“Chris Marker” was merely the most frequent of the pseudonyms used by the man who, at his birth in a posh Paris suburb in 1921, was named Christian Hippolyte François Georges Bouche-Villeneuve. With some fifty works on celluloid and video to his credit—more than sixty if you count the thirteen episodes of L’héritage de la chouette (The Owl’s Legacy), a 1989 television series on the history of philosophy, as separate works—his filmography alone suggests a kind of ubiquity, yet Marker was by choice an elusive figure. Has anyone whose life was lived with and through the camera’s eye ever been so averse to having it turned on himself?
Marker, who died in 2012, neither started nor finished his creative life as a filmmaker. He began as a man of the printed word—a writer and editor—and then, as he put it, “traded film for video and video for the computer.” As a student before the war and during the early years of the Vichy government, he threw himself—already using pseudonyms—into various editing projects, including a magazine of Pétainist hue. But Marker soon switched sides and joined the Resistance, later fighting for the US Army, according to one source, during “a brief period after the Battle of the Bulge [when] the Americans recruited Frenchmen directly into the American Army. He fought right through to the end of the war, and one of his most treasured possessions was the signed letter from Eisenhower thanking him for his service.” After the war, he fell into the orbit of Emmanuel Mounier and his magazine Esprit, which promoted a left-wing Catholicism. He published a novel, Le coeur net (translated into English as The Forthright Spirit) and a study of the playwright Jean Giraudoux, as well as translating into French the stories of J.F. Powers and James Thurber and E.B. White’s Is Sex Necessary? In 1954, Éditions du Seuil, which before the war had been founded as a Catholic imprint, hired him to edit a long-running series of travel books.
By then, however, Marker had become a man with a movie camera, directing Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) in 1950–53 with his friend Alain Resnais, for whom he would also serve as assistant director on Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), the famous documentary about the Nazi death camps released in 1955. Commissioned by the Paris-based magazine and publishing house Présence Africaine, Les statues meurent aussi is a ringing (if nostalgic and essentialist) denunciation of European colonialism and, in particular, European museums as the graveyard of African artworks. “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears,” warns the film’s voiceover.
The exhortation applies as well to the big, pleasantly messy retrospective “Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat,” on view at at the Whitechapel Gallery in London through June 22; it travels to the Lunds Konsthall in Sweden early next year. Marker did eventually become a museum artist rather than a writer or (in the traditional sense) a filmmaker, and he was one of the first filmmakers to try his hand at multimedia installations: Quand le siècle a pris forme (Guerre et révolution) (When the Century Took Shape [War and Revolution]) dates from 1978. But it’s not clear whether the whole of his career lends itself to a museum treatment, or whether those of his works that take the form of what, in the end, he preferred not to call “installations” (“the word,” he complained, “has been applied to too much rubbish”) are his most representative.