Visiting the Tomb of History: Chris Marker's Le Tombeau d'Alexandre
Chris Kelly is a freelance filmmaker, photographer and writer based in
Belfast N. Ireland, he currently co-directs a film production company called
MakeFilms with filmmaker Hugh McGrory and animator Glenn Marshall.
He is studying for his Mphil in Film Studies at Queens University Belfast,
and is working on a feature-length documentary and accompanying essays on
the French Filmmaker Chris Marker.
The following essay was written as an undergraduate dissertation in 2002.
It is published here, for the first time, with the
kind permission of the author, who retains all Copyrights.
I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't
photograph, don't tape? How has mankind managed to
remember? I know - the Bible. The new Bible will be the
eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to re-read
itself constantly just to know it existed.
Narrator from Sans Soleil
Chris Marker's Le Tombeau d'Alexandre (1993) is a film that defies
convenient classification.. Although it has affiliations to
the modern documentary tradition it also eschews many of its
more familiar formal and narrative tendencies. Often
Labelled a "cine-essayist," Marker's idiosyncratic style and
political tendencies have produced a large oeuvre of
investigative films that are as generically unstable as they
are aesthetically dissident. However there are recurring
themes and questions that run through Marker's work: from La
Jetee (1964) to his later works, Level Five (1995) and
Immemory (1997). All of Marker's films deal with memory,
"history", and the methods of writing and rewriting history.
He presents us with a picture of history that is not
complete and objective but rather one that believes in the
validity of subjective human memories, of histories, thus
refusing a simple, linear and coherent notion of the past.
This artistic vision and radical philosophy of
history/histories is particularly evident in Le Tombeau
d'Alexandre. Through its methods of construction Marker
gives us a picture of incompleteness and uncertainty as
seemingly random, aleatory and fictional as our own
memories. He provides the viewer (and Medvedkin) with a
series of contemplative letters that make no attempt at
objectivity but rather exhibit Marker's own memories and his
own processes of remembering. As with his later work there
is a non-linear narrative structure (a strategy brought to a
new extreme with the Immemory CD ROM where the viewer
chooses their own structure) and a constant juxtaposition of
past, present and future. It is widely held that memory is
always a retrospective representation of the past in the
present. Our memories selectively reshape the past, and are
reliant upon the particular medium in which they are
articulated to give them meaning. In Le Tombeau d'Alexandre
Marker articulates his memories through letters of
correspondence, and more specifically through images. It is
difficult to attach any notion of a set of rigid themes or
structures to this dissertation, due to the nature of the
film, so rather it should read more as a travelogue, a
journal, or a companion to this remarkable film.
"I have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering."
— Narrator. Sans Soleil, 1982
"To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed."
— Sontag. On Photography, 1977, p. 4
"In stamping photography with the patent of realism, society does nothing but confirm itself in the tautological certainty that an image of reality that conforms to its own representation of objectivity is truly objective.
— Pierre Bourdieu. Krauss, 1984, p. 57
The history of the documentary is the history of a paradox,
constructing truth through fiction, artefact through artifice, the
documentary often exhibits the language of fiction whilst presenting
itself as fact. However, as Baudrillard states, all visual
representations necessarily dissolve into simulations, thus rendering
the experience of reality through images impossible and for the
documentary this undermines any claims for objectivity or the presence
of the real in images. A cinema of pure fact is as impossible as a
cinema of pure fiction.
Bazin argues for the ontological nature of the image, (Bazin, 1967,
p. 10) citing 'the preservation of life by a representation of life,'
his argument is centred more around a kind of phenomenological realism
drawing from Plato's philosophy of ideal forms, rather than the
socially centred or cognitive realism such as that perpetrated by
Susan Sontag in her essay "In Plato's Cave" (Sontag p. 3-24) and Noel
Carroll in his essay "Towards an Ontology of the Moving Image"
(Carroll. 1995, p. 68-85. Carroll argues for a 'thoroughgoing
scepticism about the prospects of objectivity in general.'
(Carroll. 1983, p. 8) However it is the empirical nature of the image
that is of continual documentarial importance. Therefore by accepting
the shortcomings of the image as truth, we can analyse the importance
of the image as a constructor of sensory-experience. The inherently
expressive nature of the image, coupled with its ability to
investigate, to freeze frames in moments of contemplation, or to
record, make it the perfect medium for documentary since all
documentation is derived in some form from human experience.
Michael Renov cites four main tendencies in documentary
filming, (Renov. 1993, p. 26) these are firstly, to record,
reveal or preserve, secondly, to persuade or promote,
thirdly, to analyse or interrogate and finally to express.
