Communists Go to Heaven

On Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) by Guillermo del Toro (2006)

This essay is a translation of a chapter from my book on Latin American Cinema, Smutki tropików (Tropical Sorrows), originally published in the Polish language (by Książka i Prasa publishing house, Warsaw 2016).

Ofelia is dying. A twelve year old girl of a Shakespearean name draws her last breaths, her head lying inertly on a cold stone paving of the labyrinthine garden, near her fascist stepfather’s house. Her heart is beating its very last. She hears a lullaby, we listen to it with her. We later discover it is sung by Mercedes – a housekeeper working for Vidal, the fascist lieutenant. The images on the screen start moving backwards – the girl’s blood stops trickling and returns instead to her nose. That’s how one of the most beautiful films of the 21st Century’s first decade begins.

Guillermo del Toro (born in Guadalajara in 1964) was already internationally renowned when he directed Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberintho del Fauno) in 2006. Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, 2001) had already gained him some sort of a following among fans of unconventional horror cinema around the world, and Hellboy (2004) made him yet another Mexican poster child of Hollywood. Yet it was definitely Pan’s Labyrinth that amounted to a true coup de force, catapulted del Toro to the level of one of the most brilliant filmmakers of our time. The film is, in a way, a culmination of his past directorial achievements – aesthetically, his most attractive creation that recaps many a plot and motif from his earlier work, it is both their artistic culmination and their most complete intellectual articulation.

A distance towards distance

In terms of genre it is a hybrid that picks up del Toro’s earlier interests of the sort. A concept of a fairy tale with elements of horror taking place at the time of the Spanish Civil War, with, in the epicentre of the story, a child having to face supernatural forces and the catastrophe of fascism in the social sphere it lives in, grows on motifs known from The Devil’s Backbone. There, however the main character was a boy and the narrative was set during the Spanish Civil War, while in Pan’s Labyrinth Franco had already won and his forces just clean up the place from last soldiers of the lost cause. A fairy tale combined with horror, with a black-haired, black-eyed girl in the midst of it, was already in del Toro’s use in Cronos. Fascism as an absolute evil in a fantasy world set-up is a concept known to us from Hellboy.

At the same time Pan’s Labyrinth is not just a result of a more and more successful juggling of the artist’s favourite motifs. Even if it’s hybrid form is pretty postmodern, it is a dialectic and bravely polemic form of postmodernism, that takes an agonistic position against postmodernism itself. Nobody is ironically blinking his or her eye here when the Truth and the Cause are in play. Nobody is mixing conventions and styles in order to show ‘the fall of grand narratives’ and send them all (those grand narratives) to the trash can of history. On the contrary. Here a girl named straight from Shakespeare’s world (played by Ivana Baquero) will be navigating between reality, myth and magic. But also between the forces of the Enlightenment, progress and human emancipation (the last guerrilla fighters of the defeated Republic) on one hand and Franco’s reactionary forces on the other. All this to end up in Heaven no less, as a reward for protecting her innocent baby brother and his soul from fascists (by passing him on to communists and anarchists). If this is postmodernism, then it is the sort of it that sent his own Liberal Ironist to the trash can. If there is something that the movie is strongly distancing itself from, it is the postmodernist distance itself. In the end, this mélange of horror and fairy tale culminates in a communist mystery play and creed – a communist auto sacramental of a kind.

Scott Lash argues that what differentiates postmodernism from modernism (or modernity/hard modernity, as other theorists would put it) is the moment when various types of texts took over reality and cultural facts dominated material ones[1]. Jean Baudrillard described it as covering of reality by signs, an overproduction of signs, an excess of communication and reality being taken over by signs which often simulate that very reality[2]. Postmodernism juggles randomly chosen elements that are ripped from their varied original contexts and are afterwards used in completely new configurations. It is also founded on the accumulation of cultural texts on one hand and on the other a presumption that on the part of the viewer or the consumer of postmodern cultural production there is a basic level of competence and familiarity with them, a level of accumulated cultural capital (especially in the field of the audiovisual), due to proliferation, omnipresence and the oversupply of texts, symbols, images.

