Chris Marker’s 1982 Sans Soleil is a deliberately elusive film that masquerades as a documentary, much as W.G. Sebald’s digressive tales pretend to be non-fiction. Without even attempting to summarize this decidedly non-linear film, suffice it to say that it consists of a woman’s voice “reading” letters that have been sent to her by a cameraman or filmmaker (Marker’s alter-ego) who travels to Iceland, Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Okinawa, and San Francisco. But the real map of San Soleil‘s territory covers history, memory, anthropology, folklore, time… all topics that are common to Sebald’s books as well. (At markertext you can find a transcription of the full narration of Sans Soleil.)
Marker and Sebald are both pessimistic about the trajectory of civilization and the seeming inability of human nature to overcome its own destructive nature, yet neither manages to be nihilistic. What interests me is that they both gnaw away at the prospect of some kind of redemption, even if it’s against their better judgment. Sans Soleil begins somewhat optimistically with the narrator saying “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness.” However, at the end of the film we learn that the village in the background of this photograph (on the Icelandic island of Heimaey) was buried by a volcanic eruption. Nature condemns optimism, it seems.
“How far is it from the point where we find ourselves today back to the late eighteenth century, when the hope that mankind could improve and learn was inscribed in handsomely formed letters in our philosophical firmament?” Sebald asks in his essay An Attempt at Restitution. As we know, Sebald despaired constantly only to have some chance meeting or coincidence give him a restorative burst of energy and renew his boundless sense of curiosity. When he posed the question “So what is literature good for?” he made his now often-quoted statement that “only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” I’m inclined to think there is an emphasis on the verb attempt.
Marker despairs, too. “We do not remember. We re-write memory much as history is written.” Faced with “the amnesia of the future that history distributes through mercy or calculation to those it recruits,” the in Sans Soleil is a Diogenes searching for something authentic. Marker returns several times to a film clip of a woman in Guinea-Bissau. The narrator recites “I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.” The real glance. Straightforward. This fragile one-twenty fourth of a second momentarily undermines the cynicism that otherwise permeates the film. This human connection may not be enough to save the world from destruction, it may not even offer hope, but, if nothing else, it seems to be a reason to continue.
So even as Marker and Sebald catalog the ways in which history and nature defeat every attempt to be hopeful, both cling to an ethical practice in their art as a path toward a personal act restitution. Is this just a quixotic attempt to resist the inevitable? It’s hard not to think of the final pages of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable and its unnerving ending:
I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you never know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.