At school he would loiter in a local café, where a young Jean Paul Sartre held forth on German phenomenology, and he then took a license in philosophy at the Sorbonne, where his teachers included Gaston Bachelard. He joined the Resistance for, in his words, “the adventure rather than the ideology,” and then the American Army when, for a brief period after the Battle of the Bulge, the Americans directed recruited Frenchmen. He fought right through to the end of the war, and one of his most treasured possessions was the signed letter from Eisenhower thanking him for his service.
A period playing piano in a bar came to an end when he joined the offices of Travail et Culture, part of the French adult education movement, in 1946. Originally his duties focused on the theater, but in the next room was Andrew Bazin working on the cinema, and the two became fast friends, working on a myriad of projects. This period of joyful creativity—“it was like, 68 everyday,” he was to say later—came to an end with the Cold War and the Communist Party’s increasing control of their cultural front organizations.
If Bazin stimulated an already strong interest in cinema—on a clandestine mission to Geneva he had dropped into a cinema and seen a double bill of Citizen Kane and Hellzappoppin—Marker’s reason for choosing film as a vocation was that it seemed to be the best way to fulfill his primary passion: travel. He turned down Bazin’s request that he edit Cahiers du cinema and instead started a series of travel books at Seuil le petit planete, many of which have become classics of travel writing.
His first film was a documentary of the Helsinki Olympic games, and he followed that with a joint project with Alain Resnais, Les statues meurent aussi (1953), a prescient study on the relations between colonialism and art. Sunday in Peking (1955) was the first of a series of films made of then inaccessible Communist regimes. Perhaps the most influential was Letter from Siberia (1958). Bazin, in one of the last articles before his tragically early death, hailed his friend’s work as an “essay film.” Marker has strong claim to have created this ever more fertile genre. Continuing to travel camera in hand, Marker made films on Israel (Description of a Struggle, 1961) and Cuba (¡Cuba Si!, 1961) before filming his masterpiece Le joli mai in 1962. This film, edited down to 150 minutes from the 55 hours shot, caught the people, on the cusp of the new audiovisual age, registering an eloquence and a world about to disappear. Like many of his films, this was to be a considerable influence on others. Godard’s trademark use of interviews seems borrowed from this film, and Marker’s films are a constant point of reference as Godard develops through the next five decades.
His single most influential film La jetee, a 20-minute short composed almost entirely of still photos, is set in a post-nuclear future and involves time travel as the survivors try desperately to summon both past and future to their aid. The hero is obsessed with memories of an event in his childhood at one of Orty Airport’s jetties. At the end of his film, he travels back in time to Orty to discover that the event that obsessed him was his own death, as agents from the future shoot him down. This remarkable film is a reference point for many subsequent science fiction films and was remade as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam in 1995, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.
Marker was one of the first to feel the political pulse of the 60s, and he soon threw his activities into a cooperative: Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles (Slon). Its first production was the compilation film Far from Vietnam (1967), but over the next few years, it was to lend its skills to many of the struggles, particularly factory occupations, then convulsing French society. On his return to individual filmmaking, Marker then made the single best film on the politics of that period, Le fond de l’air est rouge (The Grin without a Cat, 1977). It charts the rise of political hope in the 60s and the defeats of those hopes in the 70s.
A much more personal film was Sans soleil (1983), which returned to the theme of memory and the inability to ever remember fully. Shot between Tokyo, where Marker was then living in a luxury hotel, and Guinea Bissau, where he was training young African filmmakers under conditions of extreme poverty, the film meditates on travel and politics as a young woman reads out the letters of the photographer Sandor Krasna, one of Marker’s numerous aliases.
Marker’s last 30 years saw him add prolifically to his already numerous films, but also witnessed his engagement with the digital world. An early aficionado of computers, Marker found in digital technology a way out of the inevitable linearity of film. In 1998 he produced the CD-rom Immemory, arguably the first great work of digital art, in which he was able to continue his investigations of memory in a medium that, for the first time, allowed Marker to explore the structure of memory with, rather than against, the grain of the technology he was using.
He died working at his bank of computers in his studio in the 20th arrondisement of Paris.
Colin McCabe is a writer and film producer whose films include Young Soul Rebels and The Long Day Closes and whose books include James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word and Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics.