[Content Warning: spoilers, Fascism, fictional executions and violence, and the Spanish Civil War are discussed]
A man fiddles with the insides of a pocket-watch, forcing the mechanism to begin ticking again after it had long since stopped. This is one of the earliest ways that the characterization of Captain Vidal, a Fascist military officer and the principal antagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, is revealed to the audience. We later learn that he inherited this watch from his father, a famous military commander who asked that it be given to his son upon his death. His father intentionally smashed the watch upon a rock while dying to mark the moment of his demise. He instructed that it be passed on to his son to serve as a reminder of how a man should face death. In restarting the pocket-watch, Vidal erases his father’s legacy while trying to re-enact it for himself.
When Pan’s Labyrinth was released in 2006, it was tempting to think big-F Fascism was a thing of the past, with other forms of violence seeming to be more immediate threats. Today though, the relevance of understanding Fascism and far-right extremism is self-evident, as we see more and more hate groups emerge in the US (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019), a sustained increase in the rate of hate crimes (Levin and Reitzal, 2018), and the worldwide rise in various forms of violent, authoritarian populism. And yet, how many people can accurately answer the question, “What is Fascism?”
In order to help us begin to answer this question, I think it will be helpful to revisit Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 classic, Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), through the lens of Umberto Eco’s essay, “Ur-Fascism” (1995). While Eco’s work on the topic is hardly exhaustive, he identifies 14 features (an open access excerpt is available here: http://interglacial.com/pub/text/Umberto_Eco_-_Eternal_Fascism.html) of what he describes as the prototypical, or “eternal,” fascism that can help us begin to grasp what makes Fascism what it is.
Navigating the Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth
The story of Pan’s Labyrinth follows Ofelia, a young girl living during the waning years of the Spanish Civil War in a place controlled by the Falange, the Fascist party of Francisco Franco. Her widowed mother has remarried Captain Vidal, who is a Falange officer, and they have recently moved out to a countryside mansion that serves as the base for the Fascist forces in the region as they attempt to hunt down and eliminate the leftist rebels hiding in the forest. We see Ofelia attempt to navigate three different worlds in the film: the Fascist world of Vidal, the revolutionary world of the housekeeper Mercedes and the rebels, and the cyclical, natural world of the Faun. The conflict between these three worlds is something worth exploring as well, but which we shall set aside to examine in the second part of this essay (Coming Soon!).
Ofelia crosses between these worlds in a variety of ways as she tries to survive the oppressive terror of the Fascists, finds compassion and support from Mercedes, and escapes into the underground worlds of the fairy tale. Over the course of the movie, she witnesses the violence of the civil war, loses her mother to the birth of her baby brother, and attempts to retrieve the magical items that will enable her to open the gateway of the Faun’s labyrinth. The story comes to an end with Ofelia attempting to rescue her brother from the grips of fascism by running away into the labyrinth as the civil war descends upon the compound.
The Elusiveness of Fascism
Re-telling this story illuminates part of the problem for many trying to understand Fascism today. If I asked you what does Captain Vidal really want or what is his vision for the world, what would you answer? You probably can’t identify a specific and consistent economic policy or political policy, right? In fact, these things we usually associate with political ideologies are almost absent from the story!
The Cold War taught people to understand ideology by asking, “What do they want?” If someone was a Capitalist or Liberal, you could define their political identity by wanting free markets, private property, or a democratic-republican political constitution. If someone was a Communist or Socialist, they might be demanding nationalization of factories and industry or the redistribution of wealth. The problem with Fascism, unlike other ideologies, is that it is not defined by the ends that are sought. In fact, different historical forms of Fascism are rarely bound to specific goals and are often opportunistic in embracing the political goals of whatever ideology can help them get ahead (see Some More News for a useful discussion: https://youtu.be/fIN8oxnw__I)
So, given all this, what is Fascism?
Umberto Eco, in “Ur-Fascism” (1995), remarks on the difficulty of defining or explaining Fascism, despite growing up under Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy himself, saying:
“In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various historical forms of fascism, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
Helpfully, after warning us of the potential for Fascism to once more “coagulate,” he outlines 14 features upon which to train our vigilance against its return.
Chasing after Heroic Violence
Captain Vidal, as the leader of the Falange Party in the movie, is an almost archetypal embodiment of Ur-Fascism and the scene with the pocket-watch illustrates many of these elements effectively.
