Tagged: fantasy

Undine (Germany-France 2020)

The lovers – Paula Beer as Undine and Franz Rogowski as Christof the diver

Christian Petzold is one of our favourite directors and Undine is a film that we couldn’t miss. It is being streamed by several platforms and I caught it on MUBI which is also offering a retrospective of Petzold’s earlier films. I was vaguely aware of the European myth and folktale/fairy tale about the water nymph Undine/Ondine, but I decided to leave my research until after I’d seen the film. I think now that perhaps I should have done the research first. On the other hand, my seeming struggle with the film narrative might simply be down to watching a streamer rather than sitting in a cinema watching the film on a big screen. Either way I still enjoyed the film and I will think about watching it again soon.

Christof comes looking for Undine in the Museum

Undine is love story, a fantasy and a form of social commentary/historiography about Berlin. Its echoes in Petzold’s earlier work are most clearly there in Yella (2007) and also in Phoenix (2014) but there are also numerous references across European narratives more generally. Undine (Paula Beer) is a historian working as a freelance lecturer at a museum in Berlin. She delivers talks based on the dioramas of Berlin’s architecture at different periods in its history. We only hear snippets of her talks but that’s enough to learn something about the history of the city and especially its beginnings as a settlement built on a marsh. The modern city straddles the River Spree and much of it is given over to trees, parks and water. An eventful day sees Undine breaking up with her lover Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and then meeting Christof (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who works maintaining underwater installations such as pipeworks etc. Christof and Undine rapidly fall in love but there is a lingering sense that Undine may not have finished with Johannes completely.

Undine appears in Johannes’ swimming pool . . .

It’s difficult to discuss Undine without spoiling particular scenes which I have no desire to do, so I’ll limit myself to more general comments. The film has been generally well-received by critics but, even more than some earlier Petzold films, it poses problems for audiences. What is it ‘about’ and how should we approach a reading? My feeling is that it is definitely a love story and it is also saying something about history, the ‘layering’ of historical events and their changing interpretations over time. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of films like this is the blending of a form of realist filmmaking with elements of fantasy in the narrative. Some audiences embrace this eagerly, others find it too difficult and it often becomes a reason to dismiss films. It is also something which spills over into the distinction between ideas about art cinema and commercial genre cinema. A good, relatively recent, example of a film which presents similar problems might be Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (US 2017). OK, that film won 4 Oscars as a more obvious fantasy, but it represents an attempt to use fantasy as a vehicle to explore culture and social commentary. Petzold has been classified as part of the ‘Berlin School’ of German directors, a loose grouping that refers to directors who trained in Berlin in the 1990s and became recognised in the international art and festival film market from the 2000s on wards. One shared feature of the films of several of the directors is a depiction of life in contemporary Germany, often in Berlin itself (e.g. in some of the films of Angela Shanelec). Petzold constructs narratives presented in realist terms, but often drawing on intertextual references to other films, literature or historical events or periods. Yella concerns a young woman from former East Germany who travels to the West, becoming involved with the airless world of advanced capitalism – but is she really there, is she what she seems? I was reminded in that film of the introduction of ghosts in Japanese cinema which began to appear in realist environments in J-horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In Phoenix, Petzold drew inspiration from a French novel that first became a British film. He transferred the narrative to a setting in the immediate post-war rubble of Berlin, thus perhaps stressing the generic ‘rubble-film’ as his realist base for what is a preposterous but highly engaging story.

After thinking about Undine for a long time, and reading many reviews, I’ve finally managed to get a handle on my own reading of the film. The myth of the nymph is present across many cultures and is probably most familiar via the mermaid or in the Celtic/Nordic form of the ‘selkie’ (seal-woman). The German folk tale of Undine appears to derive first from the work of the Swiss philosopher Paracelsus and was then formulated as a fairy tale novella in 1811 by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué as an example of German romanticism. In 1811 Berlin was the capital of Prussia – previously it had been the capital of Brandenburg. After 1871 it became the capital of Germany with the founding of the nation state. The layering of Berlin’s identities is represented in the museum which offers the dioramas of Berlin’s building phases described in her lectures by Undine. Petzold has been particularly scathing about the development of contemporary Berlin which attempts to sterilise the past even while presenting this history. A few years ago this might have been discussed as an an example of postmodernism. The romanticism of the Undine myth then becomes a disruptive force that constantly reminds us of the past. It also powers the love between Undine and Christof which negates the sterility of the recent urban development. It is this tension which makes the narrative so fascinating for me.

