A number of years ago, I made a valiant attempt to hunt down and see every sexually perverse Nazi-themed arthouse film ever created in post-WWII Europa. Naturally, I viewed and savored Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), but none of these films compared to the antipodal aesthetically-pleasing unsightliness, thematic depravity, and overall solemn gloominess of the Spanish film In a Glass Cage (1987) aka Tras el cristal directed by Balearic auteur Agustí Villaronga (Moon Child, Black Bread). Without a doubt, Villaronga is the greatest director of stark and ruthless coming-of-age films, but none of his subsequent works quite compare to the grim, emotionally-draining and uniquely uncompromising nature of his directorial debut In a Glass Cage; a work that John Waters – the Baltimorean auteur who once directed a pot-addled and unflatteringly overweight drag queen eating steaming dog feces – once described as, “a great film, but I’m scared to show it to my friends.” In a Glass Cage focuses on a pedophiliac ex-Nazi doctor named Klaus (Günter Meisner) who is permanently constrained to an archaic iron lung (the 'glass cage') due to being paralyzed after a botched suicide attempt. Upon a superficial glance, Klaus – a robust and impeccably dressed family man with a wife and a daughter – seems quite bourgeois, but underneath his clean exterior lies a soul modeled after infamous child murderer Gilles de Rais heart. In fact, Villaronga was partly inspired to create In a Glass Cage after reading Georges Batailles’ book on the Breton knight leader and companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc turned prolific serial killer. Instead of setting the film during the Hundred Years’ War, Villaronga decided to study Nazi concentration camp experiments on child, which inevitably inspired the script for In a Glass Cage; a work that makes Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) seem like a mundane melodramatic television mini-series on monetary-steroids. Despite being easily one of the most emotionally grueling and unsettling films ever made, Villaronga’s film features less nudity and violence than Spielberg’s artless and overly sentimental zio-ganda epic, thus, unlike The Damned and The Night Porter, one can hardly make the argument that In a Glass Cage is a work of exploitation masquerading as art. Needless to say, do not watch In a Glass Cage if you’re looking to gratify a fetishistic compulsion for images of gratuitous torture or hoping to find a kinky masturbation aid, as you will be certainly disappointed, unless you happen to be someone like Albert Fish or Victor Salva.
Ultimately, In a Glass Cage is a tale about the vicious circle of abuse where the victim become victimizer; a relatively common and unfortunate occurrence that few people want to recognize. Klaus has had many victims over the years but few probably compare to Angelo (David Sust); a seemingly angelic boy who shows up to the ex-Nazi doctor’s house anonymously as an adult to volunteer as a nurse. Immediately upon arriving at the pedo's pigpen, Klaus’ neurotic wife Griselda (María Paredes) treats Angelo as a contemptible nuisance with dubious motives. Indeed, grizzly Griselda – a less than delightful lady whose ever-present resentment seems to be the result of extreme sexual repression – is correct when it comes to her female intuition, but little does she know that Angelo plans to become the new man of the house and he is not looking for a nagging wife. Out of all those living at the house, Klaus’ daughter Rena (Gisèle Echevarría) – being a highly impressionable prepubescent girl with a rather pathetic, physically immobile and suicidal father – is most impressed with Angelo and his intriguing, haunting aura. After the Second World War, Klaus went into exile with his family in Catalonia, Spain and continued to molest and murder young boys; an aberrant addiction he must have had an overwhelming guilty conscious about, hence his bungled attempt at self-slaughter via jumping off a tower. Sometime before attempting suicide, Klaus sexually tortured and eventually murdered a young boy with a mere blow to the head, which was witnessed by adolescent Angelo; another victim of the good doctor who escaped from and stole the pathologically perverse pedophiles incriminating diaries and torture photographs. Clearly physically (as signified by a scar over his eyebrow) and emotionally scarred by the odious ordeal of his childhood, Angelo – who is incontestably now more mentally deranged than Klaus – begins bringing young boys to Klaus’ haus and murdering them before his very weary eyes while reading fiendish excerpts from the stolen experiment diaries, thus both ironically horrifying and further compounding the irrevocable guilt of the stiff Nazi doc in the process. As his already fragile sanity wanes and his coldblooded ruthlessness becomes more pronounced, Angelo’s appearance changes dramatically as he goes from looking positively pusillanimous and wearing drab clothing to looking like some sort of stoic New Wave Nazi chic dictator. Of course, with Griselda gone and with Rena under his spell, Angelo is now indeed the Führer of the house and he celebrates by interior decorating the place in a strikingly complimentary fashion; adorning the now almost-phantasmagorical abode with tons of barbed wire and gloomy blue wallpaper, henceforth making it seem like an extravagent post-apocalyptic art deco concentration camp for deathrockers. It is quite apparent as In a Glass Cage progresses that Angelo is in the midst of completing his metamorphosis from petrified child to prudent perpetrator. In the end, Angelo's self-prophesying future looks bleak, but he has an accidental protege of sorts to take his place.
Not unsurprisingly but certainly unfortunately, In a Glass Cage has been often compared to Apt Pupil (1998) directed by Bryan Singer and based on a novella by Stephen King, yet unlike its predecessor, the propagandistic Hollywood film is not the least bit artful nor subtle. As an obscenely candid and unsentimental work of celluloid art, In a Glass Cage, like in deplorable crimes of similar nature in the real world, offers no sort of reconciliation, thus leaving the viewer with a paralyzing feeling of fretfulness that haunts one literally years thereafter. Despite its disconcerting persuasion, In a Glass Cage is also an aesthetically dynamic work that has aged most gracefully since it was released about ¼ a century ago. In short, there is no other film in existence that is quite like In a Glass Cage that has the ability to both dazzle and dishearten the filmgoer in a most penetrating and audaciously austere manner. It should be no surprise that In a Glass Cage, much like the considerably inferior American homosexual serial killer Frisk (1995) directed by Todd Verow, was met with ample animus when it was screened at various gay and lesbian film festivals upon its initial 1987 release. Thankfully, unlike Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) – an American arthouse work based on the real-life thrill killing of a child by infamous rich gay Jewish homosexual lovers Leopold and Loeb – In a Glass Cage does not feature any sort of sociopolitical message, hence the controversy it stirred amongst certain overly prissy politically correct aberrosexuals. Considering its often hardboiled portrayals of child abuse and murder, In a Glass Cage is not a film I would recommend to real-life victims of similar craven crimes. In fact, although it has been nearly a decade since I first saw the film, I am still baffled that In a Glass Cage – a work that is like a cross between the dolorous stock-footage featured in the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and the high camp of German New Wave auteur Werner Schroeter’s Der Rosenkönig (1986) aka The Rose King – even exists, yet it does as a brutal and beauteous work of cinematic bliss.