Anne Bahringer

La Jetée & The Sacrifice: Memory and the Persistence of Time Travel

Anne Bahringer is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The following is a paper she wrote in May 2004 for a class on the films of Tarkovsky. It includes an examination of Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and Chris Marker's La Jetée.

Machiavelli said that a society is founded by great crimes and therefore should not be judged by its moral or ethical values, yet according to Chris Marker's depiction of being and non-being, in his film Sans Soleil (1983) we can be judged by the things we do and by the things we don't do, therefore, we can be judged by the letters we don't send which matter almost as much as the letters we do send. I, for one, have not mailed many letters that I should have sent and have not mailed letters that I'm glad I haven't sent. Which one will weigh more on my consciousness? I'll never know the effects those letters could have caused because they never affected anyone, except for myself. At this point in my life, I can look forward and look back, and I can go forward, but I can never go back. Perhaps what was given to Alexander and the man from La Jetée was a gift, more so than a curse because they helped save the lives of many people, even though they lost something of themselves in the process. That is to say, if the events had really happened... It is the memories of the characters that are so heavily relied upon for the ultimate outcome of events. Memory is the ultimate tool in time traveling. Faced with an atomic apocalypse, the world's safety and preservation is resting on man's shoulders and on the strength of their memories. Memory affects the choices we make in order to progress us to the next step into the future, but can memory be the key to taking us back into the past, not just in the mind, but in body as well?

We also judge others by what we would or wouldn't do; actions put into motion cause and effect circumstances that will determine the outcome of our future. Is it ethical to judge others by our own ethics? How can fate or free will alter this judgment? Given the opportunity, would I sacrifice my self to save the world? Could I subject myself to constant experiments for the survival of the human species? Would it be my choice, or would it be my fate? Fate is the cause beyond human control used to determine specific events in life, or life itself. Free will is the independent power to choose. Fate is always presented as a linear line, because in reality, we can't go back. If fate is linear, free will must be cyclic.

What would have happened if the man stayed in the future- at some point he would have returned to the pier to fulfill his destiny, because his presence on the pier has been fated before we had the chance to realize it- he is in front of us on the screen, but we do not recognize him because we have never seen him before, just like himself as a child. He sees the man die as we do, but the only thing we focus on is what the child focuses on - the woman. We follow the child through his life, constantly reminded of the image of the woman. When it is his turn for the experiment, we are taken along. We know what he knows, and only what he knows. We have no concept of the future because as far as we know the future hasn't happened yet. The child becomes a man, and we are distracted from the memory of the man shot on the pier. The memory of the pier is only seen through the man's eyes during the experiments, but he is fixated on the woman.

This one memory he has, has embedded itself into his emotions. The image of the woman he does not know has been the signifying force in the maintenance of his happiness, or rather his sanity. "Sometimes he reaches a place of happiness. A face of happiness" (Chris Marker La Jetée 1962). She is embedded into his ego to help manage his subconscious, and therefore made him an ideal subject for the experiment. He is sent back in time, to the image, recognizing her in the crowd of other faces. "Time builds painlessly around them" (Marker). I've never known time to pass painlessly, it must be like bliss, like true happiness.

But time must past, as the movie shows. It travels forward and back, ending where it began. The eternal return of La Jetée completes itself in a circle, whereas Sacrifice doubles back on itself. La Jetée exposes itself with a fragmented timeline. The present that the film gives us, at the beginning, is the beginning of the story, eventually becoming the remembered past. It moves to the middle, the time after the war and the time of time travel. The middle is where it changes the time line. They send him to the past before the beginning of the film, and they send him to the future. The past is written as solid, concrete and unchanging where as the future still has the potential of change because it has not been made conscious; it has not been made aware if itself. In the film, however, we are presented with an already determined future and that the existence of that particular future rests in the hands of the time traveler. The people who exist in the future have the knowledge of the past, his past and his potential future, but they refuse him at first. Perhaps they are verifying his particular existence and his connection to their existence, but eventually they realize his importance and essentially write their own past by giving him what his "present time" needs in order to survive and become the future. However unethical it is can not be judged by me or by the characters in the film. Their focus is on survival, where as my focus is on interpretation. I have the impartial view, not them, even though they know what is going to happen, and not me, and neither does the time traveler. In other words, I am the time traveler.