Undine in her formal dress in the museum

But I’m also bowled over by the romance itself. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski are terrific together, even more so than in Transit (2018). I’ve been impressed with Rogowski since I saw him in his lead role In the Aisles (2018). Paula Beer blew me away with her performance in Frantz (2016) by François Ozon. As Undine she transforms herself again, making the most of her role as a freelance historian. She seems to be both efficient and organised but also hinting that she has come from ‘another place’ – and is about to go back there. As a reviewer remarked, her appearance in a white blouse and dark skirt and shoes is formal in the museum but her loose hair and slight dishevelment also indicates her fluidity. She won Best Actress when Undine screened at the Berlinale in 2020. I was intrigued to read that Beer was recommended to Petzold by Nina Hoss who featured in six of Petzold’s previous films. Petzold has hinted that one day Hoss and Beer might appear together. That would certainly be worth seeing. Petzold has spoken a great deal about Undine and here’s a quote from a Cineuropa interview:

Undine made me think of the relationship between directors and main actresses as well as the one between muses and artists. Isn’t it a sort of perpetual betrayed love for all the Undines of this world? Don’t men always dominate everything? It’s not that Undine wins in the story; she has to go back in the water and wait for the next man to come along. She exists only through men, and that is a horrible curse. Our story aims to explore an Undine who is struggling against this. Then along comes a man, a proletarian, an industrial diver, who interferes with the curse. He is not suspicious; he’s innocent and for the first time seems to see her primarily without any sexual desire and without wanting to dominate her. This is new for her, and a path to a new world seems possible.

I hope all these attempts to read the film don’t put you off. Undine is one of the best films I’ve seen since the lockdown began. It requires ‘work’ but it’s very much worth the effort. It is available to buy or rent from many outlets.

In this clip from the film we get a subtle reference to the underlying theme to the film and we experience the moment when Undine is with her new lover and sees her old lover:

Weathering With You (Tenki no ko, Japan 2019)

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Dazzled by the spectacle

I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.

The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.

Like Your NameWeathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.

Wallowing in the sky

In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!

Prison (Fängelse, Sweden 1949)

This is the first film on which Ingmar Bergman was both sole writer and director and thus had what would later be celebrated as ‘authorial control’. It’s therefore a film which Bergman’s auteurist fans see as the earliest authentic expression of Bergman’s major themes and ideas. The Swedish website devoted to Bergman’s work has some useful material on Prison. It was a rare opportunity for the still young Bergman to get a free hand to make a film. Producer Lorens Marmstedt gave him the chance to make a very low budget film in just 18 days of shooting. Marmstedt had his own production company Terrafilm which also distributed the film in Sweden. Marmstedt also managed to secure Hasse Ekman, Bergman’s rival as a ‘hot director’, to play a director in the film and also Ekman’s wife Eva Henning as a leading player. Prison is a film of its time and from the Swedish film industry of its time. I find it a little difficult to grasp how the Swedish industry worked in the late 1940s so I must try to work on what I recognise in the film and try to relate it to global cinema in the late 1940s – and in some ways that is quite productive.

Hasse Neckman and Eva Henning play the director and the young writer Sofi

The opening shot of the film

Prison opens with a long shot of an elderly man walking quickly in an odd jerky fashion down a hill and into a group of buildings on the edge of town. His gait and the long shot composition immediately suggest a fantasy of some kind. I thought of the 1920s German Expressionist films Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. But the man finally enters what turns out to be a film studio and the man approaches a director (Hasse Ekman) in order to tell him a story idea about “Hell – on earth”. The director later tells a pair of young writers (a young couple who live together) about the incident and Thomas (Birger Malmsten), the young man becomes excited and tells the director about a teenage prostitute he has interviewed who could be the subject of such a film. So far, so conventional. At this point, 10 minutes in, we might realise that there haven’t been any credits. Now we are offered a long moving camera shot following a curving narrow street in the central shopping district of Stockholm and a voiceover reads the film’s credits to us. The camera stops moving when it captures the teenage prostitute Birgitta Carolina Söderberg (Doris Svedlund) staggering in a doorway. She is about to have a baby. Does this mean that we are about to follow a melodrama narrative? Yes and no. Some of the familiar elements from Port of Call (Sweden 1948) are certainly present but Bergman gives free rein to representations of dreams and nightmares and offers us a commentary on filmmaking.

The scene as a voiceover reads the credits and Birgitta stumbles (from dvdbeaver.com)

The remainder of the narrative sees Birgitta being investigated for her activity as a prostitute after her baby is taken from her by her boyfriend and her older sister. She will again meet Thomas who is on his own downward spiral caused by his excessive drinking. Perhaps these events signify that ‘Hell’ is what Birgitta and Thomas experience. The dream nightmare sequences reminded me of Michael Powell’s expressionist ‘visions’ as experienced by Sammy Rice (David Farrar) with the effects of pills and abstention from alcohol in The Small Back Room (UK 1949) and also the kinds of fantasy conjured up by Jean Cocteau around this time. At one point I was reminded of the representation of ‘Heaven’ in the musical Carousel (US 1956) with Gordon MacRae up a ladder hanging stars in the sky. Bergman’s Hell is much darker of course! Expressionist lighting and set design is a feature of film noir and melodrama in the 1940s so in that sense the film is familiar.

In a nightmare sequence Birgitta meets her boyfriend, the possible father of her baby

Thomas looks down on Birgitta

While Thomas and Birgitta are in Hell, Thomas’s partner Sofi (Eva Henning) is visting the studio where we experience the artificiality of a love scene set on a small boat bobbing about with back projection. This is Bergman commenting on the conventions of mainstream cinema. He also inserts a different kind of commentary by having Thomas and Birgitta find an old film projector and a film which turns out to be a silent slapstick comedy – a film made by Bergman with an Italian comedy troupe who create a contest with Death and the Devil attacking a hapless sleeper. A burglar/assassin and policeman also appear. Finally, in the mix, Bergman offers us the kind of melodrama we saw in Port of Call, with a story about another young couple worried by yet another pregnancy. The film ends with the re-appearance of the old teacher at the film studio where the lights are being switched off after another day’s shooting.

Birgitta watches a young couple experiencing the same worries she had in this noirish melodrama composition.

What can be said about this odd mixture of approaches to cinema? It certainly does ask questions about what we expect from mainstream cinema. It’s difficult to judge just how ‘innovative’ a film like this was in 1949, though as I’ve indicated some of the ideas were being explored elsewhere and it’s very difficult to really find something ‘new’ in cinema – so much was done in the first few decades of filmmaking. The constraints imposed by the budget are evident but praise must go to cinematographer Göran Strindberg, art director P.A. Lundgren and the whole crew as well as Bergman and his actors. As to what it all might mean, the existential angst and the religious and philosophical themes do seem to presage Bergman’s later concerns. He made seven very different films in the four years from 1946-47. It’s interesting that each title seems to have supporters and detractors and several, including this title are claimed as the first breakthrough/success. There are more available to watch so I’ll hang fire for the moment on which worked best for me.

Prison did have a few struggles with censors in Sweden, but emerged unscathed as a 78 minute feature. It seems to have been widely distributed outside Sweden, reaching the UK (like Port of Call) only in 1960, uncut but classified as an X film with the title The Devil’s Unwanton, which seems a rather damning term for either Thomas or Birgitta.

Border (Gräns, Sweden-Denmark 2018)

Tina (Eva Malender), ever watchful

Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.

Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.

Tina and Vore go out in the forest together collecting funghi . . .

Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.

The short UK trailer:

After Life (Wandafuru raifu, Japan 1998)

A recently deceased man arrives at the way station in After Life

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s second fiction feature came after he had returned to his documentary roots to make the feature length TV documentary Without Memory in 1996. This featured a study of a man with a condition which prevented him from creating any new memories. It was caused by a failure of hospital procedures following an operation (actually a decision to withhold medication for budgetary reasons) and Kore-eda and his crew became involved with the man and his family in a form of participatory documentary. See this Senses of Cinema outline (with further links). The 84 minute documentary is available on YouTube with English subs and an introduction in English. Taking a camera crew to visit this young family man, Kore-eda discovered that each time they met him, Sekine Hiroshi would have no memory of their previous visit. By making the film, Kore-eda was in effect providing a form of memory for him. From a Guardian piece from 1999 by Jonathan Romney we learn that, from the age of six, Kore-eda had experienced the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on his grandfather and how as a high school student he had fashioned a script based on Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) in which he would shrink himself and enter his grandfather’s brain to trigger his lost memories. It’s worth noting that the impetus to make a documentary about memory loss is prompted by a personal experience and a desire to expose a social injustice caused by government failure. These two starting points are common for many of Kore-eda’s later films.

