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By Offer Eshel





The past is never dead;

it isn’t even past.


William Faulkner



This is the science fiction story, told solely through still-life pictures, of a young boy who, on one bright Sunday before the war, witnesses the face of a woman and the murder of a man. These events take place on the jetty at Orly airport, from which one can view the departing planes taking off.


Switch to a different time, different place – to Paris after a nuclear war. Those who survived the holocaust live underground, separated into groups of “victors” and “prisoners”. Some of these so called prisoners have been selected as test dummies in an attempt to conduct a journey through time, whose goal is to secure a source of energy that is vital for the survival of the human race. However, the scientists in charge of this mission have been unable to determine imagination’s paths into the future, and have opted to attempt a journey into the past. Only prisoners who have been branded with a particularly significant memory, a memory that will serve them as a guiding beacon on their journey into the past, have been chosen to embark on this mission.


Among these chosen few is our protagonist, the same boy that we encountered at the onset of the story, whose memory has been imprinted with the brief haunting images of his childhood. While on his journey into the past, this boy-turned-man, encounters and falls in love with the woman whose face he remembered from Orly airport in Paris. Eventually, in an attempt to escape the clutches of his captors in the present, he once again finds himself at the airport jetty, running toward the woman from the past, only to get shot by an assassin agent who had been following him. It is then that he understands “that this moment he had been granted to watch as a child, which had never ceased to obsess him, was the moment of his own death.”


The short duration of the film (29 minutes), its circular structure, and the profound, yet simple literary tone of the script, are reminiscent of Borges’ metaphysical parables.[1]


“La Jetee” presents a vision of a post-apocalyptic Paris that opens with a view of the Eiffel Tower and moves downward to an underground prison; a symbolic attempt to gain a point of view of that transitional moment between the traumatic past and the unforeseen future; to understand the perspective of the prisoner. “La Jetee” presents the imagination as an escape route, a means of survival. The protagonist’s memories, which revolve around scenes from an airport (a place that suggests flight, escape, and freedom), carry a different meaning for him the second time around: as a child he had experienced this moment in a state of shock, without fully understanding the circumstances in their entirety, but as an adult the pieces of the puzzle fall fully into place when he actually recognizes his murderer and himself as the victim. By reclaiming this obsessive moment from his past, he manages to close a circle – or, conversely, this could just as easily be the detailed description of a slow suicide, the delusions of a prisoner confined to his solitary cell.


The ambiguity that is found in this film, in relation to the value of imagination, reflects Marker’s own ambivalent perspective of science fiction in general. Almost all of Marker’s films are documentaries or news editorials, and this element is also present in “La Jetee”.


Creating fiction is an act of loneliness, and while on the surface producing a film is a group effort, the loneliness of the writer (or scriptwriter) is replicated in the loneliness of the director and editor. Loneliness emphasizes originality, the authenticity of the person; and is thus the basis, tool, and background for fully knowing humanity and its world. If it is possible to view a documentary (or news editorial) as a dialogue between a man making a film (spontaneity), and a man editing it (analytical reflection), then what kind of dialogue can exist in a fictional film (such as “La Jetee”), where the story (screenplay) has been conceived in advance? In the editing room, Marker chose to reduce the film to a set of stills, in an attempt to return the story to the point at which it was created (while retaining its entirety), to return it to the writer that conceived it in his loneliness, to recapture the spontaneity. The film re-emerges, not as a continuous motion picture, but rather as the fragmented idea which first motivated its production as a blueprint for a film. By abolishing motion, the illusion of immediacy, Marker has created a film in which the present seems non-existent. “La Jetee’s” impact lies in the fact that we feel the intensity of its absence. Most of his films depict aspects of the struggle between oppressor and the oppressed. Marker examines the problems of film and society from the perspective of time, both personal and historical – past, present and future. The notion of a historico-political collective memory is central in all of his documentaries, yet it is dealt with more subtly when presented in relation to individual memory. In other words, he discusses collective memory by presenting personal memory. During one of the film’s scenes, the couple pause in front of a thick slice of a sawed-off tree trunk with many rings. The protagonist points beyond this trunk and remarks to the woman that he comes from over there, while she mentions the name of Hitchcock.[2] The reference is unfamiliar to him, but recalls in the viewer a culturally shared memory.