Putting elements of horror into a fairy tale is not just a hybridisation for its own sake, but a consequence of del Toro’s conviction of a continuity between these two genres – a conviction that a horror is an extension of a tale. Pan’s Labyrinth is put in the orbit of a fairy tale[3] not only by fantasy themes and characters included in the film (such as fairies, monsters, chalk-drawn doors, supposedly magical and royal origins of Ofelia), but also by the way the very story is being told (smooth, “flowing” camera work, a lullaby in the soundtrack, etc.). The core structure of the narrative could easily be pinned down along the classical “morphology of the tale” categories proposed long ago by Vladimir Propp[4]. The occurrence that the protagonist is a young girl is also a very fairy-tale-like solution. Fairy tales, as a form deemed less ‘serious’ in political or cosmological terms than epic poetry or myths, often smuggled along much more female agency confined in the modest form of a girl, less suspicious for the status quo of gender relations (Pierre Péju[5]).

A marriage of the fairy tale with the concrete historical situation of Spain in the aftermath of the defeat of the Republic, their mutual intertwining and the navigation of little Ofelia between these two worlds and their ontological orders, are almost spontaneously justified in the film in an intratextual way. Regularly reading tales, the girl creates in her imagination an alternative reality in which she tries to work out her multiple traumas. The recent death of her father; being  pulled out from her previous social environment and – due to decisions made by adults with authority over her life – transferred to a dismal and remote military post of lieutenant Vidal (Sergi López). The latter is the new husband of her widowed mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), a woman immersed in sorrow. The girl tries to deal mentally with the level of violence in the world around her that she’s been probably seeing ever since she can recall (it’s 1944, 8 years after the start of the civil war, and Ofelia is most likely 12 years old). Almost the entirety of the film (excluding its ending and the very beginning, when the girl lies on the ground in her own blood) is a flashback – del Toro drags us into the story at the moment of Ofelia lying on the cold stone and dying. We may be witnesses of an attempt of making sense of her life and death by herself – a desperate need to which her stilling consciousness clings to. Making sense of one’s life always takes the shape of a narrative. To make sense of one’s life is to shape it as a story and to place this story within a narrative of a grander scope and dimension, with points of reference to professed values and recognised symbols. It is a universal quality of human nature. Human consciousness is a narrative of an individual about him/herself, and about the world he or she knows, as well as his or her place within it.

The use of the fairy tale formula, combined with a girl protagonist reacting with excesses of her imagination to the triumph of fascism in Spain – del Toro is not the first to have had the idea of using such a narrative vehicle. He openly recalls The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) by Victor Erice, a brilliant Spanish film from 1973, as one of the main sources of his inspirations[6]. The girl in Erice’s work was played by Ana Torrent, later known mainly due to her appearance in Saura’s Cría Cuervos (1976). She was there accompanied by a sister figure – Isabel.

Genre hybridisation notwithstanding, del Toro engages in one more important plan that is in a large part postmodern (or, to be precise, proper to postmodern culture) – a tendency to turn violence into aesthetics, and to increasingly visualise it in cultural representations, especially of the audiovisual sort. One of the biggest challenges in interpreting Pan’s Labyrinth is reconciling its fairy tale character with its hyper-realistic representation of violence. Whether we in any way may suggest that Pan’s Labyrinth may be suited for children or not, let us just assume that fairy tale, as one of the film’s materials, was/is. We of course can argue that fairy tales are basically and in their majority very brutal and the tendency of ‘cleansing’ the literature suited for children is a very modern way of their modification. The removal of violence from them is no older than the 19th Century, and paralyses some of the pedagogical objectives of fairy tales, as Bettelheim[7] once argued. We may as well argue from the other hand – that the images on the movie screen are potentially incomparably more crushing (or fascinating in an unhealthy way), in terms of their expressive force and emotional influence upon the viewer, than a brief description of the events painted in an oral literary piece. Would we be then just putting an extra hint of ideology in something that just succumbed to “the pressure of visibility”[8] dominating postmodern audiovisual culture?…

But that is not the point here. Jean-François Lyotard once said that postmodern cinema, if it doesn’t want to end in banality, must go over (or beyond) the technological ease with which it can now achieve an impression of reality. The idea in Pan’s Labyrinth is that some key ‘determinants’ or paradigmatic elements of postmodern culture are used here o seduce a contemporary (postmodern) viewer. Such elements as genre hybridisation or juggling conventions along with the ‘visibility’ and aesthetics of violence (in multiplying its images as attraction. They are used here to seduce the viewer and offer him a stance that is in a sharp contrast with the postmodern common sense on different levels. A stance across the postmodern routes to nowhere, turning down those adventures of the postmodern that find their sorry end in its most hopeless impasses.

