Jacques Rancière | Documentary Fiction: Chris Marker and the Fiction of Memory


The Last Bolshevik is the title of the film Chris Marker dedicates to the memory of Alexander Medvekin, the Soviet filmmaker who was born with his century and who died during the Perestroika. To speak of ‘memory’ is to raise the paradox of the film at the outset. Marker’s film cannot very well hope to preserve the memory of a filmmaker whose films we have not seen and whose name was, until quite recently, unfamiliar to most of us. Nor is this situation much different with Medvekin’s compatriots, who are as likely to know his films as we are. The point, then, isn’t to preserve Medvekin’s memory, but to create it. The enigma buried in the title (1) raises the problem of the nature of a cinematographic genre, the so-called ‘documentary’, and it allows us, via a vertiginous shortcut, to link two questions: What is memory? What is the documentary as a genre of fiction?

Let’s take as our starting point some self-evident claims that nonetheless still seem paradoxical to some. Memory is not the store of recollections of a particular conscience, else the very notion of a collective memory would be devoid of sense. Memory is an orderly collection, a certain arrangement of signs, traces, and monuments. The Great Pyramid, the tomb par excellence, doesn’t keep Cheop’s memory. It is that memory. There are some who will no doubt claim that there are two regimes of memory separated by an ocean: there is that of the powerful sovereigns of long ago whose reality, in some cases, today boils down to the material and ornamentation of their tombs; and there is that of the contemporary world, diligently keeping the records that attest to the most commonplace lives and the most ordinary events. It would seem a foregone conclusion that an abundance of information equals an overabundance of memory. And yet, everything in our present denies that. Information isn’t memory, and it does not accumulate and store for memory’s sake. It works exclusively for its own profit, which depends on the prompt forgetfulness of everything that clears the way for the sole, and abstract, truth of the present to assert itself and for information to cement its claim to being alone adequate to that truth. As the abundance of facts grows, so grows also the sense of their indifferent equivalence and the capacity to make of their interminable juxtaposition the impossibility of ever reaching a conclusion, of ever being able to read, in the facts and their juxtaposition, the meaning of one story. Negationists have already shown that to deny what has happened, it isn’t necessary to deny fact after fact: denying the links that run through them and give them the weight of history is enough. The reign of the informational-present rejects as outside reality everything it cannot assimilate to the homogenous and indifferent process of its self-presentation. Not satisfied with rejecting out of hand everything as already in the past, it doubts the past itself.

Memory must be created against the overabundance of information as well as against its absence. It has to be constructed as the liaison between the account of the events and traces of actions, much like that ‘arrangement of incidents’, that Aristotle talks about in the Poetics and that he calls muthos: not, as it were, a ‘myth’ that points us back to some sort of collective unconscious, but a fable or fiction. Memory is the work [oeuvre] of fiction. Good historical conscience can denounce this as paradoxical and pit its patient search for the truth against the fictions of collective memory that underpin power in general and totalitarian power in particular. But, in general, ‘fiction’ is not a pretty story or evil lie, the flipside of reality that people try to pass off for it. Originally, fingere doesn’t mean ‘to feign’ but ‘to forge’. Fiction means using the means of art to construct a ‘system’ of represented actions, assembled forms, and internally coherent signs. We cannot think of ‘documentary’ film as the polar opposite of ‘fiction’ film simply because the former works with images from real daily life and archive documents about events that obviously happened, and the latter with actors who act out an invented story. The real difference between them isn’t that the documentary sides with the real against the inventions of fiction, it’s just that the documentary doesn’t treat the real as an effect to be produced, but as a fact to be understood. Documentary film can isolate the artistic work of fiction simply by dissociating that work from its most common use: the imaginary production of verisimilitude, of effects of the real. It can take that artistic work back to its essence, to a way of cutting a story into sequences, of assembling shots into a story, of joining and disjoining voices and bodies, sounds and images, of lengthening and tightening time. ‘The story starts in the present at Chelmno’: Claude Lanzmann’s provocative opening sentence in Shoah sums up this idea of fiction quite well. The forgotten, the denied, or the ignored that these fictions of memory want to bear witness to are set in opposition to the ‘real of fiction’ that ensures the mirror recognition between the audience in the theaters and the figures on the screen, and between the figures on the screen and those of the social imaginary. In contrast to this tendentious reduction of the fictional invention to the stereotypes of the social imaginary, the fiction of memory sets its roots in the gap that separates the construction of meaning, the referential real, and the ‘heterogeneity’ of its documents. ‘Documentary’ cinema is a mode of fiction at once more homogeneous and more complex: more homogeneous because the person who conceives the idea is also the person who makes it; more complex because it is much more likely to arrange or interlace a series of heterogeneous images. Marker composes The Last Bolshevik with scenes filmed in Russia today, the accounts offered by the people he interviews, yesterday’s news items, film clips from different time periods and by directors with varying agendas, ranging from Battleship Potemkin all the way to Stalinist propaganda films, with incursions, of course, into the films of Alexander Medvekin himself, all of which Marker reinserts into a different plot and binds together with virtual images.