“La Jetee” presents the individual as a helpless victim struggling against enormous historical and social developments, and yet it is the individual memories that create and justify this world, and preserve these notions that serve to define it. The exploration of the themes of time and memory is achieved through the stratification of present and past, and also, occasionally, of the future. In this way, Marker is able to present a historical perspective of the way in which cultural, economical and political conditions change within society, and to observe the enigmatic nature of the individual as part of a collective human fate that is constructed from a multitude of facts and fragments.


The scenery serves as a static element to be found within human reality, and plays an important role in creating a sense of time for humanity. Scenic stills enhance the connection between the environment, and humanity’s presence and existence within it. The past is recreated through the use of scenery and its relation to humankind. Humanity, scenery, history, ideas, and impressions work together to create a whole...“And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses had the look of flowers that are looked at.”[3]


The ancient statues in the underground corridors, the pre-war Parisian buildings, the rings of the sliced tree trunk, the stuffed carcasses of the animals on display in the museum, all exude a sense of presence; humankind's look into the past as it is captured by the camera lens in the present.


Marker attempts to capture human life in relation to its physical environment, and to demonstrate how the environment is a decisive factor in the creation and design of civilization – in the sense that it is the void in which time places itself. Marker presents a concept of humankind in time-past, present and future. Humanity lives, and gains immortality through its creations, which serve as proof for the existence of time. The dialogue between present and past is presented by means of the journey into the time-space of the protagonist’s soul.


One should not mistakenly sum up this film strictly as an ideological manifest, “La Jetee” is also a tender and beautiful love story that is conveyed by means of a serene, pastoral atmosphere, the quiet harmony of a distant past, desolation, ruins, and the effects of radiation.


“La Jetee” deals with time in the same way that a conventional science fiction movie might, but in contrast to the latter, it achieves the conquest of time not merely through mechanical-technological means, but rather through the mental power of the protagonist. Longing and passion for the beloved are the time traveller’s fuel in his journey. This emphasis on love and its artistic realization are what preserve the lyrical qualities and beauty of “La Jetee”.


Marker demonstrates his control in creating atmosphere in every one of the stills that represent life in the past. The composition of the stills focuses on the facial expressions and states of mind of groups of people that are talking and playing. Fragments of parks, buildings, and streets in which people live, are used to form a temporal connection between space and human activity – selectively placing and incorporating the use of facial expressions, animals, objects, buildings, and scenic views reconstruct the time of the past.


Eventually the protagonist is reunited with the people in his past, wandering the streets of Paris where life is carrying on routinely. piece by piece, where the reality of the protagonist's past is reconstructed and relived. After being hurled back into the simple and enjoyable life of his boyhood, this time as an adult, the protagonist experiences the severe shock of returning to his grim subterranean present. The deconstruction and irreparable, merciless conquest of the past is a process of physical torture and intense mental agony. Pain and suffering are present to a certain degree throughout the film. The back and forth journey in time emphasizes the personal drama of the protagonist and magnifies his humanity. Marker demonstrates the inherent difficulty in verbal-visual explanations of the time-space relation and the individual’s movement within them. The protagonist is reunited with the woman that he knew as a boy and their romance begins. Through their meetings, another dimension of time is presented – when they meet, walk in the park, and visit the museum. Now time does not exist separately from them: they construct it moment by moment in the routineness of their actions. This time, their time, ceases to exist whenever the protagonist is beckoned back into his subterranean present, where the experiments take place. The woman, the people, and old Paris are left behind and have no individual existence in time or space, suggesting that time is no more then the sense of experiencing it. When this experience is disrupted, it becomes non-existent.


