To Forever Die, Gracefully – Final Moments Witnessed by Robert Capa and Chris Marker
“[A] still, which allows one to linger over a single moment as long as one likes, contradicts the very form of film, as a set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form, which is a process, a flow in time. The photographed world stands in the same, essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do to movies. Life is not about significant details, illuminated [by] a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” Susan Sontag – On Photography. p. 81.
A shot rings out. A gloved hand flings upwards. The head and neck snap backwards, the body is suspended in mid-air. The sparse surroundings look bleak. The sky is overcast, sinister even. The stones are still wet from the recent rain. The perpetrator lingers outside the frame, invisible to the viewer. The victim is shrouded in shadows, much like the woman leaning against the fence. Helplessly we look on. Is the man in pain? Is he dead? What on earth just happened? What about the woman? Is she in shock? Horrified even? Her reaction to the scene in front of her cannot be gouged from this photograph.
Despite the many questions it raises, this picture is the key scene in Chris Marker’s La Jetée. It is the moment the protagonist has been waiting for all his life. He was always destined to die forever, gracefully. And somewhere in the back of his mind, he has always known it.
For a film consisting of nothing but excellent still images, this particular photograph is possibly the strongest one of them all. This is not just because it resolves the riddle of the film and provides closure for the main character. In fact, it does all of that by merely hinting at what is going on. We do not see a gun, we do not hear a bullet whizzing through the air, there is no entry or exit wound. There is certainly no squirting blood. The picture is exceptionally strong in terms of composition, with its intersecting diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines. The stark contrasts add to the drama, as do the rays of sunlight struggling to break through the clouds. This is an outstanding photograph in a grim and relentless film, perfectly fitting within a French existentialist framework.
This is an outstanding photograph in a grim and relentless film, perfectly fitting within a French existentialist framework.
Produced in 1962 by the French film maker Chris Marker, La Jetée is a groundbreaking and magnificent film for many reasons. Not only does it resolve the inherent contradiction between film and photographs hinted at above by Sontag by proving that a cinematic narrative can be constructed by using still images. On a deeper level Marker goes on to show that life is actually about significant details fixed forever. But on top of that it also tells a haunting and beautiful story with very simple and limited means. The film lasts barely half an hour, and is shot with friends and acquaintances of the producer posing as actors and with simple props and existing decors.
The story is told through strong editing by sequencing and juxtaposing images as first pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. A simple but effective sound scape and voice-over narration complement the story line established through the visuals. The film seemingly progresses in a linear fashion, but in reality past, present and future continuously intermingle. La Jetée thus subtly questions the concepts of time and memory. On a deeper level it addresses issues such as slavery, tyranny, free agency and predestination, the role of technology in society and the destruction of the world. Made by a film maker living in a Europe recently ravaged by two world wars, and under the threat of a third world war to be fought with nuclear weapons, La Jetée cannot be anything else but bleak.
One of the reasons why Chris Marker’s depiction of someone being shot looks so realistic is because it brings to mind another image from the history of photography. And that is Robert Capa’s “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, 1936.” After all, how does one know what a person getting shot looks like? Most of us never had to witness it in real life, fortunately. But as Bernard Lebrun and Michel Lefebvre point out: “In the history of photography, it is extremely rare for a photographer to capture a soldier in action being hit by an enemy bullet.” (p. 99) In other words, there is not that much source material to draw inspiration from. Indeed, one of the reasons Capa’s image has become such an icon is because it apparently captured this rare moment of someone being shot. Interestingly enough, Capa’s photograph also came to stand as an indictment of the Spanish civil war, which in itself was a precursor to the imminent World War II. If indeed Marker looked for inspiration to create a bleak film about meaningless deaths caused by a nuclear Third World War, this image would certainly qualify.
In fact, whether the image is real or faked is neither here nor there.
As the photograph was printed in quite a few of the important news publications of the time, it garnered a fair bit of attention. 1 And since its authenticity has been questioned practically from the moment it was published, the picture has never really faded from the collective memory. In fact, whether the image is real or faked is neither here nor there. The importance of the photograph lies in that it established for the first time in the larger visual collective memory what being shot actually looks like. As it turns out, it involves an arm flinging upwards, a head and neck snapping backwards, and a body suspended in midair. It consists of intersecting horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. And it takes place in sparse surroundings, directing our attention to the action. As in La Jetée, we do not see the perpetrator, we do not see the bullet, the entry or exit wound, nor any blood. In fact, the impending death of the soldier is merely hinted at, but never explicitly shown. And as this image keeps on being revisited by scholars and amateur viewers alike, so our Spanish soldier keeps on dying, forever, gracefully.
Bernard Lebrun & Michael Lefebvre
2011 Robert Capa, The Paris Years 1933 – 1954. Abrams, New York
1962 La Jetée.
2007 This is War! Robert Capa at Work. International Center of Photography/Steidl, New York
2008 On Photography. Penguin Modern Classics, London
1 See also Lebrun and Lefebvre.