midway, favoring economy over art. A rude interruption, indeed, even if he gets some applause from Alexander. Film buff or not, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie.

What happens at the end is unshakable. It’s tragic, it’s beautiful, I haven’t figured it out, and I don’t think I want to. Are Voula and Alexander in Germany? Eden? Both? Their ideal versions of either? Have they left reality and entered the myth of cinema? Or where they ever in reality to begin with?

This film is available for free on Amazon Prime, with English subtitles.

Advertisements
Great Film: “Landscape in the Mist”, The Greatest Film You’ve Never Heard Of