Matches for: “sans soleil” …

Stranger Than Fiction Screens Sans Soleil

As a friend of a friend used to say of the voices in his head: “THIS JUST IN!”

Stranger Than Fiction (STF)Stranger than Fiction, an exclusive documentary film series followed by live discussions with filmmakers, has just announced its 2014 Spring / Summer lineup. The series begins tonight (May 6) at 8pm, with a screening of Chris Marker’s 1983 classic SANS SOLEIL, followed by a discussion with filmmaker Jem Cohen (MUSEUM HOURS), who cites Marker as a key influence in his own work. Stranger than Fiction takes places every Tuesday night at the IFC Center in Manhattan.

I’m reaching out as you are the best person and place to share Marker screenings. I would appreciate you sharing our screening with your followers who may be in NYC.

May 6: SANS SOLEIL (1983) by Chris Marker
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum describes Marker’s 1983 masterpiece as “a film about subjectivity, death, photography, social custom, and consciousness itself.”
Tickets here:
Jasmin Chang

Letter to Theresa by Chris Marker – Behind the Veils of Sans Soleil

August 19 – Year: Unknown
Original: Fax

Dear Theresa (and all the gang),

Don’t apologize: perhaps one thousand people wished to ask me these questions, but I never gave them a chance to ask. In fact, the only opportunity where I was in a position to talk about Sans Soleil (I note that, in spite of me putting in the film itself the three titles of the Mussorgsky songs cycle, in Russian Без Солнца, in English SUNLESS and in French, people in US always preferred to use the latest [Sans Soleil] – so in turn one question from me: how come? does it sound that exotic? I was at the San Francisco Festival, after the screening, but I managed to brush aside too direct questions. Nothing nasty, just the deliberate intention to leave the film in a mist, in order that viewers let “their imaginary forces work” as the Chorus says in Henry V. Now perhaps it’s about time to bring some clues, and anyway all this will remain between us, won’t it?

The. only question I confess being unable to cope with is your last: “Why?” If I knew (if we knew) why things are done, this world would look quite different. I’ll just try to deal with the “How?” And for that, the best is perhaps to give you an account of events, starting with the film’s release. First, the text I distributed to the press and professionals :



An unknown woman reads and comments upon the letters she receives from a friend – a free-lance cameraman who travels around the world and is particularly attached to those “two extreme poles of survival”, Japan and Africa (represented here by two of its poorest and most forgotten countries, even though they played a historical role : Guinea Bissau and the Cape-Verde Islands). The cameraman wonders (as cameramen do, at least those you see in movies) about the meaning of this representation of the world of which he is the instrument, and about the role of the memory he helps create; A Japanese pal of his, who clearly has some bats in the belfry (japanese bats, in the form of ‘electrons) gives his answer by attacking the images of memory, by breaking them up on the synthesizer. A filmmaker grabs hold of this situation and makes a film of it, but rather than present the characters and show their relationships, real or supposed, he prefers to put forward the elements of the dossier in the fashion of a musical composition, with recurrent themes, counterpoints and mirror-like fugues: the letters, the comments, the images gathered, the images created, together with some images borrowed, In this way, out of these juxtaposed memories is born a fictional memory, and in the same way as Lucy puts up a sign to indicate that “the Doctor is in”, we’d like to preface this film with a placard: “Fiction is out” – somewhere.

Then followed detailed biographies of the protagonists -Sandor Krasna, cameraman, born in Kolozsvar, Hungary, in 1932, doing his first short film (Erdélyi Táncok) at the Budapest Film School, fleeing Hungary in 1956 for Vienna first, then Paris and USA, and finally settling in Japan. Michel Krasna, his younger brother (Budapest, 1946), studying music at the Kodaly schools, joining Sandor in California but finally choosing Paris to compose film music – Hayao Yamaneko, the video-artist (born Nagoya, 1948), art activist during the Sixties, learning film and electronics at the Nihon Taigaku in Tokyo, artist in residence in Berkeley after his short Boku no shi wo kimeta noha dareka? -and Chris Marker, amateur filmmaker. “It was in Berkeley – at PFA, to be precise – that Krasna, Yamaneko and Marker met” (said the blurb) “and from then on the Sans Soleil project originated.”

So the scene was set to create. confusion, and reactions were interestingly chaotic. I knew some people wouldn’t pay attention : they see a movie, they don’t care about who did what. Others, more familiar with my works, would identify my style in the letters and assume I had done the principal photography (you girls shouldn’t ask if I shot “all of the footage” : the final credits are quite clear for attributing at least what I didn’t shoot…). But I was aiming at the center of the target : people unfamiliar enough not to take for granted that I was the unique author, and yet clever and curious enough to raise questions about letters and shooting. You proved you belong to that category. So I guess it’s only fair to give you a honest answer : yes, all four “characters”, even the fourth, amount to be just one, namely your humble servant. But you shouldn’t think all that was just a game, or a series of private jokes. I had good reasons – or so I thought – to devise that crooked set-up. Here they are :

For Michel Krasna “the musician”, a simple case of good manners. I hate seeing one name more than once on the credits (you know “a picture by Jonathan, after an idea by Jonathan Rumblefish, scenario and dialog by Jonathan Rumblefish, edited by Jonathan Rumblefish, etc”, I see it as extremely pedestrian. So even if I frequently do my own music, I would have felt preposterous to sign it along my director’s credits. So I invented Michel, and I established a parental link with Sandor in order to give more flesh to the “parallel” story.

Hayao Yamaneko was more meaningful. I was very conscious of the limitations that plagued the first image synthesizers, and inserting these images in the editing, like that, could create some misunderstanding, as if I boasted “this is modernity” when those were the first stumbling steps on the long road that would lead to the computerized and virtual world. I just wanted to stress the point that such images were possible, and would change our perception of the visual – in which I wasn’t totally wrong. So I thought of a fictional character, Hayao Yamaneko, technaholic and treated with some irony, to deliver the message. without solemnity. Naturally again those who knew something about Japan and myself, as “yamaneko” means “wildcat”, could have suspected something, er… fishy, but most people didn’t. I even had some small gratifications about both my characters, when folks congratulated me for using Michel Krasna’s music – someone they had spotted since long – and some others remembering clearly having seen Hayao’s works in Japan. Such anecdotes make my week.

As for Sandor Krasna, I suppose you caught the idea, which was to use some degree of fiction to add a layer of poetry to the “factuality” of the so-called documentary. From the start I had always refused the omniscient, anonymous “voice” of the classical travelogue, and I had bluntly used the first-person. For that I was sometimes reproached, accused of pretension. I sincerely think that’s wrong. If you allow me to quote myself, this is how I put it (in Level Five’s pressbook) in an interview with Dolores Walfisch for the Berkeley Lantern (the what ? Come on, now I guess you’re familiar with my fantasies) “I use what I have got. Contrarily to what people say, the use of the first person in films tends to be a sign of humility: all I have to offer is myself”. Also I loved the form of the “letter”, for the freedom and flexibility it allows. Letter from Siberia was a real letter, addressed to a real person. But I didn’t wish to lock myself in such a system, and I came to consider that a fictional character could bring a more interesting dimension. Then the idea of having another voice, that of the addressee, establishing a new distance. The audience would be free to imagine whatever they wanted between those two, in a more creative way than if I had told their story myself. And funnily the real starter was grammatical, when I realized that I would rather use the past tense instead of the present. “He writes me… He writes me…” didn’t give me the rhythm I longed for. When I phrased for the first time “He wrote me…” the last obstacle fell, and the text came fluently, leaving me the luxury to turn back to the present tense at the very last paragraph of the film, thus establishing a new frontier in time, and the possibility for the viewer (or rather then for the listener) to identify differently with the Voice, itself from then on provided with a future : “Will there be a last letter?” (With Level Five, I went one. step further, by establishing the physical presence of one of the correspondents, the woman, but this time she’s the one who “writes” – and myself as the exterior witness. I’m not sure that I was fully understood.)

I don’t know if this answers really your questions, but at least you have an idea of the process. On a more matter-of-fact level, I could tell you that the film intended to be, and is nothing more than a home movie. I really think that my main talent has been to find people to pay for my home movies. Were I born rich, I guess I would have made more or less the same films, at least the traveling kind, but nobody would have heard of them except my friends and visitors. Camera was a little 16mm Beaulieu with 100 feet reels, silent (which means noisy) – the sound was made separately on one of the first small cassette recorders (not yet the Walkman), there isn’t one synch take in Sans Soleil. I was naturally alone from beginning to end, but with some exceptions that’s my usual way to work. I couldn’t find the words to “explain” to an editor, for instance, operations that come instinctively to my mind when I’m at the editing table. The 16mm editing was transferred on 35mil for theater release. The shooting extended from 1978 to 1981, following haphazardly my alternate trips to Japan and Bissau (where I helped to build a cinema/video training center whose results were utterly destroyed this year by the civil war there, but that’s another story…) and I couldn’t tell at what moment these bits and pieces started to shape up into a real movie, that also belongs to the mysteries of existence.

Oh, and did the film change me? Well, perhaps you remember the moment when I mention the Year of the Dog. I was just sixty then, which means that the different combinations between the twelve animals of the year and the four elements have been exhausted, and you’re in for a brand new life. I didn’t realize that when I began, but at that moment I understood that the whole film was a kind of exorcism for sixty years on this dubious planet, and a way to take leave of them. You could call that a change.

Chris Marker c/o KMS 5 rue Courat 75020 PARlS Fax (331) 4009 9525 [email address redacted – ed]

Thanks to Emiko Omori for sending this wonderful document. Though it pulls back the curtain on some of the mysteries of Sans Soleil, I felt it ultimately too compelling and could not refrain from reproducing it here, for which I take the blame. – blind librarian

Purchase Sans Soleil & La Jetée DVD in the Criterion Collection via Amazon

Criterion Releases La Jetée & Sans Soleil on Blu-Ray

Criterion Collection La Jetee + Sans SoleilAs you probably know by now, swimming as we are in era of no news is new news, Chris Marker’s incomparable masterworks La Jetée and Sans Soleil have been released again, this time on Blu-Ray by Criterion. Originally paired on DVD in a French edition by Arte Video in 2003, the films came to Criterion DVD in 2007.

I believe some of the extras on the Blu-Ray edition, released last week on February 7, 2012, are new, others appearing already on the earlier release (and, indeed, some already on the Arte DVD). Junkopia‘s inclusion is, I believe, new. I’m going to have to spend some money to find out for sure. A partial list of extras is presented by Criterion for the GUILLAUME-APPROVED EDITION:

  • Restored high-definition digital transfers, approved by director Chris Marker, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
  • Two interviews with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin
  • Chris on Chris, a video piece on Marker by filmmaker and critic Chris Darke
  • Two excerpts from the French television series Court-circuit (le magazine): a look at David Bowie’s music video for the song “Jump They Say,” inspired by La Jetée, and an analysis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and its influence on Marker
  • Junkopia, a six-minute film by Marker, Frank Simone, and John Chapman about the Emeryville Mudflats
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by Marker scholar Catherine Lupton, an interview with Marker, notes on the films and filmmaking by Marker, and more

For a (technical) review of the Blu-Ray with some nice screen captures, see: This reviewer, Chris Galloway, is most impressed by the high-definition transfer of La Jetée: “contrast is perfect with rich blacks and distinct gray levels…” He is, however, left wanting to know more about Marker himself. Clearly, that’s going to take more work than viewing the extras. As Montaigne said, “All the world knows me in my book, and my book in me.”  The work is the life-mirror. Convex or concave, this mirror is the gateway to the man, biographies be damned.

Speaking of biography, Marker fans will perhaps know of the far-ranging new website on Marker located at (sub-titled “On a Quest from Switzerland”). It’s quite an experience—full of arcane research, humour and crazy little graphics, hard on the eye and surely subject for a different post—but en bref, directly on the home page we’re presented with a wild ride of phantasmagorical biography, that goes from Mongolia to Chinese pirates to the Himalaya, then Argentina (“pour ses études, en échange Nostradamus des écoles primaires”), before arriving in Paris. If you read French, definitely take this new site for a weekend Harley (or Ducati) ride through the Alps. Don’t miss the great page on censorship and the fascinating one on music in Marker’s films.

