Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s The Executioner

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


The Executioner (1963)

While widely considered the best Spanish film of all time, Luis García Berlanga’s absurdly dark-comedic tour-de-force, The Executioner, is well known in the country it satirizes, yet still criminally overlooked in the United States and elsewhere outside of the film’s domestic borders.

In the director’s native Spain, the term “Berlanga-esque” is as common as “Kafkaesque” is stateside. In fact, the two terms are practically interchangeable: Both artists tackle the absurdities of modern society, how bureaucracy crushes the common man and the notion that, despite human beings’ confidence in their decision-making abilities, “free will” never really stood a chance. This all sounds like quite the slog but rest assured, in Berlanga’s films all of these themes are handled with the most effective tool mankind has come to rely on throughout each of history’s major struggles: humor (and in the case of The Executioner, it’s pitch-black).

Now issued with a Blu-ray release to correct its under-appreciation, special features paired with The Criterion Collection’s 4K restoration of The Executioner include: a new interview with filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, one of Berlanga’s most vocal champions; a new program on Berlanga, featuring interviews with his son José Luis Berlanga, film critic Carlos F. Heredero, writers Fernando R. Lafuente and Bernardo Sánchez Salas and director of the Berlanga Film Museum Rafael Maluenda; a Spanish television program from 2012 on The Executioner, featuring archival interviews with Berlanga; the film’s theatrical trailer; a new English subtitle translation; and a booklet essay by film critic David Cairns.

Artist Brian Stauffer uses his imagination to conjure some color using the ominous executioner’s mask in juxtaposition against the innocence of an ice cream cone.

Artist Brian Stauffer’s cover art juxtaposes an ominous executioner’s mask against the innocence of an ice cream cone. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Lessons in Managing Gallows Humor

Berlanga’s idea for The Executioner came from a true story he heard about an executioner who had to be consoled much like his victims. The story produced in his mind a single image of an unwilling executioner—one unable to perform his duties, being dragged to the chair in the same manner as the condemned, creating, in a sense, two condemned men. The long shot in which that image is contained is the only moment in this otherwise farcical feature where newly-minted executioner José Luis (played brilliantly by Italian star Nino Manfredi) comes face-to-face (with the force of a Mack truck) with the real world implications of what his position as “executioner” truly means. This deft conflation of satire, symbolism and irony offers moviemakers a workable narrative and visual framework for achieving a tone of horror and empathy that can still played for laughs.

The Executioner refrains from stepping into Ernst Lubitsch-style set pieces (unlike the more recent Lubitsch-inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose moments of ultra-violence feel out of place within the hijinks of its screwball narrative). In a later scene, José and his wife Carmen (Emma Penella) are enjoying some touristy entertainment in the Drach caves in Palma de Majorca as a boat floats through the fog, carrying state officials who call out for José using a megaphone. As his name echoes off the cave walls, the vision of José’s journey as a kind of surreal nightmare—or his own private hell—is never more clear. Moments like these are a case study in how your film’s absurdist gallows humor can be grounded in reality, while remaining one step above slapstick. Your conscious decision to walk this tonal tightrope can keep your film’s audience from developing a sense of distance from its characters and their moral conundrums.

Luis García Berlanga (C) directs Nino Manfredi (far L) and Emma Penella (L) on the set of The Executioner. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Berlanga’s Spain, influenced by his hometown of Valencia, is a space in which everyone is constantly talking over one another, trading quips, spying on their neighbors, judging them sometimes silently but more often vocally. Society under a dictatorship does not lead to the working class banning together in their plight—rather, it brings out the worst in its citizens. Although The Executioner‘s observations on human nature sound rather heavy, the pessimism of writer (and frequent Berlanga collaborator) Rafael Azcona’s screenplay is kept at bay by its pitch-perfect comedic flourishes. This balance of light and dark, coupled with Berlanga’s commendable casting choices, demonstrate the possibility of facilitating a creative space in which your film’s actors’ performative timing can stay consistently on point. Directing along these black-comedic guidelines, even your most calculated scenes and set pieces can assume an aura of free-wheeling chaos.

Special Features

A history class of sorts on Berlanga-esque cinema and the political climate of Franco-era Spain at the time of The Executioner‘s making, Criterion’s wealth of supplemental materials will appeal to newcomers and seasoned Berlanga aficionados alike.

