Chris Marker’s apparent indifference to the particularities of the video-game interface—circa 1997, anyway—put more than a few people off from his Level Five at the time of its release. Today, the film’s aesthetic—a rounding-up attempt at alchemizing the online experience into cinema, even if it looks more like a floppy-disk program or a chunk of pixelated video art from the mid ’80s—can’t help but scrub easier into our blurred collective memory of digitization. So many styles of Internet have come and gone in the interceding years, the underpinning questions of why—and to what ends—we use the Web are burning hotter than ever, which has the perverse effect of making Marker’s game much more accessible in hindsight. It’s tempting to propose this is how he wanted it, but that’s unlikely: Level Five is, compared to his other works, surprisingly literal-minded in its portrayal of technology as a means of disentangling the past.
And what a past it is. Level Five stars Catherine Belkhodja as a French woman named Laura who, following the death of her lover, takes it upon herself to complete his life’s work: a video game (which is honestly more of an Encarta-style information database) about the World War II Battle of Okinawa. Special attention is paid to the island of Tokashiki, where nearly 400 villagers committed mass suicide as U.S. troops landed after defeating the Imperial Army in the surrounding islands. Appearing at the behest of the game’s many command lines (“History,” “Media Coverage,” “Geography,” “Witnesses,” etc.), Nagisa Oshima contends that the Japanese government knew the army was going to lose the battle, and willingly sacrificed Tokashiki’s population to the Americans: “The first grenade was for the enemy, and the second was for us.” Another of the game’s talking heads, martial artist Kenji Tokitsu, aligns the strategy with a maneuver from Go called suteishi: “Sacrificing a piece to save the game.” (The phrase literally means a small, throwaway stone. Estimates of civilians killed by the American invaders range from one-tenth to one-third of Okinawa’s population.)
In so doing, noncombatant Japanese bodies were made the final physical outposts of the army’s imperial project, a trauma for which U.S. servicemen found no corollary upon returning home. Marker doesn’t draw these explicit parallels between the two sides himself, but Level Five is unavoidably a challenge to the war-scholarship shibboleth that “history is written by the victors,” In this case, the film makes plain as day how war’s losers can write, or erase, their own as the national unconscious demands. Marker was a leftist who used his art to challenge 20th-century power structures (without, it seems, any one compromising ideological allegiance), and the film sees his activist hands tied by the unwillingness of postwar Japanese culture to share his obsession with the war: not just the battle of Okinawa or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but its imperial past in total. This makes Level Five not just a film about WWII, about romantic love or about collective memory, but also about Occidentalism as a means of approaching other societies, and about the loss of individuality—comparing said loss in a wartime context to its modified Information Highway context.
Laura confesses to having indulged with her deceased boyfriend in a micro-class system: they categorized sundry acquaintances in “levels” ranging from one to five based on their conversational sophistication. It turns out to be a tight stricture: “We gave everything levels in life, but nothing ever reached Five.” As Belkhodja preens before the camera, it’s hard not to take her video-recorded valentine to a dead man as Marker casting another shade of doubt on his leading lady, making her more of a phantom summoned at his expectation of the audience’s whims than an actual flesh-and-blood character. Marker’s earlier masterpiece Grin Without a Cat delineated the slow trickle of ’60s solidarity movements into the lifestyle-centric identity politics of the 1970s, replete with zonked-out California yogis and French Mao apologists. Level Five pictorializes the cruel moment when curiosity encounters tragedy, and the all-too-human abandonment of interest that can follow. More horrified than enlightened by her discoveries, Laura disintegrates into data packets and slivers of a fast-expiring online identity, her whispered reveries backsliding ever further from reality. This is the ultimate paradox from which Marker can’t look away: history and empathy as enemies.