Marker relates the short length of the human “day” in a morning scene that has followed a night of intimacy. Sequences of stills that rapidly move in succession suggest sensuality and tenderness. For one poignant, brief, moment the series of stills is suspended and we see the woman blink, smile, and absorb the melody of singing birds rise in an ecstatic crescendo. We are then sharply reverted back to the stills. At this point in the film, Marker presents a change in the concept of time as it was determined by the use of stills, to a time that fades away in the blink of an eye – whereby he relates the fragility and elusiveness of human happiness.


Marker presents three distinct categories of time:


1.         Time that is depicted in and defined by stills.

2.         The suggestion of timelessness as portrayed by the animals and the birds in the museum.

3.         Conventional time that is depicted in the waking scene where the woman blinks.


This tri-partite representation assists in imparting a feeling of distance, insecurity, and uncertainty with regard to our perception of time. The implausibility of time and reality throws itself at the viewer when a specific and central place in our memory, such as Paris, is portrayed as a desolate ruin and then as a flourishing metropolis in the future.


The purpose of the journey into the past, into the childhood, is to prepare for the more demanding journey into the future. After encountering great obstacles he succeeds, and finds that planet Earth has changed; Paris is thriving, restored and unfamiliar. While his journeys into the past are situated in concrete places – parks, streets, houses, a museum – his encounters with the people of the future take place in spaces that can not be defined spatially as geographical or architectural. The abstractness of future space and the lack of social context create a new concept of time that resembles a temporary vacuum, or a-temporality. In this way, Marker refrains from taking a trivial approach that typifies science fiction movies, which represent a future of sensational architecture, advanced technology and mechanization. Marker chooses to preserve the future enshrouded in a cloud of mystery which, from an artistic perspective, creates harmony with the detailed description of the past while retaining the uncertainty that is inherent to the future.


The manifold details and certainty represented in the film, in relation to the different time modes mentioned earlier, in essence, reflect the state of our knowledge in relation to our own “times”.


When the protagonist escapes from his captors of the present, into the past, the frames change in order to create an atmosphere of anxiety and impending doom. A few brief shots of his encounter with the scientists and others who are responsible for the experiment, their severe and distant faces, are used to foreshadow the liquidation that they have in store for him. While awaiting imminent death, his total isolation changes the concept of time that the film had hitherto known. He waits, and his anticipation seems to suspend time and to create a vacuum in which his new predicament is felt dramatically. This impression of vacuum is enhanced when the men of the future appear in their abstract space and invite him to join them. At this point, he is disengaged from his underground present reality; he refuses the future world and asks to be returned to his past. The suspension of time abruptly ends when he finds himself at the jetty of Orly airport, running toward the woman he loves.


The final moments of the film create a complex scheme of the various temporal categories. From a psychological and intellectual perspective, we are aware of the fact that he has returned to his past, yet this past contains his future which is fulfilled by him in the present. Within these various temporal categories, there is also the factual time (when he runs toward the woman), which depicts the protagonist in a series of quickly changing pictures, and which also, at certain points, creates the feeling of conventional cinematic motion. With the death of the protagonist, the conception of time changes once more, as this dramatic moment is seen through the eyes of the child, and once again, we are whisked back to the very same Sunday morning when it all began.


Presenting time through the use of stills may be interpreted as a challenge against one’s common sense, since time for us is primarily motion – the experience that is present in action. The static depiction of all that is presented in the still frames is paradoxically the very same element that emphasizes the vividness, vitality, and potentiality of motion, as if at any moment they may begin to move. The stereoscopic spectacles, the electrodes, the weird eye patches, the heartbeats, the whispering, and the agonized face of the protagonist – all culminate in the intensity of action that takes place in the specific categories of time. Life is recorded in moments of anxious anticipation, uncertainty, suffering, or momentary happiness. In certain cases, the intensity and value of these emotions is determined by the duration of time that the still is given, though we are only aware of the meaning and significance of the action and of the “real” duration of time that has transpired.


