Chris Kelly

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)

Figure 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)

Figure 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.'

Figure 3

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 remembering.

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 4Figure 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 representation.

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 framework.

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.)

Figure 6

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.

Figure 7

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)

Figure 8Figure 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 10

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 for truth.


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 Marker.

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 workers State.

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 they invoke. end block


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