But back to the Blu-Ray. You can get a look at the packaging on a different page of the Criterion Forum. Guillaume holds a sign above the Blu-Ray mark on the sticker, partially obscuring a revered Japanese cat (the nerve).

The Criterion Collection is known to cinéphiles throughout the world. I was curious how they summarized their work, and found this passage on their site,

Each film is presented uncut, in its original aspect ratio, as its maker intended it to be seen. Every time we start work on a film, we track down the best available film elements in the world, use state-of-the-art telecine equipment and a select few colorists capable of meeting our rigorous standards, then take time during the film-to-video digital transfer to create the most pristine possible image and sound. Whenever possible, we work with directors and cinematographers to ensure that the look of our releases does justice to their intentions. Our supplements enable viewers to appreciate Criterion films in context, through audio commentaries by filmmakers and scholars, restored director’s cuts, deleted scenes, documentaries, shooting scripts, early shorts, and storyboards.

So, what exactly is Blu-Ray? Guillaume may know more than we do, but maybe it’s worth defining a term once in a while. So off to Wikipedia:

Blu-ray Disc (official abbreviation BD) is an optical disc storage medium designed to supersede the DVD format. The plastic disc is 120 mm in diameter and 1.2 mm thick, the same size as DVDs and CDs. Blu-ray Discs contain 25 GB per layer, with dual layer discs (50 GB) being the norm for feature-length video discs. Triple layer discs (100 GB) and quadruple layers (128 GB) are available for BD-XL re-writer drives.

The name Blu-ray Disc refers to the blue laser used to read the disc, which allows information to be stored at a greater density than is possible with the longer-wavelength red laser used for DVDs.

So now you know nothing new about the films themselves, but suffice to say they will look as good as it gets outside of real screenings (real reels, real projectors, real audience, fake popcorn). Enjoy, and let us know what you think. O, and one more thing: have you noticed how Chat écoutant la musique has begun to go viral? 44,272 views (and counting) on YouTube in this upload. If you search twitter for Chris Marker, you’ll see what I mean. Even Criterion tweeted about it recently. Maybe this short, exquisite rêverie is on its way to becoming the 3rd most famous film by the most famous of unknown filmmakers.

Sans Soleil Geo-temporal Map

Sans Soleil Geo-temporal Map

This enigmatic diagram was found at the Pacific Film Archive in 1990. It seems to provide a kind of map for the locations and temporal flow of Sans Soleil. We welcome your interpretations. Click the image for a larger view.

It was a Strange Thing by Chris Marker

It was a strange thing. A small box of metal with irregularly rounded corners, with a rectangular opening in the middle and in front of it a tiny lens, the size of a euro. We had to slip a piece of film – real film, with perforations – that was pressed by a rubber wheel, and by turning a button connected to the roulette, the film was unrolled one by one. Actually, each image represented a different scene, so that it seemed more like a slideshow than home theater, but these scenes were beautifully reproduced shots of famous films, Chaplin, Ben Hur, The Napoleon of Abel Gance … If you were rich you could put the little box into a kind of magic lantern and project onto the wall (or onto a screen, if you were very rich). I had to be satisfied with the minimal version: press the eye against the lens, and look. This now-forgotten gizmo was called a Pathéorama. It could be read in gold letters on a black background with the legendary rooster Pathé singing before a rising sun.


The egotistic joy of being able to look at images that belonged to the inaccessible realm of cinema just for myself quickly produced a dialectical by-product. While I could not even imagine having anything in common with the art of filming (whose basic principles were naturally far beyond my comprehension), I grasped something of the film itself, a piece of celluloid not so different from the negatives that came back from the lab. Something I could feel and touch, something of the real world. And why then, (dialectically insinuated my own Jiminy Cricket), could I in turn do something similar? It was enough to have translucent material and the right dimensions. (The perforation was there to be pretty, the roulette ignored it). So, with scissors, glue and crystal paper, I made a faithful copy of the actual Pathéorama reel. After that, frame by frame, I began to draw a series of poses of my cat (who else?), inserting a few comment boxes. In one fell swoop, the cat began to belong to the same universe as the characters of Ben Hur or Napoleon. I was on the other side of the mirror.

Out of my schoolmates, Jonathan was the most prestigious. He had the gift of mechanics and inventiveness, he made models of theaters with moving curtains, flashing lights, and a miniature orchestra that emerged from a pit while a wind-up Gramophone played a triumphant march. It was therefore natural that he should be the first to see my masterpiece. I was quite proud of the result, and by unwinding the adventures of the cat Riri I announced “my movie” (my Movie). Jonathan quickly brought me back to sobriety. “But, silly, movies are moving images,” he said. “You can’t make a movie with still pictures.”

Thirty years passed. Then I made La Jetée.

– Chris Marker

Post-script: Text from the French edition booklet of La Jetée – Sans Soleil DVD, 2003. Translation © Sophie Kovel, 2017.

Many thanks Sofie! The original French piece can be found here: C’était un drôle d’objet.

Colin MacCabe Visits the Atelier

Chris Marker studio door

Visiting rue Courat
Colin MacCabe

It was early 2002 and people still used answering machines rather than mobile phones. The recording clicked in and an extraordinary voice that sounded as if it had been mechanically produced asked the caller to leave a message “if you have something interesting or amusing to say”. I was already nervous that I was cold calling Chris Marker, legendary recluse and indeed general artistic legend. My anxiety intensified and I started to stutter out my message. “I am in Paris and I have a VHS copy of a film called The Magic Face and…” The receiver was picked up (I learned later that Chris screened all his calls) and a very human voice said, “You are the Messiah”. I have never been more startled by any single sentence addressed to me.

If I was the Messiah then John the Baptist was Tom Luddy. It was a few days earlier that I had seen Tom in Berkeley and asked him if he could get me an introduction to Marker. “I have the perfect calling card”, he said. “Chris has been looking for a copy of a film called The Magic Face for 50 years and I have just found a poor VHS copy. Here – deliver it.” And deliver it I now did. Marker said that he would be in the Latin Quarter, where I was living, the next Tuesday but his enthusiasm for the film was so overpowering that I insisted that I would bring it immediately to him. His instructions were both precise and disorienting. I had to go to a Metro station I had never heard of, cross under a disused railway I had never seen, walk down a narrow street, the rue Courat, find a huge house with an array of bells and names. Then I was to choose the bell without any name and ring three times.

The Metro was Maraichers and over the next decade I was to come to know it and that part of the 20th arrondissement well. No tourist has ever set foot there and it corresponds to none of the conventional pictures of Paris but with its completely mixed and relatively poor population it is as good an image of contemporary France profonde as you can find. But that first day it was terra incognita. As I stood at the door of the house I wondered if I had wandered into a parallel universe.

Of course I had and in time I would feel at home there. But, for now, I felt extremely uncomfortable and slightly terrified as I waited for the door to open. Everybody knew Marker’s name (although Marker wasn’t his real name) but unlike almost any other twentieth century name there was no accompanying image. I had no idea what to expect. Suddenly, bounding down the steps came what at very first impression was a huge and agile monkey. Indeed I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been a long and bushy tail to go with the completely bald head. Certainly he bounded back up the stairs with long agile leaps leaving me, thirty years his junior, toiling in his wake.

And then we were in his studio …
Colin MacCabe,

Colin MacCabe is a British academic, writer and film producer. He has published books on a variety of subjects, including Jean Luc Godard, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, and has produced many films, among them Young Soul Rebels, Seasons in Quincy, and Caravaggio. He is currently distinguished professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh.

For a rare interview of Marker by MacCabe, see 80:81 Chris Marker Speaks with Colin MacCabe.

For pre-orders and additional information on the book and its three authors, navigate to OR Books | Studio: Remembering Chris Marker.

For more information on the forthcoming book Studio by OR Books, of which the MacCabe remembrance is an excerpt, see our initial post Studio: A Remembrance of Chris Marker – Bartos, McCabe, Lerner.

10:04 | 4001

FYI, Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, which I had the pleasure of reading this year, is a fantastic novel. Lerner contributes the Introduction to Studio. Some things are definitely worth waiting for, down to the minute. It strikes me now that 10:04 reversed is 4001, the year of perfect memory in Sans Soleil:

He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who—through some peculiarity of his nature—instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.


As we await the year four thousand and one and its total recall, that’s what the oracles we take out of their long hexagonal boxes at new year may offer us: a little more power over that memory that runs from camp to camp—like Joan of Arc. That a short wave announcement from Hong Kong radio picked up on a Cape Verde island projects to Tokyo, and that the memory of a precise color in the street bounces back on another country, another distance, another music, endlessly.

Cuba Si! by Chris Marker (1961)

Cuba Si!, Chris Marker’s 1961 film about the late Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, was produced by Pierre Braunberger and banned in France. It contains much original footage of Castro speaking, and is one of a handful of films not available, to my knowledge, on DVD. It is rarely shown and was not considered by Marker himself as part of his oeuvre that he wished to have projected. He talked about his early films as ‘sketches’ of what was to come, of their being preludes to his later work (post 1962 I believe was his internal dividing line, expressed publicly from time to time). Nonetheless, it is unmistakably a Marker film, bearing his signature, his political engagement, his humour and his curiosity.

And indeed, we witness in the evolution of his work an interesting tendency to revisit topics in a more full-bodied manner, transitioning often from court-métrage to long-métrage.* In this line of thinking, Le Mystère Koumiko (1965) forms a prelude to the more wide-ranging Sans Soleil in its more thorough treatment of Japanese culture. His first film on Alexandr Medvedkin, The Train Rolls On (1972), become the masterpiece letter-film The Last Bolshevik two decades later (1992). Cuba Si! found itself incorporated in part in Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977), itself expanded and revised for the English version Grin Without a Cat in 1988.

La Jetée (1963) also found itself inhabiting – in nuanced references – the expanded space of Sans Soleil, though this case is different, for this film begins the period that Marker embraced and encouraged to be shown, inaugurating what he apparently viewed as his mature period and willing the earlier works to the ‘dustbin of history’ – though there was by then already a sizable and wonderful oeuvre, especially when one considers his collaborative work with Resnais. The same year brought Le Joli mai, Marker’s exploration of Paris and the Parisian Zeitgeist using the new technique of ‘direct cinema’ in the wake of the French war in Algeria (1954 to 1962), and Marker oversaw its remastering and re-release before the end of his life.

With Cuba Si!, La Jetée and Le Joli mai, in effect we have portraits of the aftermaths of three wars, with three wildly different approaches – documentary, science fiction and direct cinema. The subject is omnipresent in Marker’s work, returning forcefully again in Level Five‘s treatment of Okinawa and the brutal end of WWII in the Pacific.

Of course, Marker fans would wish to salvage all of Marker’s films, and have in large part been granted that wish with the ongoing releases on DVD in French and English – though English-speaking fans and followers still await the big-yet-incomplete step towards an Oeuvres complètes of the magnificent Planète Chris Marker collection, still available only in French. Instead, we have the rich Chris Marker Collection, published by Soda Pictures (following the impetus of the Whitechapel exhibition), and many individual releases.

For a inventive thematic look at Marker’s work circa 1963 (but before La Jetée and Joli Mai), take a look at the essay Markeriana by Roger Tailleur, newly added to the site’s core content.

In any case, it seemed like the right moment for this site to track down this YouTube version of Cuba Si!, despite the poor quality and the ads, alas, as Fidel Castro has now passed, and with him the era whose inception this film documents, when Marker was 40 and the Sixties were just beginning their wild inscriptions into history and memory.

Marker, in the “Sixties” essay mentioned above, recollecting 1967, riffs on Cuba and Castro in what could stand as an interesting postscript to Cuba Si!:

Chance having made me born a bit restless and gifted with the insatiable curiosity of the Elephant’s Child, when I browse mentally my diary of 1967 I think on the contrary that one had to be pretty dumb not to catch a glimpse of what was already cooking. Springtime: a trip to Cuba, at its heretic best (to the extent that the sheer name of Cuba never appeared any more in L’Humanité, the French communist newspaper), Fidel thundering against the dogmatism of the Marxist-Leninist manuals, severing ties with all the communist parties in South America, explaining to us that the time had come for ‘non-Party people, new people, who break with that tepid, weakly, pseudo-revolutionary model of some who boast to be revolutionaries …’, wrong-footing his Russian allies in such a way that one year later, on the verge of delivering the famous speech in which he would align with the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, everybody in Havana was certain that he was to announce the split with the USSR (the icy shower would be but icier, but so goes History).

