Documentarian, experimental filmmaker, essayist, photographer, multimedia guru, and all-around Renaissance Man Chris Marker passed away in his home country of France yesterday, allegedly his 91st birthday. Marker had a long, accomplished, celebrated, and prolific career as a pioneer of what is now known as the essay film – a form of documentary that artistically investigates a thesis rather than seeking to “objectively document” its subject. Marker, along with other French cinematic pioneers Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda, was part of the Left Bank Cinema movement of the 1950s, a coalition that influenced and overlapped with the French New Wave.
Marker made many powerful and expressive non-fiction films, but he was perhaps most famous for his sole fiction film, La jetée (1962), a time travel short told masterfully through still images.
Marker was notoriously reclusive about his personal life and his past; even his exact date and place of his birth are disputed. Born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, Marker studied philosophy prior until WWII, when he joined the French resistance during the occupation. After the war, Resnais wrote various essays and articles including movie reviews for publications like Esprit and Cahiers du Cinéma, the film journal founded by André Bazin that many French New Wave filmmakers contributed to before endeavoring into filmmaking.
In the 1950s, Marker traveled the world as a photojournalist, which motivated his interest in filmmaking. His first film, Olympia 52, was a 16mm documentation of the Olympic Games in Helsinki. He then collaborated with Resnais on two landmark short documentaries: Statues Also Die (1953), depicting the decline of Western colonialism through artistic remnants, and Night and Fog (1955), one of the first films to utilize stock footage depicting the horrors of the concentration camps, and a film that remains amongst the greatest Holocaust documentaries ever made.
The 28-minute La jetée catapulted Marker’s name into international renown. In this film, Marker puts on full display his mastery of montage, his unique skill at collecting images and scenes together that also characterized his documentary work. La jetée remains a classic work of art cinema, science-fiction cinema, and French cinema. By isolating all movement in this story about a man forced to visit his past to save humanity from near-complete annihilation to still photographs, Marker was able to more profoundly depict the selective process of human memory as well as illustrate the associations viewers subjectively and actively construct when experiencing cinema. An audacious and groundbreaking work, Marker proved with La jetée that we don’t even need the most foundational component of films – moving images – to constitute a work of cinema. Perhaps only the works of the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou are the only other films with such short running times to have this great an impact on narrative feature filmmaking.
But if La jetée is the only work of Marker’s that you’re familiar with, I suggest exploring his expansive filmography. Marker’s later essay films A Grin Without a Cat (1977) and Sans Soleil (1983) manifest expansive, detailed, and ambitious investigations of the process of globalization in an ever-shifting present forever haunted by the past. But Marker’s most underappreciated works are probably his documentaries about other filmmakers. In A.K. (1985), his film about Akira Kurosawa making his late-career masterpiece Ran, and One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2000), a reflection on Andrei Tarkovsky’s late life and career, Marker’s skills at montage provide a surprisingly effective means for examining the work of two very different filmmakers who exercised remarkably different approaches to the medium.
Throughout his work, Marker displayed perceptivity, patience, and incredible ingenuity. His films were always on the cutting edge, yet at the same time they held a keen awareness of the influence of the past. The narrations in his works, even when translated from their original French, are standalone compositions of great literature; when paired with Marker’s uncanny imagery and skilled editing style, the result is truly one-of-a-kind. Marker is the standard-bearer of what it means to be a singular filmmaker.
You can view La jetée, Marker’s most celebrated film, below: