DVD Review: Level Five

STUDIO: Icarus | DIRECTOR: Chris Marker | CAST: Catherine Belkhodja, Nagisa
Oshima, Kenji Tokitsu, Ju’nishi Ushiyama
RELEASE DATE: 10/7/14 | PRICE: DVD $29.98
BONUS: print essay by Christophe Chazalon
SPECS: NR | 106 min. | Documentary | 1:33:1 widescreen | monaural | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall


The innovative and influential French filmmaker Chris Marker (Le Joli Mai), who died in 2012, was what they now call an “early adaptor” to new technologies. Thus it’s no surprise to find that Level Five (1996), his last major feature, is about the possibilities of the Internet as a tool for memory and history.

Marker’s non-fiction films weren’t documentaries in the conventional sense. Instead they were “essays” that blended thoughts on a particular subject with haunting visuals and a challenging audio track. Level Five has a few “threads,” with the central, most riveting one concerning the Battle of Okinawa and the government-ordered suicides of civilians that accompanied it.

That very sobering topic is situated by Marker within a somewhat playful frame device in which Laura (Catherine Belkhodja) is seen talking to the camera, addressing her dead lover, a video game maker. In the process she discusses the video game about Okinawa that he left unfinished, and a game they played when socializing, assigning “levels” to people they met (based on the person’s awareness of their situation); the titular “Level Five” can only be reached through death.

Level Five movie scene

Catherine Belkhodja in Chris Marker’s Level Five

The segments about Okinawa are tied up with the concept of memory (Marker’s biggest preoccupation, alongside travel and political solidarity). It is noted that the Japanese have a cultural “amnesia” about the incident. Filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and others are seen speaking about it, focusing on the incredible number of civilian casualties (150,000) who committed suicide because the Japanese government ordered the citizens of Okinawa not to fall into the hands of the American enemy.

The stories about, and sad footage of, the incident are so emotionally devastating that this is the one Marker film in which his customary tangents, especially those involving cute animals (he was particularly obsessed with cats and owls), are somewhat intrusive and simply out of place.

But an uneven Marker feature is still touched by genius. In addition to the moving discussions about Okinawa, he has Laura talk about the Internet and the ways in which the computer is linked to human memory. At one point she speculates about a future ethnologist examining the “strange tribes of the late 20th century” who customarily addressed “a familiar and protective spirit known as a computer. They’d consult it for everything. It kept their memory. In fact, it was their memory.” An unusually prescient statement for a film made in 1996.

He also shows how both the Japanese and American authorities dehumanized their enemies, depicting them as bloodthirsty killers. He counterpoints comments from the Japanese witnesses to Okinawa with footage John Huston (The African Queen) included in his banned documentary Let There Be Light (1946), in which an American soldier suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from the actions he undertook in the war.

Icarus released Level Five on the same day as On Strike! Chris Marker & the Medvedkin Group ($24.98), a pairing of two short films from the period in which Marker worked as part of a filmmaking collective called SLON. Be Seeing You (co-directed by Marker and Mario Marret) is a spare, bracing portrait of textile factory workers who went on strike in 1968. The package also includes audio from a screening in which the workers who took part in the film complained about it, saying it missed the point of the conflict.

The result, also included in On Strike!, was a second film called Class of Struggle (1969) made by the workers themselves under the guidance of Marker and Marret. It is a livelier, upbeat piece that focuses on a woman who was seen but barely heard from in Be Seeing You, a radicalized worker whose increasing trade-union activity results in her being demoted at her factory.


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”