Games of a Last Chance: Chris Marker’s Olympics

By Jonathan CushingMarch 29, 2013

Games of a Last Chance: Chris Marker’s Olympics

ON JULY 29, 2012, the French filmmaker Chris Marker — director of a series of important, lyrical films blending together narrative, documentary, and essayistic reflection, including La Jetée (1962), A Grin Without a Cat (1977), and Sans soleil (1983) — died in Paris at the age of 91. If you failed to hear about it, it may have been because Marker passed away two days after the opening ceremonies of the Games of the XXX Olympiad right across the English Channel, in London. Nothing would seem to be further removed from the enchanting lilt of Marker’s subtle cinematic accent than the bombast of the Olympics and the drone of its attendant media coverage, nothing further from his cosmopolitan curiosity — Sans soleil alone chaperones us through Iceland, Guinea-Bissau, Japan, and San Francisco — than the rampant nationalism of London 2012.

Yet the Olympics were one of Marker’s lifelong fascinations. Beginning with his very first film, Olympia 52, the world’s grandest sporting event provided an unlikely fil rouge for Marker’s ruminations on culture and politics. Olympia 52, shot at the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, is not a great film; not because it falls short in conception or execution, but because the terms of its production give it a quasi-didactic purpose. It was produced by Peuple et Culture (People and Culture) — a left-leaning arts and cultural organization that employed Marker for a stint as a typist — with support from the Secretary of State for Youth and Sports. In addition to directing Olympia 52, Marker was one of the camera operators and wrote the narration. The film was made to educate the public, to enrich moral and intellectual life through sport, and to salve the wounds of the ongoing Cold War. Relentlessly banal narration predominates, as in many of the scenes featuring the legendary Czech distance-runner, Emil Zátopek:

At the one kilometer mark, Anoufriev has caught up to the Australian. He leads in front of Mimoun in the black jersey. Zátopek, number 903, has so far only managed eighth place. At 2,000 meters, Zátopek has gained ground. He is now on the heels of the Russian, along with the leggy Englishman and Mimoun. Finally, after 2.5 kilometers, Emil Zátopek has taken off; he has taken the lead. Mimoun and Anoufriev follow him but the Czech’s pace is very quick.

This pedestrian voice will surprise those who have seen Marker’s later films, in which his narrators filter images through a lens that actively toggles between description and an intimate subjectivity. In Olympia 52, however, the generic personality of the sportscaster attends as little more than a mere witness. The narrator’s stock accompaniment combines with the graininess of the material substrate — 16mm film, in the style of old newsreels — to present the appearance of a film by, and for, anyone. At times, Marker works against the impersonality of the genre by giving us portraits of athletes away from the track (one short sequence shows Zátopek reclined on the grass, cuddling with his wife), but the quality of the narration comes nowhere near the poetry and intimacy of his later works. Perhaps responding to the parameters of its commission, the bulk of the film does not emerge as the work of an artiste, but the reportage of a minimally intrusive, yet articulate, bystander.

Looking back over a filmmaker’s early works for stylistic, aesthetic, or conceptual consistencies can be a fool’s errand, even if its draw seems irresistible. To construct an idea of who Marker was as a filmmaker and thinker is to impose the present upon a uniquely heterogeneous past. In projecting the faculties of the time-traveler from the year 4001 in Sans soleil onto the films themselves, we want Marker’s oeuvre to remember itself perfectly and to register a consistent authorial voice, even as it dramatizes the imperfection of memory.

But by the end of Olympia 52, there is indeed a moment that betrays Marker’s later concern with memory as a problem that emerges in both time and art. It is here that we begin to find some justification for our snooping: 

And so the Olympic stadium emptied. The flame went out. The place of so many shouts retreated into silence. On the abandoned playing grounds, on the deserted tracks, we had come to seek out our ever-fleeting emotions, like childhood memories. For it is in some sense the world of childhood that had lived there again, among the eight broken world records, almost all Olympic records broken or equaled, the celebration in the city, the battle in the stadium, the two greats — the United States and the USSR — sharing the majority of the victories. It was certainly childhood, with its pure combats and its confidence in life. Athletically speaking, these games had been the most remarkable in Olympic history. We also saw them as the Games of a last chance [les Jeux de la dernière chance]. Before they began, we had called them the Games of the Cold War but, in reality, we almost forgot war there. 

Bob Costas this is not, and not just because of its contemplative tone. Marker describes — perhaps even creates — a world, as opposed to a collection of individual acts. It is not about an athlete being the first from his or her country, gender, or race to achieve any singular feat. Individual athletes and spectators are subsumed under nations and geopolitical events, as well as under an even grander, classical force. 

The Games return us, Marker suggests, to a childhood that is immediately transformed into a seemingly distant memory. In the moment, they appear to offer a respite from war but, outside of the present, they are identified with it. The naiveté of the “last chance” is the hope that sports can somehow transcend the contexts from which they emerge. “We” know very well that athletes’ victories will be partial and temporary, but, all the same, we watch for a complete sublimation of conflict. The connection between the Games and war thus reflects the paradox of war itself: in both the Olympics and war is the hope that conflict can be transformed into peace, like lead into gold.

