Pan's Labyrinth and the Franco Dictatorship
James Howe | University of St Andrews
* This article contains images of human remains that some readers may find upsetting.
In October 2022, Spain's Democratic Memory Law quietly came into effect. This law was the culmination of years of effort by Spain’s coalition government. It represents a commitment to confront the contested legacy of the nation's twentieth-century fascist dictatorship, which ended in 1975. The law will provide recognition to the victims of General Franco, exhuming the dead from mass graves. Furthermore, it will ensure that the glorification of figures and symbols from his regime is restricted and that Spanish schools teach the history of the dictatorship. Two weeks after the law was passed, the body of General Queipo de Llano, a prominent Francoist general, was removed from the Basilica de la Macarena in Seville in the darkness of the early hours. As the hearse departed, crowds chanted conflicting slogans like ‘long live Queipo de Llano’ and ‘justice for the victims of Francoism’.
The Spanish government exhumed Franco's body in 2019 to a similarly mixed response. Spain had no revolution, and criticism of the Franco era was swept beneath the rug by a 'pact of forgetting' enshrined in law by the early democratic governments. Spain's far-right party Vox, the third largest in the Cortes Generales (Spanish Parliament), has vowed to repeal the Democratic Memory Law if they enter government in the 2023 election. Despite political lethargy towards acknowledging the horrors of Francoism, artists have addressed the reality of life under the dictatorship throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This article will examine the power of film to interact with and comment on our recent past, alter our perceptions, and even contribute to contemporary debates on the legacy of a dictatorship.
Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is set in 1944, five years after Franco's victory in Spain's vicious civil war. The film can be interpreted as a modern-day fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Franco's Spain. The film's protagonist, ten-year-old Ofelya, and her pregnant mother travel to meet her adoptive father Captain Vidal in his woodland headquarters. Vidal is a Francoist who ruthlessly hunts down remnants of the Republican forces who survived the civil war and now wage a guerrilla war against the regime. The entire film is set in the outpost's surroundings which act as a microcosm of the wider situation in Spain, with a strongman leader, pockets of resistance, and civilians living under a dictatorship.
Ofelya carries a heavy stack of fairy stories as she arrives at the Captain’s headquarters, attempting to escape from the horrors she has already witnessed in her short life. On her first night in her new home, a strange insect she believes to be a fairy leads her into an ancient labyrinth where a faun tells her she is a princess who must complete three tasks to return to her kingdom. The faun produces a book which details the tasks. Each one represents different aspects of Franco's rule in Spain. This fairy tale otherworld exists alongside the ‘real world,’ where the brutality of Francoism is borne out in the actions of Captain Vidal.
Ofelya’s first task is to retrieve a key from the belly of a giant toad which has made its nest inside a huge fig tree. Ofelya dutifully crawls inside the tree to confront the creature. The toad is described as parasitic, stopping the tree from thriving as it should. Despite attempts to intimidate her, she defeats the toad using stones given to her by the faun. The scene is juxtaposed with Captain Vidal and his men investigating the remnants of a recently abandoned rebel camp. He taunts them with items they left behind before returning to his base. It is now that Del Toro introduces us to the film's heroes, a band of guerrilla fighters, young, gaunt and rag-tag. The real world echoes the fantasy, just as the toad has poisoned the tree, the forces of Francoism have twisted Spain’s nature, forcing the innocent into either subservience or resistance.
The second task provides the film's most iconic image. Ofelya enters a magical door from her room into an otherworldly chamber decorated with frescoes of a tall, naked and eyeless figure slaughtering children. The ‘Pale Man’ creature depicted in the images sits in the centre of the chamber, motionless and horrific in front of a sumptuous feast laid out on a dinner table. Ofelya was warned by the faun to not touch a single morsel. The faun has provided her with three fairies, who guide her to open a locked box at the back of the room, using the key from the first task. She retrieves a dagger from inside the box. On the way back to the real world, hunger gets the better of her and she eats a few grapes. The ‘Pale Man’ awakens and proceeds to violently devour two of the fairies. He almost does the same to Ofelya as she escapes.
The ‘Pale Man’ represents more than just the violence of Franco's regime; he hoards food and forbids others from eating. Similarly, the film's representation of Franco, Captain Vidal, keeps a locked stockpile of food and medical supplies at his base. Del Toro presents Spain's dictator as a parasitic figure, constraining and subverting the true Spain, using starvation as a punitive tool against the defeated side in the Civil War. At the same time, Franco consolidated his regime by building a base of supporters who managed access to necessities which were in short supply. Vidal’s maid and doctor, Mercedes and Ferreiro, smuggle medicine and a few luxuries to the rebels. In a scene before the second task, local people queue to receive meagre rations, stopping any of them from passing food on to the resistance. Whilst the villagers wait in line, one of the Captain's men announces that 'this is your daily bread in Franco's Spain'.