The perversions of the postmodern stance towards violence are just one of those impasses. The problem with postmodern representations of violence goes two ways. The first one multiplies its visual representations, hoarding them as attractions and turning them into an aesthetic phenomenon that distracts these representations from the urgency of the real problem of real violence, in a sense trivialising it. The other one moralises about it, treating each act of violence as the same evil no matter what exact social conditions lie behind those acts; no matter what are the social ramifications of the perpetrator and the victim of a specific act of violence. Such a moralising reading ignores to what extent this socially naïve, short-sighted ethics is a luxury and an elitist stance. A stance which ranks as one and the same acts of violence perpetuated by oppressors on those whom they control and wish to continue controlling, and an emancipatory act of violence against oppression, or an act of despair by a subject frustrated by their permanent exclusion. It doesn’t see a fundamental difference between violence of the tsar against his people and violence of the people against the tsar. Between violence of an occupying army against civilians and a desperate act of a suicide bomber against the occupying forces. Spectacular aestheticisation and a naïve, apolitical ethicisation of violence are somewhat complementary processes – simultaneous phenomena mutually enforcing each other, leading us deeper into the abyss of misunderstanding social reality we live in, which we’d be better off confronting instead.

Del Toro makes an apparent concession to the pressure for explicit visibility of violence – but he does so just to eventually cut off and bounce away from the double impasse of aesthetics and ethics. Alicja Helman, discussing cinematic depictions of violence, pointed out[9] the difference between multiplying and accumulating attractions and what she calls a rule of fortissimo: a single, distinctive act that aims to achieve the viewer’s shock or catharsis. Del Toro is shockingly, painfully clear in a few moments, in which we can see violent acts on the screen, but there is no way not to admit that the frequency of these acts is rather restrained[10] for a film that is, after all, about a war. It seems, paradoxically, to defy in a deceitful way the imperative of multiplying attractions. What is more important though is that Pan’s Labyrinth distances itself from the simplifications of the ‘ethical’ discourse on political violence. In the Mexican director’s “Spanish” film, it is pretty useless to search for any kind of parity between the violence of fascists led by lieutenant Vidal and the violence of the guerrillas or, say, Mercedes (played by Maribel Verdú, renown for her role in Y tu mamà también).

All of these dialectical ‘yes, but…’, ‘so be it, yet…’ paths pursued by del Toro (relating to the titular labyrinth in which small Ofelia tries to find a way of hers) in the end lead us to probably the most fundamental stakes around the girl. That is, to cut off and transcend postmodern narratives on the end of grand narratives, on that all truths are relative, and on a symmetry of ‘the two totalitarianisms’ of the 20th Century – the brown one and the red one. Del Toro positions himself in a spectacularly brave, nonchalant opposition to the narrative sarcastically summed up by François Cusset, the author of the book La décennie : le grand cauchemare des années 80:

The Gulag can be an invention of Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx. The political horror may be assumed to be the fault of philosophers from the previous century. Critical thought seems totalising because it creates systems, projects of creating a new man and – in the end – finishes with a Gulag.[11]

In the space of the last (let’s say) three decades we have seen a triumph of the ‘moralising’ tendency in the way we see political-historical processes of the 20th Century, eliminating critical political analysis and colonisation of collective memory and historical imagination of the modern man (and definitely the man of the West and its close vicinity). Reality and political processes have been trivialised by being seen through the lens of moral judgements that ignore the specifics and real historical contexts of political processes[12]. The most extreme form of such a tendency is to reduce historical and political valuations to counting the victims of various ‘regimes’. Equating fascism with communism (in a more radical fashion going as far as to the idea that communism was/is worse than fascism) is just one of the effects of such a tendency. For such an idea to succeed it is necessary to blur the objectives, sources and nature of fascism itself – to talk down and clamour down any serious analysis of it with a quasi-religion of fascism as a negative sacrum. To blur the borders between a system that was ready for everything to make the world a better place and a system that was also ready for anything, but to keep everything as it was (everything that was important: ownership, domination and power relations). Our understanding of the 20th Century fascism descended into fantasies about an irrational Absolute Evil, coming from a realm of darkness impossible to comprehend, an evil that is selfless and autotelic. Of course, such an irrational interpretation, balancing on the edge of magical thinking, even though it is the dominant one, will not help us in understanding what actually happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, nor will it help in preventing a repetition of history, that doesn’t necessarily have to come as a farce.

