Theo Angelopoulos in conversation with Gideon Bachmann.

Author: Gideon Bachmann (Gideon Bachmann is director of the European Film Institut)
Film-comment-magazine, July-August, 1998

COPYRIGHT 1998 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

I put up this page because online-information on Theo Angelopoulos´ work is very rare, and the original site where I found it at findarticles ( was deleted.
If one of the copyright holders wants me not to publish the text, please contact me (use the email-form at the bottom of the page) and I´ll delete the interview immediately. Chris

Recorded November 11. 1997, while Angelopoulos was shooting his latest film. Eternity and a Day. Half a year later, the film would win the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Brakes squeal. Cars stop short at a red light in the crazy town traffic of the gray city of Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, once a historical site, now an industrial center.
From the four corners, groups of boys storm the dusty windshields of the stopped vehicles, vying with each other to polish these with a dirty rag. Some hold a luxury tool: a rubber squeegee. Noisy competition erupts among the 4- to 10-year-olds.
A police car rushes up, doors fly open, a group of policemen spurt to catch the tiny offenders. Only one manages to escape: a passing motorist opens his car door for him, apparently without motive, a gesture, a human touch. The motorist is Bruno Ganz, out looking for the sense of his life on this day, which may be his last. That evening he is expected to enter hospital. It is uncertain whether he will ever leave it.

G.B.: We meet at least once a year, but only every ten years we record a conversation. By now, that makes twenty years of changing moods, of developing ideas. How do you feel about the insoluble problems of our modern everyday? Twenty years ago you told me that if one couldn't make films, one could at least plant tomatoes, raise bees, harvest honey. Ten years ago you seemed more pessimistic than I saw you today, working on your set. Would you be willing to say something about how you, as a person and a filmmaker, have evolved in these twenty years?

T.A.: As you know, the best time to talk about serious things is when you have finished a film, and not necessarily in the middle of a shoot, when you are still trying, yourself, to dress your own thoughts in a form which is still in the process of taking shape. But I'll try. Surely you are not one of those directors who approach a new film with insecurity?

On the contrary: I belong with those who are never sure, not even when a film is finished. I am always, without stopping, searching, searching. I suppose that means that filmmaking, for you, represents a form of search.

That's always been like that. I think I was the most sure of myself on the films that have most disappointed me in the end. I think the more sure you are in the beginning, the more likely you are to betray yourself, to flounder.

What then would give you security? Or gives you security?

I need to see the eyes of the others. Only in the regard of the viewer do I recognize what I have made. Without that regard, that look in their eyes, I don't know if I've done well, if I have expressed that which I had in my mind's eye.

Mind you, I am content when in the moment of shooting it all seems to go the way I have imagined it. I see that the shot was okay. But when I see the rushes I say damn! Something is missing, there is some sort of inner lack. Something that lacks in me and something that lacks in the script. Why didn't he jump? After all, I had hoped that he would jump if I brought the boat close enough to the rock. But Bruno didn't jump. Mind you, I hadn't told him to jump, I had only quietly hoped he would.

It's always hard for me to value properly that which actually goes on in the players heart, or even to judge what goes on, in detail, at any moment, in the whole constellation of the production. I cannot judge early enough what the real substance is or will be, which provides clean air....

How then can you ever finish a film?

I can't. You will have noticed, if you look carefully, that my films never really end. To me they are all "works in progress." Like building sites. Do you know how often I write a script for the same film? Take this one: we are shooting the sixteenth version of the script! And I am still writing, while I'm shooting. I change, add, subtract, without cease.

Is that because things, during the shooting, slowly come to life, develop a personality of their own? Is it a magical process?

You say that so easily: magical. What does that mean, magical? How can you explain that in the night, magical? How can you translate that? In the doing, what sort of an image do you choose for the magical?

But that's the most important question there is! "Choosing the image" ... making words into pictures -- isn't that what filmmaking is all about?

