How do you keep an audience in a state of shock for an entire film? It’s probably a delicate balance and part of that balance is making sure you don’t push it too far. There are many extreme gore or rape/revenge movies that try so hard to offend and alienate that they just become laughable. The stench of desperation (which I once referred to as the “self-satisfied smuggery of the impersonal gross-out”) overwhelms whatever effect the material might have had. You can sense that the only reason the movie was made was for a few over-the-top moments that would cause the intended audience to squirm, reinforcing the filmmaker’s stance that what they have to offer is just too “bold” and “shocking” for the mainstream crowd.
Such films, like Chaos, David Defalco’s laughable rip-off of The Last House on the Left, or Nick Palumbo’s deadly dull Murder-Set-Pieces, have no credibility as horror films, let alone as movies with a “serious message” to impart. But what if you’ve made a real movie that pushes boundaries, dealing with serious issues? How far can you go before you’ve gone over the cliff into ridiculous, and you can no longer be taken seriously?
Agustí Villaronga’s In a Glass Cage is almost a complete answer to that question. Villaronga’s film, which deals with a Dr. Mengele type (Klaus, played by Günter Meisner), a Nazi experimenting on and molesting children during WWII, who, several years after the war, hides in an enormous mansion, protected by his miserable wife Griselda (Marisa Paredes), his young daughter Rena (Gisèle Echevarría), and his iron lung, which he earned leaping off of a roof, supposedly out of guilt. In a Glass Cage is undeniably beautiful to look at; the photography by Jaume Peracaula is mostly in shades of dark blue, verging on black and white, utilizing the same sort of look that Wim Wenders used for the black and white angel sequences in Wings of Desire (Klaus even looks like lead angel Bruno Gans). In a Glass Cage is very determined to examine the cycles of child abuse, and the heavy symbolism throughout, mixing pedophilia and exploitations of fear, is undoubtedly effective and harrowing.
But does the film lapse into silliness? When the character of Angelo (David Sust) is introduced, pretending to be a nurse who intends to take care of Klaus, the suspense kicks in, as we wonder what exactly Angelo is going to do to Klaus. Angelo blackmails Klaus into convincing the skeptical Griselda into letting him stay on. Despite his incapacitation, Klaus dictates the order of the house to the consternation of his wife, as she finally inches towards the end of her rope of patience. Though it is clear that Angelo is going to throw Klaus’ crimes back at him, both literally and figuratively, Griselda is terrorized by the situation and her feeling of responsibility towards her husband, not because she loves him anymore. She’s aware he did some horrible things in the war and Klaus is mostly concerned with shielding Rena from the truth, even though the fact that she’s been isolated from the rest of the world, never going to school or allowed to play, probably gives her an inkling that something isn’t right.
Angelo’s methods begin to delve into the more elaborate (putting up wire fencing all around the house to “keep in the doves,” though there are no birds on the property) as the inherent vampiric situation continues. While everyone in the film is deathly pale, and has clearly gone through a makeup process to exaggerate it, Angelo starts as a ghostly figure and begins to metaphorically suck the life out of Klaus. Angelo even begins wearing shades around the house, rarely going out during the day time (using imagery very similar to Bertolucci’s The Conformist). At night, In a Glass Cage becomes Nosferatu, using grand shadows portending the doom of the slow-moving vampire. The pace of the film exacerbates this, nothing better exemplifies the lackadaisical response of Klaus to his own crimes (before Angelo arrives and pushes the correct buttons) than a scene where, encased in his machine, flat on his back as always, reads a newspaper with the nonchalance of someone basking in the heat of a sauna, similarly taking their mind off of their environment. It’s just like the way that Angelo casually and repeatedly unplugs Klaus’ iron lung, watching him choke to death, life leaving by the second (more vampire imagery), only to reconnect the plug just as indifferently.
While the Nazi and sex/torture themes may remind you of The Night Porter, a closer cousin to In a Glass Cage would be Tony Scott’s The Hunger, with David Bowie’s aging vampire crumbling before our eyes. In a Glass Cage is less of an R rated perfume commercial than The Hunger, the film is considerably more methodical, but Villaronga isn’t above small pockets of light beaming through windows or pretty shots that don’t have a lot of purpose other than looking pretty. As this was his first feature, that sort of behavior was expected. However, what might not have been so predictable was Villaronga’s career obsession with many of the pieces of In a Glass Cage; Most of his films (Black Bread, The Sea, Moonchild, 99.9) take place during or just after WWII in small villages, with children struggling through very violent and sexual situations, often with adults conducting medical experiments on them, amidst an unending atmosphere of dread. Keeping all of the dread contained is where Villaronga gets into trouble, as all of the characters make inexplicable decisions throughout the last half of In a Glass Cage (why no one leaves as the incidents pile up is quite the mental eyesore), which is the point you might become too aware of the manipulation you’re experiencing.
Is Villaronga simply exploiting our natural connection with children and their vulnerability (which is what brought on the major censorship problems the film has suffered since it was released in 1987), combining it with the easily-hateable actions of Nazis, and slowly plucking hairs out of our emotional eyebrows as a way to make a point? What point is it, exactly? It’s actually worse that Villaronga is such a terrific filmmaker, as he’s able to hold our throats that much tighter, not allowing us to even sip from our inner iron lungs.
A new print of In a Glass Cage will be playing as part of Philadelphia’s Danger After Dark festival on Friday, July 15th at 9:30 PM at the Ritz Bourse.