What is the effect of the narrator’s abrupt transition from experience to interpretation, and what makes it necessary or appropriate? The short answer is technological. Before the days of instantaneous worldwide sports coverage, the film distributed by Peuple et Culture would have reached the audience long after the fact. The images of Olympia 52, by the time the film reached its first audience, were already saturated with the loss of childhood that they were meant to restore. The longer, less empirical answer would be to say that, in Marker’s world, experience is interpretation, and vice versa. Since all experience is fleeting, only concurrent reflection and interpretation can access its truth. The above passage is a taste of what would emerge in Marker’s later narrative style and it’s part of a constellation of aphorisms on memory that extends into his better-known works. Early in Sans soleil, we hear similar reflections from the pen of the narrator’s correspondent; one of these could sum up Marker’s philosophical project:

He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?

Later on — alluding to what is by all accounts Marker’s urtext, Hitchcock’s VertigoSans soleil evokes the risks of remembering: “Scottie found it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it.” Like the minutes-old lining around the perimeter of an eclipsed sun, memory emanates from an irretrievable source. It is a false supplement to forgetting.


Twenty-five years later, Marker would return to the subject of the Olympics. In a short section of A Grin Without a Cat, his epic documentary on the turmoil of 1960s social movements, Marker retroactively dampens the optimism of his earlier travelogue. Even in 1952, he had shown himself to be aware of the chimeric political efficacy of Helsinki, and his brooding backward glance a quarter of a century later only deepens and complicates this earlier view. Emil Zátopek reappears, discussing the context of political oppression in Czechoslovakia (a circumstance which goes unmentioned in Olympia 52). Zátopek was a prominent member of the Communist party in his home country, and the Helsinki Games coincided with the public persecution of his comrades in the Slánsky Trials. Now we see Zátopek break down in tears as he sits, a spectator of the Munich Games of 1972. A voice-over asks, rhetorically, what he is crying about. Is it over the murders of the Israelis, or does he cry because he has been transported back in time to Helsinki, when the show trials back home would have cast a severe pall over the Games for Czech nationals? 

While Olympia 52 presents athletes as athletes, suspended in a liminal utopia of sport, A Grin Without a Cat compels us to read documentations of the Olympics more skeptically. After informing the viewer that César Mendoza, the Chilean equestrian he had filmed in 1952, later became a general in Pinochet’s junta, Marker coldly reflects: “On ne sait jamais ce qu’on filme” (“One never knows what one is filming”). Mendoza seemed innocuous in 1952, not only because he appeared merely as an athlete, but also because the Pinochet regime had yet to come into power. Images can be demystified or enriched by looking beyond their immediate appearance. Film, like the Games themselves, can disguise as well as reveal, not just in the present, but within multiple layers of time. 

As the 20th century progressed, Marker’s perspective on the Games darkened further. The coded violence and suffering latent in its activities became more and more of an open secret. In 1989, in collaboration with the writer Jean-Claude Carrière, Marker completed work on a miniseries meant to excavate the cultural inheritance of Ancient Greece. Named after Marker’s favorite bird, L’héritage de la chouette (The Owl’s Legacy) was never broadcast (though all 13 episodes have been made available on The series is casually philological in structure, with each installment taking up a specific word with a more or less Greek etymology and extrapolating its contemporary significance. The 26 minutes of episode two, “Olympics, or Imaginary Greece,” are bookended by footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious Nazi portrayal of the 1936 Berlin Games, Olympia (1938). Riefenstahl is never mentioned by name, or even obliquely addressed by any of the interviewees who feature in the episode, but the footage from Olympia haunts the film from its periphery.

This opening footage from episode two of L’Héritage de la chouette shows clips from Riefenstahl’s film of loin-clothed torchbearers making their way through idyllic, hazy landscapes. An orchestra’s brass section brightly announces the torch’s progress as the camera zooms in to a close-up map of southeastern Europe. But once the first interviewee, Manuela Smith, is given space to speak, all mention of the Games disappears. They fade away into an implicit metonym for ancient Greece writ large, as Smith proceeds to explain the significance of antiquity to her personal and intellectual development. Smith’s sentiments on the ancient world are remarkable in their passion and intimacy; her most quotable moment is the revelation that “what the Greeks gave me from the start was a sense of integration of personality.” The interviews that follow reveal the same kind of personal affinities or aversions to elements of ancient Greece, or the modern European interpretation of it. This distinction between what Greece really was and what it means for us is analogous to Marker’s paradigm of memory. There is the residue of memory and there is its source, the dream of childhood and the yearning to relive it in the present. The inaccessibility of history evoked by Smith mirrors the failure of the individual to replay a past event — how can one remember thirst? 

