The Humanists: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983)


by Colin Marshall

His name is Sandor Krasna, and that's most of the information we have about him. All other qualities of Sans Soleil's verbose, peripatetic protagonist must be inferred from the wrong side of several layers of intermediation. Practically all the footage shown resides on film attributable to Krasna's camera, and practically all the words spoken reside on letters attributable to Krasna's pen. Krasna's shots are linked into a 100-minute collage atop which a nameless female voice, presumably that of Krasna's pen pal, reads the traveling cameraman's meandering, observational missives. The result is one of the most remarkable essay films ever assembled.

The trouble with whipping out the phrase “essay film” is, of course, the need to define the phrase “essay film”. Why not just call Sans Soleil a documentary? The most basic objection is that, well, Sandor Krasna isn't real. He's a fictional character, just like his electronic composer brother Michel Krasna (credited with the score); just like his unidentified female friend, the recipient of so much correspondence. The movie has a whole, if small, cast of players that go unseen, existing only as text, voice, music and an eye through a lens. Marker's choices about how to convey these characters, like many of the choices that make up Sans Soleil, allow — and in fact, force — so much to be generated solely in the viewer's imagination. One might loosely describe the film as a travelogue through time and geography, from mid-1960s Iceland to early-1980s Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Japan, but only because those places are where most of Krasna's footage is shot and provide the raw subject matter for his ruminations. It's up to the mind, conscious or unconscious, of each individual audience member to construct the connective tissue between the shots, the words and the observations. It's not a non-narrative film, exactly; it's simply a film with an emergent narrative, one that differs from mind to mind.

Naturally, interpretations of the picture vary widely. Judgments of it vary wider still; rarely has a film inspired positive and negative reactions of such magnitude. Former Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has no end of appreciation, deeming it Marker's “testament and masterpiece.” In the Guardian, David Thomson likens it to the joint-venture John Berger and W.G. Sebald never undertook, Berger “hauling in the imagery, like a man in love with photography” and Sebald “quietly murmuring on about seemingly inconsequential things, until the holes and the lines containing them are subject to one short tug and voila! — a net, full of shining fish; and we're the fish.” But in the New York Times, Vincent Canby regards it as “a great letdown” which is “smothered in its insistent narration.” Phil Hall of Film Threat, who admits to exiting the screening after 35 minutes, recommends it only to filmgoers seeking “masochistic degradation of [their] body, mind and spirit.” Combing Netflix's user reviews of Sans Soleil reveals an astonishing diversity of opinion from what might be called the “common viewer”: the movie, depending upon which user you believe, is “beautiful and humanistic,” “brilliant and hallucinatory,” “poetic and elegant,” or “incoherent and idiotic,” “amazingly LONG and POINTLESS,” “contrived and insincere” and, memorably, suitable viewing material only for “hamsters from another dimension.”

Clearly, Sandor Krasna is one of the most divisive figures of our time, an impressive status to have been achieved by a wandering photographer with an anthropological bent, a dreamy observer who criscrosses the Earth as a loner amongst various crowds. Early in the film, over shots of sleepy Japanese boat passengers, we hear this letter from him:

I'm just back from Hokkaido, the Northern Island. Rich and hurried Japanese take the plane, others take the ferry: waiting, immobility, snatches of sleep. Curiously all of that makes me think of a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life. He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. I've been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I've tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.

As in Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders' own filmed early-80s Japanese journey, what the camera tracks is not so much the banal but — and I write this knowing full well how little sense it will make — the non-banal banal. The public transit languor, the street festival crush, the string of museum pieces and the isolated television frames captured in Krasna's viewfinder may indeed, in certain contexts, qualify as banal, but the way he approaches these societal artifacts renders them anything but. As much world-weariness as his ceaseless globetrotting may have induced, Krasna has evidently retained an eye for gripping subjects and a skill for depicting them in just the right way: a downward tilt below the parade's cacaphony to focus on a curious technique its participants use to walk on the front edges of their stilted sandals, or a gradually accelerating trip through television still after menacing television still presented as lantern-backlit slides.

As far out on a limb as this statement may sit, Krasna's aesthetic sensibility is impeccable. As a piece of purely visual art, Sans Soleil holds its own. United with the spare and technical but satisfyingly analog score crafted by the fictional Krasna's equally fictional brother — which bridges even the unlikeliest of gaps between the scenes of a dusty, chaotic Guinea-Bissau marketplace and the futuristic sheen, even by today's standards, of 1982 Tokyo — it's a rich audiovisual presentation. What seems primarily to bother the movie's detractors are Krasna's words, their content and the phrasing that conveys it. “Pretentious” is one pejorative of choice, “pointless” another.