Le Tombeau d'Alexandre seems to embody in both form and
content all of these modes of construction, not as
heterogeneous or hierarchical elements but as elements that
coexist symbiotically. Whilst rejecting the 'spurious
objectivity' of conventional documentary forms, Marker
employs an essayist method of expression, embodying
Alexandre Astruc's theory of "la camera-stylo". (Williams,
1992, p. 306) and fitting all of the criteria laid out by
Philip Lopate in his article "In Search of the Centaur".
(Lopate. 1996, p. 243-270) Marker's idiosyncratic and
subjective filmmaking is reflected in his meditative
narration and complex visual analysis, and Lopate thus notes
the tension between his 'politically committed,
self-effacing, left-wing documentarist style' and his
"irrepressibly Montaignesque personal tone".
Instead of constructing a conventional documentary, to deal
with History in a conventional manner, Marker rejects the
norms of documentary form concerning objectivity, authority
and pedagogy and we can see this through his representations
of incompleteness and uncertainty in his portrayal of
Medvedkin and his contemporaries. Take for example the
sequence where Marker presents us with modern-day footage of
Peterin and discusses his involvement with the KGB. The
actual shot of Peterin is augured with a short montage of
people praying and the musical liturgy of 'that church' on
the soundtrack, 'where icons are to be seen not only on the
walls.' There is a visible contrast within a single shot by
Marker, in the foreground, and out of focus, a woman
devoutly prays whilst in the background, in focus (and thus
drawing our attention to him) is Peterin. This contrast
between the devotion and certitude of those praying and the
evident corruption of Peterin mirrors Medvedkin's own 'less
dialectical' vision of the clergy in his film Happiness and
also reflects Marker's sardonic position on the questionable
validity and certain hypocrisy of the Church in the face of
national poverty. The shot of Peterin ends on a
freeze-frame, imprinting it in our minds and imbuing the
shot with specific significance and setting it up as a
reference for Medvedkin's own images. (See Fig. 1)
The next series of shots is from Medvedkin's film Happiness.
Immediately one notices the striking similarities between the
characters in Medvedkin's film and Peterin, their physical resemblance
is compounded by the recurring themes of greed and corruption.
(through the voice over in Marker's shots and through the actions in
Medvedkin's.). The narrator's ironic comment on Medvedkin's 'less
dialectical' vision takes on its full potential when we see the icons
and artefacts present in Happiness, also present in Marker's portrayal
of the clergy. (See Fig. 2)
However this comparison becomes slightly problematic when
one takes into account the footage that comes after the
excerpts from Happiness. Marker presents us with interview
footage of Chongara Medvedkin telling the anecdote about her
father's flawless recital of the prayers at a village
priests funeral, (See Fig. 3) this is accompanied with more
footage of Lev Rochal describing how 'a believer takes to
new ideals with greater fervour than an agnostic.' From
these interviews one perceives Medvedkin as someone who
would not directly condemn the clergy for its corruption
(although later in the film we learn of his hand in
'tapping' the monks) and yet is led by an abstract
ideological construct that avoids the individual and
reinforces the dominant (Bolshevik) institution. However
for this very reason it becomes apparent that the picture of
Medvedkin that Marker paints is not condemning at all, but
is in fact sympathetic, siding with Medvedkin's
individuality (although not neglecting his naivety) and
supporting the argument that his tragedy was being 'a pure
Communist in a land of would-be Communists.'
Throughout Le Tombeau d'Alexandre Marker creates an image of
Medvedkin that is incomplete and contradictory, yet it is
this inharmonious montage of imagery and information that
constructs the truest notion of the function and act of
Through the discussion on the functions and reliability of
remembering, Marker's stratification of images, sounds and
rhythms creates constant contradictions and digressions,
whilst paradigmatically retaining cohesion. This cohesion
is created and maintained through the mechanical
construction of the film, that is through its editing
techniques, and the pace between the shots reflects formally
Marker's discussion of montage within the content of the
film. Marker's form, as that of Babel's, transcends the
boundaries of the text to communicate with the reader,
outside of the text. For Babel his style condemns, for
Marker, it analyses.
In his analysis of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1926)
Marker reminds us, through the juxtaposition of a shot from
Eisenstein's film with a shot he filmed himself of the
'unique monument' at the steps in Odessa, of the possibility
of the image becoming maker, as well as bearer or meaning.
