Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Executioner (Film Group Essay)


The Executioner

"I’m not an artist. I make popular films."
Luis Berlanga

"He’s not a Communist. He’s not an anarchist. He’s worse – he’s a bad Spaniard."
Franco commenting on El Verdugo ("The Executioner") and its director, Luis Berlanga.

Ignorance is as invincible in film studies as in other human endeavors. For instance, books about cinema often suggest that India, with the noted exception of Satjiyat Ray, has produced nothing but bubbly Bollywood musicals and colorfully mindless melodrama. Of course, this is an error – if anything, Indian cinema has a more variegated and complex history than Hollywood: there are Japanese film noir, historical epics, experimental films, and, even, Indian auteurs the equal of Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray – it’s not their fault that you haven’t heard of them. With respect to films made outside of the Hollywood production system (or its satellite the Sundance distribution network), we tend to simplify – each country has a single characteristic director: Italian films are represented by Fellini, German cinema is Fassbinder, India is Ray, Japan Kurosawa. But, in fact, each of these national cinemas involves many directors, some of them important and producing highly consequential films, that are unknown to almost everyone in this country. A noteworthy example involves the cinema made in Spain during the Franco era. Quick! Name one important director working in Spain between 1945 and 1970 – most people, even those with wide knowledge, will draw a blank.

But, in Spain, the director considered most important and representative of the films made under Franco is Luis G. Berlanga. Berlanga is so well-known in Spain that his name has spawned an adjective Berlanguist – that is, "after the manner of Berlanga." Berlanga’s trademarks are use of sequence-shots (an entire sequence is filmed in one shot without cutting) and his so-called "choral style". It is Berlanga’s "choral style" that has rendered him (mostly) inaccessible to non-Spanish-speaking audiences. Berlanga fills his shots with people and moves them across complex interior spaces – people are crowded together in tenements or storefronts and they all speak at the same time. (Berlanga’s intricate overlapping soundtracks are precursors to the mumbled chorus of voices in Robert Altman’s films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville.) Of course, overlapping dialogue poses severe challenges to the translator writing subtitles. For this reason, Berlanga’s films are virtually unknown in the United States. (Berlanga’s instinctive anti-Americanism has also not advanced his cause in this country.)

Berlanga was born in 1921 and regarded himself as a citizen of Valencia first and a Spaniard second. His family was wealthy and owned estates in land – they were, in essence, conservative feudal barons. Berlanga was Jesuit-educated both in Spain and Switzerland – where he was sent with his brother who suffered from consumption. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Berlanga’s father was serving in the Spanish legislature. Ultimately, Berlanga’s family aligned itself with the anti-Franco forces and the young man served as a rifleman in an anti-Franco brigade. When Franco prevailed in the Civil War, Berlanga’s father was arrested as a member of the pro-Communist Popular Front and, after a show trial, condemned to death. Berlanga was told that he could save his father demonstrating patriotic support of the Franco regime. He did this in a peculiar way – he enlisted in the Division Azul ("Blue Division"), a group of Spaniards who fought with the German army on the Russian front. Berlanga saw action at Novgorad in Russia. He returned to Spain in 1942. Notwithstanding his pro-Franco war record with the Wehrmacht, Berlanga’s efforts to help his father were in vain. The senior Berlanga was held by Franco in prison until 1952, and, then, only released as a broken man to die six months after being granted his liberty.