The pocket-watch is a legacy handed down to Vidal which he seeks to re-enact by restarting the watch. It’s hard not to see this item as symbolic of what Eco identifies as the “cult of tradition” (1). This does not refer to Traditionalism in the sense of resisting change and wanting to preserve cultural traditions, such as rituals, practices, or forms of social organization. Instead, this is Traditionalism in the grand sense, a worldview that holds that there is an ultimate Truth that was revealed “at the dawn of human history,” which we must seek to restore in this fallen, degraded world. This means:
“As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.” (Eco, 1995)
The pocket-watch is a relic from the past, even during the period the film is set in, and a legacy of military tradition handed down to Vidal from his father. When the story of how he received the watch is brought up by one of his dinner guests in a later scene, he lies and says that no such watch exists. The exchange reads like Vidal is somehow ashamed or embarrassed of the watch and the story. This seems strange given that the dinner guest who tells the story expresses it as a point of admiration or something of which he thinks Vidal must be proud. This seems to correspond to another element Eco identifies: humiliation and frustration. Eco perceived one of the motivations behind Fascism was a sense of individual and social frustration (6) that Fascists can take advantage of to direct their insecurity into violence against a scapegoat. In the case of Vidal, it might be that he is ashamed because he has yet to live up to his father’s example.
Why would Vidal have a sense of not measuring up to his father’s legacy that would leave him feeling frustrated and humiliated? All we really know about his father, other than that he was a military commander in Morocco, is how he died in battle. This may be all we need to understand though, as the legacy Vidal might crave to fulfill is the “heroic death” (11). Eco actually draws our attention to the motto of the Spanish Falangists, “Viva la Muerte” or “Long Live Death,” to demonstrate that “in such a perspective, everybody is educated to become a hero…the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist is impatient to die.” In this sense, life does not have value until it is justified in a heroic death and Vidal’s frequent fidgeting with the watch, a classic sign of impatience in the modern world, may speak to his impatient craving to live up to his father’s legacy in such a way.
“….that’s something only people like you can do, Captain”
This is what Doctor Ferreiro says to Captain Vidal when it is discovered that the doctor has been aiding the rebels. Vidal demands to know why the doctor didn’t just obey him. The Doctor answers honestly, “It was the only thing I could do…To obey – just like that – for the sake of obeying without questioning, that’s something only people like you can do, Captain.” In anger, Vidal responds moments later by murdering him, shooting the doctor in the back as he walks away.
Another key part of Fascism is “the cult of action for action’s sake” (3). This comes from a distrust of critical attitudes and a belief that “thinking is a form of emasculation.” Instead, action by itself is seen as beautiful, encouraging Fascists to follow orders without question in order to perform this appearance of action itself. This is also tied up with machismo, which Eco suggests comes from Fascists transferring their “will to power” to sexual matters (12). This means they have “both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits,” reinforcing their fear of emasculation and drive to act without thinking. Vidal’s transferrance of his ideology to sexual matters is on display when the doctor asks why Vidal presumes his unborn child is a boy and the Captain tersely replies, “Don’t fuck with me.” This implies that Vidal views even the suggestion that he might father a daughter to be an insult.
This aversion to critical thought is also connected to one of the core attitudes that defines most forms of Fascism: the rejection of modernism (2). This arises, in part, from the aforementioned cult of tradition. While there is a surface level appreciation for the weapons of war that technology creates, Eco argues that the basis of the ideology was, as the Nazis phrased it, “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil”). This almost seems prophetic following incidents during the last two years when “white nationalists” chanted as a torch-lit mob, “blood and soil!” (Kasana, 2017). The rationalism that serves as the basis for most modern liberal ideologies is rejected as decadent and depraved, leading Eco to describe Ur-Fascism as a form of “irrationalism.” This is, in part, because Fascists often engage in syncretism, where they attempt to combine contradictory beliefs and visions of the world. These ideas abhor critical thought because they quickly fall apart under even the lightest scrutiny.
Thus, in order to preserve irrationalism and action, Fascism rejects the “critical spirit” of the Enlightenment for it “makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism” (4). We watch Captain Vidal enact this principle when he stands in judgment of two peasants his men capture in the forest, who claim they were just hunting for rabbits. Among the belongings of this father and son they find is an almanac, a necessity during the period for many farmers, that bears a Leftist slogan written on it. They try to separate themselves from the rebels by explaining they aren’t involved in politics and they just use it for practical purposes, but Vidal refuses to make the distinction, beating the father to death and shooting the son. Of course, after killing these two men, they find the dead rabbits in their pack, revealing that they were just peasants out hunting. Vidal just chastises his men for not checking better first and does not consider that his blind obedience just led him to murder two innocent people.
