The Train Rolls On / Embassy (1971/73, Chris Marker)

It’s the late 60’s, early 70’s, and Chris Marker has got himself a Great Cause. Inspired by Aleksandr Medvedkin (Alexandre Medvedkine) and by political and social unrest in France and elsewhere, Marker and his friends have decided to read lots of Lenin, to try to make films that change the world, and ultimately to try putting film production into the hands of the people, the workers.

Marker hadn’t been greatly involved with the French New Wave movement, but he was present at the end of it, contributing to the 1967 omnibus film Far From Vietnam, wherein Marker, Resnais, Godard, Ivens, Lelouch, Varda and Klein voiced their support for the communist north vietnamese, while Rohmer, Rivette, Truffaut and Demy stayed out of it, pursuing their own romantic ideals.

Marker, Godard and others started making purely political works and stopped putting their names on their films, using collective names. I can’t find copies of some of these films (Cinetracts, Battle of the Ten Million) and can’t find English subtitles for most others (Far From Vietnam, Sixth Face of the Pentagon, À bientôt j’espère, Les Mots ont un sens), so it’s pretty much just these two, The Train Rolls On and Embassy. I’m filling out the rest of the timeline by quoting heavily from Catherine Lupton‘s amazing book on Marker.

Marker goes “beyond the privileged status of the auteur-director into the humbler and less visible functions of producer, fund raiser, editor, facilitator and general fixer, ensuring the exposure through [production company] SLON of other people’s work while continuing to make his own (unsigned) films.”

“Under the auspices of SLON (which also happens to be the Russian word for elephant), Marker instigated, edited and wrote the commentary for Far From Vietnam, a collective portmanteau film made to protest against American military interventionism in Vietnam.”

In support of striking workers in southeast France, they started on “a film about the strikes, entitled A Bientot, j’espere (‘Hope To See You Soon’).” Workers complained that the film was pessimistic, that they came off as victims. “Marker’s response to these criticisms was that he and Marret would always be outsides to the workers’ lives, and that the logical step forward was for them to begin making their own films.” And so the Medvedkin group was born.

After the May ’68 business, “The Estates General of the Cinema sponsored a series of collective short documentaries recording the May events from the perspective of students and striking workers. Following an idea suggested by Chris Marker it also produced the Cinetracts. These were a series of anonymous, combative and often strikingly eloquent visual pamphlets, filmed on silent black and white 16mm-negative stock using easily assembled materials – still photographs, collages and texts – in order to respond quickly to unfolding events. Marker, Godard, Resnais, Jean-Pierre Gorin (who formed the Dziga Vertov Group with Godard), Philippe Garrel and Jackie Raynal were among the better-known contributors to the series alongside young militants with no prior experience of film.”

“Number 5 in the [SLON counter-information newsreels] series, On vous parle de Paris: Maspero, les mots ont un sens (‘Maspero, Words Have Meaning’), is an affectionate portrait of the left-wing publisher and bookshop owner Francois Maspero, who was a contributor to Far From Vietnam and would later publish the commentary to Le Fond de l’air est rouge. Maspero is one of the most satisfying and likeable of Marker’s films from this period, achieving an exemplary balance of quirky human warmth with a clear and inventive form of political argument.”

Marker worked as a still photographer on Costa-Gavras’s film The Confession, then made a film about the shoot called Jour de Tournage, and a film on the controversy surrounding The Confession, number 6 in the newsreel series, Le Deuxieme proces d’Artur London.

“Both [Les mots & Artur London] consider the question of how committed socialists and revolutionaries can acknowledge past mistakes, undergo productive self-criticism and still maintain their basic political beliefs, in a climate where their political opponents on the right take such criticism as proof of the total failure of communism. … This dilemma comes sharply to the fore in The Battle of the Ten Million, a clear-eyed account of the failure of Fidel Castro’s ambitious project for Cuba to achieve a 10-million-ton sugar-cane harvest in 1969-70.”

“The French version of Happiness was accompanied in cinemas by Le Train en marche, an introduction to Medvedkin, Happiness and the film-trains based around an animated interview with Medvedkin filmed in a train depot in the Paris suburd of Noisy-le-Sec. Its core motifs are the eye, the hand and the train.”


A 10-min intro about trains in the 1920’s traversing russia/asia acting as bookmobiles, then a change of narrator voice when Medvedkin is introduced, and his story takes us away. His crew watched and filmed the techniques of successful and unsuccessful farmers and showed the films to each other to help increase production, then moved on to steel plants.