The faun is furious at Ofelya for failing to heed his warning about the ‘Pale Man’s’ feast, and he refuses to give her the third task, telling her she will remain mortal forever. Soon after, her mother goes into labour, dying whilst giving birth to the son Vidal wanted. Mercedes, realising the Captain has discovered her secret activities, tries to escape with Ofelya. The Captain captures them and locks Ofelya in her room as he prepares to torture Mercedes. Torture remained widely used by Franco's authorities, especially for 'political' crimes such as membership in illegal trade unions or criticism of the regime. Due to the 'pact of forgetting', torturers remained in positions of power after the transition to democracy. The Goya Award-winning documentary The Silence of Others (2018) depicts the ongoing fight for justice.
The faun returns to Ofelya, having changed his mind, and tells her to bring her baby brother to the labyrinth to complete the final task. He helps her magically escape her room. When she arrives, the faun tells her that the portal to the underworld requires the blood of an innocent, her baby brother. She adamantly refuses to harm him. Here, Del Toro here sets Ofelya apart from the violent reality of contemporary Spain. Her refusal to draw a single drop of blood elevates her above the cruel Francoists and even the film's guerrilla heroes.
Mercedes also escapes, maiming the Captain and joining the newly reinforced rebels. Together they launch a full-scale assault on the fascist headquarters. Del Toro selects 1944 as the setting of his film, the year that the resistance captured a number of Civil Guard outposts in Val d'Aran, Catalonia, and attempted to set up a provisional Republican Government. They were quickly pushed back to the French border by Franco's army. In the film, however, their victory is total. The Captain's forces are defeated and Spain's natural order is restored.
An injured and delirious Captain stumbles after Ofelya into the labyrinth in search of his son. He brutally shoots her and takes the baby. In doing so, the blood of an innocent is spilt, allowing Ofelya to enter the underworld with the faun. She passes the final test by spilling her blood rather than that of another. Her success is juxtaposed with the fate of Dr Ferreiro, who secretly treated the injuries of rebel fighters. When ordered to keep a tortured man alive so his interrogation can continue, the doctor euthanises him. The Captain already suspects him of collaborating with his enemies and kills him immediately. Ferreiro’s death shows there was no place for compassion or disobedience in Franco's Spain.
On his way out of the maze, the rebels and Mercedes confront the Captain. Expecting his imminent death, he passes on his pocket watch and asks that his son is told about his father. Mercedes replies that he won't even know his name, and they shoot the Captain dead. Vidal is effectively erased from history, just as the Francoist dictatorship he embodies tried to do to hundreds of thousands of its own people.
By defeating Vidal and his forces, the heroes of the film restore justice to Spain. In reality, there was no such fantastical outcome and the debate on Spain’s past raged on even as Pan’s Labyrinth was released. A few months prior to the first screenings, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo conducted a poll which found that a third of Spaniards still supported the actions of Franco in the Civil War. Cinema can directly interact with and confront our memory of the past. Pan's Labyrinth depicts the brutality of a regime and the qualities required to defeat it. It provided part of a collective voice calling for renewed debate on the legacy of Francoism. The following year the Spanish government passed the Historical Memory Law. This was the precursor to 2022’s legislation and recognised victims of the Civil War whilst condemning the repression of General Franco.
The anti-Francoist vision of Spain espoused by Del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth remains contentious to this day. The Historical Memory Law was voted against by the conservative People’s Party which would go on to lead Spain’s government from 2011 until 2018. Legislation aside, the legacy of the Civil War and Dictatorship remains contested. This contestation only serves to highlight the importance of directors, writers and artists who depict and frame Spain’s tumultuous twentieth century.
Tremlett, Giles, Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past (London: Faber & Faber, 2006).
Preston, Paul, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (New York: HarperPress, 2013).
Richards, Michael, After the Civil War: Making Memory and Re-Making Spain Since 1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
James Howe is a third-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on the history of everyday lives, travel and memory. He is writing his PhD dissertation on British travellers to the Spanish dictatorship of General Franco and the Portuguese Estado Novo. More generally James is interested in the history of everyday lives and travel which he occasionally blogs about.