'Autopsy', as someone notes in Chris Marker's epic 13-part series on Greek culture and history The Owl's Legacy, means 'to see things for oneself'. Marker's video autopsies oppose the profound amnesia of contemporary politics. Their sharp historical ironies are honed by juxtaposing personal and collective memory. The programme of Marker's recent videos at MoMA included The Owl's Legacy; The Last Bolshevik, the story of Alexander Medvedkin, early Soviet filmmaker and revolutionary; a video diary filmed as the Berlin Wall was dismantled; and Prime Time in the Camps, about a television news programme created by Bosnian refugees. Stunningly contemporary, his recent work also meditates on the interplay of memory and oblivion at moments of historical change.
The Last Bolshevik interweaves rare film clips, interviews and archival footage to explore Soviet history through the life of Marker's dear friend, Alexander Medvedkin. It was noted in the film that Medvedkin's dilemma was 'the tragedy of a true Communist in a world of would-be Communists.' Though continually persecuted, he remained a revolutionary enthusiast, and died believing that Perestroika was the grand culmination of the ideals of October.
Descended from five generations of peasants, Medvedkin's visual originality was deeply rooted in Russian folk culture. During the revolution he was in charge of Red Army propaganda, and created a military theatre in which speaking horses complained about their owners. His early masterpiece, Happiness, is a film about a peasant who nearly commits suicide when his wife sends him out with a bag to search for felicity.
In the 20s Medvedkin's Kino Train, equipped as a film studio, travelled all over the Soviet Union, filming, editing, and screening footage for the masses. Clips of these rare films were incorporated in Marker's study of the filmmaker. His troubles soon began with authorities who claimed that the masses wanted entertainment, rather than truth. 'Morons of the World Unite' was their slogan. Stalin loved film, particularly documentaries, but Medvedkin's 'Kino Train' exposed too many of the problems of the Soviet system.
And the problems were many, like the tractors that keep breaking down in Soviet films of the 20s and 30s. 'Change the spark plugs,' a Stalin look-alike suggests to a bunch of stumped workers, after a peek at the engine. 'Who is responsible for these tractor problems?' The answers began to pour in from the endless Stalinist trials: Bukharin and company.
So life increasingly came to resemble fiction, with everyone's role set out in advance. Yet a look beneath the surface reveals that the chief Nazi prosecutor of the 30s had once been a Bolshevik revolutionary, while his Soviet counterpart had fought the Revolution as a White Russian. Propaganda is the continuation of war by other means, Goebbels noted. Marker's subject becomes the role film plays in the creation of history.
As the battle lines of a century were redrawn in Kiev and Moscow, the great question was no longer, how to reconcile faith with revolution, but rather how far the bishops had collaborated with the KGB. The historical processes by which the Soviet Union became 'the amnesiac bearer of the hope it had long ceased to embody, but which strangely died with it,' were laid to rest, along with Medvedkin's generation.
Berlin (1990) records daily life by the Berlin wall during its dismantling. Formerly capitalism's outer limit and the most striking emblem of world economic division, the wall itself became just another commodity, as pieces of it sprayed with fake graffiti were sold next to East German police uniforms and frankfurters. Though Marker documents the optimism of the first East German elections, a stunning montage to the lilting melody I Can Hardly Wait for Spring suddenly evokes the darker memories hiding behind German reunification: flowers strewn along the streets for Hitler, and the burning of Berlin.
Prime Time in the Camps is about television news from the perspective of a historical disaster. This deeply moving documentary focuses on a news broadcast produced by Bosnian refugees for residents of their camp. The amateur journalists sift information from three or four news sources: 'I ask myself who might want to lie, and who might have the ability.' Ordinary people, they have slowly come to realise that television news is a vast form of manipulation.
Marker was Resnais' assistant on Night and Fog (1955), one of the first films to document the Nazi death camps. This early moral imperative to remember is echoed in the Bosnian conflict. News, for those who live within violent struggle, is part of the work of mourning.