Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Wounded Time


Last Updated on February 15, 2021 by bricoleur

Periodically Dusted Notes on Sans Soleil

Rien ne distingue les souvenirs des autres moments: ce n’est que plus tard qu’ils se font reconnaître, à leurs cicatrices.” — Chris Marker, La Jetée

“History is essentially longitudinal, memory essentially vertical. History essentially consists of passing along the event. Being inside the event, memory essentially and above all consists of not leaving it, staying in it and going back through it from within.” — Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II

Time Travel

This viewing, the sixth or seventh, I decided not to take notes, but to let the film wash over me, and the friend and friend of a friend who had shown up.

  • The city as theater of memories — everything in its place upon the return to Tokyo. The film as art of memory — every sight and sound “placed” in an architecture of remembering, in which the recording device doubles and begins to erode unaided memory.
  • Memory versus history: the personal wound against the onset of global oblivion.

The protagonist, photographer, letter-writer, veiled self-portrait of Chris Marker, returns “home” to the 15,000,000 inhabitants of Tokyo: returning home to a huge, anonymous, and still familiar foreign city, rather than to the home, family, or nation of residence. Nomadic belonging substitutes for the maison as the palace of memory. There is transcendental homelessness to Sans Soleil, and it represents one of the most poignant aspects of this masterpiece, as expressed for instance in the two sequences from Iceland, one by Marker of three blond children walking on a country road, one filmed a year later by Harun Tazieff, footage of the volcano eruption which covers the town where Marker lived and filmed, and where his memory is entrapped.

Tazieff’s footage includes a shot of the black cat with white paws which the fictional i/eye of the narration claims to recognize from 1965. There is a gap in time, the expulsion of the remembering subject into a non-memory, an anti-memory, and beyond into a kind of active forgetting which is still the privilege of the human being in the era “before memory was perfected.”

We are within an exploration of nonlinear or shamanic time. The healer comes from the future: 4001, the “era of full employment of memory.” This journey back, paralleling the unforgettable story of La Jetée, invokes a complex philosophy of time, a focus on the idea of compassion, and a counterpoint, as Marker says, to “all the stories of men who have lost their memories” — this one treating “a man who has lost forgetting.”

This whole science fiction speculation is accompanied by a suite of images of the city of San Francisco, Iceland, etc., and seems to offer a view from 4001, a selective fanning through time-images: “sheets of past,” as Deleuze phrases this ability of film narration. The music, the ebbs and flows of the montage, the sense of synchronicity which begins to surge as we enter further into the film — these facets of Sunless link directly, indirectly, and obliquely with La Jetée, Marker’s famous time-travel film of 1962.

There is, in fact, a similar gap between scene one of Iceland and the volcanic reversal (history forgetting itself and leaving a wound, as the figure runs in another section of Sans Soleil) as exists between Marker’s two films — approximately twenty years. We see another filmic gap in the English version of Le Fond de l’air est rouge, Cat Without a Grin, which adds a new ending dialectically reflecting on the gap between 1977, the year of the completion of the first, and 1988, when the film was translated and re-edited for showing on British television.

The same melancholy of the temporal gap and of memory’s associative reappraisal comes into play: akin to Benjamin’s concept of history from the present, a present which views micrologically that which is a prehistory of itself but suffers separation from it by the immense gravity of ruin, decay, collapse.

This is the gap of the sunless world — a wound, or rather a constellation of wounds which infect the memory, and which find themselves occasionally transcribed into other media having lost none of their power. The image is fragmented, but salvaged by a word; words and images seek each other like two halves of a desiring equation, like one of the images of love in Plato’s Symposium.

This formation is a kind of antidote to the agonistic portrayal of the components of the emblem, a portrayal which commands Lessing’s Laokoon1, newspaper practice, and the pitfalls of a major slice of modern documentary film practice.

