Noisy Water Review

On Fascism and Fairy Tales: An Analysis of Pan’s Labyrinth

Ethan Smith

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”

— Howard Zinn (270)

This quotation in many ways reflects Ofelia’s place in the real world. She’s surrounded by revolution, war, her mother’s death and a cruel fascist for a stepfather. Despite this, she still has faith in the escapism of her fantasy world where she’s a princess belonging to a royal line. This hopefulness, which Captain Vidal does dismiss as childish, (or in Zinn’s words, foolishly romantic) is based on the fact that Ofelia understands that there is love and beauty if you search for it. The end of the film shows Ofelia’s faith in these ideals, and this belief that the world isn’t all ugly. Captain Vidal however, represents the ugliness in the world. He’s the Orwellian Big Brother, the boogie man and the Spanish Grendel; he is fascism.

Fascism is defined, in Political Science: An Introduction, as “an extreme form of nationalism with elements of socialism and militarism” (Roskin 108). It then describes Benito Mussolini’s rise to power, initially a socialist, military service turned him into a hardcore nationalist. Italy was full of chaos and dissonance at the time and Mussolini collected people in black uniforms, stuck them in high power positions and created a state with no political parties or democratic practices whatsoever. Adolf Hitler would follow with the rise of Nazi Germany and it began a global question raised by intellectuals: What was the future of governance? (Roskin 109). Guillermo del Toro, through the vehicle of Captain Vidal, illustrates the dangers of fascism, from the brutality to the very nature of it, and power.

Guillermo del Toro, while not answering this question explicitly, chooses instead to personify fascism and paint a psychological portrait of it through the character Captain Vidal, and I think the ethics and implications of the way he portrays this character answer this question. Guillermo del Toro stated about Pan’s Labyrinth that he wanted to juxtapose fascism, which he defines as “the absolute lack of choice and the most masculine expression of power” and the imagination which is the “most feminine, most beautiful expression of power” ().

In Captain Vidal, this total lack of imagination is obviously present. He’s single-minded, and there isn’t much creativity to him. He exists for one purpose. He’s a tool of war. War is something brutal, violent and cruel; he is brutal, violent and cruel. This illustrated by the way he tortures people and his rejection of Ofelia’s childlike books. There’s also the end of the film, in which he shoots Ofelia. This act gains him nothing. He does it because it’s who he is, a murderous and cruel man.

Abstract notions of love also don’t seem to exist in Captain Vidal’s man. He tells the doctor, when his wife is pregnant with his son, that if he has to choose who survives, to choose his son. An interesting thing to note about the birth of his son is he doesn’t even know it’s going to be a male. The doctor at one point mentions to him there’s no way of knowing this, and he simply states he knows. Biological facts and probability be damned in his head.

Ultimately, Captain Vidal doesn’t seem to possess any values in regards to family. It’s all about the continuation of the male line – a male line, which seems inherently obsessed with order and cruelty, which explains Vidal’s fascism. In the film, at the dinner party, someone asks if it’s true that Vidal’s father broke his watch so his son would know the exact time he died. This is extremely noteworthy because it suggests an obsession with quantification, or things that can be measured and order. It’s another indicator that order is important to Vidal, as it was important to his father.

At the end of the film this reoccurs. Vidal asks, when the revolutionaries have him surrounded with guns, to please, let his son know what time he died. Again, there’s that motif of time (specifically time of death.) This is very indicative of this order fetish which is a character of fascism. The revolutionaries tell him no, that his son won’t even know his name. Vidal looks crushed at this, because I think it philosophically represents the end of the line. His son won’t be in search of power and order, like him, and possibly his father before him. This male line is also important because it reinforces the idea of fascism being a masculine expression of power, as del Toro stated in his interview.

Guillermo del Toro didn’t just state that fascism was masculine though, he also stated that it was an absolute lack of choice. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, he depicts this lack of choice in fascism. Orwell states:

We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon this now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty to the party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother…There will be no art, no literature, no science…There will be no curiosity…But…always will there be power. (277)

What Orwell is stating here, is that the Party and Big Brother, which are both fascist, are going to strip away everything that makes humanity, well, humanity. Sex, love, art, science, and that natural curiosity that even Homo sapiens’ relatives, the apes, feel. Or, in del Toro’s words, the lack of choice.

Individuality is disruptive to order. With order, there’s carefully set plans, everyone needs to act the same and follow the rules and standards. This is why fascists come in uniforms. Individuals can’t exist. This order fetish is one of the dangerous of fascism, but there’s something far more insidious while being more explicit about fascism. It’s the violent nature of it. In some ways it stems from fascism’s need for conformity. It requires a system that has to conquer the individual, in 1984, they brainwash, in Pan’s Labyrinth, Vidal kills and tortures people.

Fascism requires justification for this. No one thinks they’re immoral and doing the wrong thing, even if they are. Noam Chomsky stated in an interview that:

Clinton, Kennedy, they all carried out mass murder, but they didn't think that that was what they were doing - nor does Bush. You know, they were defending justice and democracy from greater evils. And in fact I think you'd find it hard to discover a mass murderer in history who didn't think that. (10)

This is what characterizes Vidal’s cruelty. He thinks the ends justify the means. In torturing people brutally, killing them, he thinks he’s serving the greater good. It’s this delusion that allows for him not only to continue his violent cycle, but also to justify it and consider himself a national hero, and a fighter for a good and a better country. One sees this very delusion in history over and over, and there’s blood on the ground as a result of it.

This delusion is universal too, which represents a danger going far beyond Spain and the world of Pan’s Labyrinth. It goes on in the United States and is largely ignored. Slavoj Zizek, in his essay “Between Two Deaths: the Culture of Torture” referred to this as the “unknown knowns” (Zizek 9). Which was a play on Donald Rumsfeld quote about known knowns (the things we know we know), known unknowns (the things we know we don’t know) and unknown unknowns (which are things we don’t know we don’t know.) Now the fourth term – unknown knowns – is the things we don’t know we know. That Freudian unconscious can be used to describe the state of many in Washington D.C. over the issue of torture. Our elected officials who approved it but when it came to owning up to it simply said “The CIA never told me what they were doing.”

The political messages of Pan’s Labyrinth are as important as the works of anyone from Adam Smith to Karl Marx. They show the hubris of not just fascism, but cultures that condone cruelty in their ignorance. It shows the brutal nature of power, which is something that is always worth understanding because it’s a reality that exists for everyone. In a country like the United States there are many privileges, but also many responsibilities. Understanding the brutal nature of power and those that wield it is one of those responsibilities. Captain Vidal could be a congressman or a president, and if society doesn’t understand how to recognize the nature of fascism and power, than he may be closer, and far more real than one realizes.

Works Cited

"Wallace Shawn Interviews Noam Chomsky." Interview by Wallace Shawn. Final Edition 19 Oct. 2004: 11. Print.

Oliver, David. "Interview with Guillermo Del Toro." Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>.

Orwell, George. "Section III: Chapter III." Nineteen Eighty-four: a Novel. New York: Plume, 2003. 276-77. Print.

Pan's Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo Del Toro. Perf. Ivana Baquero and Sergi López. Warner Bros, 2006. DVD.

Roskin, Michael G, et al. "Political Ideologies." Political Science: an Introduction. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Internat., 2008. 108-09. Print.

Zinn, Howard. A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. San Francisco: City Lights, 2007. 270. Print.

Zizek, Slavoj. "Between Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture." 16 Beaver. 26 June 2004.06 Dec. 2010 <>.

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