Chris Marker in Search of Our Revolution


Nothing would be defined by saying that Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) is a montage film about the events of the last ten years. Nothing that has been made until now resembles the undertaking that Chris Marker has just completed. What he asked of the editing was not a history of events but a reflection on these events in images. In this four-hour film, he called up or recalled everything that raised our hopes and anger, as if to take stock of a political consciousness shared by all those who, in one way or another, believed and still believe in the revolution. This is announced from the outset by images of Potemkin (1925) (unified with the rest of the film by some beautiful red shifts) intertwining with recent images (the Odessa steps, for example, with other repressions), both undoubtedly (since we are talking about 1905) to draw a parallel between today’s outbursts and the equally fragile beginnings of another revolution and to underline the nostalgia for the Russian experience that continues to dominate today’s political consciousness.

Les mains fragiles” [Fragile hands] is the title of the first part. It comes from a banner seen at a demonstration in ’68 (or maybe ’67): “The workers will take up the flag of the struggle from the fragile hands of the students.” So, the title applies first and foremost to the 1968 movement. But the film goes back in time, first to the Vietnam War, because “it was Vietnam that crystallized everything,” but also, for example, to the guerrilla warfare of Latin America, as it appeared when Fidel Castro supported Douglas Bravo in Venezuela against the legalist communists, or as it imposed itself on the world’s reflection at the time of Che Guevara (this revolutionary action was also fragile where the guerrilla risked being “a spearhead without a spear”). These few years were to lead to the emergence of “a strange breed of adolescents” who would go on to make 1968 their own. Of May ’68 in France, apart from recording the radio broadcasts of the night of the barricades, Chris Marker does not focus on its sensational aspects. Instead, he records the clashes of ideas and passions: Geismar against Rector Capelle, Seguy against the leftists, workers and students at the Citroën gates…

That the second half of the film is entitled “Les mains coupées” [Severed hands] is enough to indicate that it is marked by the ebb of our hopes since May ’68. And first of all by the somber lesson of Czechoslovakia. Right from the start, Soviet tanks occupy Prague, with a bitter flashback to those other Soviet tanks that liberated the same Prague from the Germans. Further on, a very fine interview with Zatopek, an exemplary image of an honest man’s courage free of any pathos. Still further on, a great moment in the film, Jan Pallach’s funeral; sudden freeze-frames, a pause in the sound, establish a sense of contemplation and emotion. From these events so close to home, a look back at a more distant but still burning past, the Stalinism that “severed our hands,” sets the wheels in motion: to today’s Georges Marchais’s official interpretation of the P.C.F. [the French Communist Party] is contrasted Ellenstein’s more penetrating and flexible interpretation, and Semprun’s more radical one. The event which as dramatically as Prague contributed to “severing hands,” the drama of Chile, plays a lesser role in the film than one might have expected: no images of the Chilean counter-revolution but of a very beautiful speech by Allende calling on his fellow citizens to be more civic-minded, a high-sounding, blissfully optimistic statement by Marchais which, with the benefit of hindsight, takes on an unintentional black humor and, after the disaster, a meeting in Havana at which Beatrice Allende speaks – here again, documents that make you think even more than see. Apart from this great historical dimension, there are a number of events that take place around the world on a daily basis, which have fueled our hope, often without a future, or our sorrow: the death of Pierre Overney and the sectarian reactions of the C.G.T. [General Confederation of Labour], the institutionalization the Cuban revolution with the first congress of the Cuban Communist Party, its pompous ceremonial and devout litanies.

Throughout the film, Chris Marker jumps from one country to another, as if to make us feel the unity of the world in the great pulsations of history. He goes back in time to look for the roots of our present. And each time, he glides from one document to the next in a way that is not didactic but follows the free flow of a reflection: for example, the interview with the athlete Zatopek calls up old images of the Helsinki Olympic Games, where Marker has, more often than not, abandoned his former brilliance, those witty lines in which he once excelled. He has also abandoned his lyrical flights of fancy. The tone is serious. The commentary is sparing, as if to let the document speak for itself.

Even though there is a respect for the facts which is at the same time a respect for the viewer, there are none of the gymnastics that some people propose under the false name of objectivity, none of the comfortable balance of hot and cold that makes lukewarm people happy. When the film begins by showing American airmen in the skies over Vietnam, it is not to soften our feelings about the servitude and grandeur of the military; the airmen’s words lay bare, without any possible ambiguity, a terrifying cynicism. When we see Giscard’s debates, the Persian Shah’s jubilee or the major figures of this world at Pompidou’s funeral, it’s to point the finger at the enemy. For Marker, once and for all, “le fond de l’air est rouge” [the essence of the air is red]. It is only between those who claim to be of this red – Overney and Seguy, Che and the Secretary of the Bolivian CP – that the confronted documents pose an alternative. Here sides are not taken once and for all, but each time a choice emerges from the confrontation. In other words, the very approach of the film is identified with that of Chris Marker’s political reflection – the reflection of those who have chosen their side but who ask themselves, day after day and in the face of every event, what is the best way to ensure the triumph of that side and at the same time preserve the ideal it represents. There is an objectivity that consists in rejecting slogans and illusions. But Chris Marker's objectivity is, as he defined it at the time of Joli mai (1963), “a passionate objectivity.”

And yet, Chris Marker does seem to have a waning of passion. I don’t like the superior tone in which he talks about May ’68; even if it only ignited the flames of a party with no political aftermath, the spark of ’68 made a lasting “impression” on people’s minds, transformed the temperament of the nation, and that shouldn’t be treated with contempt. It pains me when he mocks the emotion he once triggered in us from the Pentagon demonstration... But it is true that this disillusioned Chris Marker completes the image of the time of severed hands.

Image from Le fond de l’air est rouge (Chris Marker, 1977)

Many thanks to Lucien Logette.

This text was originally published in Jeune cinéma, no. 107, (December 1977 - January 1978).

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.