Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. This February, in celebration of Leap Fear here at Nightmare on Film Street, we’ll play with time in two big ways. We’ll explore our first ever short film here at Silver Screams. It’s a 28-minute experimental French film that revolutionized how time travel could be depicted on screen, 1962’s La Jetee.
A Man out of Time, a Film Ahead of it
A man from a dystopian future is sent back to the past in a desperate attempt to save humanity. In the course of his travels, he falls in love but discovers that no matter how hard he tries, in time travel one cannot escape the inevitable loop of future and past.
This dystopian and paradoxical premise is familiar to many modern sci-fi and time travel thrillers. But I’m not describing The Terminator (1984), or 12 Monkeys (1995). Rather, La Jettee, a 1962 experimental short film from French New Wave documentarian Chris Marker. To further distinguish La Jetee from the countless sci-fi films that it inspired, the film is not a traditional film at all. Rather it is told through a series of still images, edited together at varying paces and combined with a soundtrack to give the illusion of motion. La Jetee is as untraditional as a film can get, but its influential take on time travel is so essential to modern sci-fi, it’s impossible to ignore. And it’s poetic, dreamlike effect is so engrossing, that it truly creates a work of subtle horror as much as sci-fi.
“[La Jetee] is told through a series of still images, edited together at varying paces and combined with a soundtrack to give the illusion of motion.”
La Jetee follows a man who has survived the devastation of World War III and has been taken prisoner by the victors. Hiding in the catacombs beneath Paris to avoid the radioactive wasteland of the postwar world, the prisoners are subjected to mysterious experiments that kill many and drive the survivors mad.
When he himself is chosen, the man learns that he is being sent on a mission through time “to call past and future to the rescue of the present”. He is chosen because, unlike the failed test subjects, a vivid memory from his childhood might ground him when sent back and keep his mind from breaking. The powerful memory is of a pre-war Sunday afternoon. His parents had taken him to the Orly Airport observation platform (the jetty of the title), to watch the planes take off. He vividly remembers noticing a young woman waiting at the end of the platform, right before a sudden violent incident that he couldn’t fully comprehend. As his journey takes him through the future and the past, the man discovers that there is really no way to change the inevitability of fate.
The Frozen Present
Chris Marker was a member of the French New Wave’s Left Bank subset, the older directors who saw film as an art form more like literature than their younger counterparts, who drew more inspiration from old Hollywood. Marker defined himself more by his documentary films, writing, and photography than narrative filmmaking. La Jetee might be his only traditional narrative film. But to call it traditional in any sense is inaccurate. In its startlingly effective reimagining of what film can look like, it is perhaps the most fitting interpretation of time travel ever seen on screen.
La Jetee is made up of optically printed still photographs cut together. Optical printing is taken inside a movie camera, and as a result, they are textured like a moving image, capturing the breathing movements of the actors and then presenting them in still form. The effect is somewhere between still photography and moving images. The editing and soundtrack are so effective, you forget that you’re essentially watching a slideshow. Instead, the frozen images evoke the experience of time filtered through memory. It brings the viewer into the skewed mind of the protagonist as he travels into the past and the future.
It’s this perspective that generates the horror of La Jetee. The film depicts a montage of ruined, post WWIII Paris. The rubble of Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe is shockingly believable when recreated in the mode of documentary photography. While the images flash across the screen, a mournful choir sings a requiem. This song will return throughout the film as La Jettee’s only music. It’s a Greek chorus lamenting the inevitable decay of the world.
“[…]the frozen images evoke the experience of time filtered through memory.”
Images of the empty eyes of the prisoners driven insane by the experiments are chilling, as are the sequences of ruined statues in the catacombs and stuffed animals in a natural history museum. They are reflections of the characters, frozen literally as still images, but also in a timeline they cannot escape.
And therein is the central horror of La Jetee. No matter how the protagonist travels through time, he can never escape his present moment. In the film’s brilliant and influential final twist, his past is revealed to have been his future all along. Time is an inescapable loop, and no amount of travel and dreaming can change that.
This revelation adds new depth to Marker’s mode of storytelling. Still images are the ultimate expression of the present moment. They are literally unable to move forward or back but must remain exactly where they are. By moving the story forward and back with montaged stills, Marker demonstrates the most immobile nature of time, where there is in fact no past or future at any given moment. The film’s sole moving image, of the protagonist’s lover waking from sleep, offers a painful moment of hope. But it’s overtaken by the frozen present soon enough.
La Jetee is a brilliant work of experimental film, but it’s also a brilliant sci-fi horror story from a basic narrative perspective. It functions like a mind-blowing short story, and its perfect, looping structure and powerful conclusion influenced nearly every time travel film to follow. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys was so directly inspired that it’s debt to La Jetee was referenced in its opening credits. And the paradoxical, immutable time loop of The Terminator owes a debt to the 1962 short film.
The brilliance of La Jetee is its simplicity, which is the key to any effective time travel story. But that simplicity hides innumerable layers and interpretations that have been debated by film scholars for decades. Even its name, referring to a jetty, also references the dance leap “jete” as in a leap through time. Scholar Carol Mavor observes in her essay on the film, that the title also sounds like “là j’étais”, French for “there I was.” And really that’s the horror and trauma of time. The past is where we were, the future is where we are going, and no maneuvering of the present can change that.
If you’re in the mood to have your mind blown and your existential demons fed in just 28 minutes, give La Jetee a watch. It’s currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel. Pair it with a modern time travel thriller to further appreciate its lasting influence.
“[…]therein is the central horror of La Jetee. […] Time is an inescapable loop, and no amount of travel and dreaming can change that.”
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams! Share your thoughts on La Jetee with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!