The cinematic and televised representations – especially of the Third Reich – have not been without guilt. Even del Toro in his previous creations (in Hellboy to be precise) reproduced the ideological scheme of fascism as a negative sacrum, a quasi-magical, inconceivable, irrational Absolute Evil. This pattern was less detectable in Devil’s Backbone (because fascism, in a sense, plays there the role similar to a natural disaster, a catastrophe like drought). Paradoxically, even though Pan’s Labyrinth displays a higher intensity of fairy-tale like components, it manages not only to avoid this trap, but also to recognise this problem as a problem.

Good and Evil

How did del Toro arrive to the theme of the Spanish Civil War – first in Devil’s Backbone, and later developed it in Pan’s Labyrinth? When he just started writing Pan’s Labyrinth, he initially thought of placing the plot during the Mexican Revolution. But the Mexican Revolution was a very long and complicated process, with no clear end and with a whole bunch of internal conflicts, factions and political scissions, on the very revolutionary side as well, which the director eventually deemed a much too complicated context to make it an understandable environment for a fairy tale horror[13]. Thus came a shift to the Spanish Civil War, in which it’s crystal clear for everyone, from the beginning to the end, who the good guys and who the bad guys are.

But the Good and Evil in Pan’s Labyrinth have their political colours – they are not just abstract moral or moralistic categories separated from social reality. Which forces represent Good, and which Evil, is a result of their respective political projects, of what they stand for and what political vision for the world of the future (created under a banner of certain values) they fight for.

Vidal, a brutal sadist, along with his Francoist ranks, defends the old power relations, forcing a return to all things past that the Republic tried to transcend. He’s fixated, in a kind of necrophilia, on the death of his father that he had elevated to a grim and overarching phantasm (he worships his father’s watch, fixated on the exact time of his death). He defends a world in which a small class of parasites can carry on dining at an ostensive, wasteful table, discussing at the very same time how to cut food rations for people whose exploitation allows them to thrive (but to cut them just as much so they are still able to work and not drop dead). The believers in the universal equality of the whole of mankind suffer, at Vidal’s hands, from extreme violence. An exaggerated, excessive violence that aims not only to crush and eliminate his enemies, but to crush the power of their symbols (such as one of the slogans of the Republic: ‘No God, no king, no master!’), erase their values that challenge the belief in the naturalness of the inequalities between people. Vidal defends a world in which class domination justified by wealth or superstition (the priest) is criss-crossed by patriarchal domination of men over women and children. For him, his wife Carmen, Ofelia’s mother, has a sole purpose of carrying his offspring, whose male gender he treats as a given, as something obvious. Hence the violent reaction to a question posed by doctor Ferreiro about the reasons for his certainty about the child carried by Carmen being male – the idea that it may as well be a girl questions his own manliness. Vidal orders Carmen to start using a wheelchair not because he worries about her health; her death during labour – another step in the destruction of little Ofelia’s world – will not move him in any way, as long as the baby son survives. He orders the wheelchair to question her subjectivity, subdue her even more, and reduce her to the role of a passive, immobilised incubator for the son she carries for him – who is there to prove his status as a manly man.

At the same time, the old social order, preservation of which is the aim of Vidal’s and Franco’s fascists, is an order of decay, unable to achieve any semblance of growth or even to just stand firmly on its own two feet. Therefore it consciously runs into an intensification and escalation of excessive violence – essential to maintain, in these conditions, the privileges of the privileged. In a decaying (economically shrinking) world, maintaining these levels of privilege is possible only through intensification of exploitation and repression of the subjugated parts of the society. Through extraction of an even higher share in the economic value created by the working majority. A metaphorical image of such a parasitical situation is the fat, froglike monster living off the tree in whose roots it lives – one of the beasts that Ofelia has to encounter on her twisted way to Heaven. The growth of the slimy creature results in the slow withering of the tree which loses necessary, life-maintaining substances to the beast. We find help in interpreting this moment by looking at The Spirit of the Beehive by Erice, already mentioned before as contextually important (one of del Toro’s inspirations). A huge house in which two girls – Ana and Isabel – live along with their parents, is a sign of the class position of their family. It is a position of ever work-shy landowners, spending their time watching bees, walking, and talking late in the evenings about nothing. It is a class position of beneficiaries of Franco’s fascist regime. It is in defence of the position of such people that Franco decided to overthrow the Republic. Ana runs away from her father just as if it was he who directly shot a leftist fugitive that Ana secretly tried to help. This is so because a relationship between the father and the deed exists on the wider level of political responsibility and material interests that fascism stood for. The splendid years of the house seem very much a thing of  the past; signs of a slow but steady decay show all over the place. Irrational fear experienced by the girls is a return of the supressed class violence on which the successful fascist order had been built – but the ruling classes’ rule is a domination within an environment of economic decline. It is a decadent class rule. A specifically fascist, decadent necrophilia of Vidal is its manifestation.