I would argue we also see this irrationalism in Vidal’s relationship to the pocket-watch. What makes the watch meaningful, as mentioned before, is that it marks the second of his father’s death. When he restarts the mechanism, he is both attempting to claim his father’s legacy for himself while destroying it, as the hands of the watch move on and that moment is lost. Vidal’s actions embody an attempt to bring together these contradictions without questioning. As a result, he is incapable of understanding how he is destroying what he wants.
His lack of understanding and critical thought reminds me of how Hannah Arendt described Adolf Eichmann in her famous series of essays, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963). She remarked that what struck her most about the man was his stupidity and complete lack of imagination. This is what she would famously describe as the “banality of evil,” because rather than finding the machinations of an evil genius, the architect of the “final solution” was just someone who had become practiced in not asking questions.
Umberto echoes a similar point stating that Fascists use “Newspeak” (14), borrowing from George Orwell’s 1984. He explains:
“All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
I don’t speak much Spanish, so it is not easy for me to intuitively evaluate this claim, but I was struck by a contrast in Vidal’s language versus the dialogue of other characters: I could understand most of what he said without subtitles! This may sound silly, but as someone who only remembers enough of his High School Spanish classes to order food in a restaurant, it stood out to me. Frequently, I could understand almost everything Captain Vidal said while the dialogue by Mercedes, Ofelia’s mother, Doctor Ferreiro, and even Ofelia were more complex, requiring me to read subtitles to fully comprehend what was being said. That said, I would be interested in hearing what a native Spanish speaker thinks of this point, in case I may be reading too much into a coincidence.
Another reason why critical thought and questions are suppressed, according to Eco, is because “disagreement is a sign of diversity” and Fascism “seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference” (5). Captain Vidal expresses his fear of difference and desire to suppress diversity in a number of ways. He expresses contempt for Ofelia’s fairy tale storybooks and tells her mother to force her to leave these stories behind, literally suppressing alternative narratives. The people he keeps around him are mainly either light-skinned Spanish men serving in the military or Spanish women serving in conventional housekeeping and cooking roles, with no sign of diversity in roles or people. He also mocks the speech impediment of a captured rebel soldier, bringing him into direct contrast with the Leftists who embrace a diversity of men and women in a variety of roles.
Equivocation as Ideology
This mocking of the captured soldier with a disability also illustrates how elitism and contempt for the weak (10) are a common element of Fascist ideology. Captain Vidal even explicitly states this belief, expressing during the dinner party scene that the rebels are contemptible specifically because of their egalitarian outlook, as equality is antithetical to elitism. This may seem to contradict the populist rhetoric that fascism often employs, appealing to the frustrated masses rather than established elites, but this is another example of Fascism’s syncretism that amalgamates conflicting ideals. That is to say this is a popular elitism, a seeming contradiction in terms.
The way Eco explains it, “To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.” That is to say, nationalism (7) is vital to Fascism because it allows people to claim a sense of privilege just by being born in a country. This enables a form of popular elitism whereby “every citizen belongs to the best people in the world, the members or the party are the best among the citizens.” We can read this in the contrasting scenes of the dinner party for the elites and the distribution of humanitarian aid to the masses. The elites express entitlement to and are given a feast during their dinner party because they are the “best among the citizens” while the peasants from the surrounding area are only allowed a loaf of bread and basic rations from the cache of humanitarian aid that has been locked away.
Along with this popular elitism, Fascist populism also differs from other forms of populism because it “is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism” (13). Eco explains as follows:
“In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view — one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”
We can see this in the way that Captain Vidal relates to other people, as he doesn’t really treat others as full human beings with their own individual histories and inner life. For instance, when his new wife, Ofelia’s mother, tells the story of how they met at the dinner party after being asked by another guest, Vidal gets upset and insults her for telling a story that gives her an identity and a story of her own. Vidal never asks his soldiers about their lives or thoughts. They are only their roles, nothing more, just as he is the Leader who must act for action’s sake and declare their common will, having an impoverished inner life as a result.
