Angelopoulos came to international attention with the release in 1975 of "O Thiassos" ("The Travelling Players"). The subject of this three-hour-and-forty minute historical epic is the adventures of a group of actors traveling across Greece from 1939 until 1952, performing "Golfo," a traditional 19th Century Greek classic tale of unrequited love. In this way, the film covers the last days of the Metaxas dictatorship, the beginning of the World War II, the German occupation, the Liberation and the arrival of the English and the Americans, and the Civil War. Greece's political history and the actors' lives are being woven together along this journey.
I have limited the synopsis to the film's timeline, with minimal commentary about some of the happenings. I hope this timeline will help clarify the contemporary Greek history for the reader, and therefore contribute to a better appreciation of the film.
Following the credits, which appear on the background of a red theater curtain, hammering on the floor followed by three distinct thumps announces the beginning of the performance. An old accordion-playing man introduces the play ("Golfo, the Shepherdess," by Spyridon Peresiades). The film's main characters are based on Aeschylus' "Oresteia trilogy" ("Agamemnon," "The Libation Bearers," and "The Eumenides"), so we get a foreshadowing of their true natures: the father, Agamemnon (Stratos Pachis); the adulterous mother, Clytemnestra (Aliki Georgouli); the traitorous uncle, Aegisthus (Vangelis Kazan); the avenging daughter, Elektra (Eva Kotamanidou); the revolutionary son, Orestes (Petros Zarkadis); and the self-centered daughter, Chrysothemis (Maria Vasileiou). However, Orestes is the only character ever identified by name in the film. We can surmise who the other characters are by the vague mythical elements which surround them, and also by seeing the names listed in the film's credits.
Winter, 1952. Cut to a gray winter morning. The nine travelling players are standing in front the Aegion train station, holding their suitcases. The players seem indistinguishable from one another. The troupe walks in the street, seeking a place to stay. Megaphones blare political slogans about Marshal Papagos, a candidate in the next presidential election. The group continues walking, but when they arrive at the town square, it is now fourteen years earlier, in 1939, and they are under the General Metaxas' pro-monarchy dictatorship. The group settles in a restaurant. Outside, Metaxas "black shirts" are parading and singing fascist songs. Aegisthus stands on a table and sings an old patriotic ballad, while his companions remain silent. The troupe stays at a nearby hotel for the night. Electra walks on the balcony, and happens by a room from which emanate lovemaking sounds. She peers through the window and sees her mother, Clytemnestra, in the arms of Aegisthus. A while later, a shocked and crying Electra sees her mother return to her own room.
Clytemnestra and her husband are in bed, both asleep. Orestes enters the room and kisses his mother. A soldier, he has been called to the border. Although sleeping, Clytemnestra delivers a monologue that recalls an event that happened when Orestes was four years old. Orestes leaves the room and runs into his sister: they embrace and she cries. Later, Agamemnon, carrying his grandchild by Chrysothemis, speaks to Orestes in pessimistic terms about the future.
The next scene shows Orestes, his friend -- as in the ancient myth -- Pylades (Kiriakos Katrivanos), and the Poet (Grigoris Evangelatos) walking along the railroad tracks. They speak of the threatening war. Arriving near a river bank, Pylades reads about the conditions for a true Marxist revolution. The three friends join in a chorus singing this Marxist speech, authored by Lenin.
The actors are now in a "kafeneon" (a typical Greek bar), dressed up in traditional Greek mountain costumes for the performance of "Golfo." They stand before the window, advertising the upcoming performance with songs. They are lined up as the puppets in the traditional "Karaghiozi"s Greek shadow-puppet theater. An accordion provides the accompaniment for the songs which always open such shadow plays. Eventually, the "Golfo" performance begins.
Later that same night, Pylades is chased down the street by several of Metaxas' secret police. They catch him, and then beat him before pushing him into a car and taking him away. As the next scene opens on a lake at dawn, a boat carrying political prisoners approaches the dock. The police push Pylades and several new prisoners into the boat that will take them to some unknown place of exile. On the dock, Orestes, Electra, and the Poet are silent witnesses.
October 28, 1940. The players are on a train. Agamemnon, facing the audience, makes the first of three monologues in the film. He recalls his arrival in 1922 from Ionia, Asia Minor, to Greece, as a refugee. This is quite different from Agamemnon, the King, who returned triumphant from Troy to Argos. The players end up in a small town, where they will be playing "Golfo" in a small theater. The play is interrupted by the announcement that at 5:30 in the morning, WWII commenced with the invasion of Greece by Italy. Early the next morning, Agamemnon, wearing a soldier uniform, is seen saying goodbye to Electra and Chrysothemis: the war is breaking up the group.
Early 1941. On a gloomy, rainy day, Electra walks down a street. She is being followed by a young fascist Italian soldier. They enter a hotel and go to a room. Electra tells the soldier to strip. Excited, he complies, but when he is finally naked, he gradually becomes uncomfortable and embarrassed by Electra's stillness. Electra, fully clothed, rises and leaves the room. Quite a role reversal!
April 27th, 1942. The German army has just entered Athens. The Third Reich flag is raised. The German occupation of Greece has begun.
Autumn, 1952. Pylades comes to Elektra's bedroom and says, "Let's go." The players walk by the sea. In the background, we hear announcements of the upcoming election over megaphones. Going back to the same location, ten years before, there is a performance of "Golfo" being again interrupted, this time with the Germans' arrest of Agamemnon. Aegisthus has betrayed him. In the next scene, Agamemnon is waiting to be executed by a firing squad. He stands before a wall upon which one can read several inscriptions bearing the letters EAM. EAM ("Ethniko Apeleftherotiko Metopo"), the largest of the resistance movements, began operations within months of the German occupation, and was established by the Greek Communist Party, KKE ("Kommunistiko Komma Elladas"). As Agamemnon faces the audience, he identifies himself, "I come from beyond the sea, from Ionia. And you?" This is the traditional form for greeting strangers, going back to antiquity. Of course, the greeting is lost on the German soldiers. The soldiers fire and Agamemnon falls to the ground.
1943. A line of people waits for some kind of food distribution. Chrysothemis walks to a house, carrying an empty bottle. She knocks at the door. A fat man opens the door and leads her down to the cellar. He taps one of his oil kegs, and waits for payment. Without a word or hesitation, Chrysothemis strips singing "In your eyes there is a calm sea" as the merchant sits in his chair, watching her. This scene directly parallels the earlier one between Electra and the fascist Italian soldier. As Chrysothemis leaves the merchant's house, she crosses paths with two men. Shots are heard, and we see the merchant who had come out to lock his door after Chrysothemis' departure slumping to the ground. We speculate that maybe these two men, obviously EAM members, were tipped off by Chrysothemis about this profiteer. Chrysothemis enters the hotel where the players are staying and puts the bottle of oil on the table around which the group is sitting. They all look at it, fascinated.
1944. The travelling players walk down a snowy mountain road, singing cheerfully. Their happy song stops at a turn of the road, when they arrive at a large tree from whose branches hang two men. There is no explanation as to their identities. Perhaps they are partisans, hung by the Germans: we are just being confronted with Death. Later, in a rather comical, silent scene, the group surrounds a lone wandering chicken, which ends up in the cooking pot. Here, we are confronted with Hunger.
The group is traveling in a bus which is stopped by German soldiers. They are forced out of the bus and are marched to an old castle that serves as a prison camp. Later, they are lined up against a wall to be executed. Aegisthus steps forward and pitifully tries to negotiate, but he collapses, and is carried back to the wall. We hear shots, and the prisoners fall to the ground. However, they are not shot: the prison camp is under attack by the partisans.
It is dawn. A large group of people rushes into the prison camp waving a German flag. They climb the embankment and hurl the flag into the sea. Bells ring and everybody is joyous. Partisans on horseback arrive in the camp crying, "Freedom to the people!" The war is ended.
In a town square, a large crowd is waving Greek, American, and Russian flags. Some shots ring and the crowd runs, leaving behind several dead. That same night, the traveling players try to leave town. They are in the middle of a fire fight between the government soldiers and the EAM partisans. Eventually, the group manages to escape.
The group walks along the beach. They are stopped and searched by British soldiers. When the soldiers find that they have encountered a troupe of actors, they request a free performance. The players are only too happy to oblige, and eventually everybody ends up dancing with everybody else, to the music of the eternal accordion. However, the merrymaking is stopped by a single shot that kills one of the soldiers.
