February 21, 2017
There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.
Marker was gripped by the possibilities of the 1970 election of Salvador Allende, who was elected out of an alliance of leftist parties who called themselves Popular Unity. He wanted to make a film about the impact of the new government, but then discovered that Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman (The Battle of Chile [1975-1979]) had been documenting it from the start. Guzman recalls meeting Marker in Santiago in 1972:
“I liked your film,” he told me.
I was overwhelmed with a feeling of terror, a mixture of insecurity and respect. Not so long before I had finished El primer año (The First Year) – my first feature documentary, about the first 12 months of Salvador Allende’s government.
“I came to Chile with the intention of filming a cinematographic chronicle,” Marker confessed. “Since you’ve already made it, I’d rather buy it from you and exhibit it in France.”
So Marker took back a print and distributed The First Year in France, creating posters, dubbing the audio track, even recording an introduction to put the film in context. When Guzman was having trouble securing film stock to use for The Battle of Chile, he wrote Marker a letter asking for help. A month later he received “43,000 feet (approximately 14 hours) of 16mm black-and-white film, plus more than 134 perforated magnetic tapes for a Nagra”, direct from Kodak in a delivery arranged by Marker. This essential document of the coup and its aftermath might never have been shot without Marker’s intervention.
The 1973 coup by the Chilean military and national police (executed with covert support by the CIA) facilitated Augusto Pinochet’s eighteen-year dictatorship, in which thousands of dissidents and opponents disappeared, a deadly legacy the country will be reckoning with for decades to come. All of Marker’s energies, and that of his film cooperative SLON (Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles, or Society for launching new works) were directed to Chile. In addition to aiding Guzman’s works, he was providing commentary and coordinating the production of La Spirale (1973-1975), which collected international news reports on the coup and shaped them into a self-indicting commentary (directed by Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart and his SLON colleagues Jacqueline Meppiel and Valerie Mayoux). His 1974 documentary The Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer captures a Yves Montand concert that was a benefit for Chilean refugees.
In the midst of all of these major projects he shot The Embassy in Paris inside of a small apartment. It is remarkable what Marker is able to convey inside that cramped space. The only elements he has at his disposal are that tiny location, a small group of actors, and a voice-over which dispenses information in slow bursts. An unnamed embassy is being filled with exiles from an unknown coup, a collection of actors, artists and intellectuals congregate around a kindly ambassador and his wife. The working class is not present, the voice-over informs us, because factories are never built very close to embassies. There are rumors that dissidents are being executed at the nearby soccer stadium, while the unnamed new leader is making pronouncements on television: “Forbiddance of all political parties without exception. Dissolution of all unions without exception. Cause for denunciation, reward included. Declaration of principles for a new constitution, whose broad lines are obviously chauvinistic, racist and corporatist. It displays the favorite themes of the fascistoid groups, or the less-read newspapers, the ones we were joking about because they were historically one century behind.”
There is a bitterness to the film about the worldwide left’s failure to cohere around Allende’s platform, about the left’s failure to cohere around anything. In a movie of furtive moments and fearful gestures, the most decisive one is from the famous actor in the house, who shouts, “You are all motherfuckers, as dumb as corpses crawling in the grave. The only lesson to draw is that all political directions have gone bankrupt.” The argument trails off from there, no one willing to confront that nihilism head on. Instead the self-exiles gain safe passage out of the country, restoring some of their feeling, leaving with smiles on their faces, fights to be fought outside the country’s borders, safe from harm.The narrator closes the film with, “From the window of our room, I shot my last images: the small truck that carried the refugees into exile and of this city where we once knew liberty.” The camera pans outside to a landscape, with the Eiffel Tower and the Paris skyline clear as day. This is an alternate history, or an alternate future history, re-framing all that came before as a warning. It could happen here.