A cinematic essayist and audio-visual poet, Chris Marker was one of the most innovative filmmakers to emerge during the postwar era. Working primarily in the arena of nonfiction, Marker rejected conventional narrative techniques, instead staking out a deeply political terrain defined by the use of still images, atmospheric soundtracks, and literate commentary. Adopting a perspective akin to that of a stranger in a strange land, his films – haunting meditations on the paradox of memory and the manipulation of time – investigated the philosophical implications of understanding the world through media and, by extension, explored the very definition of cinema itself
Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve on July 29, 1921, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, the intensely private and enigmatic Marker shrouded the personal details of his life in mystery. He rarely agreed to interviews, and during his rare tête-à-têtes with the media he was known to provide deliberate misinformation (as a result, some biographies even list him as a native of Outer Mongolia). It is known that during World War II, Marker joined the French Resistance forces (and also, according to myth, the U.S. Army). He later mounted a career as a writer and critic, publishing the novel Veillée de l’homme et de sa liberté in 1949. He also wrote 1952’s Giraudoux par Lui-Même – an acclaimed study of the existential dramatist Jean Giraudoux, whose use of abstract narrative tools proved highly influential on Marker’s subsequent film work – and appeared in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema.
At the outset of the 1950s, Marker’s radical politics found a forum in documentary filmmaking, and by 1952 he had completed his first short feature, the 16 mm Olympia 52, a study of the Helsinki Winter Olympics. His first widely acclaimed effort was 1953’s Les Statues Meurent Aussi, filmed with the assistance of frequent collaborator Alain Resnais. Banned by the French government for over a decade, the film explored the rapid demise of African culture by taking aim at the exploitation of artisans by Western colonialists who encouraged the manufacture and sale of sacred folk art. After serving as an assistant director on Resnais’ 1955 Holocaust landmark Nuit et Brouillard, Marker further established his reputation as a fiercely polemical talent with such provocative fare as 1956’s Dimanche à Pekin, the next year’s Lettre de Sibérie, 1959’s Les Astronautes (co-directed by Walerian Borowczyk), and 1961’s inflammatory Cuba Si! He also provided scripts for projects including Jean-Jacques Languepin’s Des Hommes dans le Ciel and Raymond Vogel’s Le Siècle a soif.
Ironically, Marker’s most famed film was not a documentary, but a work of science fiction: the 1962 masterpiece La Jetée. A time-travel parable consisting almost completely of still images and voice-over narration, the 30-minute work later served as the inspiration behind Terry Gilliam’s 1995 feature 12 Monkeys. The next year, Marker returned with Le Joli Mai, an essay on Parisian political turmoil in the wake of conflict with Algeria. Upon completing 1965’s Le Mystère Koumiko, his dedication to activism continued with the formation of SLON (“Societe de Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles”), a Marxist arts collective initially established to produce 1967’s Loin du Vietnam, a pro-North Vietnamese Army documentary anthology also featuring work from Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, and Agnes Varda. Revived in the aftermath of the 1968 student and worker strikes, SLON continued issuing numerous agitprop films well into the next decade.
In addition to remaining active with SLON, Marker continued his own work throughout the 1970s with efforts including 1971’s Le Train en Marche, 1974’s La Solitude du Chanteur du Fond, 1977’s Le Fond de L’air est Rouge, and 1978’s multimedia video project Quand le Siécle a Pris Formes; he also worked on a variety of other projects with other directors, most famously as a co-producer of Patricio Guzman’s powerful 1976 documentary La Batalla de Chile. After a three-year absence, Marker returned to filmmaking in 1981 with the short subject Junkopia. Its follow-up, 1982’s superb Sans Soleil – a wry and complex global travelogue inspired by a series of letters – was acclaimed as his best work in years. Revitalized, he continued the next year with All by Myself, followed in 1985 by A.K., a portrait of Akira Kurosawa shot on the set of the Japanese master’s epic Ran. Two more biographical essays, Tarkovsky [sic] and Hommage à Simone Signoret, appeared in 1986.
As the 1980s progressed, Marker’s work became more and more dominated by developing technology. Instead of film, he worked increasingly on video, also experimenting with television, computers, and other multimedia outlets. For the latter half of the decade, his output consisted primarily of brief video work like 1988’s Bestiaire, Spectre, and Tokyo Days, all later collected as part of the 1990 collection Zapping Zone. In 1989, he also released the mammoth L’Héritage de la Chouette, a nearly six-hour compilation of TV material. The small screen remained his central venue during the 1990s, with 1993’s Le Tombeau d’Alexandre – a tribute to Alexander Medvedkin, the Soviet filmmaker who created the “film train” (a mobile film studio of the 1930s) – among his most highly visible projects. Always the innovator, in 1995 Marker created the multimedia installation Silent Movie – a construction featuring five video monitors, each randomly sequenced to show different films in a random loop – and he continued work on the autobiographical CD-ROM Immemory. In 1997, he returned to feature filmmaking with Level Five.
Jason Ankeny, All Movie Guide