Sebastian Awatramani

The Labyrinth of Fascism

In considering the potential to explore political themes, science fiction would seem poised to tackle the subject to the advantage of fantasy, which by its nature need not be attached to the real world, nor to the physical laws of nature, nor principles of human organization, which govern it. Indeed, in a survey[1] of the highest grossing fantasy films of the previous two decades, few have focused on political problems in any significant fashion, whereas in a similar survey of science fiction, political themes are virtually inescapable. Further, to the extent that political themes are explored, they tend to be minor plot points, without which would be lost drama, but not the fundamental identity of the film. One notable exception to this trend is Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which lacks the qualities of science fiction, but which I will argue explores through fantastical analogy the reality of life under the transition to Franco’s fascistic regime in 1944, while demonstrating integral differences between science fiction and fantasy, including their strengths and weaknesses in critiquing the political.

Why is it, in the first place, that science fiction would be better poised than fantasy to tackle political themes in a substantive manner? For this we turn to Darko Survin’s analysis in Estrangement and Cognition, wherein he differentiates science fiction from fantasy by addressing the difference in the type of estrangement employed by the novum introduced. [2] This novum is present in both science fiction and fantasy works, but for science fiction, the estrangement derived from the novum is deemed cognitive, indicating that although elements of the work are alien to our world, they exist in a fashion that follows a logical train of thought, and such a train of thought is, at least to some extent, explicated. Consider, for example, that in the Wachowski brother’s The Matrix trilogy, first that the matrix itself in a product of technology, finding its genesis in human works, and second that all three films contribute to explaining the nature and purpose of the matrix itself: a prison for human beings that creates for them a pseudo-world of which they are unaware, in order that they might serve as batteries for a race of machines created by humans, and over which humans lost control.

This differentia implies difficulty in exploring some types of political themes purely as a work of fantasy. For one, as politics is a science, to the extent that e.g. a political system within a work is in triplicate novel, rational, and explicated, the work cannot help but to encroach upon the territory of science fiction. If the political system is better than its realistic counterpart, then it is properly classified as utopia, whereas if it is worse, dystopia [3]. Contrarily, to the extent that a work leaves novel mechanics unexposed, presenting instead some politics as granted, it is diminished in its power to critique, or to present goal-oriented alternatives to our current politics. For if the political is wholly and non-cognitively estranged, it is inapplicable to a world built and directed by human action.

With this said, the above should not be taken to imply that political critique is beyond the realm of fantasy, merely that the means by which fantasy approaches the critique is fundamentally different. P an’s Labyrinth will serve as contradistinction on both counts while demonstrating that this is the case.

Set in the transition to fascism under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of a young girl, Ofelia, who migrates along with her mother to a village housing a fascist battalion under the command of the brutal Captain Vidal, to whom her mother was recently married, and whose child her mother is carrying. The purpose of this battalion’s presence, we are told, is to ferret out a group of anti-fascist rebels which remain at large in the mountains surrounding the village. We are informed shortly after the film’s opening that Ofelia’s journey is against her will, and that she has reservations about the Captain being her father, which she makes clear by refusing to refer to him as such.

Along the journey, the car ride is forced to stop as her mother becomes ill, and immediately are we introduced to the novel and fantastical world within a world—one that at once serves as Ofelia’s escape from the brutal father she doesn’t want and the violence that is to come, while serving as a microcosm of the greater conflict taking place between fascist and anti-fascist forces.

In Ofelia’s fantastical world, she is not merely the victim of atrocious political and personal circumstance, but the manifestation in human form of an immortal being who lost all knowledge of herself upon becoming human. To rediscover her identity, and to take her proper place as Moanna, Daughter of the King of the Underworld, she must perform a series of frightening tasks, tasks which serve to prove to her quest-giver faun that she is in fact the princess he seeks.

Simply from the above can we demonstrate the aforementioned differentia of science fiction and fantasy. In contrast to the technological explication offered by The Matrix, the Labyrinth’s fantasy world, perhaps imagined by Ofelia, is offered as granted through magical means. This, a hallmark of fantasy, makes perfect sense when considering these genre’s respective origins. Whereas science fiction finds its genesis in humankind’s ability to foresee potential futures following cognitively from its technology, fantasy finds its genesis in mythology and fairy tales.[4] As such, it is not merely the manner in which these works are presented that differentiates them, but too the purpose they serve, which is demonstrated through the foci of the creator’s lens. Rather than a panoramic sweep of society, such as in utopias, to serve as a loci for criticism, the fantasy world—whether prior, as is the world of Lord of the Rings, or a subworld, as is the world of Pan’s Labyrinth—is beyond rational critique, by virtue of the very fact that it is irrational. Instead, the foci of these works is the characters, their moral choices, and the relationships with others. Yet, through this roundabout fashion is Labyrinth able to critique the fascist backdrop to its fantastical subworld.

Consider that a common theme throughout the film is the fascistic worship of obedience. In one scene, a member of the rebellion is captured and brutally tortured in order to extract information. At the same time, by this point in the film we have learned that the village’s doctor, Ferreiro, has been subverting the Captain’s orders and working for the rebellion. After a torture session leaves the rebel in need of medical attention, Ferreiro is ordered by Vidal to sustain his life for further interrogation, but instead injects him, at the rebel’s request, with a lethal dose of poison. Upon discovery of his good deed by Vidal, Ferreiro is asked why he disobeyed the order, and, seemingly not positive that his subversion had been identified, responds “it was the only thing I could do … to obey like that … without questioning … is something only people like you can do, Captain.” Ferreiro is then subsequently executed.

