All the characters are life-like. They occupy the square of a medieval town, the walls of a castle behind them. Up on the battlements of the castle men-at-arms look down. The men-at-arms carry bows except for one who is a sergeant, who carries a halberd. He is very proud of the halberd, it being his badge of office although sometimes he worries that in an actual battle it might be slightly unwieldy. He also worries that his office of sergeant might mean he has to do a bit more hand-to-hand fighting than he did in the days when he carried a bow. Although, to be honest, there hasn't been a battle for a while. Mostly it is rounding up heretics and secret Jews and secret Muslims. Yet, he fears death for he has been a drinker and frequenter of brothels and occasional looter of the dead after a battle. He knows the torments of hell will be far greater than even the torment that is about to happen in the square.
Only occasionally does his consciousness split and part of him remember that he is in a soft museum.
Next to the sergeant on the battlements is an ordinary man-at-arms. He holds his bow at a relaxed angle and he leans forward to take in the scene in the square below. He is young; he has never been to war and has only ever fired his bow at the butts in the castle courtyard. All along his left leg there is a rash that itches and burns. He wants to scratch. In a moment he will scratch.
The consciousness that has occupied the man-at-arms is a man who came into the soft museum on a whim. He has not been enjoying the experience but slowly he is losing himself and becoming the man-at-arms.
Next to the man-at-arms is another man-at-arms who has no consciousness; who is just a picture.
Beneath the battlements is the scene proper. A crowd of people look towards a pyre. In the crowd is a young woman who looks up at the pyre as though she might recognise someone there. She wears a green dress, simple homespun but dyed this vibrant colour by her husband who was a dyer before he-excuse the pun-died.
Somewhere--beyond, behind, inside-there is rather contrived laughter.
The woman had watched as her husband had dyed the dress. He had mixed woad and turmeric and dipped the dress into the tub and it had become yellow and she had wondered what he was doing until he had dipped it into the vat of stale piss which made the dress transform into this lovely deep green that she so loves.
That would be the reaction with ammonia.
Yet all this, the dress, the dyeing, is not really what she is thinking about because her thoughts have been taken over by another woman who is remembering her days as an artist's model. She remembers standing in Victor's studio wearing this heavy medieval dress that he had got from somewhere. She had been his model for a few months and his lover for most of that time. The dress is rough against her skin because she is naked beneath it and she reflects that there is no real need for her to wear it, not really, because Victor is copying the painting from a plate he tore out of an encyclopaedia in the public library. But he wants to put her face on the woman in the painting and so she wears the dress. She also suspects that he likes to dress her up and she doesn't mind that, it is somehow sweet. Anyway the dress is warm and she knows that when she takes it off her skin, which he admires so much for its smoothness, will come out in goose bumps. It is January and very cold and there is frost on the windows. Outside the sun is beginning to set and soon Victor will stop painting. They will drink wine and make love and try to ignore the screams and gunshots as the Freikorp and the Spartacists fight it out in the streets of Berlin.
And the third woman--the woman who came into the soft museum and entered the painting--is astounded by this other presence inside the dyer's widow. She can't decide whether she is getting bonus material or somehow having the authenticity of the whole thing compromised.
Next to the woman in the green dress is an empty consciousness. And then another. And then another. They are peasants looking at the pyre. They hardly matter.
In front of the crowd is a cleric holding a Bible and about to open his mouth. The Bible is heavy, a precious artefact decorated with illuminations around each page's opening capital letter. The colour of the illuminations bursts into glory in the flames that are spreading up the pyre in front of the cleric. As the flames flicker the deep blue and bloody crimson become intense, flooding into his eye, filling him up, making him ready for the moment when he will begin to read the last rites.
He is a Benedictine and very proud of his order's role in the Inquisition but he is worried that the nasty attack of the shits that he had this morning will suddenly return and compromise the moment. And thus the moment is already compromised for despite the glow of the colourful Bible page he is already thinking that he wants this over, this burning, he wants to get to the part where he says May the Lord Jesus Protect You and Lead You to Eternal Life and then get to a place where he can empty his bowels.
