Thursday, July 20, 2006

Landscape in the Mist

The quest undertaken by the adolescent heroes of Theo Angelopoulos’ 1988 film "Landscape in the Mist" gives us a bad feeling right off the bat. The pair – 14 year old Voula and her 5 year old brother Alexander are looking for their father, without knowing who or where he is, apart from the fact that he is in Germany. We know that, but they don’t appear to have given it a second thought.

The two children have run away from home, and the first time we see them, they are rushing to the station to catch a train to Germany. A vendor sees them and jokingly asks, "Are you here again?" This makes sense a few seconds later as the two lose their nerve and go back home again. Why are they running away? There is no indication that their mother is abusive – We don’t even see her. The movie doesn’t spend any time establishing what they’re running away from. It is more interested in what they are running to. The children have come up with their own ideas about the missing father, and Alexander dreams about him often.

The pair actually manages to get on the train on their next attempt, and manage a short ride before they are thrown off for not having tickets. It’s at this first stop that we meet their uncle (the mother’s brother) It’s from this uncle that we get the crucial information that the father that the kids are seeking doesn’t even exist. He’s a fabrication by the mother to hide their illegitimacy from them.

There’s a bizarre and heartbreaking sequence at this first stop, as well. The children are walking at night, when out of nowhere a tractor drags a dying horse and drops it literally at their feet. As they examine the stricken animal, and Alexander breaks into tears, a rowdy wedding party troops out of a hotel in the background, and parades off into the night. No one in the party even notices the scene in front of them. The metaphor is clear – The children are on their own, and the world takes no notice.

Soon afterward, they get a ride with a friendly young man named Oreste, who is part of a travelling theatre troupe. He feeds the children and shows them his costumes, and Angelopoulos is clearly establishing him as a surrogate father figure.

There is a second surrogate, who is not so kindly, however. A truck driver picks the two up and buys them lunch. He seems nice enough, but soon pulls the truck over and forcibly pulls Voula into the back with him. This scene is restrained, but is nonetheless harrowing, as the camera stays back and shows only the hanging tarp on the back of the truck. A couple of cars pull over in the background, and we think that they might deliver the girl from her attacker, but they drive off again. The driver gets out, and them slowly we see Voula’s legs come out. She sits on the edge of the truck, and finally we see a trickle of blood come from between her legs.

The children cross paths with Oreste a second time, and it quietly becomes evident that the strange father/child bond works both ways. Oreste has his theatre group, but appears to always travel alone. He has stated early on that he is scheduled to join the army soon, and the time with the children seems to salve a deep loneliness in him as well.

We now come to a surreal scene, which is the most memorable in the film. As Oreste sits on a dock, a gigantic stone hand starts to rise up out for the water. We begin to hear the sounds of a helicopter, and when the camera goes back to the statue, it is attached by cable to the helicopter. It rises out of the water, and is carried away. This scene makes no sense from a literal standpoint, as the hand rises by itself, and the chopper seems to magically become hooked to it after the fact. So what does it mean? The image, I think, is meant to indicate the loss of love and companionship. The sight of the hand drifting away is a dream-like wave goodbye, and we later see this motif repeated when they say goodbye to Oreste on a deserted highway.

This film carries a melancholy air about it. When we first meet Voula and Alexander, logic dictates that there can’t really be a happy ending to their journey. They left their home lured by the possibility of meeting a loving father that doesn’t exist. The people that they meet on the way are much like them, in that they need to establish some kind of connection.

The eventual arrival in Germany in a fog-bound rowboat concludes the film on an uncertain note. The children are alone even then, and they struggle to make out detail in the mist. Eventually a tree comes into focus, and the film closes on an image of the two of them clinging to its trunk. The viewer wonders what will become of them in this strange country, all alone in a world that doesn’t care how vulnerable they are. They see the tree, but all we see is the fog.

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