Sans Soleil: Heisenberg’s Scrapbook

What is time? How does memory work? These are the primary questions Chris Marker poses in his essay film, Sans Soleil. The film is anchored by the narration of letters from cameraman Sandor Krasna. But this isn’t Krasna’s story. Sans Soleil has been called Marker’s most personal film, but it is not his story either. The footage focuses on Japanese in Tokyo with diversions into Portuguese colonies, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, in Africa and a touch of Iceland and San Francisco. But it isn’t their stories either. It is the story of us, the viewer.

The shifting of images linking past to present and culture to culture plays like flipping through the pages of a disorganized scrapbook or the scrapbook kept by a Martian. These images are not meant for contrast, the narration says, but are “extreme poles of survival.” There are many meditations on the nature of history and memory and how the two are related. “We do not remember, we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten.” Memory is the individual’s participation in history.

The film explores the various aspects that make up history, from the banal to the poignant. It looks at cat temples, parades, political struggle, television.  The city is a dream dreamt by its citizens. Sleeping commuters dream and create a collective unconscious that is in turn recorded and broadcast on television. With the advancement in modern technology, the collective unconscious becomes externalized.

“If the images of the present don’t change, then change the images of the past.” With new technology, the filmmaker can alter history, absorbing its original context and re-contextualizing it. As the camera records, the thing it commemorates has already become the past. The act of filming creates images of the past and then transforms those images.

Like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the viewer, by watching the film, takes part in its creation. The tone of the narrator’s voice is constant throughout the film, lulling us into a hypnotic, dreamlike state. We dream the film. She brings us back with punctual repetitions of “He wrote me,” or “He writes,” grounding the film to the notion of linear reality.

In recounting Krasna’s story (a singular function of memory), Marker tells us his own. His place at a singular moment of time, recording things that reveal themselves like individual frames of film that seem to be finite and grounded. Taken as a whole,  the individual frames played back in a complete reel, they become  movement and connect to each other. By watching them, they connect to us and our place in the world, in time and history.

By Brian Warfield
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