But just what is Krasna pretending to be, and what particular points does he claim to be making? Take one passage from his letters, randomly selected:

Animism is a familiar notion in Africa, it is less often applied in Japan. What then shall we call this diffuse belief, according to which every fragment of creation has its invisible counterpart? When they build a factory or a skyscraper, they begin with a ceremony to appease the god who owns the land. There is a ceremony for brushes, for abacuses, and even for rusty needles. There's one on the 25th of September for the repose of the soul of broken dolls. The dolls are piled up in the temple of Kiyomitsu consecrated to Kannon — the goddess of compassion — and are burned in public. I look to the participants. I think the people who saw off the kamikaze pilots had the same look on their faces.

The pictures of Guinea-Bissau ought to be accompanied by music from the Cape Verde islands. That would be our contribution to the unity dreamed of by Amilcar Cabral. Why should so small a country — and one so poor — interest the world? They did what they could, they freed themselves, they chased out the Portuguese. They traumatized the Portuguese army to such an extent that it gave rise to a movement that overthrew the dictatorship, and led one for a moment to believe in a new revolution in Europe. Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window.

Those who dislike Sans Soleil, I daresay, make the grievous interpretational error of taking the movie as an argument, a wholly or mostly nonfictional enterprise meant to convert them to the viewpoint related by the narration. They write the whole thing off as the aggregated rambling of a detached, disoriented filmmaker, perhaps even one with contempt for his bourgeois audience, unable as they are, in their crass vulgarity, to grasp the Higher Truth communicated in his disorganized sound and visual fury. Forget this blowhard and his flights of fancy about African animism, kamikaze pilots, Portuguese colonialism and the mercilessness of history — let's watch something that makes sense.

I would submit that treating the film's shots and sentences as a failed argument that invalidates the final product makes about as much sense as treating, to draw from one of Krasna's (and Marker's) pet subjects, the character of Scottie Ferguson as a failed argument that invalidates Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Krasna's visual selections and written statements shed light, albeit a diffuse lights not traceable to a definite position, on Krasna himself, just as Ferguson's actions and dialogue shed light on his own character. Sans Soleil is an essay film, yes, but the key is that it's Krasna's essay film, not Marker's, and even then the essay's content is augmented and corrupted, though not necessarily destructively so, by others: the narrator imbuing his words with inflection, such as hers is; Michel Krasna subtly flooding the proceedings with his unsettling provocation of emotional response; the artist Hayao Yamaneko serenely working his elaborate video synthesizer, rarifying Krasna's images into pure color and motion. Those who strain to draw a unified philosophy and unbroken logical chain from Krasna's monologue will strain forever.

Just as one must avoid conflating a protagonist with the film in which he resides, one must bear just as much vigilance against mentally entangling protagonist, film and filmmaker. Is Sandor Krasna merely a thin veil shabbily covering Chris Marker? Many assume he is, though I find the evidence rather thin. Yes, they share a love for owls, cats and Vertigo, but at the same time Krasna makes reference to and visits a bar themed for Marker's La Jetée — quite possibly the finest science-fiction short ever made, and a film with which Sans Soleil is often tied — without claiming any involvement in its production or even displaying much familiarity with it at all. And if everything credited within the narrative to Krasna is actually Marker's and Marker's without alteration, then why, one must ask, the invention of Krasna in the first place?

In any case, getting caught up in discussions of identity, perspective and ontology misses the point, or misses what, for the viewer, should be the point. All talk of argument, narrative and art aside, Sans Soleil is above all an experience, and as an experience it's one of the most mesmerizing and unusual to be found in the last thirty years of cinema. The most intriguing part — and, for those trying to dissect the thing, the most frustrating — is how so much viewer response arises from such simple materials. Broken down to its barest elements, the movie is shots of Africa, shots of Japan, shots of Iceland, shots of San Francisco, some stock footage, some video processing and a woman reading. Marker's tools, as he has written, were barely even up to the task of producing those; he had a camera not equipped for synchronous sound, a cheap cassette recorder and virtually nothing else. Certainly he wasn't backed by any budget worthy of the term. And yet what he created, whether in the guise of Sandor Krasna or with the intent of creating Sandor Krasna, is a work of cinematic alchemy.