Marked by an Image

WARNING: This video essay contains footage of graphic violence that may be disturbing to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.


Many fiction features have used real footage to flesh out their story. For some it is their modus operandi (Stuart Coopers’ Overlord comes to mind). For others it is their raison d’être (Forrest Gump being the most obvious example). Integrating archival footage into a fiction film can be a cheap solution to increase the production value of your film. But sometimes glossing over the difference between that real footage and the fictional images of the film cheapens the historic images. Especially when a film uses extremely violent archival footage.


This video essay was commissioned by the International Film Festival Rotterdam and served as an introduction to a screening of Kantemir Balagov’s debut feature Tesnota. The video focuses on several films that, like Balagov’s movie, have incorporated real images of real violence. But these particular movies don’t even attempt to seamlessly integrate that footage. Instead, these films are shaken to their very core by the archival violence: their narratives break down or are suspended for a moment, their movement freezes. It is as if these fiction films throw up their hands, retreat into a corner and only slowly return to the normality of their fictional narratives when the real footage has passed.

The movies cited in this essay (Persona and Tesnota, The Passenger and Come and See) seem unable to contain the real violence. They threaten to burst at the seams. They all wind up marked by these archival images of violence.


That idea of being marked by an image calls to mind Chris Marker’s thoughts on that very topic in his seminal short film La jetée. Quotations from that 1962 movie are used as touchstones for the other movies in this video essay, as prescient comments on the attempts of those later films to harness the power of archival footage of disturbing violence.

This video essay includes clips and audio from:


La jetée [short film] Dir. Chris Marker. Argos Films et al., France, 1962. 28 mins.
Overlord [feature film] Dir. Stuart Cooper. Joswend, UK, 1975. 83 mins.
Persona [feature film] Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 1966. 85 mins.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being [feature film] Dir. Philip Kaufman. The Saul Zaentz Company, USA, 1988. 171 mins.
The Passenger [feature film] Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni. Les Films Concordia et al., Italy et al., 1975. 126 mins.
Come and See [feature film] Dir. Elem Klimov. Belarusfilm et al., USSR, 1985. 142 mins.
Tesnota [feature film] Dir. Kantemir Balagov. Example of Intonation et al., Russia, 2017. 118 mins.


My gratitude for their valuable input goes to Reddit film buffs rkeany, ZorroMeansFox, andreirublev and jzakko.