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Chairman Marker's Sans Soleil (1983)

(note: Chris Marker's 'San Soleil' was screened at Red Emma's bookstore/coffee house in Baltimore, MD on 11/19/2004)

Chris Marker's Sans Soleil is an intoxicating form of authoritarian indoctrination. Marker is cinema's Chairman Mao in attractive, Situationist form.

Sans Soleil is a seemingly spontaneous montage of communal, authoritarian and intellectually violating imagery. It is beautifully narrated by a woman of continental station. The "letters" she reads seem clearly fictional. The communal footage, about 10%, is almost always fluid and balanced. (People are often moving or at rest.) The purpose of the communal footage in Sans Soleil' becomes clear in retrospect. The most memorable example of it is the film's opening shot of three Swedish girls in soft light which is repeated near the film's close. (It is the only footage that I recall is repeated.) Like a great book cover hiding an awful book, the three Swedish girls serve to calm and relax us. The abrupt juxtaposition from the Swedish girls to the construction site as the film opens is the start of a journey down a sewer of world-class indoctrination.


The authoritarian imagery, almost always artistically directed to the center, makes up about 85% of the program. This imagery is always less than perfectly balanced, a calculated design flaw. In addition, it often comes in gentle forms; e.g., the most memorable being a close-up of a ceramic cat which has ironic authority.

Marker has a political subtext to Sans Soleil that is unquestionably militaristic and authoritarian. For about forty-five minutes he establishes a pattern of clear detachment of imagery, narration, identity. Then he abruptly breaks from the pattern with a striking sequence of cinema verite. Suddenly, we're living through the camera as guerillas in combat. An identity is established; the first time in Marker's film (outside of the letters.) He then returns to detachment by subsequently filming the rebels from outside their group. (He repeats: Cinema verite of a battle, rebels filmed from just outside their group.) Finally, the narrator compares the guerillas with the state-sponsored military they are evidently fighting. This is the most obvious moment in Sans Soleil when the narration matches the visual content. This is because we are being instructed on ideology. When people interrupt our own mundane lives to instruct us on ideology we always snap to attention. Marker has encouraged his audience members to relive their own mundane lives in order to trick them into the acceptance of an authoritarian idea not currently held.

About ten minutes later we see military brass escorted by combat troops moving through an unspecified location under imprecise circumstances. (The imagery is blurry and visually distorted so we can't see much.) The juxtaposition of the two sequences is arguably Marker's grand purpose for making Sans Soleil. Let's back up. After lulling us with a soporific soup of discordant montages narrated by a modern-day Greta Garbo he creates for us an identity to assume. We are now rebels fighting against power. Marker then has his narrator tell you there is no ethical difference between you and the machinations of the military state we oppose. Minutes later Marker depicts authoritarianism symbolically, rendering it distorted, unfocused and without clarity. So we are being frustrated us in a way that could be immediately relieved by working on behalf of a right-wing coup d'etat. In other words, Marker has conditioned our minds into moving in the direction of accepting right-wing indoctrination. He wants his cinema to be a catalyst for achieving a totalitarian state.

Chairman Marker

Chairman Marker is the Chairman Mao of cinema. Like Mao, Marker has taken a few intellectual liberties to wield the power he has. Marker employs intellectual theft as his method of brainwashing. Watching Sans Soleil feels similar to having someone tap a little hammer against your temples for a couple of hours. For example, when he displays headshots of Japanese movie stars he has not invented anything. However, the Situational context (i.e., his narrator as Greta Garbo narrating fictional but deeply philosophical letters) implies that he is. Understand, it isn't that Marker has ripped off the Japanese movie stars because Marker is not himself immensely intelligent. He's done it rather sadistically. Marker is engaged in a game of provoking his audience and making it believe the provocations are pleasurable.

Marker displays more theft with the Pac Man sequence. When the game first came out many people recognized the basic working class theater behind the marketing concept. However, Marker steals the ideas and pushes them forward in his Situational context. He knows that appropriating the underlying ideas behind a huge corporate marketing success is no small provocation to a young bohemian fond of Situationism. He does it anyway.

Another major intellectual violation is when Marker films an adult woman sitting apparently on a curb on a busy street (in India? Thailand?). She's looking in the direction of the camera. The narrator describes the sequence in world-weary terms; i.e., the woman's gradual realization that she's on Candid Camera represents in some way the Human Condition. Once the sequence is over we remember how very attractive, dignified and impoverished she appeared all at once, as if chosen from a group of women by a Casting Agent. Then we realize she has been filmed with a telephoto lens which maximizes the distance between subject and camera. Then her reaction to the camera seems rather perfect and in real life people can act badly when tricked. Little clues like these make you realize that Marker has conned us again. Contrary to how the narrator described it, this scene was clearly contrived and indisputably selected from multiple takes.

Alfred Hitchcock

Marker's greatest crime is the stalking and murder of Alfred Hitchcock. However, Marker leaves a subtle and elegant coffin behind. So, intellectually only the film buffs will be particularly aware of it. But we should all feel it.

Hitchcock, an artistic genius, remains the greatest practitioner of pure cinema. Like a chess Grandmaster, Hitchcock calculated all of his effects with incomprehensible precision. (In Vertigo, Hitchcock famously reveals the plot's surprise well in advance of the protagonist's discovery.) Hitchcock described his purpose as creating a common roller-coaster for each audience member to experience. This is diametrically opposite to Marker's approach. Marker encourages people to experience individual detachment. Marker is making a film where each person in a room of people will be drifting away to their unique mundane problems, hopes, fears.

Needless to say, the skill level required to move an audience through Hitch's rollercoaster versus Marker's ethically challenged, ersatz spontaneity is huge. Still, Chairman Marker has no problem revisiting Hitch's famous settings. He finds them aged and unlike how they appeared in Hitch's great film Vertigo. (He's also teasing us into thinking the film has likewise become dated.) He then has the audacity to take clips and narration from Hitchcock's famous Sequoia scene, installing them to elevate interest with his Situational context. For many film buffs the effect is like Marker having finally shot Hitchcock after having stalked him at length. Marker knows the scale of his crime but gleefully relishes in it.

Marker's use of Hitchcock's Vertigo for his political ambitions is a high level of cinematic wickedness. That's because Hitchcock rarely focuses his compositions in the center of the frame. When he does so (as in Madeleine's death scene in Vertigo) it is for dramatic emphasis. Still, Chairman Marker shamelessly steals from Vertigo some of its more spectacular center-dominated images for his center-focused, right-wing, Situationist soup.


Marker's situational context disguises the insatiable lust behind Sans Soleil. He's a cunning manipulator who weaves in superbly composed, balanced communal imagery to cool the anger he has deliberately aroused. Much of this communal imagery shows people living mundane lives; e.g., people hustling to work or engaged in other social traditions in groups. Chairman Mao also understood the value of keeping his audience contemplating the infinite dreary discomforts that comes from living an ordinary life.

When stripped away from his huge veil of lies and provocations Chris Marker will be revealed as Cinema's Master of Indoctrination. However, is he also something else? A flip side of the theory that Marker is the Devil with a Camera is that he is also emulating the Machine that defines the Human Condition, as we all exist enslaved by our hard-wired insanity. It is hard not to recognize Marker for the scope of these achievements.

Scott Loughrey
Baltimore, MD

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