‘Level Five’ Review: Chris Marker’s Insightful 1997 Film Finally Arrives in the U.S.

Level Five

There’s an image that arrives about halfway through Chris Marker’s Level Five that still haunts me days after viewing it. Perhaps it’s been widely available elsewhere, but this was the first time I had ever been exposed to this horrifying slice of reality. During the Battle of Okinawa, inhabitants of the small Japanese island committed suicide en masse once it was clear that the efforts were lost. An American film camera caught some of these events taking place, and the images were used as pro-Allied propaganda to paint Japanese persons as savage and depraved as well as to justify the unprecedented wartime horrors that would be brought on this small nation.

The footage integrated into Level Five — slowed down, paused — finds a woman walking toward the edge of a cliff, making eye contact with the camera’s lens and decisively jumping. Catherine Belkhodja’s narration poses an un-answerable yet persistent question: what role does the camera play in the woman’s decision? Does the camera’s function as witness (the moving image performed this role throughout WWII in a myriad of ways) make the woman’s decision to jump not only a personal one, but a final demonstration for a certain inevitable audience? The camera makes her potentially individual decision a public spectacle, and thus it plays a haunting role in its making.

This active and consequential yet elusive role of media in determining and making known the horrors of history runs thematically throughout Level Five, a 1997 film now being released theatrically in the U.S. for the first time. It finds Marker grappling with the Battle of Okinawa through digital technology, specifically computer game interfaces, and it examines the relationship between humans and digital information, specifically the technological (re)production and organization of data towards the making of knowledge and the telling of history. Tension is explored between the medium and the message — namely, how history becomes selectively fashioned for the medium through which it is depicted rather than the other way around.

Level Five is by no means anti-technology or anti-futurist. It actually heralded in Marker’s career a shift from filmmaking to digital projects and information age installations that reiterated his lifelong fascination with the tenuous relationship between memory and our selves. But I came away from this complex film with its Okinawa computer game stuck most prominently in my head. Marker here sees technology as infused with the potential to log and make sense of information with unprecedented depth, but along the way abstract us from those experiential residue of the history it depicts. Wikipedia bears the fruit that Marker’s prophecy puts forth.

This thus may not appear, at first, to be a conventional documentary in the most limited sense of the term. It is, in its basest terms, about a fictional Okinawa computer program and a technophile character’s complex relationship with it. But within this framework of fiction, the film highlights the mediations that may otherwise reign invisible in a technological moment in which all violent atrocities are, for so many of us, only known through their mediations. What is the difference between a fictional computer program’s vision of Okinawa and a nonfiction feature film’s? When Level Five alternates between archival footage and its own inventions, such treacherous gaps and blurry lines become abundantly apparent.

Level Five was released in France in 1997, but watching it in 2014, the technological state of being that it depicts looks and feels much older. Perhaps I’m having a difficult time recalling what computer interfaces actually looked like 17 years ago, but the digital aesthetic of Level Five comes across (appropriately, considering its themes) as more War Games than The Net. This is not a film that has aged badly in the face of rapid progress during the Information Age; seeing Level Five for the first time almost 20 years after its making, the film stands as a record of a time in which computing was more associated with strategizing and gaming, not digital sociality. There is a decidedly disconnected quality, then, to the film’s portrayal of digital images as a way to recall and abstract historical events.

But for all of the film’s fascination with the ways present technologies bear an influence upon our relationship to history, the filmmaking here feels somewhat retrograde, particularly for a filmmaker who never resided comfortably in any other space but the cutting edge. While Level Five employs an inventive combination of digital interface, archival footage and original material, the film often resorts to direct-to-camera testimonies by Belkhodja that, while beguiling in their prose, are stale in their cinematic execution, especially compared to the restless inventiveness elsewhere in the film and in Marker’s oeuvre.

For a serious gaze into the future, Level Five often comes across as anachronistically Old Media, even taking the 17-year gap of its release into account. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile addition to the available Marker canon, a curious treasure that has belatedly reached our shores.