Time Walks Through the City - Time Passes Through the City - Laikas eina per miestą - Almantas Grikevičius - horse

Time Walks Through the City
1966, directed by Almantas Grikevičius

Anyone familiar with the films of Yasujiro Ozu may notice that the same aspects of time that Ozu so often introduces also appear in Time Walks Through the City:

  • The opening shots show a pendulum, the gears of a massive clock, and the bell and tower of Vilnius Cathedral. All of these point to clock time, or measured linear time.
  • Following the bell tower is the statuary in the cathedral’s pediment frieze, the first of many images that evoke eternity, a kind of frozen or unchanging layer of time.
  • After that, a series of panoramas introduces a contrast between tradition and modernity, first in the city’s architecture and later in other aspects of life in Vilnius, like traditional weddings and flower laying juxtaposed with soccer, motor sports, and dancing to modern music.
  • The streets of Vilnius are crowded with a mix of children and adults, and youthful gatherings are intercut with middle-aged people and a cemetery. These point to generational turnover, another of Ozu’s hallmarks, and a more cyclical way of looking at time.

In Tokyo Story the various aspects of time are presented systematically, one after another in the opening “pillow shots” and again in the siblings and parents who represent different facets of time. As we’ve seen, the opening shots of Time Walks Through the City are no less systematic in defining different kinds of time, and there’s every reason to believe that the film weaves them together deliberately.

Time Walks Through the City - Time Passes Through the City - Laikas eina per miestą - Almantas Grikevičius - Vilnius street

There were of course compelling reasons for a Lithuanian to make a film about time in 1966. Like its Baltic and Eastern European neighbors, the country had already spent more than twenty years under the oppressive thumb of Moscow. Once a large, prosperous, and powerful country, Lithuania had been occupied by the Russian Empire through the 19th century, regained independence toward the end of World War I, and fell under Soviet occupation during World War II. It would take another twenty-five years to win independence again in 1991. It’s not hard to imagine that time weighed heavily on a proud nation thus entrapped.

A single image of a Lenin statue followed by two quick shots of a Soviet parade were probably enough to satisfy Soviet censors, placed strategically only seconds after the film’s most overtly subversive image – a shot of pigeons walking on an inscription of 1863, the year Lithuania joined Poland in the January Uprising against czarist Russia. Of course the film’s focus on Lithuania’s capital would also have appealed to Baltic patriots, but the Soviets probably would have dismissed that as an inevitable part of filmmaking. Their goal was not to exclude occupied countries from Soviet culture, but to assimilate them. The film is filled with Roman Catholic churches and religious imagery that could have stirred nationalistic feelings, but all of those are safely blended into a modern context without any clear religious message. Soviet authorities probably regarded all the religion merely as historical background, the same way they tolerated the existence of churches.

Time Walks Through the City - Time Passes Through the City - Laikas eina per miestą - Almantas Grikevičius - Church of St. Peter and St. Paul - Šv. apaštalų Petro ir Povilo bažnyčia

More subtle however than the allusion to 1863 is the long series of shots in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, a baroque church built to commemorate the expulsion of Muscovites from Vilnius in the Russo-Polish War, an outcome that Lithuanians under Soviet occupation dreamed of repeating. The church first appears two shots before the main title, separated only by a single shot of modern housing across the river, then it returns six minutes later for a 66-second montage of the stucco reliefs inside. Like the earlier exterior shot, this montage also holds a significant place in the editing, immediately preceding the most memorable image – a white horse walking through Vilnius in slow motion, as if standing in for Time in the film’s title. In fact the last image from the interior montage is a white stucco horse, so that the film’s central image – the living horse that first appears almost exactly halfway through – seems to spring miraculously from the church’s plaster. If the church represents Lithuania’s freedom from Russia, this horse represents that same dream brought back to life, unfrozen after centuries of history.