Marker makes with the real documents he has amassed and treated with an eye to the truth a work whose fictional or poetic tenor is—beyond every value judgment—incomparably superior to that of the most spectacular action movie. Alexander’s tomb is not the gravestone laid over the body of Alexander Medvekin. Nor is it a simple metaphor designating an appraisal of the life of a militant filmmaker that is, simultaneously, an appraisal of the Soviet dream and nightmare. The metonymical value of Alexander’s tomb is that it speaks to us about another tomb symbolic of buried hope, Lenin’s mausoleum. It is certainly a ‘fictional’ choice on Marker’s part not to represent Lenin except through metonymy: this demoralized head that the militants who joined forces against the communist putsch in the summer of 1991 gathered around in celebration, and on which kids can now be seen playing lightheartedly. The colossal, Pharaonic head with enormous inquisitive eyes of Felix Djerzinski, the man, it was said till recently, whom Lenin had appointed head of political police because he was a Pole who had so often suffered in his own body the horrors of the Czarist police that he would never build a police force in that image ….

A tomb isn’t a gravestone or a metaphor. It is a poem such as those that used to be written in the Renaissance and whose tradition resurfaces in Mallarmé. Or it is a musical piece in honor of another musician, like the ones written in the era of Couperin and Marin Marais, and more recently by Ravel. The Last Bolshevik is a document about the Russia of our century because it is a tomb in this poetical or musical sense, an artistic homage to a fellow artist. It is also a poem aligned to a specific poetics. There are two major traditions in poetics, both of which are susceptible to being further subdivided or entangled. Classical, Aristotelian poetics is a poetics of action and representation that sees the core of the poem as the ‘representation of men in action’, as the performance by one or more actors of the speeches that describe or mime the incidents that befall the characters, and whose arrangement abides by the logic that the progression of the action must coincide with a change in the characters’ fortune and knowledge. Romantic poetics abandoned this poetics of action, character, and discourse in favor of a poetics of signs. Here, the backbone of the story is not the causal continuity of the action ‘according to necessity and verisimilitude’ theorized by Aristotle, but the variable signifying power of signs and assemblies of signs that form the tissue of the work. This power is, first of all, the power of expression whereby a sentence, an episode, or an impression can, even in isolation, represent the sense, or nonsense, of the whole; secondly, it is the power of correspondence that puts signs from different regimes in resonant or dissonant relationships; thirdly, it is the power of metamorphoses by which a combination of signs solidifies into an opaque object or deploys itself in a signifying, living form; and, finally, it is the power of reflection that gives a particular combination the power to interpret another combination, or, alternatively, let itself be interpreted by it. Schlegel formulated the ideal union of all these powers in his idea of the ‘poem of the poem’, the poem that claims to raise to a higher power a poetic power already present in the life of language, in the spirit of a community, and even in the folds and ridges of minerals. Romantic poetics deploys itself around two poles: it affirms the power of speech inherent to every silent thing in the same breath that it affirms the infinite power of the poem to multiply itself by multiplying its modes of speech and levels of meaning.