When Ofelia arrives to the underground dining room of the Pale Man (the one with the eyeballs in the palms of his hands), there she finds a pile of children’s shoes. Based on wall paintings around, we can assume that these are what remained from children eaten by the monster. But as viewers, we also have some contextual knowledge of the time when del Toro’s story is set (1944). We connote this not only with the motif of children eaten by beasts, one so often used in fairy tales, but also with a systematic extermination of entire human communities carried out at that time in other parts of Europe on a massive, industrial scale. The images of shoes and other objects left after the victims, we all have them deep in our minds: from history lessons, from school visits to one of the Nazi death camps currently functioning as museums, or from World War II iconography in books or TV documentaries. Del Toro thus presents his Spanish scenery in a wider context of the wave of fascism that swept across Europe in those years. He places fascism back within the frame of rational critique of its nature, function and cause: as a social formation set up in order to protect the parasite classes feeding off the rest of the society in the context of the crisis of capital accumulation so deep that ‘it questioned even the simple reproduction of already existing capital’[14], not to mention the raison d’être of capitalism – never-ending accumulation of capital[15].

The communist and anarchist guerrilla fighters hiding in the forests are the forces of Good, because they represent diametrically different values. They want to disband the world that fascists want to preserve at the cost of excessive violence and exploitation. “No God, no king, no master” is one of their calls. There is no God, no king and no master because all human beings are fundamentally equal and one has an obligation to fight for a world whose social structure will finally reflect the Truth of the equality of all mankind. When they emerge from the forest to see Mercedes they even look beautiful in a totally different way than the aggressively male, expansive Vidal (or Uklanski’s fascists, for that matter). Katarzyna Szumlewicz even compared them, with their huge eyes, to the beauty of elves[16]. There is no place among them for social distinctions, status games or rivalry practices. Women such as Mercedes are fully fledged partners, with whom men fight side by side, upon whom they rely, and for whom crucial objectives determining wellbeing of all their lot are set. (The fact that fascists do not see the possibility that a woman – and especially a woman from the lower social strata – can be an active agent of resistance forces, actually helps the guerrillas a lot). They remain loyal to their ideals – even though nothing seems to indicate that they have any chance of winning. Despite this, they see no possibility of reconciliation with the world in which the primacy and domination of some people over others has once again been legitimised. In his physiognomy and behaviour doctor Ferreiro resembles Miguel – the medic from The Spirit of the Beehive, but differs widely from him in terms of his political stance and axiological choices. Miguel would survive, while Ferreiro puts the loyalty towards values of universalism above his own, individual survival and his own life.

Ofelia, before her death, makes a definitive, radical choice – and chooses the side of Good. Comparing her stance with that of her mother gives us a key to interpreting the choice she made: in contrast to her mother she never got used to accepting injustice. She would instinctively ask why things work this way and not the other (why is the world unjust, when it could be just?). Already at the beginning we get a discreet hint of her leaning: Ofelia, without even thinking, greets Vidal not with her right hand (occupied by a book), but with the left one. Injustice and inequality are things that we may learn, their acceptance is instilled upon us by power relations in which we live – they are social constructs, not natural qualities. At the same time, the stance against inequality and injustice is no child’s naivety, from which we grow up along with gathering knowledge. Ofelia eventually decides to join the guerrilla fighters, after a series of tests, assigned to her by Pan (Doug Jones). In those tests she is forced to ‘check’ her spontaneous intuitions, she is also tempted in false directions (like when the birth of her little brother results in the death of her mother – why should she then care about him and not want him to endure any suffering?). The universalist stance taken by Ofelia is confirmed in a series of consecutive evaluations. They validate the meaning of her position as the only stance worth defending, the only stance to stand ethical tests.