(See Fig. 4 and 5)
|Figure 4||Figure 5|
The narrator states that, "the image of hero's doesn't come
from life, however transfigured, but straight out of a
movie." Both images, carefully composed, shot from a low
angle to give the impression of a triumphant and valiant
hero, valorising the plight and the triumph of the people,
manifest within the image of a perfect man. Marker
undermines Eisenstein's inventiveness and frivolous approach
to representation and thus undermines his methods and
theories of filmmaking. Through his critique of Potemkin
Marker criticises Eisenstein's theory of Montage of
Attractions, and since it leaves no room for viewer
interpretation it must necessarily propagate
misrepresentations. We no longer look to reality for the
truth, but rather towards the re-presentation of reality
through the fictive medium of visual imagery, and whilst
this form of representation can provide what Chomsky calls
'deep meaning' or universal truths in regard to empirical
human knowledge (especially in fictional films), for the
advocates of a rigorous scientific approach to documentary
it becomes problematic to the extent of becoming dangerous.
This danger is due to the image's new potential power to
influence, misconceive or deceive, and Marker is fully aware
of this. The narrator duly states "nowadays television
floods the whole world with senseless images and nobody
cries." This is a reference to Medvedkin's discovery of the
potential for filmic meaning, we are told he began to cry
when he placed two images together and realised they made
'beautiful and eloquent sense.' This juxtaposition of the
banal and the meaningful, entertainment and art, transience
and transcendence can be seen as a discussion on what
Baudrillard calls the 'increasingly definitive lack of
differentiation between image and reality' in modern
society, and whilst Marker does not reject the rapid
technological advancements that are so readily associated
with Western culture he has shown a healthy and necessary
scepticism for the power and the status of the image. It is
clear from his later work that Marker has not seen new
digital technology as the end of cinema, its non-linearity
seems to be the perfect metaphor for his theories of the
functions of remembering and the limitations of historical
Marker's radical style of filmmaking eschews any
conventional sense of documentary filmmaking, instead opting
for a much more subjective and transient approach to
historical representation. His awareness of the ephemeral
nature of memory as a constructor of the past and the
image's inability to constitute "truth" has created a film
that places significant importance on the "archaeology of
the image." By this I mean that he uses images to represent
and signify memories, rather than objective accounts of the
past. This notion is expressed through the very form of Le
Tombeau d'Alexandre, it is Marker's construction of
memories, the past and remembering, through the
stratification of images and sounds, that makes the film so
radical in terms of our understanding of the cinema and its
formal conventions. His analysis of the past, and of
representations of history, either literal or though images
has created a unique form of contemplative cinema that often
takes, as one of its central themes, the cinema and its
methods of representation.
History / Histories
Postmodern sceptics state that the 'previously impregnable
hegemonic identification of knowledge with science [is]
being seriously disputed.' (Winston, 1999 p. 244) Any
notion of a stable history that exists 'outside' of our
perception, and is therefore empirically unknowable to us is
disputed on the grounds of history's apparently unavoidable
debt to realism (since realism itself is under attack) and
its dependence on objective knowledge (which is also under
attack). However these critics offer no solution for this
method of negative deconstruction, rather one should accept
the individuals lack of perspective with regard to being
able to stand 'outside of' and structure history and instead
attempt to tackle, as Marker does, problems of memories and
remembering. Representations of history are entrapped with
problems of perpetual transformation (through imperfect
memories) and the unending and unavoidable overlapping of
the past and the present. That is, our present
consciousness shapes our perception of the past and our past
memories shape our perception of the present.
So what are the implications for film? Where does the
documentary stand in light of this argument? The documentary (or any)
film can only pose as an accurate historical document in terms of its
own historicity, but it can also take advantage of its empirical
potential and this is exactly what Marker uses it for in attempting to
formulate a dichotomy between formal history and histoire (story). He
creates a dichotomy between the subjectivity of memory and Medvedkin,
and the formal processes of filmmaking, documentary or fictional, his
own or historical. Take for example the sequence where Marker places
Medvedkin's voice on the soundtrack, describing the state of the
Soviet Union after the Civil war, his voiceover is accompanied with a
collection of images, some obviously fictional, some taken from
newsreels. These images are used to support what Medvedkin is saying,
yet the relationship between Medvedkin's voice and these images
remains ambiguous, indeed the images may have been filmed by
Medvedkin. And it is worth noting Marker's manipulation of the images
aspect ratio and the addition of special effects. This tactic acts as
a method of analysis (similar to the "zone" in Sans Soleil) and
undermines the notion of objectivity through imagery. Marker
formulates an historical discourse between the image as a form of
historical document and the act of remembering as a method of
interpretation within the text of the film.
Since historians have previously used written data
documentation to formulate a scientifically structured literal
history, the subjective nature of film may seem contradictory to their
desires, but as Robert Rosenstone points out in his essay on Marker's
Sans Soleil, (Rosenstone, 1995, p. 152-166), it is not necessarily the
literal past that is of most interest to the historian, it is often
instead the relationship between history and memory, or between
history and remembering that can constitute the most (individually)
accurate representations of past experiences. This formulation of
ideas concerning the symbiotic relationship between memory and history
is of central interest to Marker, and Le Tombeau d'Alexandre clearly
reflects this. By discussing and analysing fictional and documentary
images of the past he reconfigures his own position as a Communist
within a modernist society where images (at least not mass produced
visual media images) no longer contain any ontological or
authoritarian value with regard to history, or with regard to the
subject's desire to place himself within a personal and historical
An example of this from the film can be found in Marker's discussion of Medvedkin's 'kino-train' or agit-prop train. (See Fig. 6 and 7.)
Medvedkin was head of the Russian propaganda train that travelled
around the Soviet Union making Social realist documentaries, as the
narrator ironically comments; "films made at the top to instruct the
grass roots, footage gathered at the grass roots, to be edited at the
top." Medvedkin produced documentaries that were designed to educate
the people (mainly peasants) about the virtues of collectivism and the
dangers of the kulaks.
These are Medvedkin's own form of historical document, created to
support the dominant ideology of Bolshevism and its mutations into
Stalinism. An additional difficulty with these films is their
motivation, although Marker argues for the "sincerity" of Medvedkin's
motives he still chooses to inform us of the fact that Medvedkin may
have been directly responsible for the deaths of many kulaks, due
entirely to his representation of them in the documentaries he made.
His decision to include this information dispels any doubts concerning
a selective representation of Medvedkin and paradoxically adds to the
image of incompleteness and ambiguity Marker has created, whilst
simultaneously reinforcing the argument that an image can be
dangerous. Medvedkin, in his work combines art and ideology, and it
is his negotiations within this condition that fascinates Marker.
Marker also discusses the newsreels made by Medvedkin, and he pays
particular attention to the army hygiene film, noting how Medvedkin
shows the effects of illness on a regiment with one simple dissolve.
Clearly impressed by his technical ability, Marker remains
non-committal about his position on Medvedkin's political and
ideological beliefs, choosing rather to include everything he knows
(or so the narration would imply) rather than to subject his subject
to a process of selection and interrogation. This ambivalence
reflects Medvedkin's own ambiguous and elusive character, (or again, so
he is presented to us through the narration of the film), whilst
indicating how circumstance can determine actions.
Again this suggests the inherent incapability of the image to remain
as it were 'outside' history, to avoid the bias and presuppositions
that are a prerequisite of the creation of any image, and are a part
of the nature of human perception. Any image, no matter how
apparently spontaneous or detached, (or how "real") goes through a
selection process that elevates what is filmed above what is not.
Whilst it is possible for images of the past to take on the role of
historical representation, it is important not to allow these images
(which are necessarily biased and borne out of the prejudices of their
creator) to reconstitute and thus reinterpret the past. Michael Renov
warns of the potential power of the image when he writes " No longer
should a culture assume that the preservation and subsequent
re-presentation of historical events on film or tape can serve to
stabilise or ensure meaning." (Renov, p. 8). The perfect example of
this from Le Tombeau d'Alexandre can be seen in Marker's discussion of
the Show Trials in Letter Four and his juxtaposition of these with the
Nazi war-crimes trials. (See Fig. 8 and 9)
This unique historical document embodies all the contradictions and
discrepancies in a chaotic aggregation of reality and fiction, where
the line between reality and fiction collapses "in a world of signs"
and appearances. The media coverage of the trials created its own
fictional world, no longer could Vertov be condemned for his betrayal
of Kino-Pravada for using lights to film Lenin's funeral when
stage-lights and even movie stars, (the prosecutors) were in
attendance of Stalim's Show Trials. The narrator comments, "in the
world of shadows you see strange mirror effects" as Marker repeats the
juxtaposition technique of placing the two separate images on
televisions within the one shot. (See Fig. 10)
|Figure 8||Figure 9|
However this time each image is reflected on the screen of the
opposite television, thus reinforcing his notion of the lack of
distinction between reality and fiction and concurrently drawing
parallels between the two trials. Here, in its most gruesome and
complete form the image becomes maker as well as bearer of meaning,
and no longer can fiction be overruled by document since now reality
itself becomes a well-scripted film noir, "filled with suspense."
The history of the image, as opposed to the histoires of its spectres
cannot necessarily be employed or manipulated (consciously or
otherwise) to create an objective dialectic whereby the truth of the
image is unquestionable or unsusceptible to change. Essentially it
must remain in constant conflict with the past it represents, and
without avoiding meaning altogether, be consciously aware of the
dichotomy between truth and representation that negates its potential
Marker introduces Le Tombeau d'Alexandre with George
Steiner's quote, "It is not the literal past that rules us,
but images of the past." Immediately Marker is concerned
with the relationship between images and the past, it seems
that all we have now are images, and our memories of the
past. Indeed, our ideas of the past are linked much more to
the imaginary than to the literal, we take an individual's
artistic (and thus subjective) interpretation (Eisenstein,
Babel, Vertov, Medvedkin) to constitute truthful accounts of
events. This makes clear that even Marker's film is
structured more around memories and impressions than any
objective truth, and yet objectivity is never a goal since
there can be more truth in anecdote and satire than there is
in the most explicitly realistic documentaries.
Notions of derivation are of importance when considering the
imagery Marker uses, like memories, he chooses imperfect and
incomplete images and derives his own multiple meanings from them.
And deriving meaning or direction from images plays an integral role
in the sequencing of the film, one image compels a certain direction,
or sparks an unconnected memory or thought that is then pursued by
The first letter opens with the image of a revolving statuette of a
horse, similar to the one in Medvedkin's film Happiness. Marker
comments on Medvedkin's fondness of horses, and uses the image as a
structuring element that acts as a kind of memory within the film,
provoking and encouraging different memories (and thus different
narrational directions) and the very sequencing of the film is derived
from such images. This introduces Medvedkin, juxtaposing him with
Prince Usipov, his contemporary. Marker then introduces another motif
at this point, placing an image of Medvedkin on one television screen
and an image of the Prince in another. By rearranging the images
within the frame of the TV set he refuses the dimensions of the TV as
the structuring force of his own film/images and he repeatedly alters
the aspect ratios of his chosen images throughout the film,
undermining any notions of cinematic stability or convention. Another
sequence or 'thought' worth noting is the documentary footage of a
parade of Russian Tsarist dignitaries before the 1917 revolution.
Marker freezes the footage and highlights the 'fat man, who ordered
the poor to bow to the rich' by framing him within a transparent
yellow box. Marker isolates an individual image by freeze-framing it,
and thus suggesting its importance. The ironic narration comments
"you don't keep your hat on before nobility" and, "Rule, exploit, kill
now and then, but never humiliate" this Machiavellian comment
foreshadows the polarization of the workers and the bourgeoisie
through the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties that led to the 1917
Revolution and the implementation of Lenin's ideologies and the Soviet
Marker comments at the end of the first letter how everything these
Bolshevik cruelties had stood for (the 'tapping' of the clergymen etc,
which was carried out by Medvedkin and others in the Red Army) were
collapsing in a world of signs, whilst we see an image of a statue of
the Russian emblem. These signs, or abstract representatives of
Bolshevik ideologies are dangerous and unstable, susceptible to
collapse themselves. Marker here points very wearily to the danger of
implementing broad ideologies on a nation of individuals and seems to
question his own political beliefs as well at this point. Also, the
juxtaposition of Medvedkin with Babel, one the enthusiast, the other
the inquirer, helps to illustrate Medvedkin's character, in light of
the actions of his contemporaries we learn more about the actions
(their motivation, validity etc) of Medvedkin.
As I have already stated Marker structures his film firstly as a
series of letters, but the structure within these acts very much like
a series of sometimes unrelated, although always investigative
thoughts and memories, he introduces us to a set of themes and images,
posing questions about them (very much in the style of other SLON
filmmakers such as Varda and Rouch who often introduced a scene in
voice over) and then goes on to analyse them and the memories they
conjure up. His method of composition is not unlike Eisenstein's
'montage of attractions' where images collide with energy and force,
although there is always more room for interpretation with Marker's
images than there is with Eisenstein's. The editing techniques, along
with the composition of the images he chooses to use, express his own
feelings on montage formally. By this I mean by its very method of
construction, Marker's film discusses montage and its ideological
implications for him as a filmmaker, the complex stratification of
images and sounds embodies his discussions on the complexity and
non-linearity of memory and the act of remembering. The constant
derivation of multiple meanings from historical footage (that is,
images from the past, and here mainly from around the time of early
Soviet Cinema) seems to help to place Marker's own beliefs into
context, reassessing what it is like to be a Communist now, after
Petrograd and in a society manicly driven by consumerism and
capitalist ideology. The images of Le Tombeau d'Alexandre are to be
constantly assessed and recontextualised. Previous images take on new
meanings once juxtaposed with others, their significance shifts
constantly and they derive their meaning through the complex
relationship each image has with the other images and the memories
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