City Paper is not for tourists
Ulysses’ Gaze opens with flickering footage from “the first film ever made in Greece and the Balkans,” and director Theo Angelopoulos’ characteristically overreaching implication is that this one is the last. A three-hour elegy for a region beleaguered by the 20th century, the film surveys landscapes spiritually exhausted and physically shattered by history. “We’re a dying people,” a Greek taxi driver tells the hero, and in this context it passes for everyday cabbie patter.
Although Ulysses’ Gaze concludes in the dead end of Sarajevo, those who’ve seen previous Angelopoulos films will distrust the notion that this is the end of the line. The film, which has gotten few American bookings since winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1995, is in many ways a reiteration of the themes and techniques of such previous work as The Traveling Players and Landscape in the Mist. Once again, the director features a wandering anti-hero (evoking The Odyssey) and employs long, stately tracking shots (derived from Michelangelo Antonioni and Miklós Jancsó). Indeed, there are scenes in Ulysses’ Gaze that directly echo ones from Landscape in the Mist, the film that bears the all-purpose Angelopoulos title.
This is not a complaint. Angelopoulos’ style remains eloquent and enveloping, and judged sheerly on visuals, Ulysses’ Gaze is a masterpiece. The problems arise mostly from the unprecedented elements. This is the first of the director’s films that’s primarily in English, and the first to star an American actor, the ever-game Harvey Keitel. Although Keitel’s dedication is obvious, the actor seems out of place, while the dialogue (by Angelopoulos, Petros Markaris, and frequent Antonioni collaborator Tonino Guerra) is stilted and “poetic” in a manner that suits neither Keitel’s delivery nor the natural rhythms of English.
The scenario is typical Angelopoulos, a haunted but sketchy tale of exile, alienation, and loss: A filmmaker known only as “A.” (Keitel) returns to his native Greece after 35 years in the U.S. He arrives in his hometown to introduce a screening of his latest film, but that simple event proves a political quandary. The film upsets religious traditionalists, so it’s banned from the local cinema. Instead, it’s projected outside, where it must compete with rain and a protesters’ march. In an elegantly choreographed set piece, two groups of residentsone bearing umbrellas, the other candlesface off in the village streets. “The town is split in two,” explains an observer, a portent of divided places to come.
A. has already lost interest in his own movie. He’s become obsessed with the three reels of undeveloped film, shot in 1905, that will send him searching through Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and the remains of Yugoslavia. The protagonist’s trip is also a tour of his own heritage, since his family was part of the Greek community in Bucharest that survived the Nazis only to be driven out by the Communists. (This period is recounted in a remarkable sequence that compresses five New Year’s Eves, 1945-50, into one uninterrupted shot.) Along the way, A. meets a series of women, all played by the same actress (Maïa Morgenstern); this is the sort of European art-movie cliché that perhaps only Angelopoulos would still attempt.
Keitel is in the foreground of nearly every shot, but Angelopoulos finds plenty of space for the history and politics of the Balkans in the background of his exquisite compositions. At the Albanian border, Greek authorities push “illegals” back across the frontier. In Bulgaria, A. is briefly transformed into one of the filmmakers whose work he’s seeking, and is interrogated by soldiers. In Romania, he hops a barge whose principal passenger is a massive, fractured statue of Lenin. (This recalls the giant stone hand from Landscape in the Mist.) Finally there’s Sarajevo, where Angelopoulos films heartbreakingly expressive tableaux of urban destruction and A. finds the film archivist who’s supposed to have the lost footage (played by Erland Josephson, perhaps hired because of his role in Andrei Tarkovsky’s equally apocalyptic The Sacrifice).
A.’s quest for reels of unseen 90-year-old film may reflect the recent European hoopla marking the centennial of cinema. This plot thread suggests Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story (made around the same time as Ulysses’ Gaze but not yet shown commercially in the U.S.), which shows a similar interest in flickering images from film’s earliest days. But then Angelopoulos and Wenders (who recently helped direct Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds) are fellow travelers in Antonioni’s existential landscape, and Ulysses’ Gaze’s burned-out movie houses and bombed-out cinematheques also recall Kings of the Road, Wenders’ tour of the dying theaters of provincial Germany.