A Communist mystery play

At the end of the film Ofelia dies but is rewarded: she goes to Heaven for saving the soul of her newly born brother from fascists and passing his small, defenceless body onto communists for protection. Yes, on one level this is the magical “Kingdom of her father” she fantasised about while reading fairy tales. But it is, at the same time, deliberately devised to be conflated with the imagery of Heaven. After all, “Kingdom of the Father” is one of the ways Christians used to euphemise it. Ofelia is introduced there by Pan – this finally allows to clear all that mist of ambivalence surrounding him, and exposes the nature and the objectives of the temptations that he had been throwing at the girl (in Propp’s terms then he turns out to be ‘the donor’). In Heaven, on the elevated thrones of kings, her parents await her. Del Toro takes here yet another perverse, dialectical turn. Heaven, as we all know, is a topos from the symbolic order of religion. To assure this association, Ofelia ends up in a strangely theatrical scenery – on a sort of a stage that forces us to remember the grand tradition of Spanish theatre. An important part of it was constituted by plays showcasing allegories of ‘truths of faith’ as defined by the Roman Catholic church. They maintained their huge role on Spanish stages and public spaces even at the time of booming secular theatrical forms in the 17th Century. In the moral universe of the medieval and early-modern forms of religious theatre, good was situated on the right sight of the stage, while evil – on the left. In the modern political sphere, del Toro seems emphasising, this symbolism is reversed – what is on the right (conservative) side is evil, while what is on the left (on the side of ‘the emancipation of humanity’) is good. Concluding his story in such a way, turning everything into a communist auto sacramental, del Toro makes then yet another dialectical twist and turn – equally brave and nonchalant as the previous ones. He questions the political coordinates of contemporary culture, trying to ‘move’ them in his audience’s imagination. Or maybe not so much move them, but rather to shake the distorted compass so that the North returns to its place.

The western conservatives, situated (depending on the context) on different levels of separation from lieutenant Vidal – but still on his side – in a sense appropriated Christianity, its symbols, iconosphere, decorum, institutions and language as their own. As an idiom for legitimisation of the status quo and of distribution of false gratifications that are to compensate for disappointments and frustrations socially generated by the same status quo. They also used Christianity as a weapon in their fight against the left – accused of impiety, of shaking a God-established order, of attempts at destroying the ‘natural’ way of things and ‘natural law’, etc. Using Christianity and its inventory, conservatives enforce their claim to the title of the legitimate carriers of West’s cultural heritage – of everything that is of the highest, most everlasting, constant value, and worth passing onto future generations.

Del Toro, using cinema as his mode of expression, joins all those who question all of that conservative nonsense and who want to win back for the left the role of the legitimate bearer of the Western culture’s values, of all the most beautiful things the West has ever created, still worth taking forward, building upon, reclaiming. This heritage is for him, of course, summed up in the project of the universal community of all people, no matter any accidental differences between them – the differences that, in the end, will finally become irrelevant. With Pan’s Labyrinth, a creation of his incredibly rich imagination, del Toro works upon our (the viewers’) collective imagination – this work is the same task that in other (theoretical and critical) fields of cultural production is being carried out by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek or Terry Eagleton. It is the work that reminds us that if Christianity is indeed one of the sources of western civilisation and at the same time constitutes a legacy that needs to be or is worth defending[17], then this legacy is not the monstrosity into which it institutionally evolved (byzantine splendour and criminal activities of the Vatican, for example). What it is instead is that in its primordial, Paul’s version, it gave birth to an idea of universalism, being the first project of this magnitude aimed at creating the community of all mankind. All mankind in which there would be no Greek nor a Jew, no parent nor a child, no whore nor a thief: for we are all the Same[18]. The conservatives tend to wipe their mouths with Jesus Christ’s name, but it is not them that are the real bearers of this fundamental Cause, the Truth that was driving Paul of Tarsus in establishing the new religion. Its actual bearers are those who do not accept the world in its current form. Those who, like Mercedes, her brother and other guerrilla fighters, like doctor Ferreiro or Ofelia, against all odds, will not rest before social realities are not reconciled with the (Christian, Paul’s, Marx’s, communist) Truth that we all are the Same.

For del Toro, Heaven is for communists, because the communists are those who get serious in taking consequences out of the fundamental project of Christianity, and all of that is worth taking out from it. It is them who take the task of realising Christianity’s (atheist, universalist) great promise and it is them who carry with them the extension of that promise in the form of the values of the Enlightenment. Even if the local priest (a functionary of an institution that snatched the symbols of Christianity for itself) goes to Vidal’s for supper, it is the communists who are ‘the true Christians’ here. Communists don’t need to be understood here in a precise, nominal way as people self-referencing as such, as the forces of the Republic were constituted by an alliance of Marxist, anarchist and syndicalist forces. In Pan’s Labyrinth the guerrilla fighters do not devote their time to naming themselves or defining political differences between various forces of the Republic. Communists (‘the reds’) means here all those who take seriously the radical concepts of human emancipation and equality of all mankind, and therefore demand that these concepts materialise. All of those who committed themselves to ‘the idea of communism’ and ‘the communist hypothesis’ (Badiou); the hypothesis that all men and women are equal and that the world has to – can at last – start to reflect this truth. No matter the historical setbacks that did, of course, happen during historical struggle for these values, no matter ‘the catastrophe of the Truth’ (Badiou again) that was Stalinism, etc.

