French filmmaker Chris Marker all but created his own genre, interweaving elements of documentary, fiction, experimental, and essay filmmaking into vibrant cine-mosaics. His 1997 feature Level Five, screening for the first time in Chicago this weekend, is characteristically dense and flowing, much easier to watch than to summarize. It centers on Laura (Catherine Belkhodja), a fictional computer programmer working on an interactive online game in which players will “re-create” the Battle of Okinawa in World War II by retrieving historical materials from a vast, decentralized virtual library, then ordering the events down to the last detail. As Laura develops the game, she begins to learn about the atrocities that accompanied the battle and is so devastated that she tries to alter the course of history in her re-creation, only to find that her program has acquired a will of its own.
The movie often departs from Laura’s story—which Marker presents in the form of her video diary—to incorporate not only testimonies that appear in her game but also Marker’s personal reflections, which he delivers in voice-over narration of documentary footage he shot in Japan and elsewhere. Marker connects these various elements in an associative manner, often digressing to consider such topics as the opening of Japan to the West in the 1850s and the musical theme to Otto Preminger’s noirish romance Laura. The narrative structure of Level Five corresponds to that of Laura’s game: rather than arrive at a single insight, we’re meant to roam around a world of ideas.
At one point in Level Five, Marker muses that an exploratory role-playing game might provide avenues into the past that more conventional historical narratives cannot. He might have tested this thesis with any historical episode, but it takes on special resonance when applied to the Battle of Okinawa. The Japanese interviewed here assert that their nation has never truly confronted Okinawa, where more than 150,000 civilians were killed by the Imperial army or committed suicide at its behest before U.S. troops landed in April 1945. That heinous episode has been paved over during Japan’s postwar reconstruction; Marker, a frequent visitor to Japan, says he’s found no traces of it whatsoever: “I’d become so Japanese, I shared in their collective amnesia—as though the war never happened.” Level Five suggests a historical intervention, a call for people everywhere—not only in Japan—to own up to this crime against humanity. Marker presents this reclamation of lost history as a triumph of reality over nationalistic fantasy; just as Laura’s program comes to command her, so too does history have a way of writing us.