The ‘staff’ of the way station pose before a backdrop used in the films they will help to get made

After Life was a surprise hit in North America and other international markets, possibly because of its presentation of a recognisable genre scenario – i.e. compared to most other Kore-eda films it seems immediately ‘universal’ as a narrative (and because it seems to refer back to Hollywood titles- the Japanese title is ‘Wonderful Life’). The film presents a ‘speculative fiction’ in which whenever somebody dies they find themselves in a ‘way station’, a kind of purgatory in the Roman Catholic sense, but without the connotations of suffering and usually confined to just seven days. Although there is no suffering as such, there is a task with deadlines. Each person is interviewed by one or two bureaucrats who require the newly deceased to select one important memory from their life. This is a memory that they will take with them into the after life. It will be their only memory, all others will be erased. They arrive on a Monday and they must decide by Wednesday. The staff will then produce a short film of the memory and these films are shown on the Saturday before the deceased are finally sent on their way. As reported in the Romney piece, Kore-eda explained that After Life is different from similar films in the West because there is no sense of ‘judgement’ at the time of death in Japan. This led to Kore-eda to find several non-professional actors and to treat them like documentary subjects. So in some cases the newly deceased characters are speaking for ‘real’ about their memories.

Kore-eda locates his way station in an old, nondescript institutional building, perhaps a school, on the outskirts of a city. The first arrivals walk up the steps, out of the mist and into the hallway where they are registered and asked to sit in the waiting room. I was reminded of two British films. Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the US) has a similarly bureaucratic welcome to heaven after the deceased have come up a long moving staircase. The very different and less well-known J. B. Priestley adaptation They Came to a City (1944) is not necessarily dealing with the deceased but takes a motley group of characters who climb through the mist to a gateway through which they are invited to visit a wonderful new city – a metaphor for a new (socialist) post-war world. Will they go to look? What will they think of it? Will they stay? In some ways this is linked to Kore-eda’s ideas.

One of the recently-deceased talks about her memories

While the idea of creating a film of a memory clearly derives from the Without Memory documentary, there are several other ideas being addressed in After Life. There is a limited number of characters in the cohort of the newly deceased (22) and they range from young to old, with a wide range of backgrounds, personalities and attitudes. What the narrative is really ‘about’ is a teasing out of what it means to be human or what it means to have ‘lived’. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this film without ever thinking, however fleetingly, “Which memory would I choose?”. The corollary might then be: “But whatever I choose, if that is the only memory I have for eternity, it’ll be hell!” But Kore-eda doesn’t really follow that through. What he does do, though, is to focus equally on the recently deceased and the bureaucrats who have to deal with them. I’ve termed them bureaucrats but really they are more like guides/helpers/counsellors. Eventually, you will start to wonder who these people are who carry out the interviews and organise the filming. All will be revealed if you haven’t guessed already.

Shiori (Oda Erika) is the youngest of the staff and as a trainee she tries hard to do her research into the memories that are discussed

The films that are made from the memories are interesting not just for the kinds of memories that are represented but also for the way in which the film production process is presented. A typical commercial science fiction or fantasy film would probably present these in ways which emphasised their generic qualities with special effects, music and extravagant art design. Kore-eda chooses instead to present a documentary-style glimpse of film production by a group akin to students shooting a film school studio exercise. Similarly, we get to see the ‘audience’ of the deceased and the counsellors trooping into a cinema to watch the results.

What is the overall impact of After Life? I think it very much depends on how an audience reacts to the quite personal challenges that the narrative poses and which of the characters and their thoughts about memories resonate most. There is also the parallel narrative about the bureaucrats/counsellors to consider. One outcome may be that we learn something about ourselves from seeing what happens to individuals and learning their stories. In that sense this is a deeply humanist film. I should also say that the film isn’t morbid in any way. It has sequences that are comic, some that are romantic. It might be summed up by a device in the ceiling of a corridor which uses different cut-outs in the sky-light to change the view of the sky. Some reviewers have suggested that the film is actually a study of filmmaking with Kore-eda deliberately using the juxtaposition of documentary and the artificiality of studio filmmaking to make us aware of how we engage with ideas on film and how films help us to develop memories.

This was the first of Kore-eda’s films to prompt an American remake, suggesting it has mass universal appeal. This would happen again with the later films, especially Like Father, Like Son (2013) but I’m not aware of any remakes actually emerging as yet. I realise I haven’t mentioned the performances (all good) or the crucial coming together of stories in the latter part of the film. I won’t spoil that moment but look out for the retired office worker Watanabe (Naitô Taketoshi) who can’t choose a memory, causing problems for the counsellor Mochizuki (Iura Arata) and his assistant Satonaka Shiori (Oda Erika), the young woman who seems to have a crush on him. 

Here’s an unofficial trailer for the film:

An Introduction to Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno Spain-Mexico-USA, 2006)

Cover copy

I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction: 

Pan’s Labyrinth  is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.

In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.

Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.

Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.

The Spanish Civil War

The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.

Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:

Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)

Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again. 

Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.

Conclusion

Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.