Digital Historical Memory of a Documentarian: Chris Marker

——From Level Five and Immemory

Tia Sun

Chris Marker, the representative of the New Wave Left Bank Group, devoted to document everything that has happened in the world through his works: “…from individual to group, from present to memory, from the inner stillness to the brilliant battle, whether it is simple means or advanced technology, whether it is the humble class or the grand history. ” Meanwhile, Marker realized that an objectively perfect form of historiography could not be achieved even with a variety of digital media. So Marker composed films in the form of “prose”, presented wars around the world through his personal travels; and used interactive experiment of multiple media to carry out historical memory. This paper will analyze the reappearance of the historical memory of World War II in some of Chris Marker’s works from these three points.


  • “Prose” Type of Archival Films

Exploring the relationship between image and memory is also a writing style of Left Bank Group. As a documentary to retrospect history, Chris Marker, like other directors of the New Wave (such as Alain Resnais), has chosen a more poetic expression rather than simply reorganizing the archives. I wonder if it has any relation to the romance of French or not. Chris Marker’s Level Five tells a story about a young widow, Laura, who use husband’s computer to try to continue weaving their love. During the search for truth and history, she returns to the tragic events of the Okinawa war during World War II. At first, she is still heavily indulging in her sad memory of bereavement. After she interacts with computer games to understand the Okinawa war, both public and private pain made it difficult for her to bear her own painful memories. Then she chooses to destroy data and denies these memories. The complex narrative relationship between memory and reality can be achieved with new, avant-garde media. Steve F. Anderson has mentioned “…even as content-agnostic tools continue to proliferate, we must ask whether the paradigms we have for thinking about the past have kept pace with the sophistication of such expressive platforms” in his article, and Laura in Level Five gives her answer. Through the video database of the game, the memory of history presented gory in front of the audience. People can not discern or think over when too much memory, especially the painful ones imbued in their minds. The memory will begin to become overburdened.

When Laura in Level Five named her theme for the plot “Okinawa, mon amour,” it suddenly reminded me of another film, Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais,1959). These two films show great similarities. Both films tell the story of Japan’s defeat and atomic bombing during World War II, as well as the understanding or witness of the Japanese war by French women. Themes are also eager to express the memory of history will eventually be forgotten. As for the differences, Hiroshima, mon amour narrative from the heroine’s angle of view, and her personal story is the main line of story development. While the database of the battle of Okinawa is the main line in Level Five, Laura is only a participant or a spectator. In other words, all the audience saw was the diary of Laura who had committed suicide before the film began. In this way, it is easier for viewers to appreciate Laura’s pain in witnessing the history of the Japanese war, to recognize her sympathy for the people of Okinawa, and to understand that she eventually killed herself to erase her memory because both remembering and forgetting history need an intolerably heavy price to pay.

  • World War in Personal Memory

In Marker’s films, individual and collective, footage and memory, geography and country, these rich and profound themes have been actively developed and coherently integrated with the style of “prose”, which is governed by “uncertainty”. According to some sources, Chris Marker was born in Paris in 1921. He had a great passion for traveling around the world and reported pictures. He traveled throughout Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Siberia, Cuba and etc, and capture these countries turbulent politics with keen eyes. In his interactive CD-ROM Immemory, we can see his footprints and his wonderful photography as a photographer from the zone of Photography. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Marker’s creations were related to his roaming around the world, especially in countries with the most revolutionary and political struggles. Perhaps because he traveled to many countries and was knowledgeable, his views were objective and hardly inclined to one side. Nevertheless, the ability to record history from an individual’s memory is always limited.

During this period, Mark collaborated extensively with other filmmakers and produced many World War II documentaries, such as Far From Vietnam(1967), and Statues also die(1953), a documentary he co-produced with Alain Resnais, is a whipping of French colonial rule in black Africa. In this film, viewers easily pity for African and show indignation on what the French have done. However, in Alain Resnais’s another film, Night and Fog(1955), he reproduced the tragic experience of Jews in Auschwitz, where there was deep sympathy for the French. If audiences watch these two films together, they will be able to judge objectively. This is what a war should be. The strong sometimes will be the weak, and the weak sometimes are the strong. Maybe that is why Rosenstone asked: “Do the visual history add to or detract from our knowledge of the past?.” In Level Five, Nagisa Oshima,a Japanese director also mentioned that the Japanese war movies always stand on their own position, which only shows the suffering of Japanese from one-sided or how brave the Japanese soldiers are. Although the database of historical memory may be infinite, as an individual exploration, there is no way to exhaust information. Spectators should not judge the whole historical truth through the limited historical memory they merely get. It is easy for the audience to stop from Laura’s point of view, deploring what happened to Japan, but if Laura also sees the Nanjing massacre by Japanese in China, she might end up making a different decision.

  • Multiple media experiments

After the baptism of radical bigotry in the 60-70’s and the return of conservatism in the 1980’s, Marker began to reflect and adjust his creation. However, unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s return to dramatic film, Mark did not make a genre compromise but instead shifting the theme of his work from a focus on reality to a continuing exploration of personal memory and history. Its basic feature was operating multiple experiments on the media.

Anderson also refers that increasingly powerful digital tools for storing, retrieving, and combining historical information now impact the way the past is conceived and reconstructed. All new technologies, such as CD-ROM or computers, provided Marker with the means to extend his research. The CD-ROM of Immemory and hypertext connections were refreshing at that time. His world of memory made up of different visual media, which made nostalgia and tracing into a kind of “non-memory”, a ruminating and arguing about normal memory, or an extended, imaginative path and journey as he proposed. The use of digital media applied his personal memory to the world’s public memory, which is a good way to make it immortal

After entering the information age with personal computers as the core, his creation seems to be inspired and expanded again. Level Five is considered as Marker’s most important late work. Here Marker’s question is: when new technology is heavily democratized and popularized, can we get some new cognitive standard from it? Anderson says that the goal of thinking about historiography is not accuracy and factuality but rather recombinant multiplicity. “Objectivity is not reason, but passion and diversity.” Chris Marker later declared with conviction. The mutual invasion of reality and virtual has reached a new level: the Internet and video games become the new “mythology” , Memory, however, can introduce the past into the present through this new state of the world. The OWL in Level Five is Marker’s more idealized, futuristic gaming device that stores “past, present and future.” Laura, as one of the representatives, shows us one of the possibilities.


  • Conclusion

Whether from Level Five, Immemory or some other works of Marker, we can see his strong sense of historical responsibility, using prose form, personal experience and the combination of digital media to record the history he has witnessed. Although a little less than perfect, it offered us a way to pursue historical mysteries and truths through Chris Marker’s digital memory.



Work Cited/Reference


[1]Steve F.Anderson.“Technologies of History-Vectors interactive version.” Digital/ Future History lab,1968.

[2]Steve F. Anderson.” Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History”

[3]Robert A. Rosenstone. ”To See the Past”, History on Film/Film on History,2006.