The First and the Last Spectator

The First and the Last Spectator


Author: Patrick Holzapfel

Translated from the German by Ivana Miloš


The text originally appeared in German and French on the website of the Solothurner Filmtage. Reproduced and translated with permission.


At first I imagined an empty cinema. That wasn’t a particularly difficult thing to do at the time. I imagined an empty cinema where a film was running. The doors were closed and no one was sitting in front of the screen, but the film was still running. Some film or other. A sound film, since one could hear voices echoing in the foyer. I imagined films being shown everywhere, even if no one was there to see them, films running in empty cinemas all over the city. Just like the empty planes flying without passengers that we read about in the newspapers.

Films need to be shown, there is no question about it. Henri Langlois, the former director of the Cinémathèque française, understood that very well. It’s better to play a film until it is so used up that it can no longer be screened than to stow it in a dark corner where it will be kept safe, but also end up forgotten. All those voices and images that have been imprinted on film material like witnesses of times long past are threatened by oblivion, just like life itself. Everything disappears. Transience is ingrained in the medium, whether in its analog or short-lived digital manifestation. But can it exist without an audience? I imagined films were running in every cinema in the city even if there was no one there to see them. Then I wandered through the city as if it were one enormous bookshelf full of unread treasures and all I had to do is reach for them. All the lights swallowed by darkness behind closed doors, all the muffled sounds reaching outwards getting lost in the city noise. Film posters that no longer meant anything to anyone. Bright fishing lights that attracted no one.

I asked myself if it would mean anything. I also asked myself whether the films would then mean something. Books are well known for this. They gather dust on bookshelves keeping their secrets until someone comes along and opens them. They are considered the keepers of knowledge. The issue is more complicated with films. Even if they were once associated with an object, or even equated with it, they exist as more of a mental category in the social consciousness. They are more like the stream of moving images surrounding us from all sides. The never-ending images that never keep quiet, not even when we try to ignore them.

Nonetheless, there is something comforting about the idea of a film running without anyone to see it. The phrasing is telltale enough: a film is supposed “to run.” That is an active movement. We do not say a film “is run,” even if that would be more accurate since, after all, someone has to start it. An empty cinema without anyone to see the film is an act of rebellion against human ignorance. Other moving images, those on television or social media, for example, differ from those of cinema. They are driven by fear, while cinema is about trust. With the former, you are clicking or scrolling yourself into ruin, whereas with the latter you know that there is an ending. The cinema is a place of refuge. It’s hard to stay indifferent when you go to the cinema. It’s also impossible to keep clicking or scrolling. Indifference is a condition of home images. In the cinema, not even the images seen by no one at all leave me cold. The audience retreating into the private sphere can do no more than shrug their shoulders, their eyes long shut on account of all the images. When filmmakers are asked about their audience, they mostly shrug their shoulders too. The anonymous masses remain obscure. With those who are streaming, we do not even know how long they stay with the film. 

So, I imagine a film running in this one empty cinema, and then I imagine that films are running in all cinemas, all of them empty, at the same time. Actually, I can’t imagine it. Just like most people, I’ve never been in an empty cinema. I was present at a few test screenings. But even then I was a spectator. Someone gave me the key to one of these closed cinemas in which a film was running. I kept quiet as I entered the room. I didn’t want to disturb the film. The darkness in the auditorium was exactly the same as in my regular visits to the cinema. Captivated, I stumbled to my seat, any seat, all seats were the same, all empty, and yet there was no choice, it had to be this very seat. I watched the film. I was the first spectator. Marguerite Duras once wrote about me: “We should try and speak of the spectator, the first spectator. The one described as childlike, one who goes to the cinema to amuse himself, to have a good time, and leaves it at that.”

Duras also wrote that we forget most of the films we see. Forgotten films are a bit like unseen films. I imagine being the first cinema spectator. I would have no taste to speak of. Algorithms couldn’t give me any recommendations based on what I had already liked. No one could recommend me anything because I would be the only one to have ever seen a film, this film in this cinema. I imagine what kind of film that could be and come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t matter. I would see every film with the same eyes. The cinema, the screen, the fact that images are moving on the screen, that’s what I would remember. I wonder whether the first spectator would be enough. Shouldn’t there be at least two? The first and the last? Jean Renoir once said that in the cinema he was always both among people and all alone. He understood cinema as a public art whispering in one’s ear.

I imagined being the last spectator. Why the last spectator? Perhaps because people have grown tired of cinema. But that can’t be – someone is always waking up just as others are falling asleep. Perhaps it’s because cinemas have been destroyed for good. What kind of spectator would the last spectator be? Would they still be interested in what they were seeing? Wouldn’t the fact that they were the last one to ever see a film loom bigger than all the films one could show them? Maurice Blanchot once described the last man as irresponsible, innocent and unnecessary. I wonder if there is such a thing as an unnecessary spectator. There are bound to be more unnecessary films than spectators. What would the first and last cinema spectator talk about? The first spectator would exist only in the past, while the last would be almost completely faded, as if they had never existed. Cinema, the first spectator might say, is a miracle. It begins anew with every screening. Everything exists in the Here and Now, regardless of when anything actually took place. That may well be true, the last spectator would reply, but it is already dead. Everything is in the past. The present is an airy illusion of made of light and shadows. I don’t know whether a film could truly reach either of these spectators. I can’t think of a single film that would suit both of them. I imagine that films don’t care who sees them. They run. Liberated from social, political and economic meaning, they run like hamsters in a wheel.

I imagine these films as Sisyphus. I admit they are beautiful once they have lost all meaning. No one would see them, they would be liberated from the gaze, every gaze that could assign meaning to them. Nonetheless, they are unimaginable without spectators. I imagine a film made by machines is being screened for an audience of robots. The film shows people. The robots are confused. They analyze the characters and the storyline, count takes and recognize the music. They follow the film down the emotional path it sets for them, some of the robots even break out in tears. But they understand nothing. They haven’t decided to see the film because they read about it or because they thought the title had a nice ring to it. They didn’t walk to the cinema or take the tram, nor did they arrive by bike. They imagined nothing. They didn’t stand in the foyer waiting for the film to begin. They didn’t stand outside in the cold after the screening not knowing what to say. They didn’t go home and they most certainly didn’t dream about the film. They didn’t even experience the delight of slowly, almost unnoticeably, forgetting a film. Someone, Marguerite Duras once said, will always read. Even if literature ceases to exist, someone will come, dig out a book and read. We can only hope the same is true of cinema.



Patrick Holzapfel works as a writer, film critic and curator. His articles and stories are regularly published in numerous publications in German and English language. Currently he is working on his debut novel and a translation of stories told to him by a stone.