Agustín Villaronga's debut horror film, with its "pervasive air of disturbing sensuality, its unflinching cruelty and glimpses of the grotesque," possesses a unique power to haunt and disturb viewers. Chris Gallant takes a close look at this "lyrical nightmare" dealing with themes of fascism, eroticism and child abuse.
The power to haunt and offend
In a dimly lit, semi-derelict chamber, a young boy is suspended, naked, by his wrists. His body is bruised and bleeding, and he lapses in and out of consciousness. Before him, a middle-aged man stands holding a camera. When the boy stirs, he draws nearer, embracing the battered body, pressing his face against that of his victim. Just outside, a third person observes through the bars of a window. The man crosses the room and picks up a wooden post, serving a blow to the back of the boy's head. Unsteadily, he leaves the chamber and climbs a rickety iron staircase to the roof. He perches on the very edge, looks down at the terrace below, and falls.
The opening scene of Agustin Villaronga's 1986 feature debut, Tras el cristal (In a Glass Cage, Spain), provides a chilling distillation of the film's pervasive air of disturbing sensuality, its unflinching cruelty and glimpses of the grotesque. Critical reactions to Villaronga's nightmarish melodrama have varied enormously. Its detractors have interpreted its disquieting sense of detachment as emotional sterility, and taken it to denote an absence of resonance or meaning: Desson Howe, writing in the Washington Post, said of it, "In a Glass Cage hangs there like that poor little boy at the beginning, with nothing but emptiness behind its eyes."
Like so many examples of European horror, Tras el cristal's reputation has grown largely through the underground press, with its supporters arguing for its status as a modern masterpiece (Eyeball magazine's Stephen Thrower likens it to Pasolini's Saló (1975)). It isn't hard to imagine why audiences (and critics) might find it difficult to access: this is not a film that encourages clarity of interpretation, and besides, the majority will surely baulk at its frank depictions of child abuse, all of which are presented with a tone of grubby, feverish eroticism. But Tras el cristal is a unique work, and it possesses a power to haunt and move its audience, which elevates its standing above that of the sick, cynical shocker that its sternest critics would designate it.
The cycle continues
The narrative recommences some years after the film's opening scene. Klaus (Gnter Meisner), a former Nazi doctor who performed experiments on deported children during the war, now lies paralysed, attended to by his wife Griselda (Marisa Paredes) and young daughter Rena (Gisle Echevarra) in their Catalonian villa, where they live in exile. His survival depends on a mechanical iron lung, operated by electricity and petrol, without which he will die of suffocation. Encased within the enormous, coffin-like structure of metal and glass, he can watch the room with the aid of a small mirror, but relies entirely on his family for sustenance, care, medical attention and entertainment. When Angelo (Ricardo Carcelero), a young man who claims to be a nurse, arrives at the house looking for work, Klaus insists that he be hired, apparently under pressure of blackmail.
Over the following days, Angelo reveals the reasons for his interest in Klaus little by little. He witnessed the murder of the boy in the basement, he tells him, removing the body and concealing the crime after Klaus's fall from the roof. But he also stole a diary, one in which the doctor had recorded details of his wartime experiments and his subsequent descent into paedophilia and murder. By night, he locks himself into Klaus's bedroom, where the two read passages from the horrific memoirs and, over time, Angelo expresses an ambition to follow in the older man's footsteps and re-instigate the cycle of abuse.
While Rena becomes increasingly attached to this new addition to their household, Griselda grows resentful of his presence. More than once she contemplates pulling the plug on her invalid husband, and when she discovers that Angelo has never in fact worked as a nurse, she tries, unsuccessfully, to fire him. Recognising the threat she poses to his relationship with Klaus, Angelo murders her late one night, dismissing the maid and telling Rena that her mother has gone away on a trip. Now that their isolation is complete, he is ready to bring a new intensity to the relationship with his mentor: he kidnaps a young boy from the village and, dressing in Klaus's army uniform, murders him in the bedroom, before Klaus's unbelieving eyes. As the days pass, Angelo's sanity rapidly deteriorates. He lights a bonfire of furniture in the hall and dresses the interior of the house with mesh and barbed wire. Inspired by yet another extract from Klaus's diary, he abducts a young choirboy, forcing him to sing in the bedroom, before casually slitting his throat.
