On July 29, 2012, Chris Marker celebrated his 91st birthday. The next day, his remarkable life ended. Marker was one of the last surviving filmmakers who came of age before and during the French New Wave, working mostly with directors affiliated with France’s Left Bank. While he was able to make different types of films, Marker was well-known for his documentaries and pioneering “essay films” – and for an ambitious short film that used only one moving image and the rest was done with photographs.
The man born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve had always been an enigma – both as a filmmaker and as a person. He never gave any interviews and also kept his real looks away from the public by not being photographed (save for a few photos during the height of his career in the 1960s). The place where he was born had also been the subject of much discussion (whether it was Paris or Ulan Bator, Mongolia, the place Marker claimed to be the place of his birth). He would spend time as a soldier in World War II before becoming a journalist and critic for the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema.
In the 1950s, Marker affiliated himself with the Left Bank movement of French filmmaking – which included future prominent director Alain Resnais. 1952 was the year of Marker’s official debut as a director, helming a short documentary on the Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland (Olympia 52). He would team with Resnais for two documentaries – 1954’s Statues Also Die, and as his assistant for the 1955 short Night and Fog, which focused on Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, ten years after they were shut down.
By 1962, Marker was developing his own unique style for his documentaries – sometimes combining his filmed footage with other elements, such as old newsreel footage and animation. He had gone to Siberia, Israel and Cuba for his works – but for what would be his most ambitious and most memorable work, Marker kept things remarkably simple for a complex tale. The ground-breaking short film La Jetée focused on a man’s time travel experiment, where he witnesses love and a death that both change his life. Marker utilized only stills for the story, save for one memorable use of the camera showing a woman’s waking up. It would become Marker’s best-known film, and certainly his most influential – Monty Python member and director Terry Gilliam would use it as part of his palette of inspiration for his 1995 time travel thriller 12 Monkeys.
After La Jetée was completed, Marker would focus his energies on his trademark documentary essay style – with projects on contemporary France (Le joli mai), the anti-Vietnam movement (Loin du Vietnam, teaming with Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard), striking factory workers (1968’s A bientot, j’espere), and actor Yves Montand performing for refugees in Chile (La Solitude du chanteur de fond). The 1970s and 1980s would feature more significant documentaries from Marker, including the political documentary A Grin Without a Cat, the Japanese-inspired “photo essay” Sans Soleil, and A.K., a biopic on legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa while he was making his ambitious epic Ran.
For the last quarter-century of his career, Marker would focus his energies towards digital filmmaking – even taking on T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem “The Hollow Men” for a 2005 project. Marker would also take on another director for his work, by chronicling the final days of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky for the 1999 film One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich. He would continue making films until 2006, with the short Leila Attacks as his last official credit.
Not many people know the name Chris Marker, even in the realms of popular world cinema. Considering his reclusive nature, who knows if he wanted it that way – but even so, Marker’s work as a filmmaker should not be discounted. He used different visual mediums to craft an immense and unique body of work, and certainly a body of work not many directors would have imagined pulling off. Marker might have been an enigma and an anomaly of France’s greatest period of filmmaking, but he certainly should be regarded as one of its most influential.