Chris Marker is one of the most unique and fascinating filmmakers in the genre’s history, a man who documented the political world of the 20th century with a sympathetic pessimism with which I find some solidarity of feeling. I haven’t seen all his films, but La Jetée is a tremendously powerful short film of the Cold War, Sans Soleil is a wonderful documentary of the modern world, and his towering masterpiece, A Grin Without a Cat, about the failures of the 1968 era revolutionaries a nearly perfect document of the betrayal of hope after a moment when it felt like everything was going to change.
Back in Paris, Marker worked to develop that tone. It glimmers through the rueful narration of Le Joli Mai and through the scenes of stolen time in La Jetée between a time-traveling prisoner from a dystopian future and the young woman who loves him and eventually sees him killed. What let it emerge fully were the political convulsions of the late 1960s, which both revitalized Marker and widened his capacity for grief. In 1967 he got an invitation to film workers at the Rhodiaceta textile factory as they went on strike demanding time and energy to spend “on the cultural level.” When they bristled at points of tone and emphasis in À bientôt, j’espère (1968), the admiring film he and Mario Marret shot about them, he encouraged them to form a collective called the Medvedkin Group, which in the following years made about a dozen vigorous, formally adventurous movies.
Alexander Medvedkin himself became, for Marker, a symbol of a kind of faith he was rarely able to share. He had marveled at the ingenuity of Medvedkin’s films from the 1930s; later he learned that Medvedkin, in his desperation to keep working, had made a tribute to Stalin less than four years after the regime banned his greatest film. For Marker, the director’s life came to seem like a rebuke to “the present manicheism about Soviet history—as if between the Nomenklatura and the Dissidents, there were nothing but a shapeless crowd.” After Medvedkin died, Marker marveled, in The Last Bolshevik, that his old friend had maintained a communism purer and more devout than that of the regime that extracted so many compromises from him. Medvedkin’s faith, Marker suggested, was also a kind of trust in the power of montage to put the world in order. The Soviet director wept the first time he realized that two of his disparate images made sense together.
By the mid-1970s Marker seemed to doubt that his own images could bring such coherence to the splintered lives they showed. During this period, one of his important collaborators, the editor Valérie Mayoux, ventured into the back of the office of SLON (then renamed ISKRA) and came across boxes of unused footage shot by the group’s members. “There’s a film to be made here,” she told Marker. The film he made, A Grin Without a Cat, was his most tortured account of the defeats of the New Left. In Vietnam, an American GI gives enthusiastic live commentary of the carnage unfolding under his plane; in France, police beat student demonstrators; in Chile, a US-sponsored coup destroys Salvador Allende’s experiment in democratic socialism.
The resulting movie was a catalog of details—like Castro’s useless efforts to fiddle with a fixed microphone during a speech in Moscow—observed with spritely pessimism by a rotating set of narrators. It flirted with despair but kept it at bay, as if by the sheer intensity of Marker’s melancholy investment in the struggles he followed, the extent of his interest in the individual lives they absorbed, and the depth of his gratitude to the camerapeople who risked their lives to get the footage he used. In the film’s written preface he stressed the need to reunite “all those voices that only the lyrical illusion of 1968 had allowed, for a short moment, to meet”—before “the backlash came” and “everyone fell back into their self-congratulatory or furious monophonies.”