At the same time, del Toro’s radical cinematic gesture – rejecting postmodern relativism and ironic distance – aims not merely at rehabilitating the lost causes of the past or getting us to remember our responsibility for the ideas that people of the past decided to give their lives for out of commitment to our future. To reject postmodern relativism and postmodern ironic distance is so necessary, as we are confronted today with the same kind of structural crisis of capitalist rationality that last time resulted in the mass destruction of capital and restructuring of the global relations of domination throughout the spasms of World War II (albeit the crisis we face now may be even deeper). We are confronted by a gradual – yet far from being static – fascisation of the social order (the use of drones on a global scale or the breadth of surveillance executed by the American NSA show it is indeed very dynamic). In the so-called liberal democracies as well, and maybe even primarily there. It is happening mainly under the disguise of ‘the war on terror’ and of ‘the defence from terrorist threats’, but also in processes such as expansion of ‘the regime of intellectual property’ (expanding as far as to the appropriation of nature, human genome or the generations-old inventions of traditional societies) and the escalation of sanctions applied for violating the interests of industries involved. A system that is now literally sucking the life out of the planet and its inhabitants; a system not capable of much more than recycling the already accumulated capital in the global speculative casino; corroding, decadent capitalism brings fascism back once again as a model that the management of its affairs leans to.

And no, I don’t think we’d be reading too much into del Toro’s work here. The decadent, decaying, necrophilic character of contemporary capitalism, one of neoliberal globalization, was already a subject of del Toro’s hypnotising metaphor with another little girl at the centre of the story – in a fairy tale horror Cronos[19]. The central prop in that film was a centuries old precise little machine made of gold and shaped like a scorpion that promises eternal youth available to those in the know in a simple, mechanical way. In reality it is a havoc-wrecking parasite accustoming its victims to a ruthless, parasitical exploitation of other human bodies. It gives us all the right to be read as an allegory of neoliberalism, which as an ideology promotes few simple, in fact silly, fundamentals (low taxes, low public expenditure, low deficits, low inflation, low – or ideally none at all – level of market regulation), which, if implemented, would supposedly automatically open the doors to welfare and prosperity to all and every society. In reality though it just pays them a cascade of bloodsucking violence, unrestrained exploitation of people and nature, of the labour force and the natural conditions of its biological existence[20].

The choice we have today once again boils down to the choice between Good and Evil. Between communism and fascism. No, not between ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘totalitarianism’. Between communism and fascism. Whenever we do not choose the former, we help the latter to win – even if, or maybe especially when we think or argue that we choose liberalism (without the neo- prefix) as something supposedly contrary to both of them. As Maurizio Lazzarato tells us:

In liberalism, freedom is always first and foremost the freedom of private property and the freedom of the owners. When these “human rights” are endangered – by crisis, revolt or other phenomena – there is a need for regimes of governmentality other than the liberal one to ensure their continuity […] [The P]arabole that liberalism follows always ends up with the same results: crisis, restrictions on democracy and “liberal” freedoms, and the establishment of more or less authoritarian regimes, depending on the level of intensity of the class war necessary to uphold the “privileges” of private property[21].


[1] See Scott Lash, Discourse or Figure? Postmodernism as a „Regime of Signification”, „Theory, Culture & Society” June 1988, 5: 311-336.

[2] See, among others: Jean Baudrillard, Ecstasy of Communication, [in:] Postmodern Culture, red. H. Foster, London : Pluto Press 1985; J. Baudrillard, Simulacres et simulation, Paris : Editions Galilée, 1981; etc.

[3] For more on fairy tale elements in Pan’s Labyrinth, see: Tanya Jones, Studying Pan’s Labyrinth, Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2010.

[4] Vladimir Propp, Morfologia skazky, Leningrad 1928.

[5] Pierre Péju, La petite fille dans la forêt des contes : pour une poétique du conte : en réponse aux interpétations psychanalytiques et formalistes, Paris : Robert Laffont 2006.

