Some year into the future. The end of the World War III. The world is in ruins. We see static images of the aftermath of a nuclear war. The earth as we know it has been rendered unliveable. Those who survived go underground, literary, biding their time, waiting for a means to repopulate the surface of the earth again. We are in Paris. Someone with a pronounced French accent tells us in English: “Above ground, Paris, like most of the world, was uninhabitable, riddled with radioactivity. The victors stood guard over a kingdom of rats.”
Most of these victors are scientists, and they are working on an experiment, to find a means to go back to the past, to understand what really caused the destruction, so that they can find a cure.
The experiment fails miserably as none of the subjects could bear the burden of memory. Then the scientist find one particular soldier, a man constantly fed by a memory of his own childhood; an afternoon before the war when he had gone to the airport with his parents to see the aeroplanes fly. As they stood in the pier, the young boy saw a girl, whose image would haunt him for the rest of his life, and in a way help him survive the brutal war. He remembers the woman react in a shock as a man runs towards her, he’s shot and he dies.
The scientist works on the man, even after several failed attempts. The narrator tells us: “They begin again. The man doesn’t die, nor does he go mad. He suffers. They continue.”
Finally a breakthrough. The man is transported into the past, to the pre-war time, the time when he was a child. He visits the pier. He meets the woman of his constant dreams, at least he imagines it the same woman. They talk, nothing of much significance. But, it makes him happy. He returns to his present. The scientists are happy too. They have done it. He is sent to the past again, and again.
Says the narrator: “This time he is close to her, he speaks to her. She welcomes him without surprise. They are without memories, without plans. Time builds itself painlessly around them. Their only landmarks are the flavour of the moment they are living and the markings on the walls.”
Around the fiftieth day, they meet in a museum filled with timeless animals. Says the narrator: “She too seems tamed. She accepts as a natural phenomenon the ways of this visitor who comes and goes, who exists, talks, laughs with her, stops talking, listens to her, then disappears.”
Once back in the experiment room, he knew something was different. After the success of the experiment, the scientists are now trying to send him to the future. Says the narrator: “His excitement made him forget for a moment that the meeting at the museum had been the last. The Future was better protected than the Past.”
After more painful tries he eventually caught some waves of the world to come. He meets a few men and women, people like him who could travel in time. At first, they refuse to acknowledge his existence, since he was not as evolved as they are.
“He recited his lesson: because humanity had survived, it could not refuse to its own past the means of its survival. This sophism was taken for Fate in disguise. They gave him a power unit strong enough, to put all human industry and again the gates of the Future were closed.”
Now, his job done, he awaits for his end, for he knows, now he would be killed, as the scientists need him no longer. As he prepares himself, he is visited by the people from the future. Now, they have finally come to accept him as one of their own, and offer to take him to the future.
But, the man does not want to go future. He wants to go back to past, his past, to that woman, he hopes, who would be waiting for him.
The people for the future grants his wish.
He is back in the past. The peacetime morning. The pier. He looks for the woman of his dream, his memory.
Says the narrator: “He ran toward her. And when he recognised the man who’d trailed him from the camp, he realised there was no escape out of time, and that that moment he’d been granted to see as a child, and that had obsessed him forever after... was the moment of his own death.
La jetée is a 1962 French science fiction film by Chris Marker. It is also known in English as The Jetty or The Pier. Constructed almost entirely from still photos, it tells the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel. The film runs for 28 minutes and is in black and white. It won the Prix Jean Vigo for short film.
The 1995 science fiction film 12 Monkeys was inspired by, and takes several concepts directly from, La jetée.
More on Chris Marker here.