DVD Review Of Days Of ‘36
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/18/09
Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos’s 1972 film, Days Of ’36 (Μερες του ’36, or Meres Tou ‘36), is the least of the several films of his that I’ve seen. It is also, by over a decade and a half, the earliest of the films of his I’ve so far seen, and, at an hour and 45 minutes, by a good margin, the shortest as well. It clearly comes across as an ‘early’ work in the artists’ canon, because, especially when comparing it to later works, one can clearly see the artist making decisions here and being unsure of their potential success. In many ways, the film most reminds me of the first film of Werner Herzog, Signs Of Life (save the Angelopoulos film is in color, not black and white). That film was set in the Greek Islands, and was also not dependent upon a talky screenplay. There are large portions of this often wordless film that could have worked quite well in the silent era. And when the mostly anonymous characters do speak, they speak in the way that the satiric characters from the best plays of Samuel Beckett do- in riddles and whispered asides that mean little at the moment of their utterance, but which may have great meaning in retrospect.
The outline of the film’s story is very thin. There is a murder of a politician or leader of some sort. We then see two men conspiring in a wooded area. They attempt escape, but one is captured, and the other soon attempts to visit him at the prison the first one is kept at. He then springs a surprise, and takes the capture man hostage, threatening to off both of them if his demands are not met. What his demands are, are not enumerated. Then, several attempts are made to sabotage him, and fail- including a planned poisoning. Other inmates at the prison try to escape, and rebel in smaller ways, but are subdued. The prison warden and his underlings come under increasing pressure from liberal and conservative elements in the Greek government to subdue and/or release the two men. Eventually, they are subdued, and they, along with some others, are shot dead in a field, as the film ends.
That really and truly is the whole film’s thrust. Yes, it is sumptuously and stunningly photographed, but the prison life depicted reminded me of yet another early Werner Herzog film, Even Dwarves Started Small, which is about a rebellion in a prison in a land where only dwarves exist. While the comparison may seem silly, it is quite apt, as a back to back watching of both films will affirm. Yet, in Googling about for technical information on the film, which I viewed in its Region 2 DVD format, all in Greek, with white English subtitles, I came across some classic examples of imbuing into the film from materials not made available within the film. To wit, this synopsis of the film, from the official Angelopoulos website:
A trade unionist is assassinated at a workers’ rally and a former police informer, Sofianos, is arrested and charged with the murder. The accused, a greatly troubled personage, currently out on probation, an ex drug-trafficker is being used to infiltrate and bring down his old accomplices. He is visited in prison by a Conservative Member of Parliament with whom he has a homosexual relationship. Using a smuggled gun, the prisoner takes the politician hostage creating an embarrassing and increasingly absurd scandal for the authorities. The government find themselves in a delicate predicament. If they do not free the hostage they will lose the support of the Conservatives and if they do the support of the democrats. Forced to deal with a situation they cannot control and when reason and threats fail, they attempt to dispose of Sofianos, at first clumsily (a botched attempt to poison the prisoner), then, finally, with the devastating accuracy of a bullet as they send in a sharpshooter to finish the job. Order is finally restored but in the process two facts have emerged that reflect Angelopoulos’ view of Greek history as portrayed in this film. Firstly that the government was so weak and corrupt that the actions of one person almost brought it down and secondly that it was so incompetent that it could solve a problem only through murder.
Now, here is what the synopsis brings, that the film never explains, even in a cursory nor roundabout way. We have no idea that the murdered man was a trade unionist. We have no idea whether the two ‘main’ characters have political beliefs of one sort or another. We certainly have no evidence that they were homosexually involved. We get no idea of the scandal aspect of the story, only that it will seem a blemish on the warden’s record. In a brief passage spoken in English, with English characters (diplomats?), we do sense that the story is leaking out to the foreign press, but we never step back from the film; it is always told in the immediacy of the moment and dozen or so familiar, if nameless, characters. Then the synopsis ends with a political summary of what the film is about, but, as demonstrated, this is all lost on foreign and younger viewers, because only those around at the time might have an idea of what the greater significance was to Greek history, considering the tale is reputedly based upon a real incident.
Technically, the transfer of the Region 2 DVD, from the Greek company New
Star, is mediocre, at best. Plenty of splotches ruin the transfer, although it
is no worse than an old VHS taped version. There are no extra features to speak
of, save for colored subtitles which allow for easier reading. The
cinematography, by longtime Angelopoulos collaborator, Giorgos Arvanitis, evokes some of the best scenes from Terrence Malick
films like Badlands (an early film that marks Malick’s canon as
definitively as this does Angelopoulos’s) and Days Of Heaven. The
scoring by Giorgos Papastefanou is not noticeable, one way or the other, and the
biggest flaw with the film, the screenplay by Angelopoulos, Petros Markaris,
Thanassis Valtinos, and Stratis Karras, is merely adequate. It would only happen
later that Angelopoulos would team up with the great screenwriter Tonino Guerra,
and produce his later masterpieces, and this film’s anomy and meager symbolism
is evidence of Guerra’s absence. Yet, despite the flaws, the film is
definitely worth watching, if only to see a master of the medium in utero,
before all of the elements he would master were mastered. The film has no
extras, to speak of- no theatrical trailer nor commentary, and is shown in a
1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The acting, by a bunch of mostly anonymous and amateur folk, is adequate (at best), but since the camera rarely features close-ups, and has no monologues of any substance, there is no standout in the cast (hence my not even bothering to name the actors). What propels the film to its success (limited as it is) are the aforementioned technical aspects of it, which differ substantially from the later films of Angelopoulos to which I am used to. There are not as many long takes that follow characters in and out of chronology, and the unobtrusive music, as mentioned, is quite a change from the electric, vivacious, and enriching scores Angelopoulos would later deploy in concert with Eleni Karaindrou. This film is considered part of a historical trilogy of films that Angelopoulos made early in his career. The other two installments are The Travelling Players and The Hunters, and only the former film is available on DVD at the moment, so I will watch it to see if it is a continuation of the themes and techniques this film brings, or if it was the beginning of a bridge to the later masterpieces that Angelopoulos would make. Yet, on its own merits, Days Of ’36 deserves an audience, if not for the story it tells, nor how it is told, then for its wide variety of technical virtues that amply display the skills of a master of an art form, even very early on in his career. That even a ‘failure’ as this film is, on some levels, can boast such virtues, says much about how the difference between great artists and their great works of art vs. those of lesser artists is not really a difference of degree, but of kind, itself. That fact has rarely been better illustrated for the human eye. Thanks, Theo.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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