This poetics complicates, in the same gesture, the regime of truth of the work. Classical poetics is based on the construction of a plot whose truth-value depends on a system of affinities and verisimilitudes that presupposes the objectification of the space-time specific to the fiction. The preeminent Romantic hero, Don Quixote, ruins the objectivity of fiction when he smashes to smithereens Master Peter’s puppets. Don Quixote rejects the separation of serious activities and leisure activities with his insistence on the coincidence of the Book and the world, which bespeaks less the folly of a reader of chivalric romances than the folly of the Christian cross. Romantic poetics replaces the space made objective by fiction with an indeterminate space of writing: this space is, on the one hand, indistinguishable from a ‘reality’ composed of ‘things’ or impressions that are also signs that speak for themselves; and it is also, on the other hand, the opposite of this, a space undergoing an infinite construction that fashion, with its scaffoldings, labyrinths, and slants, an equivalent of this forever mute reality.

Cinema, the preeminently modern art, experiences more than any other art the conflict of these two poetics. It is, by the same token, the art that most attempts to combine them. The combination of the gaze of the artist who decides and the mechanic gaze that records, of constructed images and chance images, cinema normally uses this double power a simple instrument of illustration for the service of the succedaneum to classical poetics. But cinema is also the art that can raise to the highest power the double resource of the mute impressions that speak for themselves and the montage that calculates their signifying force and truth-value. Documentary cinema is not bound to the ‘real’ sought after by the classical norms of affinities and verisimilitude that exert such much force on so-called fiction cinema. This gives the documentary much greater leverage to play around with the consonance and dissonance between narrative voices, or with the series of period images with different provenances and signifying power. It can join the power of the impression, the power of speech born from the meeting of the mutism of the machine and the silence of things, to the power of montage, in the broad, non-technical sense of the term, as that which constructs a story and a meaning by its self-proclaimed right to combine meanings freely, to re-view images, to arrange them differently, and to diminish or increase their capacity for expression and for generating meaning. Cinema-verité and dialectical cinema—Dziga Vertov’s train charging a cameraman lying level with the tracks, and the stroller descending with implacable slowness the famous Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkim—are two faces of the same poetics. Marker, poet of the cinematographic poem, organizes them into a new mise-en-scène. He alternates shots from the massacre on the Odessa steps in Battleship Potemkim with shots of pedestrians walking down the same steps today to make us feel the extraordinary artifice of Eisenstein’s ‘slow-motion’, his seven-minute dramatization of people running for their lives down these steps that a pedestrian walking at a leisurely pace can walk down in ninety seconds at most. In the same gesture, Marker also shows the infinite gap separating the artifice by which art punctuates a historical moment from the artifices of propaganda: the film of where a look-alike of the friendly Stalin sticks his nose into the broken-down engine of a tractor. The slow-motion Eisenstein uses to film this hurried flight becomes part of a whole series of operations with space and time, large and small, high and low, commonplace and singular, part of the system of figures that construct the space-times of the Revolution. Eisenstein’s fiction is a history making fiction, whereas Stalin’s look-alike is only Stalin’s look-alike, nothing more than a fiction of power.

From the midst the present-day images, the fictions of Soviet art, and the fictions of Stalinist power, there emerges the dialogue of shadows Chris Marker organizes with the six ‘letters’ he writes today to the already dead Alexander Medvekin. Sometimes Marker inserts yesterday’s images into today’s prose, as in the re-staging of the emblematic scene of the Revolution’s emblematic film; and sometimes he moves in the opposite direction, going from this or that ‘thing seen’ today to the history of a people’s imaginary. In a church in Moscow, his camera lingers on images that ‘speak for themselves’: a religious celebration alike in every way to those of long ago, full of ornamental and ceremonial pomp, burning incense, and the devotion of the perennial babushkas. It also lingers awhile on the face of an elderly gentleman who looks just like any other, though he is in fact not your ordinary devout elderly gentleman. In the congregation there is this man who, like Alexander Medvekin, is as old as his century and whose name, Ivan Kozlovzki, also ‘says’ nothing to the Western viewer. This long take of a face we shall not see again does two things at once: it puts the communist past and the post-communist present into the fabric of an older history, the one performed in the great operas of the national repertory, and it gives Medvekin a double, it furtively sketches the diptych essential to the elaboration of ‘Alexander’s fiction’.