En France, selon les textes en vigueur du Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, la durée d’un long métrage est supérieure à une heure, plus exactement à 58 minutes et 29 secondes, c’est-à-dire l’équivalent d’une bobine de film de 35 mm standard de 1 600 mètres.

Studio: A Remembrance of Chris Marker – Bartos, McCabe, Lerner

Ben Lerner, Chris Marker studio

Marker Studio, 2007 © Adam Bartos

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.Cicero, De oratore [on Simionides discovery of the art of memory], quoted Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, 2

We have seen some photos on the net of late taken at Chris Marker’s atelier, showing the wealth of memorabilia, books, and technologies of a life of creation & travel that made up the precious space of his atelier, most of which we assume is now in the hands of the Cinémathèque française. It turns out that the photos are by Adam Bartos, and the Paris Review article where they were first glimpsed is just a hint of what is to come – a full book of his photos of Marker’s studio: Studio: A Remembrance of Chris Marker. The book will be published in 2017, so we have to be patient, but it promises innovative layouts including gatefold images, a text by Colin McCabe and an introduction by Lerner. Here’s the information I’ve been able to gather to date:

OR Book Going Rouge

Studio: A Remembrance of Chris Marker

ISBN 9781682190807

OR Books
Photographs by Adam Bartos. Text by Colin McCabe. Introduction by Ben Lerner.
Hbk, 6.5 x 9.5 in. / 96 pgs / 21 color.
Pub Date: 5/23/2017 | Awaiting stock
U.S. $40.00 CDN $52.50

Chris Marker (1921–2012) was a celebrated French documentary film director, writer and photographer, best known for his films La Jetée, A Grin Without a Cat and Sans Soleil. He was described by fellow filmmaker Alain Resnais as “the prototype of the 21st-century man.” In this highly original book, Adam Bartos’ exquisite photographs of Marker’s studio, a workspace both extraordinarily cluttered and highly organized, appear alongside a moving reminiscence of his friend by the film theorist, Godard biographer and practitioner Colin MacCabe. The novelist and poet Ben Lerner provides a fulsome introduction to the work of Marker, Bartos and MacCabe. The physical structure of the book, incorporating an array of gatefold images, echoes Marker’s own commitment to radical, innovative form. The result is a compelling homage to one of the most important and original talents in modern cinema.

Chris Marker’s Studio – Adam Bartos and Ben Lerner

Chris Marker, whose name was not “Chris Marker,” was a play of masks and avatars, an artist who leapt, like one of his beloved cats, from medium to medium. If, as Walter Benjamin said, a great work either dissolves a genre or invents one, if each great work is a special case, Marker produced a series of special cases. He invented the genre of the essay film; he composed what is widely considered the greatest short film ever made, La Jetée, in 1962; in the late nineties, he issued one of the first major artworks of the digital age, the CD-ROM Immemory. Even Marker’s relation to his own celebrity was an evasive masterpiece: until his death in 2012, at ninety-one, he was everywhere and nowhere, refusing both the haughty fantasy of nonparticipation and the seductions of spectacle. How do you ­memorialize an artist who refused to remain identical to himself? How do you remember one of the great philosopher-artists of memory?

Adam Bartos’s photographs of Marker’s Paris studio offer a powerful answer; they are beautiful portraits from which the subject has gone missing.

Ben Lerner, Chris Marker studio

Marker Studio, 2007 © Adam Bartos

Ben Lerner, Chris Marker studio

Marker Studio, 2007 © Adam Bartos

Marker’s studio is a kind of (light-flooded) darkroom located off a Parisian boulevard and is as full of formerly futuristic keepsakes as a cosmonaut’s yard sale—that is to say, Bartos has been preparing, without knowing it, to shoot Marker’s studio for decades. The studio is both remarkably cluttered and remarkably clean. There is no trash (although there is plenty of kitsch), no dust; the thousands of books, VHS tapes, and CDs, the multiple computers, monitors, keyboards, and other production technologies all seem in their place. A sense of highly personal order prevails; Marker, I feel, would have just the right texts and images and totems at hand, but anyone else would be at a loss regarding how to navigate his systems. And while Marker isn’t at home, from every corner something gazes at us: his cats and owls, Kim Novak in a signed photograph (Vertigo was Marker’s favorite film), the paused image of an actress on a monitor (in these images, Marker will forever almost be right back), masks of various sorts, stuffed animals, et cetera. Marker’s mind seems spatialized here, as though we were looking into his memory palace, an elaborate, idiosyncratic mnemonic become a memorial. But a joyous memorial: joyous first, because Marker’s signature mix of seriousness and playfulness is palpable—we see a thousand grins and winks—and second, because Marker, instead of becoming the fixed ­object of elegy, has again given us the slip, allowing us an intimate glimpse, but of privacy.
Ben Lerner, Paris Review, No. 218 (Fall 2016).

For those interested in the idea of the memory palace, take a look at Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. The introduction to Marker’s Immemory is also invaluable, as he articulated there his concepts of mnemonics as an architecture of memory, linking it to a long European tradition most famously explored in Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory. Another great resource on medieval practices of the art of memory can be found in Mary Carruthers’ books: Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 & Carruthers, Mary. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Other sources can be found on our page DocuMemory: A Bibliography.

Chris Marker studio door with cat drawing

Marker Studio Front Door, 2008 © Adam Bartos

Art of Memory – From Chris Marker, Immemory

“L’Art de la Mémoire’ est […] une très ancienne discipline, tombée (c’est un comble) dans l’oubli à mesure que le divorce entre physiologie et psychologie se consommait. Certains auteurs anciens avaient des méandres de l’esprit une vision plus fonctioinnelle, et c’est Filippo Gesualdo, dans sa Plutosofia (1592) qui propose une image de la mémoire en termes d’«arborescence» parfaitement logicielle, si j’ose cet adjectif.”

[‘The art of memory’ is a very ancient discipline, fallen (that takes the cake!) into oblivion as the divorce between physiology and psychology came to pass. Certain antique authors had a more functional vision of the twists and turns of the mind, and it is Filippo Gesualdo, in his Plutosofia (1592) who proposes an image of memory in terms of ‘branching’ that is perfectly “softwary”, [softwarian?] if I dare use this adjective.]

On Level Five by Whiteny Mallet


On Level Five

nplusone magazine
21 august 2014

THE FIRST IRAQ WAR earned the nickname “the video game war.” During the conflict, night-vision green footage of desert bombing campaigns was broadcast on the evening news: when the war was made visible, it was made visible digitally. But even those images looked worlds away from the first-person shooter games little boys from Berkeley to Baghdad were playing on their X-Box consoles by the time the second Iraq War rolled around. Instead, that grainy aerial footage from the first Gulf War was closer to what a drone operator sees from his desk in New Mexico: the figures indistinct, the details blurred. As real life war becomes more like video games and video games look more like real life, screens have become mediators of history and our collective efforts to remember it. There are increasingly better graphics, but no less alienation. It is worth noting that a drone operator has a higher risk of PTSD than his counterparts who fly planes.

Around the time video games were to coming to define the memory of Operation Desert Storm, Chris Marker made a movie about a video game that depicted a forgotten battle of a well-remembered war. The heroine in Marker’s 1997 film Level Five is working on a Macintosh, writing a game to reconstruct the Battle of Okinawa, at the tail end of World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was dizzying in its loss of human life, but in the West today, hardly anyone knows it happened. In Level Five, Marker’s subject is as much the conflict as our technologies of remembering it. The focus might be predictable from the experimental filmmaker, who is best-known for his meditations on memory in La Jetée and Sans Soleil—though Level Five is structured more like the latter, an essay film that challenges easy categorization as either fiction or non-fiction. Nearly two decades after the film was made and two years after Marker’s death, Level Five is having its first theatrical release at a moment when wars are not just being remembered in digital arenas, but are increasingly being fought in them too.

In Level Five’s fictional frame, Laura, played by Catherine Belkhodja, is making a video game to tell the true story of the U.S. Army’s invasion into the Japanese island and of the subsequent mass suicide that claimed a huge portion of civilian life. Together with the casualties of war, 150,000 men, women, and children died in the battle, roughly a third of the island’s entire population. Before killing themselves, many of them killed loved ones who were too weak to take their own lives. The tragedy meant husbands killed wives. Parents killed children. Sons killed mothers. Marker’s film includes docu-style interviews and vérité footage, sandwiched within the game-writer protagonist Laura’s monologues. The juxtaposition suggests that shared histories are impossible to parse from subjective, lived experience. Laura has chatroom run-ins; survivors describe the violence they witnessed in unforgettable and specific detail.

Shigeaki Kinjo, an aging survivor of the Battle of Okinawa, gives a first-hand account of the tragedy, explaining how the Japanese army persuaded civilians it was better to die than to be taken prisoner by the Americans: “We were told if US troops captured us, they’d cut off our noses and ears, cut off our fingers. They would drive tanks over our bodies, and rape our women.” The army even distributed grenades to assist civilians in their self-annihilation, but there weren’t enough to go around. Kinjo watched a village elder snap off a tree-branch and “beat the life out of his wife and children whom he loved.” Together with his brother, Kinjo followed the example and beat his mother, younger brother, and sister to death. “All of us thought this was the thing to do.” He was 17.

To have the memory of the mass suicide preserved in the national consciousness is complicated. Memorials, for one, are always imperfect. Marker’s intimate camcorder footage shows a local museum, the Himeyuri Peace Museum, on the island, where a diorama attempts to recreate the horrors of the caves where many hid and died. But the site of the memorial, a former girls college, is controversial. “Was too much made of girls from Okinawa elite when others were forgotten? As if there were privileged martyrs,” Marker asks in his narration. But beyond this competition for memory, there’s a complicated relationship between Okinawa and the rest of Japan. Okinawa was its own independent kingdom until Japan annexed it in the late 19th century. The disposability of Okinawans to the imperial government, and the degree to which their loss of life is or isn’t remembered in Japanese schoolbooks today, dredges up the island’s lesser-than status as a colonized territory. “The islanders weren’t true Japanese but were Japanese enough to die,” explains Marker. In 2008, there was even an effort to revise textbooks and excise that the mass suicide had been coerced by the Japanese military.

In part, the Japanese military had hoped that Okinawa might have been a sacrifice that prevented even more loss of life. “If the price was high enough, the US would shrink from invading Japan’s main island and peace could made,” says Marker, explaining their logic. But the casualties during the battle only gave the U.S. a humanitarian justification for using the Atom Bomb. President Truman claimed he was saving lives, preventing “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” In the film, Marker waxes poetic on the battle’s ghostly presence in our collective and individual narratives. “Without Okinawa’s resistance,” he hypothesizes, “Hiroshima would not have been, and the century would’ve been different.”

Marker questions the ethics of representation, and he is wary of memorializing bleeding into objectification. Level Five is horrifying without becoming cheap disaster porn; it is moving without becoming manipulative. Marker reminds us that as images are circulated, people can too easily be reduced to symbols. The little girl waving a white flag from the Battle of Okinawa became an emblem, like the marines raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. The film also stresses that images have a complicated relationship with the truth. That iconic photo of the marines raising the flag was a fake, re-staged after the original flag-planting soldiers perished in combat. Marker knows his fakes. There’s a video from the Vietnam War of a man burning alive, but part at the end where he gets up is typically cut out. “[The burning man] testifies against war, you cannot weaken his testimony for the sake of a few frames,” explains Marker, probing, “Truth? . . . The truth is, most didn’t get up. So what’s so special about this one? The ethics of imagery?”

Marker’s digressions weave in and out of this meditation on artistic ethics. More questions are asked than answered. Along the way, he suggests that the truth of an image is manipulated by viewership itself. He slows down video footage from the Marines’ invasion of Saipan, the year before the Battle of Okinawa, where thousands jumped from cliffs to avoid being taken prisoner. Slowed down, you can see one woman turn back and see the camera before she leaps to her death. “Do we know she would have jumped if at the last minute she hadn’t known she was watched?” asks Marker. “The woman in Saipan saw the lens and knew that foreign devils would show the world she hadn’t had the guts to jump. So she jumps.” Marker is caustic and quick to jump to conclusions, which would be irritating if they weren’t usually the right ones. Marker’s sentimentality, too, is partially redeemed by the director’s rigorous self-awareness. Marker knows that images lack. “The smell of battle is missing,” he notes, ceding Level Five’s own limitations as a memorializing project. “Until we get smellies, like talkies, war films don’t exist.”

