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Pictures from fairy tales are burned into our retinas

The legendary riot on the open stage of Cannes in May 1968, with which the French "auteurs" led by Truffaut, Godard, Malle and Lelouch prevented the screening of his film "Pepperminz Frappe" in order to force the end of the festival, brought Carlos Saura actually lucky.

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Pictures from fairy tales are burned into our retinas

The legendary riot on the open stage of Cannes in May 1968, with which the French "auteurs" led by Truffaut, Godard, Malle and Lelouch prevented the screening of his film "Pepperminz Frappe" in order to force the end of the festival, brought Carlos Saura actually lucky. Six weeks later, the Berlinale was still taking place in the summer and he had landed the film without further ado, and together with his leading actress Geraldine Chaplin he held a Silver Bear for Best Director in his hands.

Right at the beginning of their long collaboration, Chaplin was treated to the dual role of two completely opposite images of women who swap places with “Pepperminz Frappe”. As a self-absorbed city girl, she pulls off fireworks with her clownesque explosive power – and at the same time hits us right in the heart with the submissiveness of the shy maid. At home in Madrid, the two newly in love awaited a telegram from the most important film artist of all time. A nail-to-the-wall bow from Geraldine's father Charlie himself: "The most beautiful movie I've ever seen."

Cannes had already invited Saura's debut film "The Street Boys" eight years earlier. While his debut was running at the Grand Palais, he convinced his father's role model Luis Buñuel - from then on a lifelong pen pal - to give up the exile in Mexico he had chosen against Franco's rule and finally make a film in his homeland again. The fact that "Viridiana", wild and blasphemous, actually slipped under the whip of Spanish censorship with Saura's help and even won the Golden Palm a year later, the thirty-year-old had to atone for with a two-year professional ban.

Born at the beginning of 1932 in Huesca in the dusty plains not far from the Pyrenees into the liberal-republican family of a middle-class tax clerk and a pianist, after the end of the civil war the parents left the seven-year-old alone in the care of strictly Catholic relatives who were relentlessly loyal to Franco to get a new foothold in Madrid. Spoiled and at the same time deeply frightened, Carlos escaped into the world of fairy tale wonders and legendary figures.

Onirism shaped his life, his passion for novels, photography, folk music and dance. It became his subject, his technique, his obsession - and his cinematic style: like in a fairy tale, the images of dusty white wastelands, flashing sabers and uniform buttons, of a horse's sweat and milk spilled for no reason burn into our retinas, tell of states of mind, fragmentary identities as in Borges, about the interlocking of times, places that condense and then flow away again.

The grueling battle with the censorship allowed him to discover his poetic style of inauthenticity. The cinematic allegory as a vitriol-soaked political farce. With subjects that appear harmless at first glance, he was able to present Spain's internalized symbols of power, religion and the military, patriarchal oppression and self-repression to his heart's content as a seemingly timeless parable.

In them, the characters unmask themselves, so to speak, of their own free will: their self-shackles in traditional constraints of authority and belief, their repressed desires, perversions and ecstasies, behind which the suspense of death and violence lurks incessantly. As their counterpart, the longing for redemption of the lonely and naive, of the uncomplainingly suffering and oppressed, all of their sentimental memories and fairy-tale illusions come to light as if of their own accord.

The censorship came to nothing. The dissection and conclusions were left to the viewer. Well-to-do businessmen go rabbit hunting in a wasteland in “The Hunt” – right where Franco's troops slaughtered its former inhabitants; until the honorable friends finally cut each other's throats. A reclusive gentleman in "Peppermint" gets his city best friend's extravagant girlfriend to play him the various roles of "modern woman".

In the hope of overcoming his impotence, he applies what he has learned to his shy housekeeper, in order finally, in the newly created desire, to transport his friend and his companion, who has become superfluous, to the afterlife with a poisoned cocktail. With Saura, the intimate is always political.

The comparison with Buñuel, which is often drawn, really shows the difference. Everything in Buñuel is brutally devoid of illusions and objective, even the dream. Love, soul, morality, human goodness, divine grace are nothing but lies and self-deception to keep us in bondage. First of all, our logic needs to be thrown off its pedestal. Like all surrealists, Buñuel was an anarchist.

