La Jetée was directed and released in 1963 by Chris Marker. It is a short black and white film, about 27 minutes long and consists mostly of still frames. This short featurette is one that evokes paradoxical questions about concepts like time, space, memory, and consciousness that challenges its viewer. The movie’s synopsis on The Criterion Collection’s website calls Chris Marker a “…filmmaker, poet, novelist, photographer, editor, and now videographer and digital multimedia artist… La Jetée is one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made, a tale of time travel told in still images…”
The exact year in the future that this film is set in is not ever explicitly specified in the movie itself, but there is no ambiguity about the setting being post World War III or post-apocalyptic. To evoke the horror of a nuclear war, Marker shows a series of images of a destroyed Paris. According to Vinnie Ferraro’s lectures in our World Politics class, it seems that throughout history, the French were never willing to sacrifice their beautiful capital city in the name of power or war (unlike the willingness of the English, for an example, to see London be bombed by their enemies instead of surrendering).
He shows his viewers images of a destroyed Paris that shock and traumatize. Nuclear bombs that waste the city’s clear sky, rubble covering the holy ground of the Notre Dame, along with various other images of the city in shambles, ending with a close up of the Arc de Triomphe broken in half. This is the future that Marker envisions based on the activities of war that humans have engaged in throughout history.
These images are followed by the narrator, a calm male voice, that is nothing other than a voice over that continues for the whole movie, that gives a description of the post-apocalyptic world that WWIII has brought to humanity. “Many died. Some fancy themselves to be victors. Others were made prisoners…”
Then the narrator says that the “victors stood guard over a kingdom of rats” as we see an image (like the ones above) of two men looking down at another man that they are subjecting to their experiments.
It seems that the eyes are a motif of some kind to the movie’s director. Having your eyes covered, or being blinded in some way is an expression of weakness like in the above image of one of the prisoner men.
While wearing glasses, a device that enhances your vision in some way is a sign of dominance. The men wearing spectacles is an image that recurs throughout the film, anyone wearing these spectacles is a scientist or an observer of the subject of the experiment, or the “rat.” Marker uses these glasses to remind us of the way that people, were treated during WWII, as subhuman or as “rats” that were subjected to experiments. The way that these men observe their blinded subjects is a visual (hm… interesting…) representation of their dominance.
The blinds that the prisoners wear (like the ones that you see in the image above the image above) represent the darkness or ignorance motif that I spoke of above.
As you can see in the above image, Chris Marker uses a specific kind of lighting to give this man’s face a similar kind of mask, but this time, he uses shadows rather than an actual prop. (see the similarity of the shape of the dark shadows on his eyes and the shape of the white blinds of the prisoners in the other image?)
Also look at this zoomed out image above of the same man. Behind him we have several signs that are playing on the same motif. There is another man who looks like an observer behind him who has what looks like light in his eyes. From this I gather that he is one of the experimenters observing the ignorant prisoner in front of him. Marker also plays with light behind this man that comes in pairs.
In the above image, we see the same motif of dominance, two men standing over a blinded subject, whispering in German (a language that reminds us of WWII Nazism). The next to images are close ups of each of these two dominating men.
Is seems like there is a sense of order established by the “victors” of this third World War. “The prisoners were submitted to some experiments, to great concern apparently, to those who conducted them. The outcome was disappointment for some, death for others, and for others, madness.”
There are images that resemble the concentration camps that the Jews were put in during the Holocaust like the image above. This is where the prisoners would stay until one was selected for a new experiment.
However, when we look more intently at the images we can see that the movie’s protagonist, who is chosen to be the subject of one of the experiments does not exhibit the same kind of ignorance as his fellow prisoners do. When I say “ignorance” I mean that he does not seem to be blinded in the same way that the man above (5 images above) does.
Chris Marker creates a hierarchy through his images and his motifs of the ability to see or gaze being a sign of dominance and the inability to see, being blinded in some way as a sign of subservience
For an example, between the prisoner below,
However in a different example that quickly follows this one the prisoner (in the image below) is dominant because he is gazing at…
The protagonist “…was prepared to face the mad scientist… instead of whom, he met a reasonable man who told him in a relaxed way that the human race was doomed. Space was off limits. The only link with survival past through time, a loop hole in time that maybe, it may be possible to reach food medicine, energy…” This was why they subjected the prisoners to these experiments. However, it was the protagonist’s “strong mental image[s]” and therefore, his ability “…to conceive or dream of another time…” that would make him mentally capable of living in another time. The protagonist was in love with a woman from another time and therefore was “…glued to an image of his past.” This him better able to exist in another time without getting stuck in time like the other subjects did.
I cannot ruin this movie for you, so please check it out and find out how it ends yourself. This is a movie about love, memory, and how we reconstruct it.
After seeing this movie, I will confidently say that Chris Marker was a genius by the ability to challenge anyone and everyone who subjects him or herself to it (by watching it of course). This was Marker’s only sci-fi film, but the concepts that it grapples with are philosophical and paradoxical. In 2010, Time Magazine (ha! Ironic enough?) ranked La Jetée first in its list of “Top 10 Time-Travel Movies.” This film inspired the Terry Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis and also David Bowie’s music video for “Jump They Say” (1993).
- La Jetée: An Analysis (elizabethintheintersection.wordpress.com)
- Inspiration: Chris Marker (la Jetee, Sans Soleil) (hacker0838024.wordpress.com)
- Photography as Narrative: Three-Act Structure Analysis of “La Jetée” (1962) (graduateschoolnyc.wordpress.com)