Once Another Time
Christina Newland on The Travelling Players
“You will come back / No matter how many years go by / You will come back.”
So goes the haunting folk song played, at numerous intervals, by one of the troupe of itinerant actors in Theo Angelopoulos’s 1975 The Travelling Players. It seemed to be reaching out, this song from a film in a language I cannot speak, from a country I have never visited. It was softly affirming to me, a person searching for the old stories of family and ancestry, that my invisible loyalties had a mooring point, that my clunky Greek surname, Potamousis, which means “by the river,” had found its own circuitous route back to its source.
Angelopoulos’s film, running an expansive 3 hours and 50 minutes, concerns the men and women of a theater troupe as they travel Greece in near-perennial winter. It’s been breathlessly called one of the most important films of the 20th century by various ones-who-know and was placed in the top hundred Greatest Films of All Time in the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll. Suffice it to say, it has something of a reputation.
I was in my early twenties when I first sought out the film. I was at an age where I was voraciously curious about movies of all kinds and hungrily filling gaps in my knowledge. Yet the first time I read about the Greek epic, it wasn’t in service of my budding cinephilia. It was in service of my endless curiosity about something else: the life of my grandfather, Nicholas Potamousis, a Greek-American immigrant born in a tiny fishing village in Chios. Nick was a survivor of the Nazi occupation and a veteran of the Greek Civil War that immediately followed. He liked to talk about these things, and especially with me, his young granddaughter. The stories he told were curious, touched by beauty and terror in equal measure. They were often ghastly, age-inappropriate fairy tales or war stories; they tended toward the tragic, the superstitious, and the ghostly. Somehow, I was never scared. Even the simple and true recollections of naked horror that Nick shared, from his time serving in the brutal civil war, were darkly compelling. He told tales of shrapnel wounds, dead childhood friends; once, of having been part of a firing squad.
The stories always began the same way. For my thickly accented grandfather, with sometimes shaky English that he picked up via hurried night classes in Manhattan, “Once upon a time” became “Once another time.” The former implied an over-the-rainbow style fantasy, dark perhaps, but never real, whereas “once another time” was grounded—maybe not in our moment, but in some other one whose existence was never really in question. Retelling stories from his turbulent life as though mythical tales to an adoring child, unlikely to judge, must have helped him somehow.
When I was ten, my grandfather died. He left me with a set of komboloi, Greek worry beads, which sit on my desk with me to this day, and with a wildly overactive imagination, which fed a gnawing desire to know more about all the stories he told me. The Travelling Players was set during the most tumultuous years of my Grandfather’s youth in a nation convulsed by war. I had to see it. Maybe it would help me to understand.
The Travelling Players is not the pretty Greece of summer and retsina and seaside tavernas; even those tavernas are, in this film, denuded of color. Its streets, squares, and villages are dilapidated and unlovely, and it is full of muted palettes, winter coats, and baggage, literal (constantly in hand) or otherwise. The play that the troupe puts on is a tragic, pastoral folk tale called Golfo the Shepherdess, which stages a classically inflected, rural image of romantic Greece that the film proper makes no room for. More often than not, their performances are interrupted, living as they are in the years of German occupation and vicious national division. Among the players, often torn between opposing events and sometimes literally dodging bullets, some are inured to the grim realities of fascist leadership, while others join the resistance. Later, some aid the revolutionaries while others collaborate with government forces. A series of deep betrayals and retributions follow. Each character in The Travelling Players is named from Greek myth—specifically the Oresteia by Aeschylus—and their relationships loosely echo the dynamics therein. The beleaguered Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) is the daughter of a betrayed father Agamemnon (played by Statos Pahis) and faithful to the Communist cause. She is made to suffer no small amount as a result.
Angelopoulos offers a left-wing perspective on what he sees as a betrayal of the Greek people; essentially this was the first proxy conflict of the Cold War, in which the Soviets failed to back the Communist rebels and the Americans and British hugely overstepped in backing the Greek government, resulting in the dominance and ultimate triumph of royalist right-wingers by 1949. By then, hundreds of thousands of Greeks had brutally turned on one another, with countless civilian deaths on both sides. Nick told me stories of vanished friends in the Macedonian mountains and churches strafed with machine gun fire. He was no ideologue, but he fought for the Greek Army against the partisans. He was a farm boy drafted onto the back of a truck, with half the other young men he knew. He watched his village recede in the distance, shipped off to the mainland, not knowing when he might see it again.
Players takes place from 1939 to 1952, but not chronologically: it dips in and out at will, with long pans moving across streets and village squares. It observes a car advancing up a road during a 1952 election campaign, and then, once it disappears, another, older car coming back down it past Nazi checkpoints a decade earlier. It toggles between the years seamlessly, as though the landscape is imbued with this historical residue, placing the phantoms of recent history side by side with flesh and blood. The film works as a constant formal ouroboros, matching the folk song whose words promise the listener they will always come back.
