The themes that preoccupied Chris Marker throughout his career – human encroachment on the countryside, the nature of memory – are mostly present and correct in this, his first feature film; yet ‘Letters from Siberia’ also retains a playful tone that’s often lost amid the enigmatic philosophising of his later films. The format is the ‘travel essay’ (another Marker trope): we’re treated to sweeping panoramas of the steppes and isolated villages of Siberia, put in their historical context by a continuous voiceover narration courtesy of an unidentified, possibly fictional, member of the team. Urbanization, reckless deforestation and the demise of the woolly mammoth all fall under his critical gaze.
But lest this descend into preachiness, Marker punctuates the film with comic animated interludes, a few Russian songs, and sharp satirical jibes at everything from American television to Soviet politics. In the film’s most famous scene, a clip of labourers working beside a near-deserted high street is played three times, the narration changing each time to cast it as a piece of pro-Soviet social realism, anti-Soviet propaganda and objective ethnographic profiling respectively – in the process foregrounding the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Critical without being didactic, ironic without ever stooping to sarcasm, this is one of Marker’s sharpest and most entertaining films; at its best, it attains a poetic resonance that the director would strike again and again in his travelogues of the 80s.
Cast and crew