But Klaus is not an entirely willing accomplice. His anxiety over the likelihood of police interest is fast superseded by a growing fear for both his own and his daughter's safety. He instructs Rena to take a letter to their former maid in the village, but Angelo intercepts her, discovering their betrayal. In a final confrontation, he reveals that he was sexually abused by Klaus as a child, an event that marked the beginning of his obsession. Opening the iron lung and dragging Klaus to the floor, he forces the old man to perform oral sex as he gasps for breath and expires. Having witnessed the rape and murder of her father, Rena escapes into the storm, but instead of seeking help, she returns to the house some hours later. Donning the Nazi uniform, she enters the bedroom to find Angelo now occupying her father's place in the iron lung. She climbs up and straddles the glass structure, and begins to undress.
Domination and control
Tras el cristal's central discourse concerns power. The association the film draws between fascism and child abuse recalls Sal, but Villaronga's agenda has little to do with political allegory. Fascism is just one in a series of elements in the film's complex arrangement of power differencesincluding abuse, parenthood, murder and physical handicap. Klaus's former ability to wield power by political means is over. The rules have changed. Now the focus of power difference is dependency. As an invalid, Klaus's part in relationships is more likely to be passive. Just as Rena, who is dependent upon adults for her welfare, is unable to escape the loveless, confusing and often dangerous house in which she lives, Klaus is kept firmly in place by his paralysis and the restrictive iron lung.
The first to contemplate taking advantage of Klaus's subordinate position in the house is Griselda, his wife. Resentful of their isolation in exile and her husband's constant need for care and attention (in her own way, Griselda is just another kind of prisoner), early on she alludes to her feeling that it might be "better if he were dead." Later, when she trips on a power cable and momentarily unplugs the iron lung, she fleetingly considers leaving Klaus to suffocate. Angelo's presence does nothing to alleviate her sense of incarceration, so she creeps down to the basement one night and shuts off the villa's electricity supply, only to switch it back on a few moments later, after another change of heart. Her antics serve to draw attention to Klaus's terrible vulnerability in the film's early stages, but also to articulate the ambiguous nature of power in their master/servant relationship.
As the psychodrama unfolds, however, Griselda's position in the house becomes increasingly sidelined by the more complex bond that develops between Klaus and Angelo. Her relationship with her husband is remote, even cold, and Villaronga makes no attempt to furnish us with any background concerning their shared past and their marriage. All we are told is that they spent the war years apart, and that Griselda now cares for him in exile. The absence of further detail contrasts sharply with the gradual revelation of the extraordinary back-story shared by Klaus and Angelo. On his first night in the house, Angelo demonstrates his dominant role in what is primarily a sexual relationship with Klaus, creeping into his room, opening the iron lung and straddling his chest, administering mouth-to-mouth and then fellatio, before tucking him back into his iron casket and switching the electric pump back on. The heavily eroticised act of resuscitation, without which Klaus would suffocate, signals the beginning of a relationship which will revolve around sexual power and the assignment of sub/dom roles.
A paedophilic rite of passage
Angelo's transformation from abused to abuser is undoubtedly one of the reasons for uneasy reactions to the film's moral structure (Tras el cristal was rejected by British film classifiers, and effectively banned). An audience might easily anticipate that Angelo's agenda is all about revenge, some kind of moral crusade. We've seen the like countless times, the rape-revenge cycle having become a popular formula through such films as Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Thus, it comes as a surprise when Angelo reveals that his true intention, far from meting out vigilante justice, is in fact to perform further atrocities on Klaus's behalf.