This is one of the reasons why I argue for the man's free will and against what eventually happens to him as fate. I don't know where his choices are going to lead him to, any more than he does. The script- the basic outline- of the movie is fate. His future has been, literally, written. But if we forget about the outside factors and take the contents of the film as absolute truth, then we can see the string of time that the man follows, blindly, as he tries to live the only way he knows how. His final visit into the future grants him a choice- not a component of fate, but of free will. If the people of the future knew what his choice was going to be, they could not tell him, persuade him or give him any hints as to what was going to happen. He had to make the decision for himself. His future, he chooses, is to return to the past, based on personal feelings and not based on pre-determined obligations.

Even though his life goes forward in time, his body ages which keeps as a time constant reminder that no matter what point in time he is in, he will always be on a path towards the future. The future is actually the past at the end of the movie. Here we have come full circle. The man is back on the pier, only this time he has a different perspective. It may not be apparent to him yet, but we get the idea that something is going to happen, the only foreshadowing Marker allows us, unfortunately comes at the end of the film. This extreme unpredictability gives way to the film's excessive closure. As the man becomes aware of the other man behind him, he too begins to realize that his choice to come back to the pier, to live his final days before the war in happiness, is actually his death and the beginning of the film. He finally remembers, therefore he too can claim that he knows everything now, at last, as the film draws to its conclusion back where we started. "The circle closes as the past reveals its identity (its simultaneity) with the future. The consequence is the perennial repetition of death" (Paul Coates Chris Marker and the Cinema as Time Machine ). This could be construed as his fate, but he made the choice to be there at that moment in time for his own reasons, not for the reason that the world's survival depended on his death. "Time travel backwards becomes a metaphor for the regressive movement of imagination and desire, for the split-second resurgence of the totality of one's life in the instant of one's death. The life one can traverse instantaneously has already become its own ghost; it no longer offers any of the material resistance of real experience" (Coates). We could speculate what he would have done if he knew the outcome of his going back to the pier, but we would be wrong in our conclusions, because there is no evidence that he could have known and therefore would be unethical to judge him for what he would or wouldn't have done if he had known the truth.

This dilemma reminds me of Alexander from Tarkovsky's film Sacrifice. He had the choice to save the world, but how was he to know that his actions would really work? How was he to know that his prayer had been answered? Was it a miracle or a coincidence? Was it real or was it a dream? If La Jetée followed a circular time line, Sacrifice followed an ellipse. The events of the Sacrifice acts as an envelope, doubling back on itself, sealing it, ending it at the beginning. What is sealed inside the envelope is the mystery. We can only speculate what really happened by choosing particular examples from the movie and from Tarkovsky's reputation to try and find the truth, but the truth is speculative. All answers are right and wrong at the same time. In this paper, I have chosen the miracle path that many have argued for and against. Personally I think that it was both a miracle and a dream; a dream being that Alexander found the courage to do something about the events in his life, rather than quietly living, passing the time in a marriage he couldn't care less about. He also gives his son the freedom to live his life, rather than suffocating him under his philosophical preachings. He had passed enough of himself onto the boy so that he can start choosing the paths in his life that will ultimately lead him to the end, but he wakes up to find that nothing has really changed and he is back in the trap he so desperately wanted to escape from. Desperate and depressed, he burns down his house. As for the miracle, it was a miracle that the world was saved based on the actualization of God by one man.