Laura, a surrogate for Marker, feels a futility of her own as she grapples with the impossibility of properly representing the Battle of Okinawa in a video game. “Did you really believe a player would be capable to spend his nights watching history repeating itself, and convincing himself that his own history would also just have a single way to be played?” For all Marker’s talk of the ethics of images, there is little lip service given to the difference between gamifying history and presenting it as a linear slideshow. “Strategy games are made to win back lost battles, aren’t they?” Laura asks in a rare moment where we get some attention paid to the unique character of games and their ability to make multiple endings possible. Because the resolution of Laura’s video game is not necessarily regimented by history, it can operate less like memory than like dreams, creating an arena where what is done can be undone, what is lost can be retrieved, and players are liberated from the need to let go of what’s gone.

Video games, after all, do not just have viewers: they have players who are actively positioned within the story evolving on screen. But the real potential in this never seems to be fully explored. Laura never suggests the perspective from which her Okinawa game will be played. To win, will you have to beat your mother to death with a tree branch? Instead Marker concludes, “Laura saw the Game couldn’t change history. It would repeat it, in a loop, with an obstinacy that was as respectable as it was futile.” There is something to be said for Marker’s meandering, self-conscious exploration of the way that memory becomes it’s own art form. But the most interesting questions asked in Level Five about representation could just as easily be raised in a film about making a film.

Which is unfortunate, because if there is anything that has been necessitated by the nearly two decades since the release of Level Five, it’s a more imaginatively critical engagement with the way that video games shape our wars. Today, most commercial war video games are reductive and ethically problematic. In the popular WWII video games like Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor, the goal is just to slaughter any German-speaking person. The Gulf and Iraq War games are mostly the same, except with Arabs between the crosshairs. There are, however, select independent games that are doing something more. Unmanned for example, by Molleindustria, is self-referential in its meditation on games and the gamification of war. You play a drone operator who pilots an unmanned aircraft all day long, then you drive home from work, then you play video games with your autistic son because that’s the only way to connect with him. Games can be smart. They make meaning in different ways than linear films, but they have a lot of potential to make us think about war, especially as it becomes more and more mediated and alienating. In Level Five, Chris Marker says, “Storing the past in order not to revive it was so 20th century.” The same could be said of the film’s approach.

Coréennes by Chris Marker – English Text

Coréennes by Chris Marker (Seuil, 1959)


  1. The Six Days
  2. The Two Orphans
  3. The Seven Wonders
  4. The Five Senses
  5. The Three Sisters
  6. The Nine Muses
  7. The Four Corners



On September 25,1866 the escort vessel Déroulède appeared in Seoul harbor. Its name implied revenge. That March, the Koreans had massacred several French missionaries in a quite revolting manner (for the time), and it was normal that the French fleet should come to punish the outrage to its countrymen. Only the Scriptures might have found objection.

Aboard the corvette Primauguet, also part of the expedition, was a naval officer named H. Zuber, who kept a logbook. The excerpts he published in the Tour du Monde of 1873 are most illuminating for anyone interested in Franco-Korean relations.

While the Déroulède lay at anchor, “a mandarin named the Friend of the People” came aboard, bearing this message: “Now that you have seen the river and the mountains of this insignificant little kingdom, please have the goodness to leave. The people will be glad of it.” “We reassured him” Zuber relates.

Another mandarin had addressed those on the Primauguet: “He was absolutely intent on knowing why we had come to Korea. We told him that all we had in view was the observation of an eclipse of the moon which was to take place within a few days. He did not seem satisfied with this response…”

For his part, Zuber observed “our future enemies.” He describes them like some tribe of Zulus, fascinated by all the wonders of European technology, particularly the boats. The upstanding officer was not obliged to know that the Koreans had invented the armored battleship in the sixteenth century, nor that their “turtle-boats” with 72 batteries on a side had routed the Japanese fleet in1552. There was certainly the occasion to meditate on the decline and fall of empires, but although Zuber allowed himself a quite pertinent reflection on the abundance of books in the houses, he seemed to neglect a few of Korea’s modest contributions to culture: the invention ofmovable type andwood-block engraving, the first national encyclopedia, the first astronomicalobservatory (and even, a paradox in the circumstances, the first Buddhist missionaries sent to Japan). These people of “careless education” so greatly contributed to the education of their easterly neighbor that other visitors, discovering Korean art after that of Japan, came to turn the reflection around backwards, like the collector who saw a touch of Picasso in certain African masks. Behind their poor facades, Korean artisans have perfected the most beautiful paper on earth – for instance, the “tribute paper” on which Ségalen had his Korean collection printed by Crès, to the enthusiasm of Claudel: “It is like a pearly felt whose transparency reveals seaweed, women’s hair, the sinews of fish, cultures of stars or bacilli, billowing vapor and a whole world in formation…” As to the soldier’s trade, our floating gunner might have been pleased to know that the Koreans had used the first cannons, the first bombs, and all kinds of contraptions and tools of war, including the elusive four-pronged star whose last examples, wrested from the museums, served again in 1951 against American jeeps.

After the reconnaissance mission, the fleet regrouped and moved into action. On October 14, an expeditionary force gathered at Kak-Kodji, just off Kanghwado island. The inhabitants took flight. On the 16th, the city of Kanghwa was occupied. Its inhabitants took flight. On the 18th, the expedition leader received a missive from the Regent of Korea:

“…What shall we obey? Justice, with no restriction. The man who violates it merits no pardon. I conclude that one must eliminate whoever denies it, decapitate whoever violates it.

“For all time, relations with neighbors and assistance to travelers have been traditional. In our kingdom we show still more thoughtfulness and goodwill. It often happens that navigators ignoring the location and name of the country touch on our coasts. We ask them if they come with peaceful intentions; we give foodstuffs to those who are hungry, clothing to those who are naked, and we care for the sick. Such is the rule which has always been followed in our kingdom, suffering no infraction. Thus in the eyes of all the world, Korea is the kingdom of justice and civilization. But if there are men who come to seduce our subjects, entering secretly, changing their clothing and studying our language, men who demoralize our people and upset our customs, then the world’s ancient law holds that they should be put to death. Such is the rule for all kingdoms, for all empires. Why then do you take offense if we have observed it? Is it not sufficient that we do not ask you the reasons which have brought you here from faraway lands?

“You establish yourselves upon our soil as if it were yours, and thereby you violate reason abominably. When your ships went up the imperial river a short time ago they were but two; the men upon them were no more than a thousand. If we had wished to destroy them, had we not arms? But through goodwill and because of the respect due to strangers, we did not suffer anyone to do them harm or to show them hostility.

“Thus after crossing our borders they took or accepted as many beef cattle or chickens as they wished, and were questioned in polite terms. They were offered gifts, without being disturbed in any way. Consequently you show a lack of gratitude toward us, whereas I do not toward you. This does not satisfy you; we had to force you away, your return is unseemly. This time you pillage my cities, you kill my people, you destroy my goods and my flocks. Never have we seen a more serious violation of the Heavens and the laws. What is more, it is said that you wish to spread your religion in my kingdom. In this you do wrong. The different books have particular sentences in which they present the true and the false. What harm is it that I follow my religion, and you, yours? If it is blameworthy to renounce one’s ancestors, why then do you come to teach us to abandon ours and to take others foreign to us? If men with such teachings may not be put to death, we shall do better to renounce Heaven itself!

“I treat you as Yu and Tan treated the impious Kopey, and you take umbrage like Nysean-yean toward Tcheu-uen. Though I do not dare compare myself to these famous kings, still one cannot pass over one’s own magnanimity in silence.

“You now appear here again with a large army, as though you were the instrument of celestial justice. Come to my court: let us have an interview and decide if it will be necessary to bring the troops together or to send them back, to chance victory or defeat. Do not flee: bow down and obey

“The fifth year of the reign of Tung-They, the ninth moon, the eleventh day.”

This text, in which Zuber recognized “a certain good sense,” received “an unfavorable response.”

And so it was war. It was short. The fort of Kanghwado held out against all attacks. Zuber notes with a touch of astonishment that the Korean troops “comported themselves well and displayed military skill and a certain bravura.” It is likely that, for him as for many others, the “sweet Korean soul” was incompatible with warlike virtues. The theme would crop up again. At the time of the Russo-Japanese war, the magazine Lectures pour Tous, renowned for its Spartan spirit, reproached the Koreans severely for not keeping their gaze fixed on the “blue line” of Yalu, and found the key to Korea’s misfortunes not in an untenable geographic location, a heritage of wars and invasions, or the gangrene of Chinese imperial behaviors, but instead in a mysteriously “apathetic” disposition of the Korean character.

These apathetic Koreans were the descendants of hill people who had cut apart three hundred thousand Chinese in a single battle. They were sailors and soldiers who had twice forced the Japanese to cross back over the seas. Decline? In 1871, at the self-same fort of Kanghwado, attacked in force by the U.S. Marines (already), the defenders stood until the last man – and in the following century, Koreans from both camps left more than a million (military) dead in the course of the war which, in all history, “brought together the largest number of combatants and the most bombs per square mile, and caused the greatest number of disasters” (Pentagon report). When the sweet soul is able to survive such things, it amounts to a virtue.

What is more, human nature is too concerned with maintaining a certain balance for a characteristic whose dominance becomes symbolic not to call up the countervailing force of its own denial. The extreme sensibility of the Koreans (for that one must see an entire theater burst into tears as soon as there is some heart-rending twist in the action) can transform into extreme violence and even extreme cruelty if pricked deeply enough. We saw it during the Japanese occupation, and we saw it – horribly – during the civil war. In fact this merely brings the Koreans back into line with a norm that we have learned to measure, and whose signs we read every day. Other traits are more exceptional. These Koreans capable of bravura are also capable of courage: in the history of how many people does on find an episode comparable to the “non-violent uprising” of 1919, when, totally dominated by the Japanese, without any possibility of armed revolt, the leaders of the Korean Resistance invited the leaders of the occupying power to dinner (the Japanese disdained to send anyone but a bureaucrat) in order to read them their Declaration of Independence? Having proclaimed their liberty by force of will alone, they suffered the consequences of their act with the same lucid dignity. An attempt was made to compel the elderly Yi Yong-shik to reveal the location of the Korean headquarters. His response: “The Korean HQ is in Heaven.” An answer worthy of Joan of Arc.

The end of Zuber’s account is hazy. According to the Korean version of events, the French drew back before the resistance of the fort and, pursued by their enemies, re-embarked with all haste. According to the Tour du Monde, after a few initial clashes had earned the Koreans their certificate of good conduct, the little war turned into a hunting party to occupy the soldiers’ leisure. And on October 22, with no other explanation, the squadron left Korea.

“The result that had been expected of the expedition was not in the least obtained,” notes Zuber. Indeed, the Koreans concluded it was a technical knock-out, showed greater suspicion toward foreigners, refused all attempts at commerce more firmly than ever, and, where the departure point of the whole affair was concerned, launched a wave of persecution against the Christians, whom they accused of colluding with the foreign aggressors.

The officer concludes on a melancholy note: “As you can see, we had not the fortune to make ourselves loved during our stay.”

1. The Six Days

Is there no one
to keep the moon
from disappearing,
to tie the morning sun
beneath the horizon?

Then I would live one more day.

(Story of Sim Chon)

The first Korean girl descended from the heavens. A friendly rose, flat and rather far from the archetype (Indigenae candidi sunt, et procerae staturae, says Mercator’s Atlas), she alone among her sisters betrayed the far-off Tunguskan origins that the anthropologists ascribe to her ancestor, the demi-god Tangun (2332 B.C.). No doubt it was this blend of traits that led the Korean employment counselors to glimpse her vocation, the same as the Druggist’s in Giraudoux’s Intermezzo: the gift for transitions.