From the outset, perceptions regarding Angelo's identity are brought to the foreground. The maid, the first character to catch a glimpse of him, likens him to "The Devil himself." But when Griselda confronts him for the first time, just a few moments later, she comes face to face with a statuesque, oddly beautiful youth. She is the first to comment that he is "much too young" to care for Klaus. His position on the threshold between adolescence and adulthood marks the starting point for his transformation, and his rapid decent into paedophilia and murder is presented as a rite of passage.
The taking of power would appear to be necessary in order for him to pass into adulthood. From the earliest scenes, Angelo behaves in an oddly detached way, his personality a blank canvas. Even when he performs his bizarrely sexualised first aid on his employer, he does so without a great deal of ceremony. The first time we see him display any true feeling is when he cries over the appalling accounts of child abuse, which he reads from Klaus's diary. This marks the beginning of his ongoing effort to bury his every trace of human compassion. As he begins reenacting the very acts of torture that prompted tears early on, he takes to wearing dark glasses, covering his eyes, obliterating identity.
In fact, the dark glasses form part of a series of iconographic elements which relate to power and the visual, established right at the very opening of the film. The first image we see is an extreme close-up of a camera lens. We cut to a close-up of Klaus's staring eyea graphic matchand then to the scene which Klaus is photographing the hanging boy. The sequence introduces the theme of power by objectification, an idea that Villaronga continues to toy with for the remainder of the film.
Later on, Klaus's visual field emerges again as a vehicle for the articulation of power relations when we realise that he is unable to see the room around him without the aid of a small, angled mirror, which the others fix above his iron lung from time to time. His field of vision is constrained, and also strictly controlled. He refuses to cooperate in the killing of the choirboy, but his complicity is nevertheless secured by means of the mirror, which forces him to watch. No wonder the maid seems so jittery as she stares at the inverted reflection of his face when she comes to say her goodbyes. "That machine...makes me nervous," she tells him. "It's like being at the movies!"
Death the liberator
The final scenes of the film see Rena's entry into the circle of power exchange. Unlike Angelo, she has never suffered physical sexual abuse, although her part as a reluctant witness to the depravity of the others in the house places her in the role of victim. Although she stands on the periphery of their world for the majority of the film, Rena still suffers the repercussions of emotionally damaging behaviour: she is exposed to the sexual activity of adults (such a circumstance may be termed "covert abuse"), and there is a suggestion that she has already been forced into a relationship of physical intimacy with her father through domestic tasks such as washing and feeding him, assuming a role that is more appropriate to a spouse (another variety of non-physical abuse, often described as "emotional incest"). The cyclical nature of the cruelty and paedophilia in Tras el cristal forms a part of the most potent of its visual metaphors: the glass cage, within which its characters are trapped, acting out a pattern of repetitive power exchange and guilt from which they are unable to escape.
The closing scene, in which Renanow dressed in Nazi uniformenters her father's bedroom, eludes clear interpretation. She finds the room bathed in blue light, an odd vision of heaven, with Angelo lying in the centre, buried within the structure of glass and iron. When she kisses him and the two of them, in unison, say, "Thank you, Angelo," the effect is perplexing. Is Angelo perhaps to be thanked for the murder of Klaus? Throughout the film, there are suggestions that Death may be perceived as a liberator, providing a means of escape. The idea of Death as an incarnation of God is a theme that Villaronga would expand upon in later work, most notably El mar (2000).
Here there is a strong suggestion that absolution can be gained through suffering. The majority of the film charts Klaus's metamorphosis from abuser to abused. Angelo gives a label to his new status as victim, telling him, "You're the child now." Klaus the child must pay for the crimes of his adult incarnation, and only after reenacting the scene of Angelo's childhood violation, with Klaus himself cast as the abused boy, can he escape the cycle of paedophilia, murder and shame.
Like the film's characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing. It is profoundly disturbing, potently evocative and easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.
Printer-friendly version of this article