It's a painful process. There are losses, but you could win. There is such a thing as the right pictures, scenes that come alive by being expressed in the right pictures, but there are also scenes that lose something when materialized into images. You cannot "write" pictures like literature. Fellini used to say that when he had trouble in the transformation process, he would sit down and write the scene as if it were a literary work. It would then be very easy, when you read it. But that isn't cinema. For the cinema I am obliged to find the right formula, the right cinematographic formula. And that, of course, is the most difficult.

How do you write your cinema, then? With those very long takes?

I write very short sentences. Everybody knows I shoot long scenes, but only my closest collaborators know that I write these short sentences, almost like Hemingway.

Do you describe scenes or do you only write dialogue?

I write in prose, like a short novel. I do not do technical scripts. In fact, you could publish my scripts as literature. That's what I do now. Previously, I didn't "write" at all, in that sense. For my film The Travelling Players (O Thiassos, 75), there was no script. I had some notes that contained the essentials. The action and the historical events. But until the last moment I never knew, for example, how to get from one period to the next. There are a lot of things in that film that we worked out during the shooting, that happened "pendant."

In the shooting, not in the cutting?

No, while shooting. Or a day before a scene was shot. Or two hours before. Revelation! The solution!

Does every scene represent a specific problem?

There is always a key, a key that opens the scene. And you have to find it. Sometimes you never find it. Among my notes for Travelling Players, there was an empty, white sheet of paper. All it said was "1939-1952." I simply didn't know how to show the passage of that period in an image. Finally I found the solution a hay before shooting it.

Do you still feel, nevertheless, that writing is simpler?

Writing is simpler. First of all, you are alone. You can sneak in an adjective, or take one out. But in the shooting, every element that you remove or that you add requires heavy weighing and decisions. Apart from that there are now the faces, the players, the actors, the persons. The situation, the conditions, the feeling of that particular morning. As you saw this morning, because of that one scene of Bruno and the car, the whole town was in an uproar, because they had to close a main artery to traffic, anger, delays.... Apart from that, every moment of time has its mood, its particular feeling. A bad mood, for example, which doesn't fit your scene and doesn't adjust.

And of course the fact that the lovely loneliness of writing is gone?

Yes, you are exposed to all these people; you can't make cinema alone. But of course that also brings you into contact with the qualities of these others, and with their imperfections. What does that really mean, "collaborators"? It's a word that can mean different things from moment to moment.

So there you are with all the usual compromises of filming.

Yes, you're not alone anymore. A lot of things were possible when you were writing, which must now, immediately and without help, be decided. That's why I now love the writing -- you can imagine everything, can invent anything, create a world all of your own.

These are filmakers who have always refused to consider film an artform because it cannot be controlled by an individual. Today, with digital equipment, these filmmakers feel that film might "again" become an artform, because a single person can -- they think -- do it all. When you cannot do everything yourself, you're forced, always, to enter into some form of compromise, so that your result is almost mathematically less successful than your intent. Do you believe in the new methods? Do you believe that through them real, individual art may "again" become possible? Or maybe you feel it never ceased being possible?

Truffaut used to say that we are more intelligent than that which we produce. He also said -- being conscious of the inevitable compromises -- that it's like winning in a lottery when you succeed in creating everything the way you had imagined it. But the opposition of the conditions pursues you all your life. In fact, in the course of time you make some sort of peace with the opposing conditions, with the inevitable obstacles. You accept your films more readily. The time of pain is the time of the making. And immediately thereafter, when you present the film. At a festival, for example, or in front of a "normal" public.

Is that the moment, when the film, for you, is finished?

No. What finishes there is your relationship with the others. Your own relationship to the film doesn't end there. If sometime, in a quiet moment, you look at your film alone, that's when you know whether you can enter into peace with it, whether you accept it the way you made it. Are you ever happy with a film you have made? Do you ever make peace with it?