These two figures could not be more opposed. Medvekin spent his life, his century, working to make the century and the Soviet territory the time and place for the incarnation of the word of Marx. He spent his years making communist films devoted to the regime and its heads, though these heads never allowed the people to see his films. He invented the film-train to be able to go into kolkhozes, miner’s compounds, and so on, in order to film the work, the living conditions of the workers, and the debates of their representatives. He had a lab installed in one of the cars of the train to be able to process the film on the spot and show it to the people he had filmed, to submit to their eyes, posthaste, this document about their successes and shortcomings. He succeeded, too well it seems: his implacable images of desolate groups of huts, of courtyards full of dead trees, of the meetings of pen-pushers, were all assigned a quiet resting place in the archives where only now researchers are uncovering them. He then went on to put the comic and surrealist verve of Happiness at the service of the policies for agrarian reform, but the fun it pokes at dignitaries, Orthodox priests, and kulaks is by all accounts far in excess of what the depiction of any ‘line’ calls for, so the film got no distribution. This didn’t keep Medvekin from celebrating the official urban planning in The New Moscow, but what possessed him to have some fun at the architects’ expense by showing, backwards, the new buildings being destroyed and the Savior’s Cathedral being reconstructed? The film was immediately shelved along with the others. He was eventually obliged to renounce his own films and to resign himself to making other people’s films, films that anybody could have directed illustrating the official line of the moment, celebrating the pageants in honor of Stalin’s glory, denouncing Chinese communism, or vaunting Soviet concern for the environment shortly before Chernobyl.

This is not how Ivan Kozlovzki lived his life and century. He sang Tchaikovsky, loved by the Tsars and preferred by Stalin to the musicians of the communist avant-garde. He also sang Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, especially his Boris Godunov, an opera based on the work of the foremost Russian poet, who was also much loved under the Soviets, Alexander, family name Pushkin. In this emblematic story of an assassinated tsarevich and of a bloody usurper whose plans are foiled by another impostor, Ivan Kozlovzki played Simpleton, who in the final and prophetic scene cries over the impenetrable night, pain, and hunger awaiting the Russian people. He spent his life and century performing these nineteenth century fables that portray every revolution as doomed from the outset and singing the suffering of a people eternally condemned to subjection and deceit. And he did so to an audience of communist officials who always preferred these stories and music to the works of the communist avant-garde. Lingering thus on his silent face does more than just release the furtive counter-image of another life lived in the Soviet century. It inscribes that face in a fiction of memory that is the combat between two legacies: one twentieth century inherited from the nineteenth century against another. These two ‘centuries’ of course intersect, they both deploy their own metamorphoses, contradictions, and reversals. And so it is that, between two images of the singer, between the old gentleman praying in the cathedral and Simpleton’s lamentation on the stage of the Bolshoi, Marker inserts another story of Popes—the ferociously anticlerical scenes of Happiness—as well as another meeting of centuries, men, and ‘religions’: Medvekin’s recollections of the Red Cavalry, where he served in the Cossack ranks under Boudienny with the later to be executed Jew Isaac Babel.

