Death as a character

Image: Nico Becker


In cinema and literature she presents herself not as the much feared enemy of the living, but rather as the double of any mortal.

When I finished reading Death in the Apple Tree (Der Tod auf dem Apfelbaum, Atlantis Verlag, 2015), written and illustrated by Kathrin Schärer, I remembered two other books, also illustrated, that I had read: The Duck, Death and the Tulip (trans. José Marcos Macedo, Companhia das Letras, 2022), by Wolf Erlbruch, and Lemonade (Aladin, 2015), by Jutta Bauer. In all three, the central character is death.

I then started to think about why this interest in the topic in children's literature. Not that it is forbidden to talk about death to children, but, in a short space of time – Erlbruch's was published in Germany in 2007, and in Brazil in 2009 – German-speaking authors have been caring for this indelible character.

When watching a Wim Wenders film, Images of Palermo (Palermo shoot, 2008), I glimpsed a reading that intertwines them. In all cases, death presents itself – or is presented – in the same way. It is not the feared enemy of the living, but rather the double of any mortal. Although he maintains the classic appearance, that is, pale, cadaverous, wearing a black cloak, his function in life is the opposite of his appearance.

It appears precisely for those mortals who, so to speak, fainted in life, for those who wasted their lives, for those who forgot that the clock of life is ticking, for those dead in life; For all of these, she appears so that we don't stop celebrating life. Another role of yours is to remove the inert body from life – those who have fallen asleep for good. Ultimately, either it wakes us up to the life yet to be lived, or it leads us to eternal sleep.

In the film, the famous photographer Finn is going through a crisis – similar to the characters in Michelangelo Antonioni's films, to whom the film is dedicated –, which could be described by two traits: he can no longer sleep and he is stuffed with the images he produces. .

A pregnant model, who had been photographed by him for a fashion campaign, and who is not satisfied with the latest photos, says that she would like to take other photos, but more real, and suggests Palermo as a location. Upon encountering death and hearing the question “what makes you hold back?” from Lou Reed's own ghost, the photographer decides to accept the model's invitation.

After finishing his work, the photographer decides to stay in Palermo and, wandering around the city, he begins to come across death, which appears in two moments, always in the form of an archer. He throws two arrows at the photographer both times. But both the appearance of death and the act of shooting the arrows contain the opposite of what they appear to be. The arrow aims at the target only to bring it back to life. It is a coup de grace for the photographer to abandon the superficiality of his life and the obscenity of his act of capturing experiences, actually starting to live.

In Palermo, Finn meets a painting restorer who believes in his experiences with death. In one of the dialogues, Finn confesses that until then he only believed in what he saw. And, asked the same question, she replies that she only believes in what she cannot see: in love, in life, in God. A photographer wanting to capture the visible; a restorer wanting to restore the invisible.

Having already incorporated the learning of the invisible, the photographer is faced with death and then begins a long dialogue – a tribute to the the seventh seal (1956) by Ingmar Bergman, to whom the film is also dedicated. After death presents itself to the photographer, he ends up asking him: what can I do for you?

Death responds to the photographer that he is photographing that which cannot be photographed. From him, she demands only one thing: to show that she is not what everyone thinks of her. Deep down, she loves life and just wants to celebrate it.

He then asks the photographer to be capable of transforming the image of death, to be capable of transforming his outlook on life, to be capable of always photographing with the memory that each photo carries a negative, which, behind the light , there is darkness, and this opposite is the guarantee that he will photograph only what can be photographed so that something remains intact. From now on, he should photograph the invisible of life and not the visible appearance of the world.

* Jose Feres Sabino is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo (USP).

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