The sequence in which the protagonist meets with the woman is an especially poignant example of the homogenous nature of the content and form of the film. The general effect of the time-flow in these scenes is determined by the type of action that is presented. By using a balanced composition of stills, fade-ins and fade-outs, the protagonists strolling in the park are always perceived in a way that implies temporal continuity. This, in turn, amplifies the “reality” of their romance and the authenticity of the drama in the film. The museum scene is another interesting example of the association between human time as a product of human activity, in which their visit to the museum alludes to the static nature of universal time. This scene is composed of a series of stills that evoke a strong sense of time. The museum is the keeper of eternal time as opposed to the transience of human time and the happiness of the couple. Frames of a gigantic reptilian creature from the ancient past, another of panthers, (life, intensity) their lines suggesting motion even in stills, are used to create an impression of time-motion, which is intensified with the close-up of pumas as it dissolves into frames of zebras, giraffes, and a flock of birds. In order to emphasize and summarize this association, we are presented with long duration frames of the protagonists in relation to the exhibit. Since both human beings are themselves static in this wild kingdom, they too, for a brief moment, become part of this phenomenon of timeless life.


There is a connection between the various levels of time and the activities taking place in the underground laboratory. The actions of the scientists occur concomitantly to the physiological time of the protagonist’s body, while his mental time flows on an all-together different level. The scientists’ time is expressed by frames of their anxious faces, the indecipherable whispering voices, and pictures of them alongside the protagonist. The physiological time of the protagonist is related through frames of his contorted, suffering body, and the sound of his heartbeat, while his mental time is totally separate from these two bodily manifestations, and is created by the representation of a completely different world.


The frames also convey a documentary message of a past – these are people who once existed and now are dead. This differs from the illusion of motion, which creates a sense of present, of a comforting immediacy – as if these people are not really dead. In addition, a sense of page turning (in the present) in a photo-album (depicting the past) relates to the theme of memory. The attempt to elude time and the use of childhood memory to find the answer to existential angst and to unattainable happiness is a very suggestive cinematic style. The vulnerability of humankind versus the forces of the universe, and the irreversibility of history, is presented frame by frame and leads to the conclusion that the love of a man and a woman separated by time and space is but an unreal and timeless adventure of the soul; although the longing for love is that which made it possible for the protagonist to recapture the past, if only for a moment. The protagonist realizes that he is unable to reject the future, since the future is our own death, which we create with every breath. The stills create this future for him, from the beginning of the film, when the young child sees the dead man – the inevitable turn of fate.


According to Heidegger,[4] death has been present since the beginning of existence, the essence of which is interwoven in its dependence upon the presence of death. We are aware of this presence, but there is no possibility to experience our own death in such a way that would allow us to reflect upon it. Our sole experience of death is a vicarious one, through the death of others. This alienation, between the awareness of death and humanity, is enhanced as a result of the anxiety that stems from the fear of non-existence. The human willingness to accept the awareness of the possibility of death as a personal experience is very limited. Facing death presents humankind with the possibility of attaining the most complete self-realization, but at the same time, it exposes the experienced reality as partial, incomplete, dependent on the existence of humanity, and constantly on the brink of imminent destruction. This confrontation against the terror of death does not itself provide content or meaning, because death’s essence is void and nothingness. The value of this realization in the possibility of death and in its terror lies in death’s capacity to sever humankind's connection to normative frames of reference and makes it possible for a person to realize their own claim to be an individual.[5]


Marker emphasizes the power of the past over the present, the space that it occupies in the mental life that is defined as the present. Human beings are creatures of time: awareness of time is that which determines our relation to one another and to the universe. Perhaps Chris Marker’s conception of time as presented in “La Jetee” can best be summed up by the following lines by T.S. Elliot:

“time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future / and time future contained past.”[6]




[1]  Borges, J.L. (1962). Ficciones. New York: Grove Press. Especially "Funes, the Memorious".

[2] For Marker analysis of Hitchcock’ Vertigo, see A Free Replay. Positif 400, June 1994, 79-84

[3] Eliot, T.S. (1958). Four Quartets (Burnt Norton). London: Faber and Faber.

[4] Heidegger, M. (1956). Existence and Being. London: Vision Press.

[5] Sartre, J.P. (1965). The Philosophy of Existentialism. New York: Philosophical Library.

[6] Eliot, T.S. (1958). Four Quartets (Burnt Norton). London: Faber and Faber.