Prod Co: Wim van Leer/SOFAC Prod: Yitzhak Zohar Dir, Scr: Chris Marker Phot: Ghislain Cloquet, Mayer Levin, Bertrand Hesse Ed: Eva Zorz Narration: Jean Vilar, Howard Vernon, Alan Adair
Memories are at the core of Chris Marker’s work. The vague connections between recorded history, communal memory and personal reminiscences, the myriad of political factors, ideological agendas and cultural filters that invariably shape our body of recollections, the ethical dilemmas and psychological repercussions triggered by the traumatic events of the past, all emerge as intriguing poetic motifs in his films.
Archiving, dramatising, interpreting, and revisiting memories is one of the essential links with the sense of inner-self for Marker’s subjects, obsessed by protecting their identities and preserving their personal histories from the tide of oblivion. In his 1949 novel, Le coeur net, Marker suggests that narratives that surround us are inextricably entwined with our sense of existence: “We exist in the world of mirrors: if we break them, we disappear at the same stroke” (1). Marker worked as an uncredited cameraman and script editor on Alain Resnais’ Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog,1955), and collaborated on writing the voiceover narration with French poet Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the Holocaust. Based on Cayrol’s subjective account of the past, the film emerged as a fascinating attempt to grasp the nature of evil, tracing the rise of Nazism from the mobilization of the German masses to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, only a decade after the end of World War II.
In Marker’s films, the elusive realm of memories epitomises the fragility of the human condition, our obsessive desire to understand the nature of forces that shape our destiny. Evoking memories is a demanding interpretative task, an invitation to an aesthetic experience that persistently reminds the viewer of the link between death and oblivion. Marker’s most renowned film, La Jetée (1962), is almost entirely composed of still photographs. Terrence Rafferty describing it as an attempt to create “a moment of transition between a traumatic past and an unforeseeable future” (2). La jetée “begins” when a young boy sees the face of a woman who witnesses a man’s murder at Orly Airport. In the closing sequence of the film, the central character runs towards a woman from his past pursued by an agent from the underground, and, before he is killed, reminisces that “the moment he had witnessed as a child, which had never stopped obsessing him, was the moment of his own death”.
Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Marker’s documentary film, Description d’un combat/Description of a Struggle, examines the condition and circumstances of the young state of Israel and its citizens. The film was made at the time when the Israeli state was 12 years old, and borrows its title from Kafka’s short story (3). It explores the historical, social, cultural and ethical contexts at the heart of Israel’s existence, and the impact of the tragic and not so distant past on the collective psyche of the nation.
Description of a Struggle opens with a series of seemingly disconnected visuals accompanied by voiceover narration: “Signs. The land speaks to you in signs. Signs of land. Signs of water. Signs of man.” Writing about Description of a Struggle, Catherine Lupton suggests that, by reading Israel as an accumulation of signs and calling for these signs to be interpreted, Marker’s film emerges as an intricate exegesis of the dynamic tensions between the realities of the land and its cinematic representation (4). Lupton notes that Marker proposes a sense of historical responsibility that stems from the complex and traumatic legacy and origins of the Israeli state: “Israel has earned the privilege of being free and innocent of its past, the right to material prosperity and to what the commentary calls the vanity, blindness and egotism of nations; but the origins of its existence demand that it conduct itself otherwise” (5).
Marker uses highly stylised material to magnify the seemingly insignificant details and examine the fragile bonds between memory, history and identity. He explores the miracles and paradoxes of Israel’s existence using black-and-white and colour film stock and the combination of poetic yet detached voiceover narration and diegetic sound. He looks for the signs of Israel’s existence in the everyday lives of locals; the dynamic meetings of kibbutznicks, the bemused looks of children in Mea Sharim quarter, the dancing of couples at Haifa Cultural Centre, the prattle and cacophony of the marketplace, the camels lethargically crossing the road, the owls inhabiting the “Biblical Zoo” in Jerusalem. And, as the film “tunnels into the complex strata of Israel’s history, invoking the need for an x-ray vision that can penetrate and decipher the physical and historical landscape” (6), Marker gradually intertwines the seemingly disconnected but deeply engaging voices resonating through the dynamic and reserved, joyful yet deeply traumatised Israeli society.