La Jetée is even, as I see it this time, directly referred to in the section on Hitchcock’s Vertigo and San(s) Francisco. Kim Novak points to the tree calendar, to the death of a tree which transforms it into a kind of reference point for the relativity of perspective etched into both Marker films, a radical concept of time which offers us the prospect of its nonlinear traversal. Marker says: this scene occurs in Hitchcock’s film “and in another film.” The reference to La Jetée is quickly executed; in this, it points to a fundamental reduction of the self-portrait or authorial signature into interstitial moments which are nods, hints, brief unveilings within greater obscurity of agency and self-reference.

Like Benjamin, Marker finds it difficult to speak in the first person and often opts out of this scenario of direct communication; neither, however, reject the I; in fact, the whole work of construction, arrangement, composition, architectonics concurrently take on the signature and even aspects of a theoretical and sensual desire.

One of the bases of this desire is the act of traversing, traveling, expanding the self through an immense and ongoing encounter with experience in the guise of material detail, which an exacting intelligence then goes over with the care of a painter. This travel is not metaphorical but practiced, and it involves a literal descent into the archive, of two types: the dust of the library and the fragments of memory. Both are types of time-travel and trace the engravings of time, legible, half-legible, and illegible.

It is no wonder that the dominant atmosphere in Benjamin and Marker is melancholia, the scent that of the collector wiping the dust off the foreign, and never returning home. Memory is a collection of images and has been slowly externalized, into the apparatus of writing and recording, into the “electronic bible” which Sans Soleil evokes. “How did humans remember before they taped, filmed, photographed?” Marker asks himself this question as a veiled and retrospective autobiographical self-interrogation.

The film, as memory itself, submits to the distortions of the fallible, and accedes to the colorized and abstracted images of Hayao’s Zone, “homage to Tarkovsky,” who in turn is revealed as a major presence in Marker’s spiritualization. The spiritual turn is brought out in the focus on ceremonies and in the commentary’s obsession with the partition between life and death. This strain of the film is akin on some levels to an orientalist discourse on Japan as other, but the clichés are couched in quotation marks, and the visual detail given minute attention.

Essaistic conclusions are provisional; they brush at the truth but contain a good dose of humor, and offer many outlets, resonances, chain reactions of thought in their wake. They do not claim to solve the hermeneutic intricacies of the visual image, but can on the other hand go so far as to hint at the mystery of the conjoining of the ear and the eye. There are, in other words, moments of an intense and fervent meta-commentary in Sans Soleil; these moments are like epiphanies and hit one unawares, always in or near to the gesture of self-effacement. The willingness to erase translates as a capacity for speed, for the blurred image which registers only subliminally in the sensory system of the spectator.

Such indeed is the situation of the tourist, whose journey is from ignorance and groping, unseeing movement through a foreign social space, towards a secret knowledge of the place, a place such as Tokyo. Places abound in this film: one focus is the interstitial — shots at the beginning of Japanese asleep on a ferry are echoed by Tokyo commuters sleeping on the train. The story of trans-portation and the odd connections with the medium of film are told allegorically, in a tale of traveling, sleeping, dreaming, drifting off into imaginary worlds which are themselves like small films, pulling in as they do fragments of the experienced real, of television, of the mythological image, comic, city street — all the phantasmagoria.

This may be a “cinema of the real” but it is no longer strictly documentary; the real expands to enclose the irreal, imagined, hallucinated, and dreamt. Marker documents and then splices in his projection of the dream state, the astral and unconscious material barely hidden behind every appearance, though historically resistant to cinematic inscription. But for him, to document is to already transform into a lived dream, to bring out the singular aspects of subjects and objects, and their mutable relations. As Adorno playfully asserts in Minima Moralia, “In the nineteenth century the Germans painted their dream and the outcome was invariably vegetable. The French needed only to paint a vegetable and it was already a dream.”

The objects look back (“les objects m’aperçoivent”), as Klee said, and they also infiltrate every corner of the world. Department store steps are musical instruments, image and advertisement are everywhere. Marker finds a living cinema in Tokyo, a city on display constantly and basking in the proliferation of the image and the media landscape (as in a scene of a few poor men watching a huge bank of TV screens displaying a major sumo wrestling match).