The fictional identification of the life of a communist filmmaker and the life of communism’s land and century doesn’t produce a linear narrative, and that in spite of the fact that Marker’s six ‘letters’ to Alexander Medvekin adhere, formally at least, to a chronological order. The first letter is about Tsarist Russia; the second about the first years of the Soviet Union; the third about the agitprop activities Medvekin stirred up with the epic of the film-train; the fourth about the triumph of Stalinism by way of the misadventures of The New Moscow; the fifth about Medvekin’s death during the Perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union. But this neat chronology is confounded already in the first letter, which piles together all these ages. The first letter, in fact, organizes a different story of life and death, though this will only become explicit in the sixth letter, where we see images of Alexander Medvekin’s real death, his living death while filming, in 1939, the enormous pageants in celebration of Stalin for a film entitled Blossoming Youth. Marker constructs his film in the interval between two deaths, one real, the other symbolic. Each episode, as Marker intimates with his polysemic title, is really a carefully constructed mixture of times, a pluralization of memory and fiction. There are, in the end, at least four Alexanders grouped under the one of the title. The visit to Medvekin’s tomb is sidetracked by the scene of a crowd hurrying in the mud of the late-winter thaw to cover with flowers the tomb of a more illustrious Alexander, the Tsar Alexander III. These images, like the images of the religious processions in Moscow and Kiev, are not simply the visual equivalent of Rimbaud’s line, ‘Society, and everything, is restored’. The kinship between these two tombs is more than simply a synonym for buried hope and for the vindication of the old world. It determines, from the start, the entire narrative structure of the film. Marker doesn’t try to show a linear transition from Tsarist Russia to the Revolution, and from its collapse to the restoration of old values. Rather, he throws three Russias into one present: the Russia of Nicolas II, of the Soviets, and of today. These three Russias are likewise three ages of the image: Tsarist Russia the age of photography and of rich who parade without compunction before the poor; Soviet Russia the age of cinema and of the war of images; contemporary Russia the age of video and television.


Marker has already suggested all of this in one of the first images of the film, that of an officer in St. Petersburg in 1913 ordering the people with his imperious gestures to take off their hats and bow before the passing nobles. We must make sure we don’t misunderstand what Marker means when he says he wants us remember this ‘fat man who orders the poor to bow to the rich’. It’s not that he want us, metaphorically, to store this image of oppression that yesterday legitimated and today might ‘excuse’ the Soviet Revolution. He wants us, literally, not to forget it, he wants us to pair this image of the great parading before the small with its counter-image: the enormous Soviet pageants that the small now declared great—gymnasts, children, kolkhozniks—put on for their ‘comrades’ in the official gallery. But Marker is not just having a little fun by confounding those well-established temporal systems, the simple chronological order or the classical narrative told in flashback. He is working out a narrative structure that creates a memory in the present as the intertwining of two histories of the century. This becomes explicit when we meet, in the image of Ivan Kozlovzki singing the part of Simpleton, the third Alexander: Alexander Sergueivitch Pushkin. But Alexander is, first and foremost, the name of the greatest of conquerors, the name of the Macedonian prince who ensured that history wouldn’t forget him by subjugating ancient Greece and extending its borders to the furthest reaches of the known world. And it is the name of the illustrious corpse whose tomb explorers have been trying to find for millennia: it is, in other words, one ‘name of Alexander’ that makes this learned history of homonyms incomplete, that refers the tomb-poem to the missing tomb that, perhaps, it always allegorizes.

That is how the ‘classical’ story of fortune and misfortune, of ignorance and knowledge, that ties one man’s life to the Soviet epic and catastrophe assumes the ‘Romantic’ form of this narrative that inverts the ‘dark land of time’, just as do those poems Osip Mandelstam wrote on the eve of the Revolution. Mandelstam’s had wanted to free our ‘century of clay’ from the evil spells of the previous one and to give it a historical skeleton, and this explains the narrative structure of those poems where he interlaces the Soviet present and Greek mythology, the sacking of the Winter Palace and the sacking of Troy. (2) If the structure of Marker’s ‘tomb’ has become more complex, it is not because the means of signification of cinema are different from those of poetry, but because of the historicity of cinema itself. Cinema was born as an art out of Romantic poetics, was pre-shaped by it: as an art, it seems almost to have been designed for the metamorphoses of signifying forms that make it possible to construct memory as the interlacing of uneven temporalities and of heterogeneous regimes of the image. Cinema is also, in its artistic, technical, and social nature, a living metaphor of modern times. An inheritance from the nineteenth century and a relationship between the twentieth and the nineteenth centuries, cinema combines our century’s dual relationship to the previous century, the two legacies I alluded to above: Marx’s century in Lenin’s; Pushkin’s and Dostoevsky’s century in Stalin’s. It is an art form whose principle, the union of conscious thought and unconscious perception, had been worked out in the final chapter of Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism, a good hundred years before the first public screenings. And it is also the crowning product of a century of scientific and technical research into how to effect the transition from the science of amusing illusions to the ability to use light to record movements hidden to the human eye. In Étienne Marey’s day, cinema was an instrument in the human sciences and in the search for scientific truth, both of which were contemporaneous with the age of scientific socialism. And although it might have seemed, when Alexander Medvekin was born, that cinema had reached its final destination in the new industry of illusion and public entertainment, by the time he had grown of age, the powers of science and the powers of the image had joined hands once more, much as had the power of the new man, the communist and electric man: communist because electric, and electric because communist. In one fell swoop, writing with light became a practical instrument and the ideal metaphor for the union of the powers of illusion, of science, and of the people.

