Le Train En Marche, made in 1971 by Chris Marker and his SLON group, is the precursor in many ways to a more well-known Marker film; the 1992 feature The Last Bolshevik (Le Tombeau d’Alexandre). The latter film is a more complete reckoning with the life and work of Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin, but this is not to suggest that this earlier short has little of interest to the prospective viewer.
Indeed Le Train En Marche is many ways a classic Marker work in how it probes the divide and connections between history, memory and cinema. Rarely in Marker’s work, however, would he have so little to work with in regards to footage of his subject; the film focuses on the ‘Cine-Train’ (which housed a full film laboratory and projection equipment) which Medvedkin and thirty one other young Bolsheviks created and which toured the USSR offering direct access to cinema for the people, a chance to be filmed and to influence or even direct what was captured, and to view and discuss the resulting work. Medvedkin and company soon found this direct cinema to be an incredible tool for education- the film-makers could show the triumphs and errors of the work and action of the people, and in the process show the workers the way forward and allow them a chance to revolutionise their own working methods and tools. As Medvedkin himself states, the discovery was that “the cinema could be a great and forceful weapon, capable of reconstructing factories… and the world”. Nothing now remains of these films (seventy of which were made). Marker and his SLON group, instead, construct their documentary out of three distinct sources; stock footage and the work of other Soviet film-makers (Vertov etc)., a contemporary interview with Medvedkin in a French railway depot, and footage from Medvedkin’s fictional comedy Happiness (which was deeply influenced by his experiences on the cine-train with the Russian peasantry, and which allows Marker to suggest that the train managed to pick up actualities and “collected imaginary materials”).
As such it may be easy to see that few films, even amongst Marker’s work, so situate themselves in an off-screen space, that space being, in this case, the gap between what is seen by us now and what is unseen, the history which is captured and that which is lost, what is remembered and recounted by Medvedkin and what is forgotten and untold by him. In a way Marker has shown to us the inadequacy of the documentary form as it is now, how it is unable to reach or even approach the totality of a thing, how much it collects and relies upon that combination of actuality and imagination that Marker points to in the narration and thus is not precisely a reality except on a makeshift and personal level. In this process, perhaps, Medvedkin’s distinct direct-cinema is being praised for its abilities to narrow these gaps, to be able to present and summarise a situation in the moment and with the utmost practical usefulness for people on a local (and thus also on a national) scale. A further miracle is that, according to Medvedkin, this practically–useful cinema was not didactic and dry; rather it was often very funny, satirical, Medvedkin stating that “laughter was one of the principle weapons of the train.” In pointing this alternative cinema out to us again, in explaining it and letting us hear from one of its creators directly, Marker has created a film which is also practically-useful, a reminder of, or education in, the possibilities and joys of democratic, collective creative work.
But Marker is Marker, and he also delights in the ambiguity of the aforementioned divides, in their space for poetry and suggestion, and the film is thus also useful in a separate way to Medvedkin’s. The first section of the film, before Medvedkin is introduced to us in person, is classic Marker, a soft voice talking to us over an eerie soundscape that suggests the sound of memories rattling around inside a skull. The images delight in their contradictions and their new meanings as discovered in juxtaposition, in their ability to both single in on a particular detail of and define a wider, general aspect of a history. This is Marker the great sifter, sorting through the rubble and debris of a century and finding in it truths threatened with turning to dust in the obliterating march of capitalist ‘progress’. There are some very strong images here; faces caught in a dark isolation that remind us of the scientists in La Jetee, a nightmarish shot from beneath the train, where all feels abstracted, the wheels becoming but black, spectral spheres moving at an unimaginable speed; a terrifying automata which one feels is about to slice through us. Or perhaps, that should be, about to slice through the current established order of the bourgeoisie, for as Marker imparts to us at the end of the film, for all the hold-ups and mechanical faults, one should never suspect that “the train [of revolution] has come to a halt.”