The miracle of the sacrifice relies totally on Alexander's memory of the reason for the sacrifice. Without it, the miracle is meaningless. The theme of both La Jetée and Sacrifice is the eternal return. Both are post apocalyptic, restoring the world and bringing it back from the edge of total destruction. But I suppose complete destruction of the world can be quite a depressing thing to have to fathom, perhaps the most, unless it's your birthday. Alexander is introduced at the beginning of the film as being depressed that it is his birthday and where the world is headed (into an uncertain future). He's trapped in the past- he doesn't want to get older, nor does he want to travel into the future (by simply living). He wants to bring the past back to life- a dead tree, his dead father, everything that he has lost in the past- he wants to bring back so that the future can be what the past was, but it will never be the same as what it had been.

He already knows what the aftermath of war is, he can remember the ones in the past. He knows that it is about death, destruction and utter sadness. He knows that if there were another war, a more horrible, a more destructive war than the ones in the world's past, the death, destruction and sadness will be so much more than ever before. This is why he, and his family, fear the onset of this new war and because Alexander has the foresight of the aftermath of war, he wanted to find a way so that his family would not come to know the sadness connected with war.

Alexander is a philosopher. He knows how the world works so he doesn't need faith in a god in order to make himself feel important. He will be the one who teaches his son the ways of the world, life, regeneration, philosophy and geography. He tells his son, "Little Man", the story of the monk, Pamve, who instructed Ioann Kolov to water the dying tree everyday, until one day, it returned to life. Alexander has instructed his son to do the same. How can a man, so connected to the earth and to worldly knowledge have a moment of weakness, break down and plead to God to save his family? "Lord, deliver us in this terrible hour. Do not let my children die, my friends, my wife... I will give you all I possess. I will leave the family I love. I shall destroy my home, give up my son. I shall be silent, will never speak with anyone again. I shall give up everything that binds me to life, if You only let everything be as it was before, as it was this morning, as it was yesterday; so that I may be spared this deadly, suffocating bestial state of fear" (Sacrifice Tarkovsky 1986). This may be a plea of a recluse, as Peter Green suggests in his article Apocalypse & Sacrifice (1987), but I believe it is the prayer of a desperate man in a desperate time. Perhaps he wasn't aware of what he saying, like praying because of instinct rather than ritual. By praying, however, he had denounced what he really believed in: philosophy. He contradicted everything he had said in the beginning of the film, in the speech he made to Little Man. His prayer was the ultimate admission of the existence of God, and the powers He possesses. The words were said and he will never be able to take them back.

When I first watched the movie, I felt that Alexander was really making a sacrifice of himself for his family. "Do not let my children die, my friends, my wife..." I thought that he wanted to have their memories of fear erased so that they may never have to remember that their existence was in jeopardy, their way of life gone, life on the planet eradicated. I thought, what a good father for taking on the responsibility of the memory, to bear it as his cross for the world, with out recognition, and without thanks. It was his choice to pray to God and to ask him to turn back time to the day before the attacks. It was his memory of war past, it was his decision to offer himself as a consolation prize. But was this prayer specifically for his family and for the good of mankind, or was it more of a selfish proposition based on his memory of war? "(S)o that I may be spared this deadly, suffocating bestial state of fear." The key word in this line is "I". It is Alexander whom Alexander wants spared. This wasn't a purely selfless prayer.

So what was to become of him? He didn't want to be burdened with the fear of this war, yet he will be the only one who will remember it, assuming that it wasn't a dream. (If it was a dream, he will still have had the memory, so the following may pertain to that as well.) His memory includes images from a previous war, his fear is based off of that memory. What he should have prayed for was to not remember anything after everything was righted. As it turns out, he is burdened with the only memory of the event, and because he vowed not to speak, no one will be able to distinguish the actions of a madman from those of a martyr. If he is a madman, the memory of the prayer will make no difference, but if he is a martyr his memory will either save his sanity by reminding him that he did a good thing, or it could drive him insane, reminding him of the family he can no longer have, the life he had to leave and the son he can no longer adore. His memory will be his destruction.