Between its political and mythic references, The Travelling Players is not a viewing experience that lends itself to immediate understanding. The events are all plainly digestible, but the larger inferences can be oblique. Names of politicians like Marshal Papagos and Ioannis Metaxas are bandied around, requiring periodic trips to Wikipedia for non-Greeks. And much has been made of Angelopoulos’s painstakingly deliberate style, which here amounts to no more than around 80 shots; there are no close-ups, no cuts to delineate characters, save for occasional direct address to the camera. This seems forbidding, but it’s softened by the poetry in his gaze, with its semi-circular pans across the years, sweeping through historical epochs with barely a nod toward the audience. His camera is frequently perpendicular to shorelines and cliffsides, dwarfing his characters against dominating landscapes, throwing them against the vagaries of the land, or moving searchingly across spaces to find its protagonists. Angelopoulos, born eleven years after Nick, knows what it is to be submerged by circumstance, drowned by the tides of history.
When I first saw The Travelling Players, I ran parallel timelines in my head.
It’s 1940, and the players are performing Golfo the Shepherdess to an unsettled, unseen audience, with Angelopolous’s static camera fixed on the stage. Air raid sirens whine and the menacing drone of bombers grow closer. The audience is told not to worry, but they begin to clamor for the door. As the actors run for cover, the camera remains still.
In 1940, my father’s father was 15 years old. The Italians, allied to the Germans and Bulgarians, invaded Greek borders and began the long, bitter occupation of the Second World War. To his dying day, Nick shook like a leaf at the sound of sirens.
The players, gaunt and tired, trudge through the snow of a mountainous village. One spots a lone chicken in the distance. Dark comedy ensues as the entire troupe chases their supper in desperation.
By 1942, mortality rates quadrupled across Greece. Under Nazi occupation, an island bursting with almonds, figs, oats and rye saw its population emaciated. As they ransacked farms and villages nationwide, food shortages broke out. Nick nearly starved.
It is 1947, and the Civil War has begun in earnest. The Greek Army leads POWs by gunpoint down a road, with one man carrying two partisans’ decapitated heads, Angelopoulos trailing them with an overhead shot, the gruesome sight merely one more detail in the frame.
I have a tattered black and white photo of Nick from 1947, in the Army. He wears drabs and a regulation beret, jauntily tilted to the side. He is young, only 22, and his expression is solemn. His mouth is set in a grim line, his eyes elsewhere, to the side; shy or unseeing or both.
Late in the film, a Greek bride and an American groom arrive in an army truck to meet a small party of sullen Greeks and loud, happy Americans. When the bride’s relatives try to play a traditional accordion song for her, the groom’s friends jump in over the top of it, cacophonously playing their jazz, and in a striking moment of discord, the bride’s teenaged son rises to his feet. He pulls the tablecloth, dishes and all, to the floor, and walks off, saying nothing as he trails the long tablecloth behind him in disgust. It’s a damning metaphor for American involvement in Greece, and for Greek capitulation to external influence. But Angelopoulos’s almost knee-jerk dislike for the union came as a shock to this Greek-American.
I had no parallel timeline ready for this scene.
Stuffed with allusions, references, and political specificities that, as Derek Malcolm once wrote, “no one but a Greek could understand,” The Travelling Players will never be wholly mine. I am too young, too American, and it is too old, and too Greek, for me to ever parse all of its subtleties. The harder I tried to find Nick’s parallel timelines, and the more I tried to project my impressions of his life onto the film, the more elusive Nick’s story became.
When I first saw The Travelling Players, I thought it would help me understand. What I have learned in the intervening years, since watching the film again, is that it’s a fool’s errand to expect movies to furnish us with easy answers, even more so to come to them with projections and expectations they can never fulfill. Knowing that so many members of the anti-Nazi Resistance were also Communists who would later be killed by Nick’s side is a bitter pill to swallow. If anything, Angelopoulos’s vision of the past is confounding and discomfiting, a vision of personal and political tragedy on a vast scale, one that makes my footing uncertain. It makes Nick’s “once another time” stories feel all the more surreal, his combat fatigue all the more unpleasant.
Angelopoulos’s assuredly left-wing perspective would have baffled Nick, who knew that he fought for the Greek Army against a rebellion, and long detested the British, his supposed allies, for treating Greek Army detachments as cannon fodder. Nick came to the United States in the early 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare, a political moment that instilled in him a lifelong hatred of Communists. You might say that it was American ideology that gave him this hatred, or you might say it was three years of them lobbing grenades at each other. Either way, the gulf cannot be crossed; Angelopoulos’s side is not Nick’s.
Like most things we love and can’t lay claim to, The Travelling Players shores me up and stops me short all at once. I lay impossible yearning at its feet, the kind no film could satisfy.
I first came to it thinking that it could sustain and soften my yearning to know more and grow closer, but that is not the Angelopoulos project. The film asks us to engage with the past in all its violence and ambivalence. As the remaining players stand applauding at graveside for an executed comrade, I realize that the truth of Nick’s involvement in these times is darker and more complex than I could ever neatly explain, or easily judge.
Years on, revisiting Angelopoulos’s oblique classic, I see that no matter how closely I analyze it, there is some essential gap of age, nationality, and comfort I will never move in. I miss my grandfather. He was kind and gentle, and he instilled in me a love for storytelling that has played no small part in my life. And there’s no hope for me of pulling up a chair in his bleach-blasted kitchen with a small, strong cup of coffee, sitting grown-up to grown-up, and asking my questions. The Travelling Players, like Nick’s old stories, is a one-way transmission, a “once another time” that remains unknowable. I still crave the film’s proximity to him, its communion with the dead I cannot speak to by other means. It is a flawed vessel, beguiling and painful, but the folk singer is right: I will come back to it, no matter how many years go by.