In his metaphors, farces and allegories, Saura shows us a declining society in order to dig out the last embers from its ashes. Those who have been humiliated, even if they are naked and battered, always come away in terror. Saura, the lanky, handsome 1968er who shyly watches from a corner in solidarity while his imagination works wildly, was a romantic through and through. Inconceivable that he would have shouted political slogans into a megaphone. Saura's energetic, unsentimental romance stems from the wisdom that the center of our lives is a dream: the vision, both radiant and painful, that we each have of ourselves.

His tendency towards chamber plays did not only stem from his preference for parabolic experimental arrangements and his penchant for control. The way he continued to spin his fabrics in a solitary way continued in her. He hated any professorial analysis of his films, no matter how much the politically grounded reflections and shifts in perspective called for it. Judgments were fundamentally uncomfortable for him.

His greatest passion was to be left alone as a daydreamer, encapsulated in the labyrinthine echo chamber of a huge old building in the center of Madrid, feeling his way through hundreds of notes, sketches, photos and snippets of quotes and giving in to the pull of intuition. His second obsession: escaping the first one by constantly spinning, getting a grip on it. He once stated that he would prefer to make his films for a handful of friends and that would be the end of it.

"Breed Ravens"... and they'll peck your eyes out - that's how you have to read the title of Saura's most important and lyrical film to the end. A modern version of Cinderella, similar to Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth thirty years later. A wide-eyed eight-year-old girl, lost in a huge Madrid home, fantasizes about her deceased mother for comfort and protection from a family whose care she grows to hate the longer she witnesses their lies and perversions.

But there are no more glass slippers and no prince looking for a bride. Outwardly unassuming but inwardly obsessed with death, it imagines it possesses a magic potion that gives it power over life and death. Even when the white powder turns out to be harmless baking powder, her desperate desire for murder and revenge is only postponed until tomorrow.

The prince who could redeem the girl is solely us, who, agitated and spellbound, watch Ana Torrent in her mute defiance and her forlornness from the darkness of the cinema hall. Her gaze basically gives us back to ourselves. As with any great portrait, it is impossible to ever forget her eyes. Saura had reached the bottom of himself. He had filmed his own awakening as a boy, the realization of mortality, the quiet time when everything is decided. To do that, he had to transform himself into this girl.

"Breed Ravens" received the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes in 1976. Franco had died a year earlier. Spain's society opened up to Europe, the fascist censorship had become powerless. When it no longer creates friction, the romantic inevitably threatens to become an attitude. Finally free, the rebel is doomed to reinvent himself if he doesn't want to perish in the endless loop of a pose.

Saura saw that as clearly as day - and landed his greatest international success. With "Carmen" he radically changed the genre without having to give up his game with identities. The tried and tested story of love and jealousy, power and desire, sadism and submission, often filmed and timelessly snappy set to music by Bizet, places Saura in a rehearsal situation for a flamenco performance. The same amour fou that they are actually only supposed to perform is transferred to the two dancers.

The dancers, above all the young Laura del Sol and the famous Antonio Gades, are passionate about their roles. Saura concentrates entirely on her looks and the physique of her movements. "Carmen" cost next to nothing. Shot as a studio chamber play with musicians on site and with practically no props, the core of this macho subject can come to the fore all the more grippingly, its mythical fascination - then and perhaps even more so today: to what extent only virility a woman and femininity a man as independent beings turn off.

The agreement in the secret is the greatness of this analyst of the intimate constellations of power and oppression. She made the romantic loner and extremely cultivated gentleman one of the most valued film authors in Europe. Saura points the way to a political cinema in which only cinematic poetry opens an incorruptible view of our self-restraints and, in recognizing our secret pain and human fears, enables us to share them with one another and fight for them.

With no fewer than 44 feature films, he has scooped up three main prizes in Cannes, three Berlin Bears, Oscar, Golden Globe and César nominations, invitations to major festivals and countless other awards. Now Carlos Saura has died in Madrid at the age of 91.

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