As you know, I don't often look at my films. And when I do, of course I immediately see the things I do not like, which I could have done differently. But there are films that I wasn't happy with at first which have slowly developed a life of their own, and which I now like better. For example, Landscape in the Mist (Topio Stin Omichli, 88): Today I find that to be one of the most touching films that I have made -- in fact, I love that film.

And you've not made that film with your head alone, or you would have known earlier. Maybe the mind is a form of limitation....

You know, everything is a limitation. As long as we talk about the things that help the artist or hinder him, and about how conscious a matter creation actually is.

Or how conscious is the choice of theme?

You mean because I've made three films in a row about borders, films in which borders are somehow the central theme?

I mean in the sense that choosing a theme, too, is a form of limitation. But unlike some limitations, it is one you impose upon yourself.

Borders for me are not geographical concepts, and I don't mean that there are borders in the sense of artistic limits, either.... Borders are simply divisions, between here and there, between then and now. In this film it is a question of a division between life and death. It's a demarcation line: a dying man, his last day. How do you pass your last day? What can still happen to us? What will we do with the hours that remain? Do you think back you've lived? Or do you allow yourself to drift, expose yourself to all coincidences, follow someone, open a window, meet a new person, open yourself to anything that comes, to the unexpected coming-together of the-unconnected, which then turns out to connect, after all?

In this case, is it the meeting with this young Albanese windshield cleaner? This robbed and sold child, for which you suddenly take responsibility, without knowing why, and whether you have the right to take it?

Yes, what can happen in such a meeting? What can grow out of it? Maybe everything? Maybe nothing. Now, at my age, I find it necessary to begin to devote some thought to death. In order to rediscover life. In order to see life in a new light, conscious of the fact that you have made peace with the idea of dying.

Is there a dialectic in this man who is dying between his today and his past life?

He is a person who all his life was busy thinking about himself, about his work, about his career, about his women, about his poems....

He is a poet. Is the story based on a real personality?

A poet and author. Very well-known in Greece. But it is not a film about a man who really exists or existed. He is not a real character. He has lost his life because he hadn't learned to recognize that he was not alone. He hasn't realized the real value of the other people in his life, of other people in general.

What did he fail to see?

He didn't understand the meaning of real, genuine contact; he had never taken the time to really see the others, to really recognize them. In the film you see one day from his past life, too.

Then the film consists of two days: a today and a day in the past?

Yes. The two days are intertwined, somehow. You see his relationship with his women, his relationship to the past, his relationship to the little boy from the traffic light, to today. And then you see a series of goodbyes.

So the border, in this film, is not a physical border. It has nothing to do with the fact that the little boy is a refugee from Albania?

No, no. It is the border between life and death, between those two limits that enclose us.

Is the film or a part of it based on some Greek myth?

Only the fact that we are dealing with an author and a poet, in other words, someone who works with words. In the film Alexander tells the little boy the story of another poet, and that one is a well-known national figure in Greece. Dyonisios Solomos, who was born on Zakhintos but grew up in Italy, and who much later in life had to re-find his Greek. So when he returns from Italy he buys those Greek words he doesn't know, which people bring to him. Because at the age of 22 and his return to his homeland he wants to write his poems in Greek. That was about 1818, when a Greek rebellion against the Turks was in the making, in which he wanted to participate through his poetry, in the romantic way of his epoch. In a small notebook he enters the words he hears. He has this Dante-esque idea to bring about a reunification of the Greek language. For him language meant freedom. Not like Heidegger, who said that language was our home. Solomos tried to write in a form of Greek from which all Greek poetry after him is derived, as Dante did with Italian. At that time it was not [considered seemly] to write in the language of the simple people.

Poetry was elitist?

Yes, exactly. And Solomos tried to fight this notion and is today considered a renewer. At the time it was usual to write in a Greek that today we call "Katarevusa." Solomos wrote in what we now call "Demotiki," the language of the people.

And how does this story enter into the film?