Cinema was the communist art, the art of the identity of science and utopia. In the twenties, it wasn’t only in the revolutionary Moscow of Vertov and Eisenstein, of Medvekin and Dovchenko, that the combinations of light and movement were chasing the attitudes and thoughts of the old-fashioned man; the same was happening in the aestheticized Paris of Canudo, Delluc, and Epstein. Cinema, the crowning product of the nineteenth century, became the basis for the definitive break between that century and theirs. It was the kingdom of shadows destined to become a kingdom of light, a writing of movement that, like the railway and with it, could not but merge into the very movement of the revolution. In The Last Bolshevik, Marker tells the cinematographic history of cinema’s double relationship to Sovietism. He suggests that it is possible to tell the history of the Soviet century through the fates of Soviet filmmakers, through the films they made, those they didn’t make, and those they were obliged to make, because all of these attest to the common destiny of cinema and Sovietism. But there is also a more profound reason: the art of cinema is the metaphor, indeed the very cipher, for an idea of the century and of history that found its political incarnation in Sovietism. Marker’s project, in its own way, mirrors Godard’s in Histoire(s) du cinéma, where Godard proposes to read the history of our century not by looking at its history, but by looking at the stories, or some of the stories, of the cinema, since cinema is not only contemporaneous with the century, but an integral part of its very ‘idea’. Godard portrays the Soviet and the Hollywood dream factories as mirror images, he sees in State Marxism and industrialized cinema the same conflict between the two legacies inherited by century. Of course, Godard’s method and Marker’s are quite different. Godard produces another form of the ‘poem of the poem’ by using the resources of videographic writing to render the power of the blackboard and the power of pictorial montage identical on the screen. He sends the machine devoted to information into shock with his method of saturating images or zigzagging through them; he superimposes in the same ‘audio-visual’ unit an image from one film, an image from a second film, the music from a third, a voice from a fourth, and letters from a fifth; he complicates this intertwining further by using images from painting and by punctuating the whole thing with a commentary in the present. Each of his images and conjunctions of images are a treasure hunt: they open onto multiple paths and create a virtual space of indefinite connections and resonances. Marker favors a dialectical method instead. He composes a series of images (interviews, archival documents, clips from the classics of Soviet cinema and from propaganda films, scenes from the opera, virtual images, etc.) that he arranges, always in strict adherence to the cinematographic principles of montage, in order to define very specific moments in the relationship between the cinematographic ‘kingdom of shadows’ and the ‘shadows of the [utopian] kingdom’. While Godard gives us a smooth plane, Marker creates a memory that we can scan. And yet he falls prey, like Godard but even more so, to an obvious paradox: he feels compelled to punctuate all these ‘images that speak for themselves’, as well as the interlacing of series of images that make cinema into a meta-language and into a ‘poem of the poem’, with an imperious voice-over commentary that tells us what it is that they ‘say’.

