Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

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


Last Updated on September 4, 2020 by bricoleur

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.

You can find some contextual information on Emiko Omori’s site Marker’s letter has also recently been translated into French, for an upcoming DVD booklet. More on that soon.

Sans Soleil blu-ray dvd film by Chris Marker - Potemkine Films - Feb 2021
sans soleil – potemkine films blu-ray dvd

Note: A French translation of this document will appear as an extra in the new Blu-ray DVD of Sans Soleil, to be released in February 2021 in a deluxe edition. worked with Potemkine Films to facilitate the contribution; my gratitude goes out to Natacha Missoffe for her hard work, generosity, and elegant correspondence.

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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