“Legends are born out of the need to decipher the indecipherable” (Marker, 1983), or so writes the character of Sandor Krasna in Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983). Marker’s film is a meditation on memory, history and spirituality; a kind of apocryphal documentary that uses the composition and juxtapostion of its semi-fictitious footage in an attempt to reveal the truths of human nature.
Marker constructs his film around the device of narrator reading letters from a fictional character. He uses these letters to pose questions and investigate lines of thought, philosophizing about how we create, record and disseminate our memories. Much of his film focuses on the interplay between individual, collective and cultural memories, making links between the personal memories of a pet cat to the collective memories of war and the cultural memories of mythology and religion: “We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten”. (Marker, 1983)
Marker uses the fictional Sandor Krasna as his avatar, asking how we recorded our memories and our history in a pre-celluloid world:
I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed. (Marker, 1983)
A large portion of Sans Soleil is set in Japan. Marker uses this setting very effectively to investigate his themes by exploiting the unique cultural juxtaposition of Japan’s deeply spiritual, mythological history and the cultural trauma inflicted by the Second World War and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He writes that in Japan “I’ve heard this sentence: The partition that separates life from death does not appear so thick to us as it does to a Westerner.” (Marker, 1983)
The human need for mythology as a way to make order out of chaos is something that fascinates me, and Marker muses on this point in Sans Soleil, noting that an exhibition of Vatican treasures draws a huge crowd in Tokyo despite the small number of Japanese Roman Catholics. He writes that “there’s also the fascination associated with the sacred, even when it’s someone else’s”. (Marker, 1983)
Later he captures the clearing up of a Japanese festival, watching workers collect the rubbish and burn it. Over this scene he writes “and when all the celebrations are over it remains only to pick up all the ornaments—all the accessories of the celebration—and by burning them, make a celebration”. (Marker, 1983)
The human desire to make ourselves feel special, to create our own mythology also appears at another point in the film, when Marker tells us the story of a dog that waited for his master at the train station every day, until one day his master didn’t come home, he’d died that day unbeknownst to his pet. The dog waited at the station, refusing to leave and locals starting bringing him food and water until he too eventually died years later. A statue of this faithful pet now stands outside of the train station. Marker, through Krasna, writes that “Tokyo is full of these tiny legends”. (Marker, 1983)
He also hints at the theme of finding meaning in the hidden when describing explicit game shows on Japanese television:
Censorship is not the mutilation of the show, it is the show. The code is the message. It points to the absolute by hiding it. That’s what religions have always done. (Marker, 1983)
And in another anecdote from Japan he writes about tales of a disfigured woman who takes off her mask and scratches passers-by if they don’t find her beautiful. This references the Japanese folk tale of the Kuchisake-Onna which has morphed into a modern urban legend. The resurgence of this traditional ghost story into a modern myth is another reminder of the human need to fill in the gaps, to make order out of chaos.
Marker’s particularly interested memories of horror and the collective horror of war. He contrasts personal traumas with the larger mythologies that becomes history. He writes about the revolutionaries of Guinea-Bissau “a thousand memories of men who parade their personal laceration in the great wound of history”. (Marker, 1983)
Marker adds to his visuals and narration by shifting between diagetic and non-diagetic sound. It seems to be another way to reference his thoughts on the fluctuation between the realms and parallel time-spheres. And he reinforces his themes by repeating motifs and footage throughout his film. Each time a piece of footage is repeated it doesn’t necessarily change, but its meaning is expanded. New context adds another dimension to the audience’s understanding.
There are also cyclical elements to the film. One example is the scene near the start of the film in which a Japanese couple praying for their missing cat, Tora, which is referenced again near the end when Marker writes about the attack on Pearl Harbour, code named ‘Tora Tora Tora’.
Marker makes another, more personal, reference when he has Krasna describe a film that he’s seen in which one character is trying to explain to another that he’s from the future by pointing at the exposed rings of a bisected tree saying that this is where he’s from, as he points outside of the tree, beyond its rim. The film that Krasna is describing is never named, but it’s a reference to La Jetée (Marker, 1962), in which the narrator describes this scene:
They walk. They look at the trunk of a sequoia tree covered with historical dates. She pronounces an English name he doesn’t understand. As in a dream, he shows her a point beyond the tree and hears himself say, “this is where I come from,” and falls back exhausted. (Marker, 1962)
This seems to be a way for Marker to hint at his themes of memory and history, by referencing his own history and our memory of it.
Marker also references Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979) when Krasna describes meeting Hayao Yamaneko, who uses a synthesizer to digitize and manipulate historical images in a place he calls “The Zone”. Yamaneko describes why he does this:
At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality. (Marker, 1983)
At the end of the film Marker’s images, the ones that we’ve just been watching, are transferred into “The Zone” and re-played. They themselves are becoming history and are exposed as merely images.
Sans Soleil begins and ends with footage of three children in Iceland. The film opens with a description of these shots:
The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black. (Marker, 1983)
And right at the very end we see this same piece of footage again. I wonder if this whole film was supposed to represent the “black leader” mentioned at the start, all leading up to and culminating in this moment. Marker seems to be saying that there’s more to what he’s just shown us than the superficial images, there’s more than just the black.
Marker, C. (1983) Sans Soleil, Argos Films
Marker, C. (1962) La Jetée, Argos Films
Kuchisake-Onna, The Mask of Reason, Available from: http://maskofreason.wordpress.com/the-book-of-mysteries/know-your-ghosts/eastern-asia/kuchisake-onna/ [Accessed on 10 November 2015]
Tarkovsky, A. (1979) Stalker, Kinostudiya ”Mosfilm”