Mirroring these circumstances in the fantasy subworld is Ofelia’s third and final quest, wherein she is ordered by the faun to kidnap her newly birthed brother from the Captain, and bring him to the faun, who will then open a portal through which Ofelia can pass. Up completion of this task, Ofelia is informed that she must spill the blood of an innocent to complete her journey and regain her identity. Like Ferreiro, she makes a virtuous choice and refuses to sacrifice her brother. The faun disappears, and Vidal, who had caught her in the act of kidnapping, and who subsequently gave chase, shoots her in the stomach. It is then revealed that she had made the correct decision to disobey the faun’s order, for as she dies, she is reconstituted as Moanna, and told that the decision to sacrifice her brother, or not, was her final test.

In this contrast we see an inversion of the consequences of moral action under a just an unjust regime. In the fascistic world, to be good—arguably a defining feature of politics [5], and man by intension—is to gain only one’s suffering. On the other hand, morality for Ofelia is preserved in her fantasy, and by refusing to ethically compromise, she is rewarded with immortality and the regaining of her identity. This offers a subtle cue to the viewer, as if the violent suppression of rights weren’t enough, that fascism is a corruption of right.

Next, let us briefly consider the significance of identity within the film. As mentioned previously, upon successful completion of her quests, Ofelia would regain the lost knowledge of her self. As also mentioned previously, the means by which this ultimately must be accomplished is by doing right in the face of demands to commit evil acts. In the fascistic inversion of morality, however, to do right is encompassed wholly in acts of obedience. But how is it that one can act as a human while expressing no semblance of volition or conscience? It is within the realm of human identity to blindly obey, or is this better relegated to a machinelike identity? These questions are rhetorical, of course, as I expect their direct implication to be uncontroversial. The greater implication of this setup on the fascistic enterprise is that under a fascist regime, it is not merely oppression and suffering that is experienced by the subject, but also the loss of identity. But whereas in the Ofelia’s fantasy, upon completion of good acts one can regain their identity, under the fascistic regime, identity can be preserved only in secret, and to the extent that it is exposed, identity must be eliminated through violence.

The above, I believe, is a powerful critique of fascism. However, the critique is limited in the solution that it offers. That is, being that its focus is decidedly not on the minutia of politics, and being that the fantasy is in and of itself does not consist of an alternative political system, it can offer moral lessons only to the individual. Said somewhat differently, the fantasy does not offer an alternative political system. This is not a fundamentally problematic aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth or of fantasy in general, for it clearly offers important moral lessons regardless of the specific political lessons it might lack. As mentioned shortly after the introductory paragraph, this seems to be a limitation of fantasy in general, as had Pan’s Labyrinth have contained an explication of an alternative political system, it would arguably cease to be a purely fantastical film.

This raises a further point on the blending of science fiction and fantasy. While Pan’s Labyrinth adheres closely to the mold of a fantasy, it is not necessarily the case that these genres be totally free of each other. In the Star Wars franchise, for example, there are fantastical elements like the Force, which is, at least in the original trilogy, akin to magic. At the same time, the setting itself is part futurology (that is, technological but not explicated, e.g. light sabers) and part science fiction. The prequel trilogy, in fact, serves as a paramount example of science fiction’s potential to explicitly critique political systems. Without delving into significant detail, for the sake of length, the Senate in the Star Wars universe is very similar to its real counterparts, but because of the scope of the Star Wars universe, it is attended by floating platforms, alien representatives, and deals with issues affecting a galaxy, not a country. Throughout the trilogy, the pitfalls of representative government, and its potential for corruption, are revealed through a systematic critique of the political system as a whole. The viewer then can walk away having experienced her own government, in the case that she is American, through the lens of science fiction, and can learn to be weary of the political corruption and manipulation that takes place within elite circles. Meanwhile, to reiterate the contrast, Pan’s Labyrinth leaves the viewer with more general moral lessons, from which perhaps could be derived more specific political lessons, but which are not the focus of the film.

And so returning to our thesis, we find that while fantasy is clearly capable of critiquing politics, the means by which it is accomplished differs. The political is held constant: it is representative of the world from which it originates and lacks truly novel features or explication. It is not the minutia of the political system which draws the creator’s focus, such as would be the case in a utopia or dystopia, and it is not the interaction between the hero and the just or unjust system. Rather, the focus of the fantasy work is the fantasy itself, and it is this fantasy which serves as the object of interaction for the hero. Within this interaction is the hero’s character demonstrated, and from these actions is moral edification derived.

[1] Google search

[2] Suvin, Darko. 'Estrangement and Cognition.' Strange Horizons Articles:. Strange Horizons, 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.

[3] Wegner, Phillip. “Utopianism.” Pp 576 (I do not know the name of the work in which this is published, and so this citation is bare).

[4] Dr. Leiderman in lecture

[5] See e.g. Aristotle’s Politics, Book I.