There is a surveillance of the viewer by Japanese television — the eyes of prostrate women look straight into ours. The gaze is male and murderous — filming at its extreme is murder, as it preserves but also kills memory, and Marker cannot circumnavigate desire in his filming. In short, a visual adulation of women, a voyeurism, suffuses Sans Soleil, as it does many of his films, as well as his immense photographic oeuvre. “La photo, c’est la chasse, c’est l’instinct de chasse sans l’envie de tuer. C’est la chasse des anges…”2

Women are the other within the societies he traverses and records, and he from the outside; a syllogism is offered to the viewer, the site of an identification which is realized when Marker remarks of the Bissau women: “Women have always possessed a grain of indestructibility, and it has been man’s task to make her realize this as late as possible. But after seeing these African women [in the market], I wouldn’t bet on the men.” There is then the corresponding, earlier, shot of the woman who skirts the camera with her eye as it is focused directly upon her for what might be taken as an uncomfortable length. Finally, she gazes directly into the camera; this moment is clocked at 1/24 of a second, the length, as we are informed, of a single film frame. He is himself thereby revealed, vulnerable, an unmasked Человек с кино-аппаратом.

Marker’s veiled commentary takes this frame, this cinematic atom, into a critique of the rule in filmmaking to avoid direct eye contact with the camera; Sans Soleil strives for the perpendicular focus on the human face — this occurs in the train sequence in a kind of eerie eavesdropping on the sleeping, still upright passengers, whose portraits are taken. (Photos of the same subject matter appear in Marker’s photo-essay books Le Dépays and Staring Back).3

Film at the Limits of the Visible

Magic, which is to be filmed, leaves the residue of an enigma beneath the visually recorded/transcribed surface. One of the roles of commentary in film-magic is to reveal what the image as such leaves obscure; montage can perform this same function because it enables a play of analogies or correspondences that suggest and imply the beyond-the-visible.

Such is the case with the train sequences of Sans Soleil in which Japanese passengers, having fallen asleep, are supplied in the montage with dream images spliced into shots of them with eyes closed, drifting off.

We go from the documented exterior to the imagined or projected interior in accord with Marker’s speculation earlier in the commentary about the dream nature of the whole of Tokyo, condensed in the long hypnotic shot of small tickets being given up to enter the subway. These tickets (in this scene preceding the train-dream sequence) are re-figured as entrance slips to the dream city, a kind of collective phantasmagoria which is the “ultimate film.”

This ultimate film resonates with Marker’s idea of the perfection of memory in the “magnetic Bible” of the future that is ascribed the date 4001; together they provide important moments of metaphysical elaboration: limit situations that film as a memory system confronts, consisting of related notions of simultaneity, full memory, archival event horizons, and the slippage of exhaustive documentation into dreamscape, a cinema of the invisible, beyond the thin partition which separates life from death (as a related thematic of Marker’s discourse on Japan explores).

Proximate to full memory is the threat of a grand oblivion, and this proximity is treated explicitly as well. Memory, we hear early in the film, is not the obverse of forgetting but its “lining.” Memory and forgetting are trails on a singular Moebius strip that frustrates or undermines their differentiation, philosophic and cinematic. Marker translates this membrane, this lining, into one of the fils conducteurs of Sans Soleil; it is not left intact, but found to be violated — the wound becomes the one survival, the one locus of continuity in history and memory, because the “progress” of each is seen to be a violent one.

History and memory are nonetheless incompatible; the one is the wound of the other. The loss of individual life is figured multiply: in the quotation of a farewell letter of a kamikaze pilot who dreams of a free Japan and confesses that his mission relegates him to becoming a machine (or man-machine), entirely expendable in the greater war — memory obliterated by history. There is also a key sequence of the death, or rather murder, of a giraffe, which forms one of the most painful moments of spectatorship; we hear the gunshot and see blood spurting from twin holes on either side of the giraffe’s long neck. We see it stumble, and its legs give out and are then witness to the vultures which descend on the helpless, awkward creature.