Although the disc’s interview with Pedro Almodóvar is too short to be especially revelatory and its inclusion functions more as endorsement than anything else, David Cairn’s essay is packed with invaluable insights. In it, Cairn sheds light on the effectiveness of The Executioner’s contrasting tone—how it managed to coax laughter from audiences while mortifying them at the same time, and leaving them unsure of how they ended up so complicit in its relentless gallows humor. Cairn argues that The Executioner is about society, how one’s action furthers one’s involvement in the worst of it, and how life can lead further and further toward “the chair” or the garrote (in the role of the executioner instead of the condemned, thankfully) through no action of your own. The essay contextualizes Franco-era Spain as a place in which citizens’ mere existence transforms them into willing participants, and where passivity only quickens the pace of your moral decline. By pausing to examine contemporary society’s role in the lives of your own country’s people as Berlanga has done, you can expand the potential for your next feature to accurately locate and exploit its satirical bent.

The disc’s two video essays are also enlightening. One half-hour documentary successfully draws parallels between contemporary Spain with Berlanga’s Spain, while another, which hosts the real meat of the extras, comes in the form of an hour-long featurette in which critics and historians discuss all various aspects of Berlanga’s filmography.

Writer Fernando R. LaFuente discusses Berlanga’s work through concepts and theories from some of the sharpest Spanish minds at the time. Among those whom LaFuente cites is Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who presented the important idea of intrahistoria, which translates to “the history of people who have no history.” Intrahistoria deals with the history of “the normal and common people—all of us,” and this was Berlanga’s territory throughout his entire career. Intrahistoria is not exclusively a Spanish concept, and is explorable in various contexts by moviemakers who descend from any culture. The history of those in charge, those who win the wars, is well-documented, and moviemakers have a responsibility to present a piece of its larger narrative, to shine a light on the individuals who make a society.

Esperpento, which translates to “the deformation of reality,” was created by Spanish playwright Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, who, while walking home one night, passed the Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid, and encountered warped mirrors which deformed his face. “To him that was the only way to represent Spain’s reality. Spain is a deformed reality within Europe, and we must exaggerate characters, make them grotesque.” It is within this spirit of esperpento that Berlanga’s black-comedies work so well. An alternative to the subtle character drama model prevalent in American independent cinema, the use of exaggerated characters can work miracles for moviemakers who seek amplify the impact of their film’s social commentary.

Amadeo (José Isbert), José (Nino Manfredi) and Carmen (Emma Penella) scramble to retain the rights to a state-run apartment—a dilemma that leads José to take a vacant job as an executioner. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

The Takeaway

In the hour-long documentary, Caimán Cuadernos de Cine Director Carlos F. Heredero speaks on how during production, Berlanga never considered the implications of how long to hold a certain take or what a wide shot here conveyed versus going with sequence shots. Instead in all of these situations, he relied on his gut. Moviemakers can learn a lot from this concept: Surround yourself with talented people who share your vision, who complement it with their collaborative inputs and then trust your instincts.

Whereas screenwriter Rafael Azcona held a greater taste for black comedy (which he merely considered to be realism), Berlanga balanced this by portraying Spaniards with “tenderness and ferocity.” Later known for lensing many expansive Western vistas, cinematographer Delli Colli was challenged to navigate around the claustrophobic interiors of Berlanga’s oppressive Spain. If your mission is to collaborate on a political satire with regional specificity, be sure to strive for global resonance as well, so that other cultures can still relate to its message during other moments in history. This can be accomplished through a number of different methods, but perhaps the one most failsafe is one that empathizes with characters from a humanist perspective. Enduring artists, like Berlanga, achieve a timelessness that is site-specific yet universally poignant. MM

The Executioner was released by Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD October 25, 2016.

Other titles in Criterion’s October line-up:

A long-awaited Blu-ray edition of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman’s snowy “anti-western” that examines how the personas we don reflect who we truly are (our Crash Course here)//Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro, a lavishly designed Blu-ray and DVD box set with a deluxe hardcover book that includes writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantastical trilogy of Spanish-language features: CronosThe Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (our Crash Course here)//A new stand-alone Blu-ray and DVD edition of Guillermo del Toro’s haunting, fairy tale-fashioned allegory of Franco-fascist Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth//Ermanno Olmi’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an engrossing snapshot of rural Italian life at the turn of the 20th century//Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 12-year-spanning narrative of one boy’s journey through early childhood and adolescence, and a Blu-ray edition of Robert Altman’s multi-segmented adaptation of Raymond Carver stories, Short Cuts.

Criterion Giveaway: Every week, we’re giving away a different Criterion title to one lucky winner. To enter the draw, all you have to do is subscribe to our newsletter! Full instructions here, and follow @moviemakermag on Facebook and Twitter for announcements on every week’s title.

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