The Far East lines are guarded by young women: Olga in Omsk, a shepherdess of Tupolev-Macha in Chita, leading the twin-engines out to pasture in the violet dawn of Mongolia. The last relay, the Air-Eastess, skewered us through China: congregations of incredulous camels startled by the shadow of the Ilyushin, squares of Tartar silk drying alongside the yurts, the petrified thunder of the Great Wall to which a train, silent for our ears, laid siege with its white cry. Kalmuki murus contra Tartaros. Another wall of pink and white dust, brick and mercury: on the Taedong river, before the bridge rebuilt by the Chinese volunteers, a fisherman let his net slip between his fingers, grain by grain, like a rosary. Soft morning, city. Tolerant even toward its clichés, Korea greeted us with morning calm.

Korea, Korai… On my first image of Pyongyang, the same curling lips, the same playful, tranquil smile that I had photographed a year before in the Athens museum. Language has its reasons.

There are different ways of traveling – the Barnabooth way, the Genghis Khan way, the Plume way (invented by Henri Michaux). For example: accepting the disorder of rhymes, waves, shocks, all the bumpers of memory, its meteors and undertows. Chance has intuitions, which shouldn’t always be taken for coincidences. The country where you have just set foot delegates you a woman’s face which sums it up already, and names it. (A great ship whose prow slowly turns round and stares at you, like a horse.) Its name is Sweetness.

Between the praying figure of the Acropolis and this woman met before the monument to the war dead, carrying her baby Korean style like a parachute, there is probably nothing in common except Eve’s smile before the first owl. (The smile of which Malraux writes – but thinking only of art… – “each time it reappears, something of Greece is waiting to blossom.”) But that all of history, with its rasps and its blood sweats, has not yet done away with the human smile… Upon reflection, this meeting was worth a cable. “FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT IN PYONGYANG STOP LIFE IS STILL SWEET STOP PHOTO FOLLOWS”

Her name is Sweetness, her other name is Gravity. Difficult names to fix on the Western face, where the smile’s erasure can (at best) become sadness, but almost never this second key, this obscure side of sweetness. As difficult to describe as the restraint of these young women, their integrity, their self-respect, everything that gives its untranslatable freshness to the expression – so little “partisan” when addressed to them – Cho nyo tong mou: comrade young girl…

One evening, at the intermission of The Story of Sim Chon, I ran into Lee Hai-sun in front of the theater gate. Sim Chon had just been torn away from her poor blind father, to be thrown as bait to the sea demons. The intermission stretched out the uncertainty of her fate, and of course Lee Hai-sun was sobbing, her handkerchief crumpled against her face. I dared to tell her that, in order to help us follow a somewhat discrepant plot, our Korean hosts had provided us with a résumé and that everything, it seemed, would work out for the best. Lee Hai-sun, who had seen the play two hundred times, looked at me with suspicion: how could I be so sure of the future? And, ceasing to cry, she began reflecting on the arid hearts of foreigners who exchange their tears for reasoning.

Koreans are sweet. Ezra Pound quotes Emperor Hong Vu: “Koreans are gentle by nature.” They are white: Mercator isn’t alone in saying so. It is confirmed by the Arab traveler Ibn Khordadbeh, who frequented these regions in the ninth century. They are confident: “They exchange presents with the Sovereign of China. They believe that if they did not exchange presents with him, it would not rain in their country.” (I.K.) They are virtuous: “After Ki Tse had published a Code, composed simply of eight laws, the Koreans’ mores became so well balanced that the crimes of rape and adultery were unknown to them, and it was unnecessary to close the doors of the houses during the night,” writes Father du Halde. And the author of the Recueil des voyages du Nord goes on: “As to their beliefs, the Koreans are convinced that whoever does good will be rewarded, and whoever does evil will be punished.” Far from imported beliefs, there exists a national credo that can be formulated more or less like this: We are in the world, and we must live… good-natured metaphysical sobriety, “Indeed they are quite ignorant of controversies, disputes over the mysteries, heresies, excommunications…” They are compassionate, and this trait pushes them to rather unusual actions. In 1905, the war correspondent Kann reports that a battalion sent to reestablish order in a faraway district, having melted away en route “to the exception of four soldiers and a general,” so moved the Emperor that he had gratifications distributed to the deserters, to that they should not remain without means of subsistence. And what else? Ah yes… “I wish,” says Giraudoux, “that my country should truly be worthy of being called the most polite in the world, which is to say, that its men and women should be beautiful.” Along with China, Italy, and Bororo land, Korea is worthy of being called the politest country in the world.

It remains that the Oriental smile, as everyone knows, is a mask – that the Asiatic is a tiger stitched into the skin of a cat. An Oriental dramaturge would have his tragedies played behind a lowered curtain. Such is their dissimulation; and the most dangerous passions circulate in the shadows. (Variant: The Asian has no passions.)

One morning, at the Pyongyang Hotel, a young woman told us her life story. Or more precisely, she explained to us that there was nothing to be told, really nothing… Her life is completely, completely simple. Having recorded a few notes from this gamut of explanations, I chalk up the following photographs – cat stitched in cat skin – to the account of the Famous Asian Inscrutability.

Where have I ever seen these expressions so literally embodied: a smile that melts away, a face that crumples? The swift or slow corrosion of flesh that a smile had smoothed and stretched – a planet attacked by the leprosy of space. I think of Lee, running after our railway car at the border station, as we were leaving Korea by those northern marches that the Korean kings kept deserted, to hold the Tartars at a distance – a wall of emptiness, forty kilometers wide – I think of his face suddenly going blurred, as though seen through his own tears. Or this:

We were visiting the chemical plant of Hungnam, so proud of its smokestack, “the highest in Asia,” and of its female cadres. One of these cadres, the youngest I believe, had been invited to the table set for the ritual of Foreign Delegations: introductions, refreshments, ginseng candies, speeches of welcome, the history of the plant, refreshments, production figures, refreshments, do you have any questions? – and we did. Of course the French spirit immediately went to work on the female cadre: Was she married? Would she marry soon? Was she thinking of marriage? How did she go about giving orders to men? All these questions were completely out of place in a Communist and Korean world, but the she-cadre answered with the most generous kindness, cupping her beautiful plebeian hands over her face when it was a question of marriage. (“She is confused,” as our dragoman, Mr. Ok, gleefully explained…). Finally, Marx winning out over Offenbach after all, we came to the economic and professional information, and, in a detour, to this question: “What do your parents do?”

At that moment I was sunk in my camera. It was on the Rollei’s ground glass that I saw the metamorphosis, the smile vanishing into pain like water drunk by sand. Everyone lowered their eyes into that chasm of silence, hastily inventing an imaginary Rolleiflex, a viewfinder to shelter their gaze, and I heard Mr. Ok explain in a half-whispered voice that yes, her parents had died during the war, that it was the case for many Koreans, and that yes, they felt great pain when it was mentioned – and now the young woman’s face was covered in tears, but she did not lower her head, and the hands that had hidden her laughter lay immobile on the table.

This instant was hers: it was hers to make use of, and no one had the mediocre audacity to offer words of consolation. Just as she had had the courage of her tears, so she had the courage to break the silence that we had respected. The extraordinary hymn of hate and willpower that followed would need more than a story and an image to do it justice: holding herself very straight, looking at no one, her hands drawn behind her, speaking quickly, blending the words of her pain and the slogans of the Party, she said that she hated the Americans who had killed her parents, but that now her path was perfectly clear, that she would constantly have to overcome her own limits, that thanks to the Party her pain itself had a meaning, and that by working for her country she would revenge her dead… All of that, in another tone of voice, would have only been the catechism of a good militant; here it became both a Mass of Shadows and a somber Hallelujah.

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite, et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus.

2. The Two Orphans

The dragon had iron teeth: one finds them here and there, alongside the roads, in the rice fields, refused by the earth.

Extermination passed over this land. Who could count what burned with the houses? Traditional Korean beliefs profoundly linked the spirits to their material abode – Jyoeng Chu, the Spirit of the Highest Beam, Tyei Syok, the Guardian Spirit of the master of the house, and the souls of the ancestors preserved in the baskets of clothing… For all those there can be no resurrection, and there is no other choice for the living.

But first of all: four million dead, the hatreds fanned to flames, the infinite accounts to be settled (a new saga of the Atreidae), all the accumulated lies… Spare me passionless judgments. The misunderstanding of the other is as inseparable from war as from love, and to rebuff the warrior convinced that the others started it would hardly go down well with the Heroes-of-the-Big-One in our own families. When a country is split in two by an artificial border and irreconcilable propaganda is exercised on each side, it’s naïve to ask where the war comes from: the border is the war.

The tale says that an orphan, rediscovering her parents’ home after many years of exile, had the surprise of finding herself there already – a double of herself, identical down to the smallest detail, who obviously greeted her as an intruder. She remained nonetheless, and after some time, in spite of all the examinations, it was still impossible to tell one from the other. Until the day when a neighbor (a skeptic) came to see them – with a cat. At the sight of it, the usurper jerked bolt upright with fright and took her true form again – that of a rat.

The ’45 border made the two Koreas into these orphans, and one wonders which will be the rat, but above all – who will be the cat?

“Still licentious, General MacArthur…”: the event shook up even the typesetters. “The Third World War has begun. It has begun in Korea”, wrote Marguerite Higgins. General Bradley was less strident: “Wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” It must be said that a certain difference of mentality appears, to objective eyes, between a Chinese soldier confident that he is kicking the imperialists off the Asian continent and the gung-ho roaring Marine who writes: “Who the hell wants to blow up a column of Chinese? Not me. I’ve got nothing against them. Nobody ever bothered to tell us why we should be angry. Something about the U.N. or something like that there. And aggressors and stuff. I don’t know. And I’m willing to bet that none of the other men up here know either” (Martin Russ – The Last Parallel). For lack of information they mobilized Delacroix’s Liberty and the yellow peril (ROKs excluded), with Christ appearing in the sky over Korea (Paris Match, October 20, 1951). In the POW camps, specialists in Psychological Action submitted the gooks to Rorschach tests to flush out the communists, and other specialists published statistics: “Two out of five Chinese volunteers are tubercular and one out of five is mentally unbalanced.” Unfortunately we have no statistics on the specialists in Psychological Action.

The idea that North Koreans generally have of Americans may be strange, but I must say, having lived in the USA around the end of the Korean War, that nothing can equal the stupidity and sadism of the combat imagery that went into circulation at that time. “The Reds burn, roast and toast.” Shall those who pray before the burnt, roasted and toasted bodies call out to other burnt and mutilated bodies for help, as though the torture victims of opposite camps somehow canceled each other out? Such is the mathematics of the day after war. I prefer to keep a few four-leaf clovers like this one, borrowed once again from dear old Martin Russ: on the night of June 27-28 when the cease-fire was proclaimed, a Chinese commando group came up to Ava outpost – which had been regularly attacked until then – and laid out candy and handkerchiefs at the Americans’ feet. “The men that were still on Ava stared, nothing more.”

Sit, gods, upon your thrones, and smile at Troy!

3. the Seven Wonders

In the Land of Darkness, there is a dog named Ball-of-Fire. The king of the Land of Darkness sent him to search out the sun in the world of men. Ball-of-Fire ran all the way to the sun. Finally he found it and grabbed it in his mouth. But the sun was too hot and he was forced to let go. Disappointed, the king told him to go find the Moon, at least. Ball-of-Fire ran all the way to the moon. Finally he found it and grabbed it in his mouth. But the moon was too cold and he was forced to let go. “Try the Sun again,” said the king. And when he came back: “Try the Moon again.” It has been that way ever since, and the eclipses of the sun and moon prove that Ball-of-Fire is still at work. The sun is too hot and the moon is too cold, but because he is a very brave dog he never gets discouraged, and after him his children will try ever more. That’s how dogs are.