1945. Electra walks down the nighttime street. There is a variety of music in the air. She meets Orestes, Pylades, and the Poet, who all wear EAM uniforms. Inside a large building, a performance of "Golfo" is under way. Orestes goes onstage, where he shoots his Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to avenge his father's death. The audience stands up and applauds.
Moments later, Electra is in her mother's room. She sits on the bed, wearing her mother's coat, when men burst into the room and take her away. They take her to a dark, empty tavern, and wearing clown masks, four of them hold her down while a fifth one rapes her, striking her from time to time. He interrogates her as to the whereabouts of Orestes. Electra reveals nothing. She wakes up by the bank of a river where the rapists have dumped her. She stands, brushes the dirt from her coat, and facing the audience, begins the second monologue of the film. She describes how, following the departure of the Germans, the civil war began. She recounts the battle in Athens between the government troops and the communist Partisans.
In a town square are assembled British, American, and French soldiers. They are supervising the agreement which will end the Allied occupation. One by one, on horseback, the communist Partisans come and surrender their weapons.
Electra is in her room. We hear Chysothemis' young son reading a war story. Chrysothemis is packing to leave the group, and her son. The sisters meet silently in the hallway. Three men enter Electra's room and ransack it. They leave three pictures of Orestes in his "andartis" (communist partisan) uniform on the table. Electra goes out in the night. Right-wing slogans are being broadcast from a PA system. As she passes a "kafeneon," she sees several people being dragged out by right-wing thugs.
1946. Electra walks into a nightclub: a sign advertises a special dance for January 1, 1946. She walks across the room and stands by the orchestra. An all-male group of right-wing government supporters is seated at a table. They are drably dressed in cheap suits and hats. Another group consisting of couples, dressed in a more eclectic and colorful fashion, is seated near the orchestra. They represent the Left. These two groups start a musical duel, each singing songs pertinent to its ideology. Finally, a right-wing man pulls out a hand gun and shoots into the air. The music stops. The left-wing couples indicate they are not armed and walk out of the establishment. The fascists stand up, and pairing off, dance. Electra leaves the hall.
The group of right-wing men is walking through the empty street at dawn. When they reach the square, it is now 1952, and a royalist government rally is taking place. Electra and the travelling players are making their way through the crowd.
1949. In a street, a small band leads a jeep carrying soldiers. As the group nears, we see a soldier standing up, holding in each hand the decapitated head of a communist -- a common fate for communists captured during the civil war. Following the jeep is a group of communist prisoners. Among them is Orestes.
1950. In the harbor, a boat seen earlier taking prisoners away to exile brings back some prisoners to be released. Pylades is one of them. He meets Electra and they walk together to a "kafeneon." There, Pylades delivers the third monologue of the film. He explains how he was captured in 1947 and sent to detention. Like so many, he was tortured so he would sign a confession, but he never did.
Chrysothemis and an American soldier are getting married. The wedding is taking place on the beach. Chrysothemis introduces her husband to Electra and her now teenage son, but both remain silent. The wedding feast continues with American and Greek songs, and someone calls for a toast. At this, Chrysothemis' son rises and walks off, in obvious protest, dragging the tablecloth with him. Everything on the table crashes to the ground.
1951. Electra travels to a prison by the sea. She is taken to the morgue, where Orestes' body is laid on a table. She stares at the body from the doorway for a while. She then approaches her brother's corpse and murmurs a line from "Golfo," "Good morning, Tasso," in remembrance of Orestes' role in the play. In the next scene, the players follow the Orestes' hearse to the burial ground. The group stands by the grave, and as two men shovel dirt onto the coffin, Electra suddenly applauds, and the whole group follows, as a salute to Orestes' brave life.
1952. People enter an old theater, where the players are to present yet another show of "Golfo." Electra helps Chrysothemis' son, who is now dressed up as a Greek shepherd, assuming Orestes' former role of Tasso. It is now Pylades, banging the hammer against the floor, who announces the performance. The accordion plays. The show must go on.
Autumn, 1939. In the town of Aegion, the traveling players have arrived, carrying their suitcases, as we saw them at the beginning of the film. The cycle is complete.