[6] Jason Wood, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, London: Faber and Faber, 2006, p. 112.

[7] Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, New York: Knopf 1976.

[8] Eugeniusz Wilk, Presja widzialności. Rekonesans, [in:] Przemoc ikoniczna czy „nowa widzialność”?, ed. Eugeniusz Wilk, Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego 2001, p. 49-55.

[9] Alicja Helman in conversation with Marek Handrykowski, Przemoc jako tabu, [in:] Przemoc na ekranie, ed. M. Hendrykowska and M. Hendrykowski, Poznań: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM 2001, p. 95.

[10] The scenes in which violent physical aggression harms physical integrity of other persons are: 1. Killing of the father and son captured by Vidal’s men in the forest with two rabbits and an anarchist calendar. 2. Fighting around the derailed train shifting to the heart of the forest (here especially the death of one of the guerrilla fighters finished off by a pistol shot). 3. Torturing of the stutterer – most of the violence he endures takes place outside the frame; although we do see physical violence that he takes from Vidal, at the moment of the first blow there is a cut. We fill the gap when we see his state when he is cared for by doctor Ferreiro. 4. Death of doctor Ferreiro from a shot in the back. 5. Mercedes, trying to free herself from Vidal, stabs him and cuts his cheek. 6. Mercedes’s brother Pedro and his comrades shoot towards Vidal’s men trying to capture her. 7. Vidal kills Ofelia. 8. Communists kill Vidal. It is not much compared to what cinema made us get used to. Besides that there is violence endured by fantastical creatures (a froglike monster inside the tree explodes, Pale Man bites off the heads of two little fairies accompanying Ofelia, and the mandrake root perishes in fire). Some scenes are drastic, without being depictions of violence per se (as with the bleeding of Ofelia’s mother’s womb, an amputation of a leg performed by doctor Ferreiro, or Vidal’s sewing his cheek).

[11] François Cusset in an interview for „Le Monde diplomatique” in 2007.

[12] An excellent remedy for these tendencies is offered by: Sophie Wahnich, La liberté ou la mort: Essai sur la Terreur et le terrorisme, Paris: La Fabrique 2003. English translation: In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in French Revolution, przeł. David Fernbach, London: Verso 2012.

[13] J. Wood, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, p. 110.

[14] Piotr Kendziorek, Antysemityzm a społeczeństwo mieszczańskie: W kręgu interpretacji neomarksistowskich, Warszawa 2004, p. 30.

[15] See: Franz Neumann, Behemot. Struktur und Praxis des Nationalsozialismus 1933-1944, Frankfurt am Mein 1998.

[16] Katarzyna Szumlewicz, Jakub Majmurek, „Labirynt Fauna” – baśniowy manifest polityczny, date of access: 4 October 2013.

[17] Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Cambridge, Massachuesetts: MIT Press 2003; S. Žižek The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, London: Verso 2000; Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: La fondation de l’universalisme, 1997.

[18] A. Badiou, Saint Paul.

[19] The film had first ruined del Toro, dragging him into personal debt of $250,000, but then opened for him many doors in Hollywood; doors that he hadn’t been really looking for. See. J. Wood, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, p. 42.

[20] Let’s prevent any allegation of over-interpratation by quoting some of del Toro’s own words: „I wanted to show the vampiric relationship between the nephew and the uncle, and, of course, the vampiric relationship between Mexico and the United States. This is why the date in the movie – which we see in a newspaper – is 1997, even though the film was made in 1993. I wanted it to be set in a post-NAFTA Mexico. Ultimately I think that it was very accurate in terms of what happened. That is why all the signs that you see in the street are in Chinese, English and Russian”. J. Wood, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, p. 33-34.

[21] Maurizio Lazzarato, La Fabrique de l’homme endetté, Paris: Editions Amsterdam, 2011, p. 84.

Jarosław Pietrzak

translated by Bartłomiej Kozek and Jarosław Pietrzak

(special thanks to Nona, Abigail, Austin, Jerome, Kathryn, Nic)

The essay translated here, originally titled Komuniści idą do Nieba, belongs to my book Smutki tropików: Współczesne kino Ameryki Łacińśkiej jako kino polityczne (Tropical Sorrows: Contemporary Latin American Cinema as Political Cinema) published in the Polish language by Książka i Prasa publishing house (Warsaw 2016, pp. 265-282). For more information about the book – here’s some in Polish, and here in English.

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