Marker creates a quite singular and personal version of Eisenstein’s symbolic film, with its layers of effects, its woven patterns of space and time, and its conceptual basis. The homage to Eisenstein which opens his 1977 film Le Fond de l’air est rouge (later re-edited and released in English as A Grin Without a Cat), in the form of an essay on the Odessa steps, returns here more structurally and more subtly, in the direction of what can only be described as a set of interrelated thematics with moments of climax in a symbol which condenses what has been seen or is to be seen in a knot, a nexus of intensity or metaphoric takeover.

This sequence encodes Marker’s profound compassion for animals, which suffuses all of Sans Soleil and many other of his films as well, and it takes on the weight of visual allegory for his verbal speculations on “survival.” Early on, Africa and Japan are introduced as the explicit topics (literally, places of discourse, sites of memory, and seats of arguments as in rhetorical tradition); they are designated as the “two extreme poles of survival.”

Africa and Japan are linked through visual and philosophic means, visually through sequences of public celebrations — Carnival in Bissau (borrowed footage), a parade/dance in Tokyo, Shinjuku youth culture dances, African women in a marketplace, a military medal awarding ceremony conducted by Amilcar Cabral, as well as diverse ceremonies of acknowledging and commemorating death.

Apart from and before the giraffe, we are shown several dead animals in the sub-Sahara, laid out in what might have been a pond whose water has been absorbed and whose oval indentation in the earth is cracked, parched, the animal dead, dehydrated, and recorded mutely by the camera without commentary. There is a very similar scene in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s first film, Reassemblage. Both are filmic gateways to Africa and attempts to transcend tourist—and even ethnographer—status. Marker’s essaistic technique of utilizing threaded association—or the fil conducteur, as he mentioned in person4 in connection with his film Le dernier Bolshevik — in which he tells the history of the Soviet Union through the story or Tombeau of filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin), is nowhere more evident than in the way he weaves various topics, themes, visual and musical combinations, which are cross-stitched, delay-echoed, textured.

Sans Soleil is a film about animals, but also political struggle; about memory and space-time travel, but also Hitchcock, poverty, guerilla struggle, dreams . . . . Both spaces and times (past present and future) are woven together. If the whole seems to contain notable sections and a segmented architectural plan, this model coexists with multiple erasure strategies of the cut’s perpendicularity.

Montage is put in the service of weaving, and this weaving is equally that of fabric as of a magic spell or the multiple returns of memories to the surface-screen of the mind.

Part of this weaving evolves in the vein of self-portraiture, a reflection on the journey of the self and its senses through space and time (we are the “third worlders of time,” returning to the past with the gaze but also the ears of compassion). Each scene as it finds its place in the structure/texture of the whole marks a lived moment — lived but mediated by the recording apparatus, and thus perhaps not fully lived but rather cut off by the intervention of the machine between the sense-body and the exterior.

The final film effects perhaps a redress of this mediation’s transgressions — of the intrusions of film recording between the subject and the world, and the appropriation of individual subjects through eavesdropping, surveillance, imperialist salvation. This redress takes place within a melancholic, confessional discourse, simultaneously one of erasure and self-erasure.

The “Zone” images abundantly attest to a kind of will to erasure of the real through technological transformation. It is as if the distortion of form, color, sequence, and (not least, as we will see) sound delineate Nietzschean, perhaps Baudrillardian, responses of fatalism, amor fati, gaia scienza , in the  pushing to the limit of a tendency, instead of backing away from its consequences toward a previous, less mediated stage. Technology, far from abandoned, is launched into the imaginary and begins interpretation again from the perspective of artificial intelligence.

One of the self-portrait moments here is in the subtle return to La Jetée, Marker’s film of 1962. Twenty years later, this film finds its Aufhebung, its preservation and destruction, memorization, and active forgetting. In between, Marker’s nomadic itinerary has taken him all over the world, and he has become a kinsman indeed to the character of the earlier film, “projected” through the temporal-spatial continuum, in search, though not exclusively, of moments of happiness. But the mirror house does not end there, as the inspiration of Vertigo on La Jetée deepens in Sans Soleil to become practically a film within the film.