His memory is the only link between the past, the present, the future which in fact turns out to be the past. Like the man on the pier, it is Alexander's memory that is focused upon in order to save the world. He couldn't have a future that resembled a time in the past. He chose, with the direction of his memory to alter the future by taking it to the past. It may be his fate, but he will not realize it until he awakes from a dream and realizes that his prayer had been answered. Up until that point, he doesn't know if it will work, but still does everything he can to help it along.

He could have forgotten his promise. If he had, the War might exist anyway, either that day or the next. He would have lost his chance, and never get it back again. But we will never know what would have happened because that choice doesn't exist now that he has chosen another path. The untaken path, just like the unmailed and unwritten letters, disappears. They lose their chance for existing when they are not chosen.

Why was his prayer heard? Assuming that it was his prayer that was heard and that time had turned back because of his actions, why would he have the privilege, while someone with a stronger faith in God was ignored? As I mentioned before, Alexander denounced his faith in philosophy when he prayed to an entity he said didn't exist, therefore giving Him the ultimate form of compliment. It is the believer who is tested, but it is the non-believer, who suddenly believes with his entire self, not just on Sundays, who is heard. His sacrifice, should he chose to honour it, will mean more to the heavens than any alms donated to the poor. In other words, there is no ulterior motive. There is no get-into-heaven-free-card with Alexander's prayer. Despite the use of "I", Alexander honestly wanted his family to be safe, and if he had to give up everything for it to be so, then he would do it.

How reliable is memory? Memory can save our lives or it can drive us to do the most desperate of actions. We can make a situation that has happened, to be better or worse than what it actually was, depending on our present wants and needs. "That, for those of my generation, is the memory (an imperfect memory, but one that induces the greater part of our sensibility), the memory of or the kind of mnemonic damage caused by the war in our childhood: a primal consciousness of an era of planetary destruction which has lodged a soul within us, like a bullet or a piece of shrapnel that hit us and by chance reached a center where it could live on after having done no more than destroy a town or kill someone other than us" (Jean-Louis Schefer "Passages of the Image" 1991). The man on the pier focuses on the memory of the woman and enhances it with positive thoughts, changing it into an anchor that keeps him stable throughout the experiments, whereas Alexander's memory of war strikes fear and terror into him, so much in fact that he pledges himself so that no one else will have to go through that and retain the memory as he had done.

We may have a set plan, designed by the universe, but we will never know until we reach the end of our journey. In order to understand the whole, we need to understand the parts. The "parts" are the roads and the paths in life that are chosen by free will. Fate is the place we come to at the end of the roads. As I was taking a break from writing, I turned on the television to find Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (directed by Mel Stuart, script by Roald Dahl, 1971) playing. I came to the part where Wonka leads the winners of the golden ticket and their guardians through the long hallway that they think will ultimately take them into the factory. I thought about the idea of this "hallway"- I know what is going to happen because I have seen the movie about dozen times, but at this point, the characters have no idea what lies ahead. The choices they make are their own, of their own free will, just as Alexander and the man from the pier had done. I also wanted to mention, from the all-wise-Wonka, a line he said to the confused and frightened guests as they were trying to get out of the hallway with the only one door by which they had entered. "We'll have to go back through the door we came in from," said Mr. Salt. "No, you can't get out that way. You have to go forward in order to get back," replied Wonka. (Roald Dahl) He opens the door to reveal the factory, not the room that they had just come out of. They had to go through the factory in order to get out; they could not go back the way they had come. My meaning of this was that the past is gone, there is no way to get back to that particular place. We can only move forward in time, which will ultimately become the new past. Essentially, the future is just the past in waiting, and what we remember along the way will help us be able to chose the paths that lay ahead of us, ultimately leading us to our fateful end, which is there waiting for us, whether we like it or not, whether we want it to or not. The end is inevitable, it's the paths that lead us there that are open for negotiation.  end block

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