A marketplace is the Republic of things (I mean the ideal Republic, of course): the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, it is beautiful even if the details are gauche or banal. Thus the Mercato Nuovo in Florence, where every object taken separately is an offense to the spirit’s good manners, while the whole is as flamboyant and funny as a high altar. The Mercato Coreano is not so simple. “Korea,” writes Father du Halde, “furnishes white paper, brushes of hair and wolf tail, Ginseng, gold, silver, iron, yellow varnish so beautiful that anything coated in it appears gilded: the tree whence this gum is distilled resembles a palm: chickens whose tail is three feet long, ponies three feet high, sable and beaver pelts, and fossil salt.” To which I would add, on the basis of my modest knowledge of Korean marketplaces: playing cards which are pleasant-looking flat dominoes, as in Japan, women’s clothing – the short tapestry bolero, transparent and stiff as a chrysalis, and the long, dark-colored skirt knotted at the first swell of the breasts – ribbons covered in gilt letters to encourage longevity, cothurne sandals with incurving prow, blue elephants, pink cats, pens and lamps, old opium pouches modestly called the smoker’s necessary, watch faces strung together like sapeks, flowers… and a somewhat Promethean, I mean aquiline, taste for the entrails of things: the innards of radios, the plexus of an electric razor or the thorax of a lock. Men sit chatting, squatting like the dead in the niches of Mexican cemeteries. And Mexico is not far off: it’s in the white cloth suits, the broad-brimmed straw hats, it surfaces in the tanned faces, in the nonchalance of an eye stretched out in its slit like a hammock at the gleaming crest of the cheek – it’s walking with this peasant (it could be an old Tarasco) who amuses himself scaring groups of people by uncovering, in a single movement, the serpent (though not plumed) that he holds on his fist – it bursts out of just as I frame, when suddenly another figure violently enters the field and bang! – he slaps the old man with the back of his hand, and the latter shies away to disappear who knows where, bringing his serpent along with … maybe for a baby-sitting at Alcmena’s? An instant later the self-appointed lawman had disappeared in his turn, and the people on the street are smiling at me and gesturing that everything is fine now. It all went by as quickly as a forgotten image between two shots, but what I felt there, the way a foot laid inadvertently on a tomb makes you feel the cold of death for one second, was a flash of hatred (so Mexican!). Toward me? Toward him? Blame, shame, fear? A critique of bad country manners, exasperation at my desire for the picturesque while they’re trying to build a modern Korea – or is it just that ophiolatry is prohibited in this town? I’ll never know.

Vexed, I buy a pink cat. It has Apollinaire’s look in its eyes, and that reinvigorates me: after all, some things escape them as well.

At the end of the Kaesong market, where the canal divides the last shops from the oldest district of the city, six children watched me watching them. A mirror game that goes on and on, where the loser is the one who looks down, who lets the other’s gaze pass through, like a ball. The long volley of smiles.

My third eye was a bit like cheating. Every click of the shutter was greeted with great hilarity, like when Chaplin puts an iron in his boxing glove. At half-time the three little girls got together, and with much natural grace and gravity they offered me their performance.

Behind me, the muffled sound of the market crowd, calm, numerous, almost without cries or shouts, rather all rustles and soft squeaks – a gathering of birds. And before me, without a single adult in view (except for the white shadow busy at some kind of cooking behind the windowed door), three very young Fates tracing figures of style, from the berceuse to the paean.

Perhaps they were Haisuni, Talsuni, and Peolsuni, the three little girls in the story (our Little Red Riding Hood multiplied by three, with the wolf replaced by a tiger – of course, how else could he pass for their grandmother?). In the end, Haisuni becomes the sun, Talsuni the moon, and Peolsuni the stars, and their job is to leave no patch of shadow on the surface of the earth, nor in the hearts of men.

A great deal of Korea strolls by on Koreans’ heads. Like those salon magicians hired round the turn of the century – barely introduced beneath a false name before they would begin juggling with the furniture to entertain the guests – the Koreans like to set objects dancing. Baskets, earthenware jars, bundles of wood, basins, all escape the earth’s gravity to become satellites of these calm planets, obeying exacting orbits. For the Korean street has its cycles, its waves, its rails. In this double décor, where hastened ruins and buildings still aborning strike a second’s balance of incompletion, the soldier who (foresightedly) buys a civilian’s sun hat, the worker leaving the construction site, the bureaucrat with his briefcase, the woman in traditional dress and the woman in modern dress, the porter carrying a brand new allegory to the museum of the Revolution with a woman in black following step by step to decipher it – all have their route and precise place, like constellations. Nobody crébillonates. If they stop, it’s to learn something: Syngman Rhee receives phony fangs of corruption from the Yankees, Sputnik 3 is a great socialist victory… Ballasted with this knowledge, the sputniks of the street gravitate again to their meditative round.

Another wonder: ginseng (insam in Korean). Father du Halde surprises me with this one: “The Gin Seng of Tsoe toen resembles a man: it is purple and rather flat.” It’s the most precious vegetable in the world. (In the Chinese apothecaries, Levites with lunar skulls bustle like so many Cornailles around delicate hanging scales tracing figures in the air, to deliver you ten grams of the salutary mandrake for the price of a hundred grams of gold.) It was the Chinese aphrodisiac: rich mandarins outfitted caravans to seek this root of deathlessness. They died of it. Raised to the rank of divinities by their exploits, they were called back by the jealous (or curious) gods. The eighteenth century, which took an interest in such things, gave a great reputation to ginseng. Looking for flying men, I found it mentioned in Richard Owen Cambridge’s Scribleriad: “that restorative the tartar boasts…”

Jesuit chastity and Marxist austerity agree to underscore other medical properties of ginseng. It heals. This must be understood in the absolute: it is not one of those vulgar medicines that only treat a single illness, or a hundred – as ridiculously specialized as the prostitutes of Pompeii. With ginseng, the verb to heal must be used like the verb to rain.

Father du Halde consents nonetheless to get into detail, but the detail soon covers the whole and overflows it: “It maintains the girth; it fixes the animal spirits in place; it stops the palpitations caused by sudden fright.” It even cures that sickness the Portuguese call pesadelo (“those afflicted by this illness imagine in their sleep that someone is lying next to them”). It is good for sleep (when one is “troubled by dreams and phantoms”), good for dog bite (“and troubles of the spleene”) and finally, last, not least, it can help “when the entrails come out the sides.”

But the seventh wonder of Korea, more wonderful still than the art of the ginseng gardeners, is the work of the builders.

It takes fifty years to complete a ginseng plant (five thousand, says the Hsi yu chi) but only five days to complete a street – five weeks to build a house – five months to transform a neighborhood. Korea grows like a plant in a movie. It’s a phenomenon that surpasses architecture and politics to enter biology.

You can travel without fear across the countryside: if the car is just a little slow, the road will catch up. Don’t reverse too fast after moving ahead: there may be a house behind you. Never retrace by night a path you followed one week earlier by day. And above all, never rely on landmarks. They get moved.

When there aren’t any cranes, they invent them – in sections. When there aren’t any trucks, out come the wheelbarrows, the hods, the boats, the cupped hands, the Marne taxis.

Little Korean inventions like the pedal pump or the string shovel serve to multiply the effort (with a bit of training you can leave the work to the girls).

All that in a grand flourish of trophies, red flags, embroidered slogans stretched between two poles, with the International or the Little Red Berries in the loudspeakers, if not the marching song of the People’s Army, which – to a rather bouncy rhythm – is none other than O Tannenbaum…

At nightfall, on the Taedong river bridge, one hears the students’ songs fading away as the boat brings them back to the University after a day on the worksites – but the dusk is quicker: it hides them, and their song disappears some time after they do, like the memory of the dead.

All night long, the aurora borealis of welding torches, spotlights on the cranes, reflections of the moon and the headlights on the great glassy façades of new buildings – and the coarse chants of the haulers, the porters, mounting in waves amid the half-sleep of an imaginary Africa shot through with electric flashes…

I don’t much care for propaganda photos in the style: “Yesterday… Today…” But still I took these pictures of what I saw out my window, at fifteen day’s distance. Just not to get the wrong room.

4. the Five Senses

Every Korean meal is a costume party – but the food wears the disguises. The eggs are cross-hatched, the duck is lacquered, the beef askew, the greens red-hot… The salad is mixed up, the tongue falls silent, the brains are amnesiac. As for the fish, you’d best be quick – it’s cuttles.

In the midst of dinner appears the Grail (“the room overflowed with fine smells, as though scattered with all the earth’s spices”) – it’s the kettle of fairies, a culinary tower of Babel, herbs, seaweeds, segments, slivers, microcosms all counterpointing to infinity, feverish as a Constituent Assembly.

The poorest Korean child sees these wonders at least once a year: for his birthday. But at midnight the enchantment is over and, like Cinderella in reverse, he regrets the vanished pumpkins.

A roadway of meteors – it would already have been a street on the Moon, and will soon be one on Earth. The little girl took a stone, pressed it lovingly to her heart, and crawled over to contribute it. The Kid followed approvingly, lost in Fourierist statistics.

On the mud floor they were walking gravely, without looking at each other, like true lovers, beyond choice. He was holding his friend’s hand like a stone. I wonder where he intended to lay it.

On the earthen sidewalk, they played with pebbles (you gather up all you can, before the stone thrown in the air is taken back by the gathering hand). She gathered jerkily, fascinated by the springing stone that measured out such scanty time. She tried to hypnotize it, to suspend its flight, to work the well-known miracle of the Irish ascetics.

What could I do for her if not stop time?

“If you’re not very careful, you’re going to take your father or mother, your sister or brother, for a cow, and then – gobbled up. Nothing’s more bitter than being unable to tell the difference between people and cows. And yet there’s nothing for it. One day a man eats his own brother! After a while he realizes what he has done, but it’s too late. And nothing can provide him an excuse…” This is the literal translation of the beginning of a Korean tale. And if you get the impression that you recognize someone in this written-spoken, lost-found tone, it’s the right impression.

Eating bird’s flesh weakens the memory. And without memory, no stories to tell, and untold stories go rotten. And words left to sleep drift into terrible dreams. One man closed up all his stories in a sack – they took revenge, became poison fruits, scalding water, red-hot iron, a tangle of snakes. They had to be killed with swords.

When a cat and a dog set out in search of a precious stone, stolen from their masters by an evil woman (and I ask you, what better use for a cat and dog’s time?), the dog began barking in front of the woman’s house, but the cat ordered the mice to go find the stone (the green one) in the closet, and the mice prudently obeyed; then the dog with his stupid questions made the cat drop the stone he was holding between his teeth, and it fell to the bottom of the water, but when a fisherman found a dead fish the cat took to reckoning: “This fish died from eating the stone,” so he opened the fish – and the dead fish gave up the stone. Which is why the clever cat has the right to stay inside the house, while the stupid dog stays out.

In Korean tales you glimpse more than you see. Lots of apparitions, dreams, cracks into another world of which only a wavering memory remains: “I am the tiger you saved yesterday,” says a pretty girl. And Sim Chon: “Your face I so dreamed of has disappeared like the wind…” (I have already spoken of the Story of Sim Chon, which for Korea is David Copperfield, the Book of Tobias and the Götterdämmerung all rolled into one).

Or the Holy Virgin, at that: when Sim Chon’s mother, Lady Okjin, appears between the crystal candles in Act IV (which takes place under the sea), you can’t help but feel Fatima rising in your esteem. (It may be worth stressing that at the end of the play, the blind see.)

So faraway, so inaccessible is the world of miracles, revealed only by tatters of fairies, beasts, masked things, images furtive like the rumblings of a hidden god, narrow as the cracks in the mirrors of enormous Korean closets, arrow-slits through which no Eurydice could possibly return.

Your name is Kim Shen-Suk, you are a great actress of Korean cinema – and theater: you have played Desdemona (and yet, says the author of Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses des peoples idolâtres, “where jealousy is concerned, (the Koreans) are less obsessed than the Chinese…”). You have married Tche To-miung and your baby is called Tche In-tcho. Your husband tells him the stories of Sim Chon, Chunhyang and Heun Bo, and you sing him the song that begins with Kwae-ji-na-ching-ching-nah-neu, or with Toraji, Toraji, or the one whose refrain goes Nilliria, Nilliria, Nilliria – and of course Arirang, the Korean lament of homesickness (the Asian blues), which says poetically: “So many stars in the sky, so many sighs in my heart,” and prosaically: “If you leave me your feet will ache – less than a mile away.”

The smell of the fields had already brought me back to Italy, even before the tombs of Kanso brought me back to Caere and the Etruscan tombs. It seems that the geographical comparison between Korean and Italy is traditional: isn’t it touching to find geography in tune with feeling? (But perhaps geography is no more than coded feeling.) The light, the beauty of the faces, the savor of life that makes nothing appear negligible or futile (“a day that would have been lost had it passed anywhere but in Italy,” says Larbaud…). And here, the same grass-covered domes like fortress turrets, the same corridors, the same square rooms with their parallel beds, their walls covered in frescoes, ochre, white, blue – and extending memory backwards like a film rewinding, the road to Cerveteri with its X-shaped barriers in the fields, its stone bridge and zigzags (kobl-ah, kobl-ah, sang Kim), the same things you already see in the painting by Filippo Lippi. The same goatpath near the tumuli – the same goats – the same shadowy square for Berenice. Fewer tombs, three only, and no tourists. But the same cool air, making the beasts weep on the walls.