Most film scholars and reviewers agree that in Marker’s elegiac, reflexive works, subtext is everything. The filmmaker positions the viewer amidst the transient and disorienting world of the Middle East, and pointedly reminds the audience that his documentary subjects are constantly surrounded by fragments of history. He suggests that the citizens of the young state of Israel, scarred by their horrific past and hopeful about the future, are particularly sensitive to injustice. The signs of the past are revealed at every step of Marker’s journey; from kibbutz meetings, that ultimate demonstration of participative democracy (“How long will their purity last?”), to careless enjoyment of Israeli teenagers and beachgoers, to the Bedouin gathered in small circles, resting on their journey through the desert. As Bruce Kawin suggests, “any instant is capable of being remembered, or of being presented as memory” (7).
The commentary of the past is contrasted to anticipations of the ambiguous future. Marker follows an Arab boy who happily skates on his trolley down the slopes of Mount Carmel. His ride is accompanied by a humorous voiceover commentary about competing in yet another, previously unknown, Olympic discipline, and sounds of crowds cheering. However, the teenager’s exuberant ride evokes a nostalgic, almost elegiac response with the contemporary viewer painfully aware of the gulf between the two communities and their conflicts over the past half a century.
Marker structures his voiceover narration using an ostensibly traditional approach, however, he is not prescriptive, authoritarian or patronising towards the viewer. The filmmaker’s continual interest in new technologies and his impatience with traditional artistic forms have always been counterbalanced by his connection to the world of literature. Lupton evokes Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le caméra-stylo”, examining the creative interchange between literary and cinematic forms, and draws parallels with Marker’s absorbing, early article “Corneille au cinéma”, in which he heralded his interest in filmmaking at the onset of the 1950s. In it, Marker looks at the screen adaptation of Corneille’s play Horace (1640) by a group of French schoolgirls, and reflects on the camera as a widely accessible storytelling tool of the future, and finding that filmmaking has a comparable stature to the literature of the past, and allows for a plethora of expressive possibilities (8). It is not surprising that the engaging, elegiac voiceover commentary with strong poetic overtones has become one of Marker’s poetic trademarks. Rafferty points out that Marker’s voice is both profoundly personal and utterly detached, providing a succinct, circular, solemn, literary tone evoking Borgesian prose and methaphysics (9). In the same vein in which he pointedly uses his visual composition and editing as storytelling tools, Marker accentuates every word, syntagm and pause in his short sentences. The filmmaker suggests that the ostensibly “authentic” representations of “reality” in his narratives are highly stylised, reflexive sequences that persistently remind the spectator of the processes of filmmaking.
Throughout the film, Marker evokes the poignant memories of the Holocaust and simultaneously turns his lens in the other direction; towards curiously deserted streets and building sites during Shabat, men and women in prayer, bonfires on the beach, suggesting that one struggle ended in martyrdom and that other struggles of everyday life in a new country have merely begun. Description of a Struggle ends with a shot of a girl of approximately the same age as the state of Israel, “the girl that will never be Anne Frank”, drawing in an art class. The girl’s presence, and her precise movements, evoke the serenity of a child who could have absorbed the traumatic experiences of her family and people, a sense of responsibility that stems from one’s awareness of the past. Yet, they also suggest a sense of cautious optimism and yearning to create one’s own journey, as unique and exceptional as any moment in time.
In Sans soleil/Sunless (1983), Marker asks: “How do people remember things if they don’t film, don’t tape?” If anything, it could be argued that the filmmaker’s oeuvre marks a consistent effort to answer this question. Pointing his lens in the direction of people and events encroached by the humus of history, Marker has left a lasting legacy in the archive of cinematic memories.
- Chris Marker, The Forthright Spirit (London, 1951), p.184 (English translation of Le coeur net, Paris, 1949). Quoted in Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, Reaktion Books, London, 2005, p. 12.
- Terrence Rafferty, “Marker Changes Trains”, Sight and Sound vol. 53, no. 4, Autumn 1984, p. 289.
- In Franz Kafka’s story, the narrator performs acts of magic, transforming the landscape by using the power of thought.
- Lupton, p. 67.
- Lupton, p. 68.
- Lupton, p. 71.
- Bruce Kawin, “Time and Stasis in La jetée”, Film Quarterly vol. 36, no. 1, Fall 1982, p. 15.
- Lupton, p. 15.
- Rafferty, p. 286.