I have somewhat enlarged the story, pushed it a little. When I was writing this story into my script, I thought this was the real story of that poet. Namely, that he gave to everyone who brought him a word he didn't know, some remuneration, so that he sort of bought the words. It was said that poor people often came to him to sell him words. I was so sure of these facts that I told the story of how I had put them in my script to a Solomist, an expert on Solomos's work. He was aghast: the story wasn't true at all. "Where did you get this crazy idea?" he said. I didn't remember where I had heard it. While it is true that he collected the language of the people, it is not true that he actually paid for words. So that must have evolved in my imagination, and since it seemed to me to be a very poetic idea, I left it in. How did you get all this into the story of Alexander?

The little boy, when he sees that Alexander is sad, in order to comfort him brings him words he has picked up himself. He goes out into the crowd and every time comes back with a new word. Hie says the word to Bruno, and Bruno pays him something for it. That becomes like a game between them. And among these words there are three, with which he is left at the end of the film, words that actually express the essence of the film, as if his whole life was reflected in these three words. The three words are korfulamu -- that's a delicate word, and the exact translation of it is something like "heart of a flower," but in Greece the word is used to express the feeling of a child when it sleeps in the arms of its mother. It's a kind of grandmother-word, which by chance I picked up myself, here in Thessaloniki, on the beach. And the other words?

The second word I got from an old seaman, a Pirot, who brought the word to me. It's a word that has been totally forgotten today, xenitis, which derives from the root for strangeness, and it means a stranger, but a stranger who is a stranger everywhere. Xenos is the word for stranger, but xenitis is the one who finds himself in the situation of being a stranger, and it describes the feeling of being a stranger. Or a feeling of exile. These then are words that accompany the path of his life. With which word does the film end?

The third word is argathini, and that means "very late at night." Those are the three words Bruno finds in the course of his game with the boy, and which at the same time somehow comment on the life he has lived. They are the three words the boy leaves with him when he goes away. They stand for his path, they summarize his life.

Do you mean to say that in life we always remain strangers to ourselves?

Not necessarily to ourselves, but somehow, yes. For example, I feel somehow like a stranger in Greece. I live here in a situation that is as if my house wasn't here, as if this wasn't my home. It comes back to the words spoken by Mastroianni in my film The Suspended Step of the Stork (To Meteoro Vima Tou Pelargou, 91): We have crossed the border but we are still here.... How many borders do you have to cross to arrive at home?

In your films there are often scenes where people are separated by a river, and each one stays on his side. Often, anyway.

Mainly in my last three films. Is that because you yourself feel that you are more and more pushed into a situation such as expressed by Mastroianni in [The Suspended Step]?

I think that I feel more and more that I am a man who has ceased to understand it all. On the other hand I do not feel that I am being misunderstood, and that is very important. I would be ashamed to maintain that. There simply are more and more things which I do not understand, only I. But I continue to try and understand, even in cases where I see that others have stopped trying. Or in instances where others find that understanding is simple. For me the deeper understanding of things is becoming ever more difficult. That is my work as a filmmaker: you make a film in order to perceive with greater clarity what it is that is not clear in your consciousness.

Is that how you start?


So again we can say that all of your work is a search?

Yes, that's why they are always voyages. Even if a film, like this one, takes place in a single city. For me, every film is a voyage, everything is voyage, search. Knowledge comes to me during the voyage. I think that during my voyages I have managed to understand certain things that without voyaging -- in his extended sense -- I would never have understood. So in the end, after all, I believe I have understood quite a lot.

Do you think that during your life's voyage you have always understood things better, or ever more things less well? What increases, knowledge, compassion, or perplexity?

It depends on the theme. If you were to talk to me about politics, for example, I would have to tell you that I understand less all the time and in the end I understand nothing. By the way, I think that's the case for most people. Or at least it's the case of many. But if you were to speak to me about human relations, there is nothing to understand or not to understand. Things are the way they are. You have to accept human relations as you find them. With their weaknesses, their moments of joy, their moments of pain. The only thing you learn, probably, is the regret that in certain moments you didn't let yourself go more.