Here we have, in a nutshell, the problem of documentary fiction in particular and of cinematographic fiction in general. Cinema’s first utopia was that it was a language—syntax, architecture, symphony—better equipped than the language of words to embrace bodies in movement. This utopia has always had to confront, during the silent and talking eras, the limits of its capacity to speak and all the returns of the ‘old’ language. ‘Documentary’ cinema in particular has always been caught between the ambiguities of cinéma-vérité, the dialectical turns of montage, and the imperialism of the voice of the master, usually off, that either lines the unfolding of heterogeneous images with its melodic continuity, or gives a step by step explanation of the meaning of the images’ silent presence or elegant arabesques. Marker, the dialectical pedagogue, rarely fails to underline for us the evidence that the image ‘itself’ provides of what our memory tends to forget and our thought resists conceptualizing, or to stress the insignificance or ambivalence of the image when left to its own devices and the concomitant need of making all of its possible readings explicit. The Last Bolshevik is a fiction of memory, of the interwoven memory of communism and cinema. However, Marker cannot resist the temptation of making of this fiction of memory he constructs with artistic means a ‘lesson on memory’ and the duties of memory. That is what this voice is constantly spelling out for the audience: don’t forget this image, be sure to connect it to this other image, look at that image a little closer, reread what this image offers up for reading. The director’s visual demonstration of Eisenstein’s artifice, the alternating montage of clips from Battleship Potemkim and shots of pedestrians today who descend those steps more slowly and faster at the same time, has been anticipated and made redundant by the professor’s explanation. And yet, it would be difficult to read it without the commentary. The ‘documentary’ always plays with how the images and their montage, which should speak all by themselves, have to be referred to the authority of a voice that secures meaning at the price of weakening the images. Undoubtedly, this tension is at its peak in the case of a historical and documentary fiction that is at the same time a cinematographic film about cinema’s historical powers. As for the fiction of the ‘letter’ addressed to the dead director, it is the means of ensuring the undivided authority of this voice.


The issues raised go beyond the already difficult relationship between pedagogy and art and touch the heart of the Romantic poetics that cinema belongs to as the conjunction of the power of speech accorded to mute things and the power of self-reflection accorded to the work. We all know that Hegel radically contested this claim in the Lectures on Aesthetics. As he sees it, the power of the form, the ‘thought-outside-of-itself’ of the work, and the power of self-reflection, the ‘thought-in-itself’ of conceptual thought, are mutually opposed. The drive to identify them results, either, in the work being reduced to the demonstration of a specific virtuosity, an individual signature, or in its being caught in the endless symbolist game between form and meaning where one side is never more than the other’s echo. When cinema presents itself as a cinema of cinema and identifies this cinema of cinema with the reading of a century, it runs the same risk: it finds itself caught between the infinite referral of images and sounds, of forms and meaning, characteristic of Godard’s style, and the power of the commentator’s voice in Marker. Marker’s latest films show his awareness of this aporia and his attempts to break free from it. Level Five is a particularly good example in this respect. The film deliberately breaks with the equilibrium characteristic of a documentary in its construction of a fiction of memory around the battle of Okinawa and around the bone-chilling, collective suicide the conquering Japanese officers imposed upon the colonized of Okinawa, forcing them to ape Japanese codes of honor. With a computer, Marker generates the images of the past in the form of a video-game; then, using the dialectical principles of montage, he confronts the computer generated images with present-day images and with the voices of the people interviewed. Marker has made of this computer a fictional character: memory, tomb, and game board that allow Marker to combine the resources of video game with the strategy of Japanese generals and of the game go. As it happens, the game go is the emblem of another film, Last Year at Marienbad, by Alan Resnais, who also directed the ‘documentary’ Night and Fog, and the ‘fiction’ Hiroshima, mon amour. Level Five is a sort of computer-age version of Hiroshima, mon amour, but where the two lovers have been substituted by a singular couple: the computer and the woman who uses it to talk to her beloved who’s gone missing. We must not miss the very particular status of this fictional lover. She is, essentially, the fictionalization of a poetic function—that of the voice of the commentator. Marker represents this voice in Level Five, where it is not off, masculine, and imperious, but fictional and feminine. But he does so under a very specific mode: the ‘heroine’ herself, Laura, has to step out of the cinematographic fiction, much like her homonym, the heroine of Preminger’s film, who steps out of the painting to become a living being. Nor should we forget that Laura’s fame is closely associated with the opening sentence of the film, ‘I’ll never forget the afternoon Laura died’, a sentence that turns out to be spoken by a dead man about a living being.

