Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos' 1972 effort Meres Tou '36 / Days of '36, winner of the International Federation of Film Critics award at the Berlin Film Festival, 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 one I've seen so far, and at one hour and 45 minutes it is by a good margin the shortest as well. Days of '36 clearly comes across as an 'early' work in the artist's canon because, especially when compared to his later efforts, one can clearly see Angelopoulos being unsure of the potential success of his decisions.
In fact, in many ways Days of '36 reminds me of Werner Herzog's first film, Signs of Life – which is set in the Greek Islands and is not dependent upon a talky screenplay – save that Angelopoulos' film is in color. (There are large portions of the often wordless Days of '36 that could have worked quite well in the silent era.) And when the mostly anonymous characters do speak, they speak in the same way as the satirical characters in Samuel Beckett's best plays – 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 Days of '36 plot is quite thin. A politician or leader of some sort is murdered. We then see two men conspiring in a wooded area. They attempt escape, but one is captured, while the other soon attempts to visit him in prison. He then springs a surprise and takes the captured man hostage, threatening to off both of them if his demands are not met. His demands, however, remain unclear. Then, several attempts are made to sabotage him but fail. Other inmates at the prison try to escape, but are caught. As the story progresses, 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.
Though sumptuously photographed, the prison life depicted in Days of '36 reminded me of yet another early Werner Herzog effort, Even Dwarves Started Small, about a rebellion in a prison in a land of dwarves. While the comparison may seem silly it is quite apt – as a back-to-back watching of both films will confirm.
Now, in Googling about for technical information on Days of '36, which I viewed in its Region 2 DVD format, all in Greek, with (white) English subtitles, I came across some classic examples of imbuing ideas into a film from materials inexistent within the film. To wit, this synopsis of Days of '36, 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.”
Here is what the synopsis brings but that the film (at least as per the subtitles) never explains, even in a cursory or 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 had been involved in a gay relationship.
- 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 of a 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 in the 1930s might have an idea of what the greater significance was to Greek history, considering the tale is reputedly based upon a real incident.
[Note: Days of '36 was filmed during Greece's 1967-1974 military dictatorship, which was also ridiculed in Costa-Gavras' Z. In the mid-1930s, Greece had also been under the thumb of a military dictatorship. On Angelopoulos' website, the director is quoted as saying, “The dictatorship is embodied in the formal structure of the film. Imposed silence was one of the conditions under which we worked. The film is… made in such a way that the spectator realizes that censorship is involved.” See also Theo Angelopoulos' interview for the British Film Institute.]
The transfer of the Region 2 DVD (1.33:1 aspect ratio) by the Greek company New Star is at best mediocre. Plenty of splotches ruin the transfer, which is as poor as the old VHS 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's Badlands (an early film that marks Malick's canon as definitively as Days of '36 does Angelopoulos') and Days of Heaven.
Giorgos Papastefanou's scoring is hardly noticeable, while the film's biggest flaw is the merely adequate screenplay by Angelopoulos, Petros Markaris, Thanassis Valtinos, and Stratis Karras. Only in later years would Angelopoulos team up with the great screenwriter Tonino Guerra to produce his later masterpieces. In fact, the anomy and meager symbolism found in Days of '36 is evidence of Guerra's absence. Yet, despite its flaws, this early effort is definitely worth watching, if only to see a master of the medium in utero, before mastering all of the elements he would eventually be his.
The acting is at best adequate, and since the camera rarely features close-ups and the film has no monologues of any substance, there is no standout in the cast. What propels Days of '36 to its success, however limited, are the aforementioned technical aspects, which differ substantially from the later Angelopoulos films. For instance, in Days of '36 there are not as many long takes that follow characters in and out of chronology, while the unobtrusive music is quite a change from the electric, vivacious, and enriching scores Angelopoulos would later deploy in concert with Eleni Karaindrou.
Days of '36 is considered part of a historical trilogy that Angelopoulos made early in his career. The other two installments are The Traveling Players and The Hunters (only the former title is currently available on DVD), so I will watch it to see if it is a continuation of the themes and techniques displayed in Days of '36 or if it marked the beginning of a bridge to the director's later masterpieces.
On its own merits, Days of '36 deserves an audience, if not for the story it tells or how that story is told, then for its wide variety of technical virtues that amply demonstrate the skills of a master of an art form, even very early in his career. That even a 'failure' can boast such virtues says much about how the difference between great artists and their great works of art vs. the works of lesser artists is not really a difference of degree, but of kind. That fact has rarely been better illustrated for the human eye. Thanks, Theo.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Meres tou '36 / Days of '36 (1972). Dir.: Theo Angelopoulos. Scr.: Theo Angelopoulos, Petros Markaris, Thanassis Valtinos and Stratis Karras. Cast: Giorgos Kiritsis, Christoforos Chimaras, Takis Doukakos, Kostas Pavlou, Petros Zarkadis, Christophoros Nezer.