We are taught as children never to let ourselves go....

Exactly. I think that form of education robs us of our souplesse, our adaptability to life. We become too rigid. Too rigid for life the way it really is. We fight it with the wrong methods, the wrong self-protection. We are full of drawers -- "my childhood," "my youth" -- and in order to get rid of those drawers in our soul we need time, a lot of time. Apart from the things that come towards you and which you do not have the time to taste. Things which thus are lost to you. And maybe it is often the most important things which, in this way, are lost to you.

Of your three words, two are an expression of feeling, the warmth of the mother and the fact that one always feels a stranger in life. What is the emotion expressed by argathini, "very late at night"?

The first word stands for everything that is love, closeness, intimacy, with whoever it may be, your mother or your lover. The second expresses the existential side of the story. The state of the soul. And the third expresses time.

Our enemy?

In my film, time is the central theme. As Heraklitos said: What is time? Time is the small child playing with pebbles on the edge of the sea. Argathini here means that time has passed, after the short meeting with the boy, and that it is now important to become aware of this fact. After all, the word itself was also a present from the boy. In the film we also see short, other experiences of the man, and you get the feeling that he consists only of these short experiences ("des breves rencontres"), except for this last, real experience of his life ("la seule, vraie rencontre").

Which has now come to him too late?

Yes, that, too, comes too late. Because both are leaving. There is the goodbye of the boy, who smuggles himself into a container to try and enter the U.S. illegally, and then his own goodbye, at least this consciousness of having to leave definitively.

Does he die at the end of the film?

No, no. He has to enter hospital but he refuses to enter. He thus rejects the "normal" end.

Watching your films one after the other, do you find that there is a common tendency, maybe to more pessimism, or maybe to the contrary?

I really think the evolution is to the contrary, certainly not towards greater pessimism. The fact that my characters do not accept the rational represents the first time that they allow themselves to let go. For the first time he doesn't go in the direction where anybody else would have gone in his stead.

In any case, you do not blame society but the individual.

Politics, you mean? The battle is always the battle of the self, the self against everything that is unusual, unjust and incalculable. The individual must always fight against everything in this life, because there is the illusion that there is a meaning, a goal. But there is no meaning, no usefulness. The battle is life itself. I no longer deal with politics, with generalizations. I have stopped understanding them.

Is filmmaking, then, for you, a form of poetry, in the sense of the "cinema di poesia" of Pasolini, as juxtaposed to the "cinema di prosa" of Antonioni? After all, I see that your deep interest lies in literature and poetry.

That is too large a question. I simply feel that I have been lucky enough to have been able to make the films I wanted to make. Now, at this point in my life, my relationship is only with the things I have made. I expect nothing. Not even from the film itself (to keep quiet about finances -- that has always been a drama). When I say I expect nothing, I mean, for example, that I expect no reactions, not from the critics and not from the festivals -- not from anybody, I accept the game played around the release, but in essence it doesn't interest me. What develops ever more strongly is my relationship to my work itself and with the possibilities of expression. That is my way, to seek the words, those few words which can express and contain all that I have done and my life itself, and which will be the words I shall leave behind one day.

Are you making the films for somebody?

I recommend to you the very well-known formula of Borges, who said, "I write for myself, for my friends, however few or many they may be, and to pass the time that flows by."

American film critic Gideon Bachmann went to Europe in the early Sixties to work with Fellini and Pasolini, and stayed. His interviews with filmmakers have been widely published over the past three decades. He is currently a director of the European Film Institute.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

I put up this page because online-information on Theo Angelopoulos´ work is very rare, and the original site where I found it at findarticles ( was deleted.
If one of the copyright holders wants me not to publish the text, please contact me and I´ll delete the interview immediately. Chris.