The white horse is the centerpiece not only of the film itself, but also of its central passage, the eight and a half minutes (half of the film’s running time) during which life in the bustling city comes to a standstill. This interlude begins and ends at a busy intersection where a policeman directs traffic around him. In the first transition the screen flashes white a few times, a plane passes overhead, and shots of everyday human activity give way to still photographs that suggest a city in panic. An overhead shot of railroad tracks is skewed sideways, suggesting a loss of balance, and a row of telephone receivers hangs loose off their hooks, as if abandoned in a hurry. The flashes and the plane create a vague suggestion of a nuclear attack – a possibility easy to imagine so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eventually, after the horse passes through, the film returns to the busy crossing, and life resumes with as much vitality as before.

Time Walks Through the City - Time Passes Through the City - Laikas eina per miestą - Almantas Grikevičius - Vilnius intersection

The hints of nuclear war gave viewers a timely and non-controversial way to read the film, but the central interlude works equally well as a metaphor for Lithuania’s occupation. It expresses not only the horror and disruption of Soviet tyranny, but also the stasis of being locked in a hopeless situation. If we look at the film this way, the return to normalcy is more convincing. Instead of wishful thinking (“The war was only a bad dream”) it expresses a realistic hope for an independent future, diminished only by the brief and obligatory Soviet flag-waving.

In any case the prevailing effect of the central section is not so much a political narrative as a shift in the sense of time. When the film begins, the clock turns and the bell chimes the hours, crowds fill the streets, construction workers bring progress, and the air is filled with jazzy music. There’s a sense of time moving forward – but when life comes to a halt and the clock’s gears stop, there’s a sense of being frozen in time. At first it evokes catastrophe, and the grotesque stuccos in the church do nothing to discourage this view, but everything changes when the horse enters. The stately animal is a picture of peace and dignity, yet it fits the central passage’s feeling of eternal time. This is certainly no accident. Most serious films build to a sense of eternity, at least in their endings, and directors like Ozu, Bergman, Antonioni, and Mizoguchi were particularly aware of this. Films that achieve a sense of eternity help audiences to reconcile with the difficulties of life by taking a more timeless perspective.

Time Walks Through the City - Time Passes Through the City - Laikas eina per miestą - Almantas Grikevičius - Vilnius Cathedral pediment frieze

Unspoken amid all the film’s invocations of eternity is the connection between Vilnius and Rome, the “Eternal City”. Vilnius is nicknamed “Rome of the North” for its profusion of churches, its hilly landscape, and its historic conversion from paganism to Christianity. The architecture and sculptures displayed in Time Walks Through the City support the city’s link to Rome, and the horse, which has all the noble bearing of an ancient equestrian statue, clinches it. The film ends with a series of panoramas of Vilnius, the last one viewed from the national symbol, Gediminas Tower. By this point there should be a sense that the city’s eternal qualities are more than a slogan.

Time Walks Through the City - Time Passes Through the City - Laikas eina per miestą - Almantas Grikevičius - old woman - trees

Time Walks Through the City opens with a few lines by Lithuanian poet Justinas Marcinkevičius:

“The cracked wall of the old city tells of man’s history with the economy of modern means, as if it were a gray screen. Of course, we get tired. And, of course, we make mistakes. Still we refuse to turn our back to the wall and try to understand it instead.”

The fortified medieval wall that defines the old city of Vilnius is akin to the national borders that define Lithuania, and which must have felt sacred to its citizens who yearned for independence. The lines from Marcinkevičius’ poem place the wall in the context of history, saying that however tired and defeated we may feel, we will seek to understand. This too is what the film aims for, encouraging viewers to see their nation not only in the present tense but through a broader vision of time.


Late Spring Contrast between tradition and modernity to express the passage of time

Tokyo Story Systematic distinction between clock time, eternity, and cyclical time

La notte Shots of modern architecture composed like abstract paintings; preoccupation with time

L’eclisse Montage of urban details, including contrails, with visual echoes to create a sense of familiarity


This film is available for free streaming at http://www.sinemateka.lt/en/documentary#time-passes-through-the-city. The site features a small collection of Lithuanian short films and documentaries, and it is well worth exploring.