The guardian’s little girl watches over these animals with perplexity. There is the phoenix (which the translator, lacking the proper word, succeeded in defining as a fantastic chicken) and the four cardinal points: the Cock, the blue Dragon, the white Tiger and the black Tortoise. Perhaps in the mountains they hunt the man-eating West, the fire-breathing East. Perhaps lovers wake at night to the song of the South, and children catch the North at river mouths, to make their soup.

5. the Three Sisters

The Koreans’ fondness for legends earned them jibes from the missionaries, who preferred to trust only what they saw with their own eyes – like Guillaume de Ruysbroeck in Tartary, describing curious hairy animals that leap to their drinks crying Chin-Chin.

Having seen nothing of the like at the bottom of the river Taedong, I won’t insist on an involuntary plunge, not on the reflex that led me (rather than any attempt at swimming) to clasp tightly in my pocket the silver tetradrachma that protects me.

Even though I read today, in an article by M.C. Haguenauer: “The water sprits detest gold and silver, one merely need carry a little on one’s person to avoid drowning.”

This trust in the past comes perhaps from the fact that the world, here, has hardly budged since its creation by Hannanim, the Celestial Lord. If the painting can be superimposed upon the photograph, so can legend upon history, and the brushstrokes of Hannanim’s décor are too clear and sure for it to be abandoned simply because the play has changed.

A new boat can be built without throwing away the sea, says a Gorgolian proverb. All the new Korea is built on ancient soil, a thousand times overturned and wounded, beneath which – like blind rivers, lakes of solvent – stretch the wary souls of warriors, the ductile souls of separated lovers, the skeptical souls of innumerable literati destroyed by the tyrants.

Hannanim did not cut his creation into slices, like some God concerned with his effect, bringing the action gradually to climax (Sixth and Last Tableau: Man! Finale with the whole cast…). Hardly had he perfected a form but he offered it to the full gamut of creatures, and to nature itself. He invented the curve and on this form he lay the eye of the literati and the roof of the temple. The same mold served him for the grain of rice and the peasant’s tooth. And when he succeeded, clever foundryman, in an alloy of strength and sweetness, he shared it equitably between the ocean and man, teaching each how to let his strength lay at the bottom of his sweetness, like an anchor.

Calm waters

The Chilsan drums
shatter the silence.
Do they speak of dawn?

Upon the severed sea
Chejoo island
at hand’s reach.
Goodbye Mount Halla!
Until we return.

Sky and ocean
studded with stars.
The silken waves
touch the heavens.
Goodbye, dear homeland,
we leave on the sea.

(Sim Chon)

(List of the spirits and stars that govern human life)

1. The Five Elements
2. The Nine Mansions
3. The Ten Trunks
4. The Twelve Branches
5. The Four Spirits
6. The Great Spirit of the Year
7. The Bad Luck of the Year
8. The Plague of the Year
9. The Great Marshall (spirit of trials and quarrels)
10. Sickness
11. Brigandage
12. War
13. The Plagues
14. The Disasters
15. Death
16. The Silkworm Disease
17. Ruin (Tai soai)
18. The Fivefold Demon
19. The White Tiger
20. Mourning
21. The Spirit of Metal
22. The Punishments
23. The Yellow Standard
24. Failure
25. Funerals
26. The Wind
27. The Epizootic
28. The Ruin (Tai bo)
29. The Leopard’s Tail
30. The Spirit of the Silkworm
31. The Moon
32. Koan pou, “which lends access to high functions”

(Marcel Courant – Bibliographie Coréene)

When atop the mountains’ silk
the winter moans,
Together we will remain alone
– You, the bamboo – I, the pine.

The wind’s cold hands will twist
the other trees, naked and without leaves
– Who will not be envious then
of you and I, unchanged?

(Story of Chunhyang)

We left in the early morning, at the same time as the woodcutters. A man of the forest – purple and rather flat, as Father du Halde would say – showed us our path. Was he the last avatar of T’yoen ha tai chang kun, the Great Commander beneath the Heavens, charged with guarding all pathways?

In the forest awaited the figures of the gods, countersigned by the visitors (Korean writing, where graffiti becomes ornament!), and farther above were the severe waterfalls, their cheeks tattooed with poems – Chinese characters, each fifteen meters high – gurgling with the sound of some huge animal drinking.

Kumgan-san, the Diamond Mountain… The tigers that inhabit it have now disappeared. The last were disguised as women picking potatoes, and girls bearing earthenware jars. All have been destroyed, even the grandfather, the White Tiger.

We met a young woman. As she was not picking potatoes and bore no earthenware jar, but a cyclopean baby, she was not a tiger. But if accounts are made, there must remain in the mountains one bear-doctor, nine dragons, and fifty-three golden Buddhas disembarked from a stone ship. There are also the Sinseuns, immortal beings. So you never quite know whom you meet.

One must be circumspect in these parts: even before being told, you can guess that the water of lake Samilpo “is better than that of Heaven,” and that the fairies prefer to come draw their drink here, at the risk of being ravished by a hardy woodcutter.

(This woodcutter had saved a deer pursued by a hunter. The deer, who knew, revealed to him that three fairy-sisters came every day to fill their pitchers. A first attempt failed, and the prudent fairies continued to draw their water from the lake, by lowering a bucket from Heaven. Seeing this, the woodcutter – I told you that he was hardy – simply hid in the bucket and rose to Heaven to take his wife.)

The earth frays and rips here near the sea, and the planet’s true skin shows soft and finely grained through its rags. Between these false, striated islands, joined by isthmuses of sand as fragile as the touch of two sleepers brushing each other in the night, in this sweet and solitary land on the edge of green water (where so many cats must have dropped soluble stones), upon these gray, flat boulders, silence mounts like fog – troubled only by the strange countersigns of French journalists, conveyed by the wind: deal – my turn – cut… incantations of a recalcitrant but apparently effective magic, since no bucket came to carry them to the heavens, despite my prayers.

Among the summits of the Diamond Mountain, there are three which recall the episode of the lake, the deer and the hardy woodcutter. Here again, the rules of the game: you have to look a long time, staring at the three summits, then close your eyes. At that moment, it is said, the colors are reversed, the sky darkens, and shadows of shadows appear in the darkness, the faces of the three sisters.

6. the Nine Muses

Ahn Seung-hi dances the sword dance (Kal tchun), the fan dance, the butterfly dance, the gypsy dance (the most exotic for us) and the dance of the Mou nyo, the sorceress, the matchmaker of the dead.

(As late as 1933 one could still find the “union of pious persons” registered in Seoul – gathering all sorcerers and sorceresses in awareness of their rights.)

With her little bells, her large-handled knife, her fans, her feathered hat, slow at first, then successively casting the bells, the knife, the fans, casting her gaze in the end – her mouth stretched out by the frozen speed, like the pilots of supersonic jets – the passage of the Wall of the Dead, given over to all the blows and insults of the dear departed, a screen shredded by their nails, a window shattered by their cries – Aigo! Aigo! The cry of mourning and suffering – falling exhausted, her throat burning with the oxygen of hell, paying the passage of the Styx with the money thrown to her, Aigo!

“Some of them are quite pretty,” writes Haguenhauer, “and not only the spirits are touched by their charms.”

To-night and every night… Like the Windmill Theatre during the blitz, the underground theater of Moranbong kept playing, every day of the war. The sound of the bombardments disappeared, swallowed up by the earth. Outside, Pyongyang burned, the roof lines changed form, the walls fell, the doors slammed. Korean theater lived there for two years, a hundred meters beneath the hill, with pyramidal corridors, Piranesian galleries, school benches and a wooden stage, buried like a fakir.

Today the theater of Moranbong belongs to the children. They come to see puppet plays: swallows gather in conclaves, feudal ghosts return to pester cheapskates, musicians pop out of pumpkins. The existence of the underground adds to the enchantments.

The Underworld exists, in the legends. An ogre sleeps there, eyes wide open. The young hero prepares for combat by drinking mandrake juice and wrestling with an iron flail. Just like Suen U Kung. But instead of saving his soul, he marries a beautiful princess. Boys will be boys.

She was my pal… Because it was her, because it was me. She chose me from the first day of our visit to the pioneer camp, and at each of the encounters of this very organized visit (children’s theater, gymnastics, group meeting) she made me that little sign of recognition exchanged by old friends, full of shared memories, brought together here or there by chance. Even in the crowd, with her head thrown back. My blue eyes, perhaps, And I’m sure she remembers me.

“My dear, when you are gone,
Choose, if you can,
To be a temple bell
Rung morning and evening.
And remember, remember,
The wooden mallet that strikes you
Is me…”


Nearby the village of Haisanni, a few kilometers from Kaesong, eight stone giants guard the tomb that the thirty-first king of Koryo (Kongmin, the painter-king) built for the woman he loved, the queen Kokuk Kong-chu.

Et amava perdutamente Ixotta degli Atti… With its stone tables, its animals oriented by the stars, its moon-based domes draped in lichen, nothing is foreign in this royal cemetery. At Teotihuacan, at Saint Peter’s in Rome, we met with barbarity (I mean that which offends the heart, not the mind). But here we recognized the passion of Pedro and Ines, laying foot to foot in Alcobaça, “so that when they lift their heavy tombstones and rise up on Judgment Day, their first gaze will be for each other.” And the passion of Sigismundo erecting his temple in Rimini – the eclipse of love and glory, with its core of shadow and its flaming corolla: Tenderness-on-Pride.

The weight of the past, enforced by these countless tombs, these tortoises bearing the mileposts of time, advancing imperceptibly across the countryside, heads raised skyward… Can it be reduced to the sole role of ornament, as we do? Can the borderline between statues and men be drawn so tight that no vertigo crosses, no vast cry of madness or destruction?

For some time still two Koreas stand face to face. The question arises everywhere, except where culture has irrevocably become the stuff of museums. What will be lost, what will not, what will change skins, these forms threatened with remaining forms, these forces threatened with remaining forces, all these enemy currents: the construction that lies and the truth that destroys, free constraint and free despair, hymns to joy and deep-dwelling chants – all we can do is listen to their mutually jamming broadcasts in ourselves, while waiting for the bigamy of spirit to be condemned by the law. All the while straining never to forget – if one did, the Korean legend would be there to say it in its way – that a moment comes when man’s life must be paid for with the death of his gods.

A woodcutter had saved a pheasant threatened by a snake. Changed into a girl, the snake succeeded in leading the woodcutter into a tower, and there – caught tight. The woodcutter invoked the protection of the gods, and the serpent-girl agreed to wait until dawn: if the woodcutter could prevail upon the gods to sound a temple bell a few miles distant, she would let him live. The vigil began, the woodcutter in agony, the snake-girl attentive. And toward the middle of the night, the temple bell rang heavily. Terrified, the snake slipped away, the tower disappeared in a puff of smoke. When the woodcutter reached the temple after several hours’ march to thank the gods, he saw a smear of still-fresh blood on the bell, and on the ground, the broken body of a pheasant.

7. the Four Corners

The ten-meter teeter-totter, the Icarian seesaw that shoots you up and takes you back, feet together, palms at your sides – those are ladies’ games. A man doesn’t fly, he lets fly.

Bowmanship remains the sport of the elite. The bamboo and buffalo-horn bow, with its double curve, obeys the eye more than the hand. Once the gaze is planted squarely in the middle of the target, the arrow has only to follow.

Throughout whole afternoons, the men, (a few old-timers among them) riddle a plank stuck some 150 meters away among the bare stones. It seems to waver in the sun. A hit on the target sends back a brief echo, like a popgun. People stroll at the foot of the shooting ground, beneath the deluge of arrows, indifferent to the piles mounting above their heads like the horsemen of the Triumph of Death.

The gaze of the victor, perhaps alone among all the gazes captured in Korea, seems lacking in modesty.