Olympia 52’s tacit parallel between individual and collective memory persists throughout the interviews in L’Héritage de la chouette. The Olympics represent memory’s promise as well as its political risk. Memory may be able to prevent future injustice, but it can do nothing about the injustices that have already taken place or which continue to take place in the present. The Games owe their excitement and existence to the dissonance between things as they are and an imagined past or future. They attempt to conjure a better time in a better place. But it is always an incomplete, failed act of conjuring. 

In the faces of Marker’s interviewees, we read deeply personal reactions to broad questions about the function of memory in society and culture. “If you could say one thing that the whole of the Greek civilization left to the rest of the world,” the filmmaker asks, “what do you think it could be?” A man named Lee Kaminski responds with three inextricable concepts: “freedom,” “democracy,” “free thinking.” Oswyn Murray articulates the slippery relevance of Greece as a problem of historical reconstruction: “It seems to me difficult to conceive of a world without the Greeks, even though nothing in it any longer is Greek.” The risk of the Olympics — which Marker presents as metonymy for Greek culture itself — is not that ancient Greece will be misinterpreted, but that the Olympics restage cultural events which at best mistake a piece for a whole, a derivation for a source.

The spectator of the Olympics is the universal citizen par excellence, but this utopic citizenship oscillates between a playful, temporary role and a harbinger of real political dangers — a precariousness that Marker makes nightmarishly explicit at the end of “Olympics, or Imaginary Greece.” Even more clearly than Olympia 52, “Olympics” shows that the Games are a reflection and distillation of a mythical just war. The false triumphalism of another blast of trumpets is drowned out by the grating buzz of what sounds like either an enormous insect or a bomber. Footage of the world’s nations marching into the Berlin stadium is mashed up with images of soldiers on the march. Is this heavy-handed equivalence specific to Berlin 1936, or is Marker making a broader statement? Is the extreme example of Berlin an anomaly, or does it amplify an engrained paradox at the heart of the Olympics between democracy and hegemony? Another 20th-century thinker, Simone Weil, would make this same link between play and war in her reading of the The Iliad, “L’Iliade ou le poème de la force” (“The Iliad or the Poem of Force”). 

At the outset, their heart is light, as always when a force faces mere void. […] No necessity appears yet to the spirit of those going forth in this way, as if to a game, a holiday free from daily care. […] A day comes when fear, defeat, the death of beloved comrades make the soul of the warrior succumb to necessity. War then ceases to be a game or a dream; the warrior finally understands that it actually exists.

We would be hard pressed to find a better description of the terrifying vertigo, rehearsed again and again in the Olympic Games of the 20th century, that divides the natural lightheartedness of sport from the forces of political devastation. These forces have periodically burst forth. Ten days before the 1968 Games in Mexico City, an undetermined number of activists were slaughtered to make way for the international event. Eleven Israelis, five Palestinians, and a German police officer were killed during the 1972 Games in Munich. Weil presents war itself as a game trying desperately not to be war. The soldier or the athlete persistently denies the thin chasm separating the two, but its suppression only makes its return more forceful, as the reality of conflict and the fantasy of play become apparent. Hence, Zátopek becomes Achilles. Hector becomes Ryan Lochte. The warrior and the athlete are interchangeable so long as the spirit of war exists. The Olympics construct a fiction of classical democracy that operates within an arena of unalloyed play, only to have it be dismantled. Political realities have a way of creeping in and crashing the party.


It is perhaps too easy to claim that Marker “evolved” in his thinking about the Games, or that Olympia 52 was a fantasy he eventually gave up. The Olympic drama may be puerile and naive, but there is a real interest and optimism in Marker’s early work about some potential buried within the history of the Games that he never fully abandoned. We might follow the lead of the interviewees in L’héritage de la chouette and call it “freedom,” “democracy,” or “free thinking.” Is an ambivalence toward the political potential of contemporary interpretations of Greece how we explain Marker’s radically divergent portrayals?

It could be due to the different sources of the commissions, the historical moments in which they were produced, or the fact that they are about two different Olympics — one immediately under the shadow of fascism, the other still painfully in the wake of its destruction. But this still doesn’t explain why Marker chose Berlin as the representative example of the Olympics for his second episode. Marker’s films give us both sides of the same coin. The Helsinki Games suppressed war but substituted a global optimism that could have existed in few other contexts. They strove to effect a restoration of that seemingly naive, but inevitably central condition — freedom — that chronically haunts both politics and metaphysics. The Berlin Games revealed the impossibility of cordoning off a space for play in a climate of global war. The diaphanous cloak of global unity hardly covered the fact that war, as Weil put it, “actually exists.” The repeated finality of the Olympics cuts both ways. We are reminded of the costs of actually existing war in the “pure combats” of the Games even as we replay and reimagine an ever-receding origin — if only to forget them again.


LARB Contributor

Jonathan Cushing is a writer, recovering academic, and educator living in Portland, Oregon. His main scholarly interests are eighteenth century and Romantic era literature, philosophy, and aesthetics, as well as film history and theory. He blogs at place your ad here.


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