Marco Polo called it the Land of Darkness; Chris Marker, the Land of Childhood, romance and electrification. Witty, mysterious, poetic, Marker’s first solo film, Lettre de Sibérie, draws upon his direct observation, boundless imagination, and the Dovzhenko films Ivan (1932) and Aerograd (Frontier, 1935). The mirror-like river; the taiga.
Marker’s narration (read by someone else) expresses the wonder of myriad possibility. Legend has it that the Devil made the birch forests of Siberia; since the covered area is the size of the United States, maybe the Devil also made the U.S. “Life and death are separated by nothing more substantial than a breath of air. Bring back the breath and the body is ready to live again.” The long frozen winter eventually yields to summer. Siberia is the Land of Resurrection as well as the “frozen Devil’s Island” to which miscreants were exiled.
This country is in the process of transformation. In the wilderness, a power plant is being built; two pans survey residential construction.
This film is full of animals: sheep, birds of prey, wolves, bears. “Ducks are collectivist by nature. There are no kulaks among ducks.” (Here, Marker is inspired by Dovzhenko’s Earth, 1930.) We see animals work, migrate, be. We see their humanity.
A mock-cartoon promotes reindeer as the perfect “product.” An “imaginary newsreel” is another of the film’s varied components.
Among animals, perhaps the most firmly rooted in the legendary status of the region is the mammoth. An animated passage explores mammothology. We learn that the Chinese word for mammoth means “mother of mice”—and we learn why.
Images unite what Siberia unites: past and progress. Marker wishfully projects that spiritual attributes will follow material progress.
Set to haunting folk music, Marker’s Letter always arrives when we most need it.
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