Ultimately, though, cinema is a less important theme than landscape, history, and the journey, all of which are better served by the film’s images than its dialogue. Indeed, there are times when it seems that Ulysses’ Gaze would be more effective as a silent film, stripped of such stiff, aphoristic lines as “in my end is my beginning” (but not of Eleni Karaindrou’s keening score, which is integral to the experience). Still, there’s never much talk in an Angelopoulos film, and the imagery is usually articulate enough to overcome it.
Although Ulysses’ Gaze contains some silly moments that wouldn’t be missed, this is a three-hour film that doesn’t beg to be trimmed. In fact, one of the film’s most effective aspects is its deliberate pacing. If many contemporary American movies are shot and edited to simulate the escape velocity of a car-chase scene, Angelopoulos’ tracking shots adopt the cadences of the drifting barges and ambling trains that transport A. across the Balkans. The film could be said to have a pedestrian gait, which is another way of saying it’s eminently human. This is an epic odyssey that’s anchored in the universal rhythm of one foot after another hitting the ground.
Time is also on the side of director Wolfgang Petersen in his director’s cut of Das Boot, which adds more than an hour to the previous U.S. version, an unexpected hit in 1982. The film (originally a six-hour German TV movie) has two obvious but powerful themes: that war is pointless and futile (a message adequately conveyed by the shorter cut) and that submarine duty is tedious, claustrophobic, and terrifying in equal measure. By holding us hostage underwater for another hour, Petersen greatly amplifies the latter point.
The 210-minute film opens with an extended version of the party scene that began the previous version. Soaked with booze, urine, vomit, and seltzer water, this sequence suggests that some of what was missing the first time was cut in deference to puritanical American sensibilities. But this setupand all the damp, smelly, messy stuff to comeis not just comic relief. It foreshadows the disagreeable closeness of underwater existence and contrasts human earthiness with the cold, artificial environment of the U-boat.
Das Boot charts one 1941 tour of duty by U-96, helmed by a man called only “the Captain” (Jürgen Prochnow). The boat sets out from France to sink as many Allied freighters as possible. (The script is unapologetic about this, although it is at pains to demonstrate that the principal characters are unimpressed by Hitler and his ideology.) Separated by long periods of deftly evoked monotony, the crew members face only two major challenges at sea. After torpedoing a tanker, they must take the sub to untested depths in an attempt to avoid the depth charges being dropped by two British destroyers. Later, obeying an absurd command to attempt to slip by Gibraltar to dock in Italy, the boat is badly hit and the crew must scramble to repair the damage as the sub sits on the floor of the Mediterranean and oxygen runs low.
These two episodes are painstakingly realized. The cramped quarters are rendered queasily palpable by Jost Vacano’s groundbreaking handheld-camera work; the effect is enhanced by the new digital soundtrack, which surrounds the audience with the pings of the destroyer’s sonar and the ominous pops of the sub’s bolts shooting free because of excessive water pressure. Petersen’s primary ploy, however, is simple perseverance. By presenting these incidents in exceptional detail, he transforms the theater into its own sort of cramped, isolated habitat. No fair running to the concession stand: Das Boot’s moral is that there’s no place to go, for either sailor or viewer. Although Petersen’s film is considerably less abstract than Angelopoulos’, both share the power to create an overpowering atmosphere.
The expanded Das Boot is a wrenching experience, but it’s not really surprising that Petersen went on to make such mainstream American formula movies as In the Line of Fire and Outbreak. Das Boot is an exceptionally accomplished audition film for just such a career, a technical tour de force that lacks philosophical depth or a distinctive aesthetic. Sometimes an action movie is more than an action movie, though, and this is such a case. Balancing the excitement with essential rations of boredom and dread, Das Boot is humanity and horror crammed into an air-tight metal case.CP