Sans Soleil is a reprise also of Le Fond de l’air est rouge’s political themes, whose discourse revolves around struggle — armed, ideological, discursive, and of class and gender. This palinodic aspect makes the later film a kind of sequel, but one in a different mood or modality, with what one might categorize as the subjective underside of events in the “objective” political and technological world which Le Fond de l’air revolved around.

It would be useful to compare in detail these differences in perspective, mood, or modality to pinpoint the mutation of documentary into essay filmmaking with its higher quotient of self-portraiture, allegory, and the de-realization of the real.

The parallels come out in the commentary which accompanies the images of a demonstration at Narita, the long-protested Japanese airport outside of Tokyo. Everything is the same ten years later, Marker says with irony, except precisely the addition of the airport itself, “with its one fenced-in runway, more besieged than victorious.”

He speaks of the politicization of students, peasants, and workers in the 1960s and to note that the sense of community formed through the movements transcends the failure of their explicit goals. Marker pinpoints the paradox of success and failure whose mediating and transcending term is experience; experience can be relegated to neither of these categories but draws of necessity from both of them.

Experience is the category of the wit and atmosphere of Sans Soleil: irony and cynicism tempered with knowledge, poetry, and compassion. Both extremes seem to proliferate exponentially and even fuel each other, taking on the aura of a method, a hermeneutic, a way of looking through a kind of filter that doubles the mediating, intervening role of the recording apparatus.

What melancholy, cynicism, and compassion have in common is a departure from the evidence of the real, from the acceptation of the bloß Seiende (“merely existing”), which is the epistemological common denominator of superficial “objective” forms of documentary.

Here the essay film again departs markedly from this implicit standard. To pursue “critical documentary” is not enough; nor was it apparently an end in itself for Marker to film strikes and workers’ struggles in the sixties or, as the founding member of S.L.O.N. (Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles, but also the Russian word for elephant), to hand over the equipment to these workers themselves so that they could make their own images of struggle and protest.

Marker returns in the post-S.L.O.N. period (with his new company ISKRA) to a profound irony which his earliest films had known. For example, Lettre de Sibérie exploits the humorous and ideological possibilities of the renowned Kuleshov effect by showing how the documentary image, in its virginal, soundless state, contained a myriad of possible elaborations/distortions, effected by its radical ambiguity and by its possible interfaces with commentary.

Commentary often takes the form of the joke in Marker, but his humor is not without sly compassion, as Sans Soleil makes abundantly clear.

In his irreverence and wealth of knowledge and cultural reference (Henri Michaux was once quoted as stating: “Ecraser la Sorbonne, et mettre Marker à la place.” — “Tear down the Sorbonne, and put Marker in its place.”), Marker recalls two other contemporary filmmakers — Jean-Luc Godard and Alexander Kluge.

The works of all three are informed and traversed by Marxist discourse, but never to the point of an orthodox, hard-lined ideology that has purged all humor from its critical gaze at the real. Instead, the imaginary and the phantasmagoric facets of the real come to the fore and are drawn out by the paradoxes which spring from the dialectical and proximate potencies of the meeting of word and image.

The emblem is the basic form of this paradox and essay film reveals itself as what might be phrased a “weaving of hieroglyphs.”

Il enregistre plus qu’il ne réagit. Il est livré à une vision, poursuivi par elle ou la poursuivant, plutôt qu’engagé dans une action. Deleuze, Cinéma II: L’Image-temps

Daniel L Potter

Sans Soleil brochure cover
Sans Soleil


  1. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. Edward Allen McCormick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1962).
  2. Chris Marker, Commentaires 2, 87
  3. Chris Marker, Le Dépays. Paris: Herscher, 1982. Chris Marker, Staring Back. Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
  4. Screening of The Last Bolshevik at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), audience Q&A, 1993.
Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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