Oliver Laxe on a profound encounter with Carl Theodor Dreyer on a day of reckoning for Spanish politics

The Fire Will Come director recalls a miraculous screening of Ordet and explains why viewers must always watch films with their skin.

FilmoTeca CatalunyaIllustration by Lucinda Rogers

The first time I watched Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet [1955] was in Barcelona, where I was finishing university. Back then, the Filmoteca de Catalunya was located in the most modern part of the city, in quite a boring building with no personality, the old cinema Aquitania. It didn’t matter, the screen was big and the lights went off: that’s all you need in order to travel/take off in a cinema.

There exists, undoubtedly, a mysterious and indescribable relationship between an image and the spectator, and that mystery most profoundly reveals its essence within a cinema. We could now get slightly esoteric and try to give it an explanation, but we would always remain far from the mystery. And that’s OK, because the mystery has to stay a mystery.

Oliver Laxe

What’s clear is that cinemas can arouse something special within us; they can transform us. There are images that seep through and will accompany us for the rest of our lives.

The same thing that happens to images watched at cinemas also occurs between fire and skin when you get burnt. Even if you’ve put the flame down, its heat carries on burning and permeating the different layers of your skin, invisibly penetrating deeper and deeper, to our most inner self. In fact, I always repeat the same sentence at screenings: a human’s soul is in the skin. I don’t know if this is the case or not, but I did hear it from a slightly eccentric monk. What I do always ask from viewers is that they try to watch films with their skin.

Now, that day I came out of the cinema with that film stuck to my skin, stunned. It couldn’t be any other way. What a miracle of a film! I left the cinema still astonished at Johannes’s divine madness. (When I filmed Mimosas [2016], Johannes was one of the inspirations for Shakib, another wise fool who sheds light on things with his insanity.)

But when I came out of the film I could hear shouting and police sirens, and saw a lot of people walking in the same direction along the avenue opposite the cinema. I began following them; there were more and more people. I turned the corner with them and was faced with thousands of demonstrators crowded together opposite a building, the headquarters of the party in power in Spain at the time.

Two days earlier, on 11 March 2004, a terrorist attack had killed 193 people after 10 simultaneous explosions took place inside four trains in Madrid. People were furiously demonstrating in response to the government’s manipulation and distortion of the information disclosed about the attacks, because the elections were being held the next day. The government had decided to take Spain to war with Iraq against the people’s will – 80 per cent of Spaniards were against it – turning the country into a target for pseudo-Islamist terrorism.

I was still inhabiting the film, or rather, the film was still inhabiting me: I was there without being there. I had come from having an exquisite time contemplating eternity and was now faced with actual radicalisation, the same one that tests us and gets us ready for eternity itself. The tension escalated and the police started charging the people. I went home savouring the film’s images. Against all predictions, the next day, Spain’s government changed hands. I had just watched my first film by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

  • Translated by Mar Diestro-Dópido

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