Thus is the fiction of memory redoubled to infinity and the documentary revealed to be, more than ever, the actualization of the Romantic poetics that rejects every aporia of the ‘end of art’. Level Five identifies the memory of one of the most monstrous crimes of the century and of history with a fiction about the fiction of fiction. But the fictional reduction of sense in Level Five is matched by the material impoverishment of the image. The aura-less unreality of the computer-generated image rubs off on the images of various origins Marker assembles in the film. The reduction of levels of fiction and sense complement the platitude of videographic space. The tension between the ‘images that speak for themselves’ and the words that make them speak is, when all is said and done, the tension between the idea of the image and imaged matter. The real issue has nothing to do with the technical apparatus, but is still a matter of poetics. Godard too turns to video, but he achieves the inverse end, he leads the joyous disorder of words and images back to the glory of the icon. By assembling fragments from the fictions of an entire century, Godard eternizes the spiritual as well as plastic kingdom of cinematographic shadows, the heirs of pictorial figures. With Marker, and here he shows his kinship with installation artists, it is instead the image as an operation of assembling and splitting asunder that affirms itself to the detriment of the material splendor of the kingdom of shadows. At a time when the balance sheets of the century and of the revolutions in image-making technique are being weighed, the ‘poem of the poem’ finds two figures so close together, and yet so radically opposed. One tomb against another, one poem against another.


(1) The French title is Le Tombeau d’Alexandre [Alexander’s Tomb], which explains why Rancière plays throughout the chapter on the word ‘tomb’ and the name ‘Alexander’.—Trans.

(2) Cf. Jacques Rancière, ‘From Wordsworth to Mandelstam: The Transports of Liberty’, in The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing, trans. Charlotte Mandell (California: Stanford University Press, 2004)


Alexander Medvedkin, the subject of Chris Marker’s 1993 Le tombeau du Alexandre (“The Last Bolshevik” in English) was as that title suggests, a true believer, but, unlike many similarly fervent, a survivor. He made short, educative and often agitational films that took the dire circumstances of early Soviet life to both conjure and model popular revolutionary aspirations, using harsh whimsy to reckon the distance between the pitiable today and the eventual collectively realised being. Suppressed since its making as an insidious spoof of the nascent Stalin regime, “Happiness” now presents a far more ambiguous dramaturgy of hapless peasants and bureaucrats all in their own small ways bringing down the eminently sensible ideal of collectivisation. So what’s funny about this picture, and was this a parody of gathering totalitarianism or an internal release valve that basically approved of its goals? Is its searing absurdity existential or class conscious, or is it the fineness of the ideological lens that’s at issue? And where would an understanding of a ‘subversive’ cultural product in the Stalin era even begin? It will be shown with surviving fragments of the /kinopoezd /(‘cine-train’) experiments in mobile cinema, a group project by Medvedkin and his colleagues who shot and showed films on site, roving through the vast territory of Russia’s recalcitrant post-Revolutionary masses, entreating them to work harder, and if they couldn’t do that, to at least wash. But importantly, the cine-train also sought to involve local people in practical criticism of their conditions, serving a consciousness-raising function that didn’t always neatly converge with the Bolshevik hymn sheet.
All the questions of ‘making films politically’ are here, from the implicit contradictions of militancy as rupture and militancy as pedagogy, science and spontaneity, normativity and total critique and the aggravated concord of means and ends. If these contradictions strike us in praxis and in history, we also have to wonder: if politics is allowed to register fully, what becomes of history? And what do we do with our own cloying revolutionary nostalgia, now that the avant-garde has never been so now?

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s