Medvedkin: “We realized that the cinema could be not just a means of entertainment, a way of arousing aesthetic emotions, but also a great and forceful weapon capable of reconstructing factories, and not just factories but the world, making it a better place. Such a cinema in the hands of the people was a powerful weapon.”

In the last bit, he talks about his motivation for filming Happiness, which makes sense now that i know Le Train en marche was screened as an introduction to that film.

A pretty straightforward documentary with english voiceover rather than subtitles on my copy, using archive footage (but none from the actual cine-trains, which had all been lost). No cats or owls or tricks, though halfway through the movie, Marker reveals the camera crew filming Medvedkin.

From the sound of it, Marker’s Medvedkin Group has at least partially succeeded. In CM’s own words: “I think that it’s this fabled and long forgotten bit of history… that underlies a large part of my work – in the end, perhaps, the only coherent part. To try to give the power of speech to people who don’t have it, and, when it’s possible, to help them find their own means of expression. The workers I filmed in 1967 in Rhodesia, just like the Kosovars I filmed in 2000, had never been heard on television: everyone was speaking on their behalf, but once you no longer saw them on the road, bloody and sobbing, people lost interest in them. To my great surprise, I once found myself explaining the editing of Battleship Potemkin to a group of aspiring filmmakers in Guinea-Bissau, using an old print on rusty reels; now those filmmakers are having their films selected for competition in Venice.”

“Ecological politics are not usually mentioned as being among Chris Marker’s preoccupations, but they are at the heart of a short film he co-directed with Mario Ruspoli in 1972, Viva la baleine / Long Live The Whale… a sharply politicized re-take on Ruspoli’s anthropological study, which now sets the archaic practices of the Azores whaling communities in the context of a pointed condemnation of industrialized whaling.”

Marker traveled to Chile to make a film about the new socialist government under Salvador Allende but “discovered that the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman and his colleagues already had the job in hand” so CM instead helped bring their films to France and contributed financial assistance for Guzman’s later three-part The Battle of Chile, 1975, after the government’s 1973 takeover by a military dictatorship.

In late ’73, “Marker transposed recent events in Chile into a remarkable fictional document, L’Ambassade (Embassy). As a fictional commentary on the contemporary political world, Embassy invites comparison with La Jetee. Despite their evident differences, the films share a measured, inexorable narration, and a catastrophic transformation of Paris that leaves a small group of survivors trapped.


“Wednesday, 2 days after the coup”

Lupton’s notes: “An unexpected response to Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’etat in Chile. A Super-8 film apparently found in an embassy -as it’s written in the original title-, where political activists had taken refuge after a military coup d’état. But the events -and their setting- are not what they first appear to be.”

8mm film with no direct sound. Also English voiceover rather than subs on this one, a bored-sounding reporter voice.

“You are all motherfuckers as dumb as corpses quarrelling in the grave. The only lesson to draw is that all political directions have gone bankrupt.”

I admit I snickered at the ending. Shades of Cradle Will Rock as the “truth” behind the film is revealed: “From a window of the embassy I took my last shot, the van that was leading them into exile from that city we had known when she was free: Paris.”

La Solitude du chanteur de fond fused personal friendship and the pressing political concern of the moment by filming the rehearsals and final performance of [Yves] Montand’s one-man benefit concert for Chilean refugees, held at the Paris Olympia on 12 February 1974 and his first stage appearance for six years. … [Loneliness] was released in December 1974 with the dormant If I Had Four Camels [completed in ’66], but it was the Montand film that attracted critical accolades, as a fond and revealing homage to one of France’s best-loved film actors and popular entertainers. … Loneliness is a minor masterpiece of observational documentary…”

SPIRAL, 1975
Marker helped initiate and wrote the commentary for the film Spiral, helmed by a French sociologist expelled from Chile, Armand Mattelart, and editors Jacqueline Meppiel and Valerie Mattelart. “The title of the film, Spiral, derived from its proposed spiral structure of seven successive phases of right-wing reaction leading up to the coup of 1973, many of which also delved back in history to consider, for example, the past roles of the military and the United States in Chilean affairs.” The film was largely edited from archive footage, then matched to a 3-hour Marker-written commentary and edited to 155 minutes for final release. “Although Marker was not involved at every point of the film’s production, Spiral nonetheless stands as an instructive precursor to Le Fond de l’air est rouge. It develops the same intricate marshalling of archive resources as Marker’s later film, representing the arraignment of conflicting social forces at a given moment in history by playing off film extracts informed by different political perspectives against each other.”

Hope I’m able to see more of the above films sometime. Learning French would help. Meanwhile I’m either tackling Grin Without a Cat next, or taking a Patricio Guzman or Alexander Medvedkin sidetrack before heading boldly forth into the 1980’s.