I saw Pan’s Labyrinth on the Saturday evening just before national Holocaust memorial day. After seeing it, I found the timing fitting.
Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t about the Holocaust, but it is set during World War 2, although in the isolation of post-civil-war Spain, the one country in Europe where the fascists actually won. And it has a lot of the imagery we associate with WW2/Shoah stories – an oppressive fascist army lead by a sadistic captain, partisans in the woods, an atmosphere of fear , hunger and the hovering shadow of death. The heroine, Ofelia, and her mother are in a very real sense refugees, moving to live in the country with the mother’s new husband, the aforementioned sadistic captain, after Ofelia’s father died in the war.
As a child protagonist, Ofelia is refreshingly mundane, and although the world of fantasy she escapes to is rendered in glossy CGI, the character and her story remain firmly grounded in the grim reality of an ordinary withdrawn and imaginative girl struggling to escape a terrifying and oppressive world. I suspect there’s a bit of sleight of hand here regarding the weaving of the fantastic and the real – the viewer’s expectations are focused on the distracting “goth muppets” and it’s only gradually that we understand how closely the fairy elements reflect and comment on the harsh state of affairs around Ofelia.
A little detail that struck me was a scene where Ofelia is tempted by a forbidden fairy feast. The temptation of food doesn’t seem like much to us, I think, not when you match it with the threat of a very real supernatural wrath; but for someone who suffers from real hunger, like a medieval peasant or a child in wartime, food is a strong lure.