This is part of his downfall, as Mercedes later explains after he discovers that she is a spy working for the rebels, smuggling information and goods. She points out that when he looked at her, all he saw was the role she performed of a woman housekeeper. As a result, he underestimated what she was capable of or that she might exercise individual agency. This can also be observed in his ignorance of the doctor’s collaboration with the rebels, as Vidal assumes everyone else, like him, will just act in their role without question. Interestingly, this may be an acknowledgement of Eco’s prediction: “Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”
This is, in fact, why Captain Vidal is defeated in the end: he is incapable of identifying the actual threats to his power, while frequently torturing and murdering innocent people he suspects of being collaborators or rebels. His enemies don’t resemble the image that he has created in his mind from telling himself a story of what the threats will look like. This is due to an “obsession with a plot,” which is an element of the nationalism that Fascists channel, according to Eco. Believing there is an international conspiracy by Them to undermine or destroy Us is an easy way to justify violence against divergence and criticism. The enemy is always both inside and outside, “too strong and too weak,” superhuman and subhuman. Eco explains that this superposition of the enemy, being both everything and nothing, is accomplished through “a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” (8). We see this in how Fascists talk, channeling both a sense of humiliation at the “ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies” while also constructing their image of them as weak or subhuman so as to be contemptible and easy to kill.
This fantasy of a ubiquitous conspiracy and an unending need for violence fits with the Fascist view of life: “there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle” (9). This aligns with the ideal of a heroic death, contempt for the weak, fear of emasculation, and machismo, justifying never-ending violence for the sake of a performance of “action.” The reality is though, if you kill all of your enemies, you will no longer have an opponent in the struggle that gives your life meaning. As a result, you must always create new enemies, gradually killing more and more people with ever-diminishing degrees of difference. This is why Fascism is fundamentally a form of nihilism, denying that human beings and human life have any meaning or worthwhileness in themselves, and instead believing value is only given through violence and war. Once more, this recreates the need for the mythologizing and idolizing of the heroic death – Vidal’s life, and everyone else’s by extension, can’t have value in his eyes until they achieve their heroic story.
During the conclusion of the story, the rebel army surrounds Captain Vidal at the entrance of the labyrinth, as he carries his baby son. They take his son from him. Vidal begins to ask for the rebels to pass on the pocket-watch to his son to once more extend the legacy. Mercedes interrupts him, telling him his son will never even know Vidal’s name. Instead, they will raise him away from the legacy of Fascism. And with that, Vidal is executed by the army. His legacy is denied, he does not die a heroic death in battle, and everything his Fascism stood for is proven false.
The movie ends with a sense of triumph, as Fascism dies with Vidal and the rebel army takes the compound, seemingly signalling that a better future is to follow in this world. And yet, we know from history that the Fascists did not die that day. Instead, the Franco Falangist government went on to rule Spain for several decades afterwards. This did not change until Franco’s death, when Spain attempted to turn away from Fascism and open up to Europe and liberalism. We might read the movie as being symbolic of this historical development, but I wonder if another reading is in order today.
Despite Fascism falling at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, it rises again and comes to control Spain. Despite Fascism falling with Franco’s death in Spain, we see Fascist populism re-emerging across Europe and the world. Despite the America First Fascism falling in the 1940s, we have new Fascists marching through the streets chanting “blood and soil” while the President declares he is pursuing an “America First” policy. Fascism seems undying, always capable of rising once more.
This is what Eco meant by “Eternal Fascism,” warning us that “Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes.” In this same way, we might interpret the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth as speaking to this undying Fascism. With the specter of Captain Vidal haunting us today, we must confront and exorcise it from the body politic. Fascism does not truly perish from the earth though, so we must remain vigilant to protect against it. And Umberto Eco gave us the best possible advice as we once more face this undying ideology:
“Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”
(Like what you read? Consider buying Joshua the Peace Hobo a coffee as thanks: https://ko-fi.com/joshuathepeacehobo )
Del Toro, Guillermo, 2006. Pan’s Labyrinth (Warner Brothers and Picturehouse)
Eco, Umberto, 1995. “Ur-Fascism” in the New York Review of Books (June 22): https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/06/22/ur-fascism/
Levin, Brian and John David Reitzel, 2018. “Report to the Nation: Hate Crimes Rise in U.S. Cities and Counties in Time of Division & Foreign Interference,” Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism: https://csbs.csusb.edu/sites/csusb_csbs/files/2018%20Hate%20Final%20Report%205-14.pdf
Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019. Hate Map: https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map