And the person in the soft museum taking the role of the cleric is aware of the cleric's body, its heaviness, and its state of unrest as its stomach begins to gurgle; and so is reminded of what it is like to have a body.
Before the pyre a man is stooping holding a lighted torch. He wonders why he is still here given that the flames have already spread up the pyre and are about to reach the feet of the man atop the pyre. He can see this in his peripheral vision but he has not yet directly looked up at the condemned. His pose is fixed. Something, some presence, tells him that it is a stylistic convention. He hears the term, stylistic convention, convencion estilistica, popping into his head and he is filled with horror. These are not his words, he hardly understands what they mean. Perhaps he is possessed. If he is possessed he will end up there, up on a pyre like this one. The terror is almost too much to bear and even the presence in the soft museum shudders at this. Up above him the condemned is not yet screaming, is only coughing with the smoke. The man with the torch wants to look up at him.
On the pyre the condemned can feel the heat rising. The time he was arrested to now has passed in a kind of haze; the inevitability of everything was set from the moment the priest saw there was no smoke coming from his house on a Saturday and so correctly surmised that he was observing the Sabbath.
His feet have not been touched by the fire yet but the skin of his soles is throbbing with pain. How can they stand this and not disintegrate?
It is a horrible death, death by burning. If he is lucky he will suffocate or die from shock. But there is always the chance that he will burn slowly, each part of him, first legs then hands then chest then face, catching fire until thermal decomposition destroys him.
Victor thinks about this and is beginning to regret painting the condemned in the Auto de Fe as a self-portrait. For now he finds himself here, about to die. He does not understand how it could be. He remembers this painting, remembers the cold apartment and the girl he had been conducting an affair with. Ah there she is, in the crowd, in that green dress. It was a terrible period of his life. The right-wing death squads had come to Berlin to crush the revolution and he, Victor, had not cared. He had not cared for anything for a long time, had given up trying to paint except to turn out forgeries. This Auto de Fe was a blatant rip-off of Francisco Rizi.
Sometimes, on the odd occasion when he saw old friends and they asked what he was painting he would say 'nothing'. Because it was nothing. Once when they were all young they were going to storm paradise. Ten years before sitting in the Café des Westen waiting for the latest issue of Aktion, full of ideas, ready to do away with the old world entirely. And looking back it had all began to fall apart when the poet Georg Heym had died, drowned in the frozen Havel, slipping through the ice to the water below as he tried to save his friend. And then the war had come and blown everything to bits.
Now, more than ever he wants to touch the woman beneath the green dress. To feel the warmth of her skin, to breath the scent of her body as he had used to when he lay with his head against her back.
In the soft museum, your guide today, an expert of the career the Expressionist painter Victor Fischer, knows that this fallow period was followed by one of fecundity as Fischer went on to produce his best work; work that has been compared to Klee and was finally granted that great honour of being classified entartete Kunst and appearing in the Nazi's 'degenerate art' show in 1937.
How can I know this, Victor thinks, how can I know my own future when I am stuck in a painting I did in 1919?
And the man on the pyre, whose feet have not yet begun to burn? He hears voices in his head and believes he is going to join his people, to be with them in a place that is cut-off from those, like those all around him, who are persecutors and who do not follow the Law. He gives thanks that his faith has been rewarded and he gives thanks that his wife and children have gone already to Portugal.
All around the square the people look at the scene before them. There is an intensity on the faces of the soldiers on the battlements, and below them on the faces of the crowd come here for the spectacle of the burning. The effect of the painting is so lifelike that all of them-even the peasants--look as though they are filled with anticipation, horror, curiosity. All wait for the flames to reach the condemned man's feet. The sergeant's eyes might widen and beside him the bowman may begin to scratch. The woman in the green dress might shed a tear. The man with the lighted torch may finally look up. The cleric will begin to speak the words of the Eucharist. The condemned will start to scream. Everyone is poised as though about to move, as though this could become, at long last, history. Such is the illusion.