In 1947, Berlanga attended film school in Madrid. He founded a film magazine Objetiv and directed (with Juan Bardem) his first feature-length picture in 1951, The Happy Couple, a satirical comedy. In 1953, Berlanga shot Welcome Mr. Marshall, a sardonic commentary on the Marshall Plan – the film is a musical and a vehicle for a prominent Flamenco dancer of the period, Lolita Seville. The film shows the hysteria that grips a small village when its inhabitants learn that "the Americans are coming." Townspeople hire a famous Flamenco dancer to entertain the Americans and, on the eve of their arrival, several of the townspeople dream of encounters with rich Americans – this gives Berlanga an opportunity to spoof different genres of American films, including the Western. The next day, the American motorcade zooms through the village without stopping. The film was nominated for a Palm d’Or in Cannes. But one of the jury members, Edward G. Robinson expressed contempt for the film’s "anti-American politics" and the movie lost in the competition and was never distributed in the U. S. (For years, the film was cited by American politicians as a basis to persuade United States businesses to not invest in Spain.) With another prominent post-Franco director, Juan Antonio Bardem (the uncle of Javier Bardem), he participated in a famous dialogue about Spanish films, the so-called Conversacionne de Salamanca – Berlanga asserted that the Spanish film industry could prosper under Franco and that there was sufficient liberty to make good movies. Bardem said that Spanish film would always remain "ignorant and provincial" so long as Franco’s censorship board was in power. (This undercut Bardem’s own production, the Communist-inflected Death of a Cyclist, produced in that same year.) Berlanga made a number of films during the fifties including Miracles on Thursday, an anti-clerical film about a small village that fakes a miracle to entice tourists to visit the town – Franco’s regime censored this film and held up its release for two years. Placido (1961) is Berlanga’s next film, made he said "in a state of grace" and, perhaps, his favorite -- a film about the politics of welfare and charity. Berlanga’s film on capital punishment, The Executioner, followed in 1963. The Executioner probably owes its existence to Garcia Escudera. Escudera was a pious Catholic and strong pro-Franco politician who was also a cinephile. Escudera was appointed to the position of the administrator of the Spanish film industry. Before Escudera, censorship exercised by the regime was capricious, arbitrary and corrupt – paradoxically, Spanish directors wanted a code determining what they could and could not show on screen. Escudera directed that such a code be adopted and Berlanga, with his writer, Rafael Azcona, were able to script The Executioner in such a way as to avoid government interference, although the regime did not like the picture.

Berlanga made a film every two years up until his last picture released in 1999 (Paris - Timbuktu). A number of these films are well-regarded and important in the history of the Spanish cinema – for instance, his picture The Heifer (1985) is the first Spanish film to dare a comedic approach to the Spanish Civil War. His trilogy of films The National made between 1977 and 1981 addressed life and politics in the Franco regime. He won a Goya Award, the equivalent of an Oscar, for Todos a la Carcel ("They’re all in Jail") made in 1994 – the film, shot entirely inside a prison, shows a variety of inmates interacting and discussing politics: the picture is regarded as an allegory of the Franco era.

Spanish film makers such as Carlos Saura and Almodovar revere Berlanga and regard him as an equal to Bunuel. Bunuel’s film made upon his return to Spain in 1961, Viridania, was produced with the assistance of Berlanga’s company.


The Garrote

The Garrote is a mechanism for execution that employs ligature strangulation. Curiously, the Spanish word "garrote" names a kind of club that was used to beat condemned prisoners to death. Since this means of execution was untidy and prone to misadventure, Spanish authorities substituted a wiry cord that was wrapped around the victim’s neck and, then, tightened. (This is the primitive, but effective, form of execution used by the death squads in Indonesia as documented by The Act of Killing.) The Peninsular War in Spain (1808 - 1828) required executions on an industrial scale. Accordingly, the garrote was refined into a metal apparatus like a vise screwed onto an upright post. The person to be executed was seated on a stool with his or her back against the post. The vise was mounted around the victim’s neck and, then, the executioner, standing behind the post, turned a handle, closing the vise around the condemned person’s throat. A variant on this technique is the so-called "Catalan garrote", equipped with a spike at the base of the throat that penetrated the flesh and made certain that expected outcome was quickly achieved.

Goya engraved the horrors of the Peninsular War in his series "Desastres de la Guerra" – a number of these images show garroted victims. In "The Garroted Man", a corpse is seated upright on a stool, the iron-work embedded in his throat. The dead man holds a cross and seems to have been executed in his shroud – the shroud is embroidered with crosses as well. Next to the corpse, there is a tall extinguished candle. The dead man’s feet are terribly contorted, demonstrating his death struggle – these twisted, anguished feet appear again in Spanish art in Picasso’ Guernica. Desastres de le Guerra number 34 shows a similar scene. In one engraving in that series, Goya shows eight people, apparently garroted on a scaffold. All of them bear signs inscribed with writing that is illegible to us. Goya has entitled the engraving "No one knows why."

Garroting was the mode of execution used throughout the former Spanish empire. (And, also, in Andorra where the practice was abolished in 1990 – the last execution by garroting had occurred in the 12th century, more than 800 years previous to the legislation abolishing the garrote.) In 1900, the United States army garroted four insurgents in Puerto Rico. The government doctors attending the event wrote: "...execution by the garrote is far less inhumane and revolting than execution by hanging." Note the diction: not "more humane" but "far less inhumane" – you will need to diagram that circumlocution to understand what it means, a characteristic of official discourse about capital punishment.

