The factual nut proves more absorbing than the surrounding verbiage in “Level Five,” a thought-provoking but overlong think-docu from Gallic iconoclast Chris Marker. This meditation on the horrific Battle of Okinawa, the last physical conflict between the U.S. and Japan in WWII, and associated musings on war and humanity, is a highly specialized fest and tube item. World-preemed on video at the London Film Festival, the work is reportedly headed for Berlin early next year in a 35mm transfer.
Best known for ’60s classics like “La Jetee” (the jumping-off point for Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys”) and “Le joli mai,” plus “Sunless” and “A.K.” in the ’80s, Marker, now 75, has become increasingly fascinated by multimedia and its impact on the documentary process. A quantum leap from his last work, on Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin (“The Last Bolshevik,” 1993), this one centers on a woman (Catherine Belkhodja) who gives free vent to her thoughts after being asked to finish writing a computer program on the Okinawa tragedy.
Clicking on various subjects, she calls up data that gradually leads the viewer into the little-known event, in which the Japanese military murdered their families and then committed mass suicide in an attempt to shock U.S. forces from further aggression. As the film ironically notes, the result was the complete opposite: In fact, it made the atomic solution inevitable.
The often macabre documentary footage adds up to a fascinating glimpse of a historical event that’s still little known in the West, and Marker sometimes scores high points for observation. For example, the on-site museum is marked by “a sad, commemorative competitiveness” — as if to say that “our dead are more dead than your dead” — and both Japanese and U.S. troops were equally subjected to propaganda that the enemy was unspeakably subhuman.
Where the important points get diffused is in the acres of Gallic philosophizing that occupy a good part of pic’s first half and, before the enormity of the event elbows its way to the front, some of the second. Auds will either swallow this or leave it.
Marker’s cinephile tendencies pop out in the inclusion of two brief testimonies from Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, who recalls the emotional impact of the event, and a clip from John Huston’s 1945 war docu “Let There Be Light,” in which a traumatized Yank soldier tries to talk about his experiences.
Video tech credits are OK.