Chris Marker at 100: Three Films
By José Teodoro
Cinema’s prime essayist was as forthright with his curiosity as he was enigmatic with his identity.
Among the cascade of spoken koans, digressions, and reportage that suffuse Chris Marker’s sui generis essay film Sans soleil (1983), this might constitute the closest thing to a thesis statement: “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining.” This paradoxical binding of anamnesis and amnesia reads retrospectively as prophecy: Marker, who was born 100 years ago this July 29, who died nine years ago this July 29, who made more films or film-adjacent things than most ardent cinephiles can boast to having actually laid eyes on, was, despite the expansiveness and diversity of his oeuvre, consistently dedicated to the pursuit of apprehending memory’s nature, purpose, and significance. The delicious irony of the above citation is that Sans soleil, like so much Marker, is possessed of such density, is so saturated with looking, listening, musing, is so disinterested in familiar structural signposts, that even after multiple viewings, you’re unlikely to remember most of it.
(One image that has always stuck with me is that of sleeping ferry passengers. Perhaps it’s because they embody my sense of Sans soleil passing through my consciousness like a dream.)
To mark a century of Marker, Metrograph is screening a trio of excellent little-seen documentaries, each roughly 30 minutes in length, which Marker made in the 1990s. Each is more straightforward and utilitarian than Sans soleil or the other films for which Marker is famous: Le Joli mai (1963), A Grin Without a Cat (1977), Level Five (1997), or the singular, inexhaustible sci-fi photomontage La Jetée (1962). We’ll get to Metrograph’s selections momentarily. As a préliminaire, it’s worth summarizing what we know and don’t know about this most mysterious of major filmmakers.
Perhaps the dearth of dogma in Marker’s films, their fluid movement between genres, their endless open-mindedness as to what cinema can be, is intrinsic to their endurance and continuing relevance.
Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve was born in 1921 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Or Belleville, Paris. Or Neuilly-sur-Seine. He studied philosophy. During the Second World War, he joined the Maquis, a faction of the French Resistance. He may or may not have been a United States Air Force paratrooper. After the war, he wrote poems, stories, political commentaries, and film reviews for the Marxist, neo-Catholic magazine Esprit. He traveled the world as a photojournalist—a vocation he never gave up. He wrote and published a novel, Le Cœur net (1949), and an illustrated essay on Jean Giraudoux, Giraudoux par lui-même (1952), and, collaborating with the likes of Alain Resnais, inaugurated a filmmaking career that betrayed no hint of careerism. Many of his films had or have no obvious place in the commercial market. Rather than cultivate a persona-as-brand—a strategy that has served his fellow cinema essayist Werner Herzog well—Marker evaded cameras and microphones. He frequently used his films to provide platforms for those neglected by history—this is very much the case with at least two of the three titles in the Metrograph series—but with his own story he showed scant interest in setting things straight. Call it pathological reclusiveness or recursive arrogance; Marker felt the films were enough.
As we celebrate Marker’s birth/deathday, I can’t help but wonder how many filmmakers not only worked into their eighties but also remained so politically, aesthetically, technologically, and philosophically engaged. Only Marker’s Left Bank cohort Agnès Varda comes to mind. (I’m not certain late Godard hits all the above points.) Perhaps the dearth of dogma in Marker’s films, their fluid movement between genres, their endless open-mindedness as to what cinema can be, is intrinsic to their endurance and continuing relevance. There is no victory lap in late Marker. He never stopped running, or at least walking, with camera in hand, senses wide open, curiosity in full effect.
The first image in Berliner Ballade (1990) is of an elephant: memory’s avatar. The film, echoing Sans soleil’s peculiar, beguiling mediation technique—one that harkens back to 19th-century literature—is narrated by a woman receiving correspondence from Marker or a stand-in of some sort. “This time, you are writing to me from Berlin…” After the fall of the Berlin Wall, France 2’s Envoyé spécial sent Marker to chronicle the lead-up to East Berlin’s first free elections in decades. The resulting film is a typically playful, idiosyncratic whirlwind tour of a fleeting point in time, taking in the Schönbrunn Zoo and Kleist’s tomb, sausage sellers and enterprising youths chipping away pieces of the Wall—or simply a wall—to be sold as mementos in little plastic baggies with “ORIGINAL” stamped across the front. Diaristic travelogue constitutes only part of Berliner Ballade, however. There are images of Hitler and the massive crowds under his sway only two generations previous. There are interviews—whether archival or original is hard to discern—with intellectuals such as Jürgen Böttcher, Stephan Hermlin, and Ina Merkel, who debate the meaning and potency of a unified Left in a post-Soviet context, and with poet and singer Wolf Biermann, whose lyrics about choosing justice over revenge feel like a lost priority in the zero-sum binary politics of our current age. The film closes with a sequence filled with faces watching and waiting for election results, a variation on a theme found in many Marker films, including the next in this selection.
It has always struck me as remarkable that much of Marker’s work seems to be constructed of material caught on the fly, yet his films look and sound like no one else’s. This may be the result of his framing or the particular rhythms of his editing, but I think it may also have to do with the way the camera is embodied, the way it aligns with his unique way of looking and listening, placing you in rooms and on streets with him. A key aspect of Marker’s documentaries is his defamiliarizing of established historical narratives, but among his means of achieving this is the way in which he crafts sequences to mimic his own experience of spending time with subjects—the attention to faces, hands, gestures, objects.
Made early in the Yugoslav Wars, Prime Time in the Camps (1993) profiles the crew behind an ad-hoc television news team consisting almost entirely of refugees devoted to offering an alternative to Yugoslav government propaganda. They were an organization after Marker’s own heart: pirating material from CNN, Sky News, and Radio Sarajevo, shooting on Hi8, working with equipment supplied by a Belgian NGO, with anchors in T-shirts seated before hung sheets, these collage-journalists sought to even the playing field, speaking for the disenfranchised and the silenced, all the while “recording their own memory”—gathering material for a larger, more ambitious archival project to come. Marker shifts between found material, which ranges from images of the destruction that government forces leave in their wake—including a map of Yugoslavia with a large hole where Bosnia-Herzegovina should be—to a glimpse of an Elton John video and the sly deployment of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” on the film’s soundtrack, to interviews with numerous inhabitants of the Roska refugee camp. Notably, in collecting testimonies, in traversing the gap between official histories and firsthand experience, Marker doesn’t solicit bathos or tears; rather, he might have a mother playing with her child while reporting on an atrocity. The quotidian, the extraordinary and the tragic intermingle.
The final film in Metrograph’s trio, Blue Helmet (Casque Blue, 1995), turns out to be all testimony: namely, that of a young French UN peacekeeper named François Crémieux who spent six months serving near the Bosnian town of Bihać. Acutely aware of the limits of his understanding, the highly articulate Crémieux, speaking in rapid cadences, makes an extremely compelling monologist. Crémieux felt a moral obligation to sign up when France called on volunteers to go to Yugoslavia. He believed foreign intervention was necessary. (He was also swayed by the fact that his soldier’s wage would triple.) Marker begins the film with Crémieux’s statement that he believes in conscription—so long as conscripts can return to their homeland, share their experience, “and provide a balancing influence within the army.” Alas, much of Crémieux’s experience was limited to undertaking an ignorant, unhelpful, racist training program, defending the UN base, and embarking on a seemingly arbitrary campaign to exterminate the region’s stray dogs. “When one is a UN peacekeeper,” he explains, “when you meet people in a war zone while wearing a bulletproof vest and a rifle, I’m not sure you’re meeting the reality. I’m not sure you can talk to them as so-called equals.” •
José Teodoro is a critic, playwright, and essayist.