People were garroted in substantial numbers in Spain, particularly during the Spanish Civil war. Franco passed a law forbidding members of secret societies participation in the military. In 1935, 80 army Freemasons were garroted in Malaga. The last civilian garroted in Spain was the spree killer, Jose Maria Jaraba (July 1959) – Jaraba shot and killed four people, including a pregnant woman, for kicks. Although the penalty remained in the law books, prosecutors didn’t ask for the death sentence for a couple of decades. The military continued to garrote persons who violated their code and were subject to military justice. The last person garroted under military law was the anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, a cop-killer; he died in March 1974. The imposition of this penalty aroused such indignation that the military, thereafter, abolished the practice. In the seventies, a couple of events combined to urge formal legislative abolition of the use of garroting to execute civilians. More aggressive prosecutors, operating under a law and order agenda, began to petition for re-institution of the penalty. Second, a condemned man who didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison demanded that he be garroted. (This is similar to Gary Gilmore tipping the United States back into capital punishment when he quixotically demanded death by a Utah firing squad – a demand that the government ultimately met.) The Spaniards didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history and so the penalty was formally abolished in l978.

The Spanish writer Camilo Jose Cela, famous as the author of The Family of Pascal Duerte, acquired the garrote used to kill the spree-killer, Jose Maria Jaraba, and displayed it in his official museum. After his death, authorities deemed the mere display of the device "barbaric" and ordered that the exhibition be taken down. Thus, Spain traversed the course from public executions by garrote as late as 1890 to suppression of the display of the execution device in about one century.

When The Executioner was shown in competition at the Venice Film Festival in 1963, the Franco regime had recently garroted two anarchists involved in a conspiracy against the dictator. In Italian, Franco is nicknamed il Boia – that is, "the executioner" – and the film was released under the title "The Ballad of the Executioner". Franco and his supporters were indignant. They were also concerned that Berlanga would come away from the competition with some prestigious international prizes. Accordingly, the Spanish government publicly supported one of Juan Bardem’s films also in competition in Venice. This support was incongruous – Bardem was committed anti-Franco communist whereas Berlanga characterized himself as a "right-wing anarchist" and "libertarian." (Berlanga did win the International Critic’s Prize for The Executioner.)


Some Observations on The Executioner

The Executioner is an Italian-Spanish coproduction. In the early sixties, coproductions of this sort were common. Rafael Azcona, Berlanga’s script writer, worked extensively with excellent Italian director, Marco Ferreri. Before writing The Executioner, Azcona wrote a film for Ferreri (it was ultimately directed by another film maker) called Mafioso. In Mafioso, a big city Roman falls in love with a Sicilian girl and goes to Palermo to marry her. There he discovers that his father-in-law is a mob boss. To show loyalty to the crime family, the Roman bridegroom is forced to execute a "hit" on another mobster. Critics said that Mafioso and The Executioner were fundamentally the same story written by the same scenarist. (The inspiration for The Executioner is a story that Berlanga saw in a Valencia newspaper – a woman was put to death by a brand-new executioner; the article said that both the condemned and the executioner required considerable counseling before fulfilling their appointed roles.

The reluctant executioner is played by Nino Manfredi, an Italian actor known for light comedy. (Films of this kind were always post-synchronized for sound). Things were a little tense sometimes on the set because Jose (Pepe) Isbert, who plays the old Executioner, was a loyal Franco supporter and didn’t like some of the film’s implications. (Jose Isbert’s real daughter, Maria, appears in the film as the Executioner’s daughter.) The film was shot on location in Madrid and Majorca in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean east of Spain – the cave shown in the picture is Drach (Dragon) Cave (and Lake Martel). Franco’s regime was ultimately undercut by tourism. We see this symbolized in the image of the people doing the twist on the yacht in the Majorca harbor.

Spanish critics claim that Berlanga was influenced by Miguel Unumuno’s concept of "Interhistory" – that is, the unknown, but important, history of ordinary people. The notion of Esperpento or systemic distortion is also cited when the film is discussed – Esperpento refers to the practice of accentuating a feature until the image appears as a grotesque caricature.

Berlanga’s stifling rooms, crowded with dogs and children, old people and crying babies, symbolize a sort of communal and self-imposed prison. We can schematically represent the situation as follows:

1. People desire intimacy;
2. Intimacy leads to sex which leads to babies;
3. Babies impose family obligations;
4. Obligations confine and imprison us;
5. Society and the social world is a kind of prison;
6. Executions take place in prisons;
7. We are all complicit in imprisoning one another and enforcing the executions that take place in prisons;
8. The executioner and the victim of the execution are one and the same.

  What is behind that tiny black door on the far end of the big white room?

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