The changgo, a drum shaped like an hourglass, makes even tigers dance. A young man who inherited such a drum saw a great cat prance out of the forest and do the tiger trot all around him. (The black gum – the hyen gum – a melodious stringed crocodile derived from the Chinese khin, is in fact called hyen hack gum, the “gum of the black cranes.” Its inventor found himself surrounded by black cranes as he strummed its first chord – and they too began dancing. It’s enough to make you wonder if all Korean instruments should not receive the honors of the Animal Academy of Music).

Is it the changgo, or are the Koreans truly tireless? At the factory of Sonsan (as in all the others, we would later realize), hardly has the break-whistle sounded but the workers – after struggling for long hours with ruined Japanese locomotives that they make sparkling new, like counterfeiters – gather together in circles and: Ongeyha… As though they could only rest from one effort with another, as though they somewhere had an hourglass that need only be upturned for all that accumulated, inert fatigue to become energy again – an hourglass of which the changgo would be less the stimulant than the image.

If, the last time I went swimming in Santa Monica (California), instead of returning to the land, called back by who knows what Hollywood frivolities, I had continued straight ahead, I would have arrived today, if I calculate right, at Sonsan beach – where I am. Rendezvous in Samarra.

Sunday in Sonsan: on a platform planted with trees, the changgo and the accordion play by turns. Under the pale yellow sun of late afternoon, the dancers – couples of man, couples of women, even a Pierrot Lunaire dancing only for himself – appear and disappear in my viewfinder like visitors to an aquarium. When the music stops, one hears the sleeper’s sigh of the nearby Pacific, a hard sleeper.

Indolence, that famous Korean indolence (no doubt their transparency before the military brutes) had its anthropological guarantee: an Oceanian connection. Only the sound and fury of an incomparable history could have shifted the destinies of a second Tahiti.

Must one be thankful to history for preserving Korea from the terrible old age of former paradises, for helping it, not to corrupt its beauty but rather to clothe its innocence, to exchange its Gaugins for Renoirs, and to choose the right Robinson?

“Heï heï y ai; heï, heï ya…
When the bamboo leaves begin rustling in the wind, we seem to hear the sound of a hundred thousand men…
The water-lily blossoms, moistened by the rain, as beautiful as the three thousand servant girls bathing…
Last year the weather was kind, the harvest rich; the rain fell in time and the wind was propitious. This year will also be good: if the harvest is fine we will sate our hunger and fill our bellies, our backs will be warm, we will be happy.
Heï heï y ai; heï, heï ya…
Butterflies! Butterflies! Let’s go to the blue mountain! Tiger-striped butterflies! Come with us! If the night catches up to us on the way, we will rest in flowery bouquets…
Let us go! If the flowers have fallen we will hide beneath the shadowy trees…
We crossed a carpet of flowers on our horses; at each step our mounts crushed the flowers and freed their perfumes…
Heï you heï you, eï, heï ya ya; baba, heï yo…
Comrades, o y tcha, ha tcha, ha heï you, heï ya, o ho, tcho yo tcha, tcho yo tcha, lift, lift our sticks…”

(Work song “taken by dictation from the laborers who worked in 1890 on French Commissariat in Seoul” – quoted by Marcel Courant.)

(letter to the cat G.)*

– No, cat G., I will not deal with the Big Issues. They don’t lack other hands, look to your usual newspaper. Were I to speak of them, it would be in the style of Henry V: “An orator is only a loud-mouth, a motto is only a slogan, politics change, statistics are faked, fine alliances break, bright flags tarnish, but a human face, good cat, is the sun and the moon…”

(*Note 1997
Why so many mysteries? And why deprive of his name, after all these years, the good cat Gédeon, who lived on Ile Saint-Louis and ambled over the rooftops in the company of unlikely bicycles?)

It is with the face turned toward me that I have true relations. No longer are there Korea and Koreans, singular and plural of the same night, but only these familiar faces – and that is the Golden Fleece…

(I know you will have the intelligence – cats understand such things – not to see me playing Humankind against History, all those capital H’s with which one works up a sweat of understanding each morning, barbells for the intellectual… I know that my relations with these faces, with these familiar people, all filter through history, and that to help or to harm them there are other means than pataphysics. But if the Big Issues must be involved in this relation, let that remain between them and me – it’s not for the onlookers. At the bottom of this trip is human friendship. The rest is silence.)

I also know you will not ask me, perched atop god’s flail, to hand out praise and blame, to make accounts and to give lessons. They’re not lacking either. My Korean friends (and Chinese and Soviet), you have not finished receiving lessons – lessons in political realism from the honest scribes of the Great Agony, lessons of tolerance from under Inquisitor’s robes, while from the back seat they’ll tell you, really, you attach too much importance to material success. The blind husband will snicker at your daughters’ purity, the half-learned at the infancy of your art, and everyone will weave you a crown of thorns from their own failures.

The times are strange, good cat, and fast. Lewis Carroll lied: a fox terrier wanders among the signs of the zodiac. And on the oceans the great whales proclaim the glory of the Lord, hallelujah.

It’s the festival of machines: so they are decorated – flowers, green plants, flags, quotations. Offer them necklaces, pendants, they will become vain like owls. Just a little longer, cat, and they will take care of the house. Just a little longer.

And then, cat, we’ll be their cats.

coda, 1997

I have chosen to reproduce this text exactly as it was published in 1959 (excepting a few changes in the layout). Nearly forty years later, it’s legitimate to ask a few questions: does it refer to a world irremediably rejected by history, in the name of the famous “crisis of ideologies”? Those men and women whom I saw work so hard, with a courage the propaganda-makers didn’t hesitate to exploit, but which it would be stupid to confuse with its imagery – did they really work for nothing? The newspapers one reads in spring 1997 are devastating: “famine,” “total failure,” “corruption everywhere”… There’s no reason to beat around the bush: that wager was lost, terribly, and the Koreans have once again illustrated their Greek propensity for hubris. Always excess, in sentiment, in war, in history.

As to this book, it had a peculiar destiny. Rejected by both camps, not flattering enough for the North (with this primary and inexpiable stain: not a single mention of the great leader’s name!), immediately identified as communist propaganda by the South, which did me the honor of exhibiting it in a vitrine at the counter-revolutionary museum with the label “Marxist dog” (which didn’t seem particularly insulting to me: I can see Snoopy leaving Herman Hesse aside for a while to read Capital…). You can let yourself be flattered by that kind of symmetry, you can make comparisons with Chaplin at the end of The Pilgrim, sniped at by both sides, walking tip-toe along the border line – you can tell yourself that getting flack from both ends is a pretty good indication you’re on the right track. It’s a short-sighted glory, an easy way of setting yourself above the fray. The end of our century demands something else. What’s more, the notion of historical progress, of a powerful “current of history,” never mattered to me except in a deliberate play on the word “current”: not a directional flow over some chart plotted out by infallible commanders (there again, the ambiguity of the word “leader”!), but instead the possibility to grasp the current meanings of the historical present, full of sound and fury, told, and so on. If I ever had a passion in the field of politics, it’s a passion for understanding. Understanding how people manage to live on a planet like ours. Understanding how they seek, how they try, how they make mistakes, how they get over them, how they learn, how they lose their way… That immediately put me on the side of the people who seek and make mistakes, as opposed to those who seek nothing, except to conserve, defend themselves, and deny all the rest.

What did we go looking for in the fifties-sixties in Korea, in China, and later in Cuba? Above all – and this is so easily forgotten today, with the hocus-pocus over that uncertain concept of “ideologies” – a break with the Soviet model. Chronology has its importance here. I do not belong to the generation that rose with the great wave of 1917. It was a tragic generation, buoyed by a disproportionate hope, only to become the accomplice of disproportionate crimes. In the film I devoted to him, Alexander Medvedkin uses this powerful image: “In all of human history there was never a generation like ours… It’s like in astronomy, those ‘black stars’ that shrink down to a few square inches and weigh many tons. My life could be represented by such a black hole.”

We who were lucky enough to be born on the other side of the black hole cannot ignore the depth of its failure, and those who say “we didn’t know” are bald liars. Long before Solzhenitsyn, we had read Victor Serge, Koestler, Souvarine, Charles Plisnier (oddly forgotten today, although he exposed the entire mechanism of the Moscow trials as early as 1936, in Memoirs of a Secret Revolutionary). Nobody was ever going to feed us the workers’ paradise line again. Which was just another reason to go see how younger peoples, geographically and culturally removed from the old European models, were going to face the challenge of constructing a new society. Those children of Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Bolivar or Marti had no reason to kneel before dogma elaborated by bureaucrats born from a Leninist host-mother inseminated by Kafka. The answer is: they did.

Another thing: in the mid-fifties, a quiver of expectation ran through the USSR itself, and the Muscovites of today speak with poignant nostalgia of those years when life became livable again, when the terror receded, when nothing had been won with any certainty but it wasn’t sheer madness to envisage gradual progress toward freedom. In short, perestroika was imaginable at a time when its side-effects would have been infinitely less costly. The doors of the future had begun to swing open, slowly, with lots of grating and creaking, but they were moving. It would have taken enormous historical pessimism to foresee Brezhnev and the period of what the people back there call stagnation, more criminal still than Stalin from the historical viewpoint, because no one could have changed Stalin, whereas it was possible to change Brezhnev. And once again, the pessimists would have been right.

So the balance sheet to which most of the texts and images on this disc bear witness is totally disastrous, and I feel neither the right nor the inclination to ignore that. But I’d like to note two things, which for me have their importance.

Much has been made of the resemblances between the two totalitarianisms, communism and Nazism. They are undeniable, with this one difference, that the communists committed their crimes in betrayal of the values on which they founded themselves, and the Nazis, in fulfillment of theirs. Maybe that difference is the wrong question. Or maybe it’s the whole question.

And to close: all the despair accumulated at this century’s end, all the shattered hopes, so many victims, so many resignations, all that still doesn’t give me an ounce of inclination for even a sketch of indulgence toward society “as it is.” During the Cold War I used to say to my comrades on both sides, “What you call the errors of socialism is socialism, what you call unbridled capitalism is capitalism.” For now only one of those two behemoths remains on its feet, but the other’s defeat has not humanized the survivor, on the contrary. Interviewed on television shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Claude Lelouch, who is not a Marxist dog, made a comment full of good sense: “Communism had at least this much going for it, it scared the money-men – and left to their own devices, the money-men are capable of anything, believe me, I know what they’re like…” I find it fitting to give a filmmaker the last word on the twentieth century, which despite all its shams had so little real existence – which may after all have been nothing but an immense, interminable fade-over

Port-Kosinki, May 1997


Infinite thanks to, where Marker’s intelligence shines without the support of images at all, and its patient transcriber of this English version of this early work. Coréennes was pubished originally in French in 1959 by Editions du Seuil, and is currently available in Korean and English (text only). New French and full English editions would be most welcome.

It is only now, re-reading the text, that I realize the extent to which Marker worked with the form of the conversation. We hear his end of a limitless dialogue (entretiens infini), but the interlocutor is there just out of sight somehow, just offstage, or in the convex mirror of the text — as he is in Augustine’s Confessions Camus’ La Chute, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Breytenbach’s True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, and indeed Marker’s own letter-framed films (including Lettre de Sibérie and Sans Soleil) and entretiens-framed films (Si j’avais quatre dromedaires).

Once again, I am reminded of Michel Beaujour’s great book Miroirs d’encre and the vitality of the minor forms of literature — letter, memo, conversation, compendium, archive, commonplaces, essai/essay/Versuch — all the myriad forms of écriture that cohabitate in the margins of all the mighty capitalized, and thus allegorical, genres. Beauty. Truth. Novel. Dissertation. Bible. Though he never mentions Marker, I have learned so much from Beaujour about his modus operandi, as I have from Bellour, and they have made thinking about genre somehow thrilling again. Bakhtin is relevant too, with the multi-faceted play of the dialogic, and would be well-worth applying to Marker’s work, written and filmed. Finally, I am thinking of Deleuze and Guattari’s insidiously useful and viral concept of ‘minor literature’, as explored in their Kafka: Pour une littérature mineure. Kafka, as Borges knew, had many precursors. If you dig deeper into the art of memory and ancient rhetoric, you can find some of Marker’s precursors too. You might find cats doodled in the margins of medieval manuscripts by a rebellious scribe…

[Daniel L Potter, Oct 2016]