Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth is many things all at once: A film about the Franco regime at the end of the Spanish Civil War, a fairy-tale film (a sort of gloomy counterpart to Alice in Wonderland in many ways) as well as a horror movie that is actually a film about the horror of two mutually-dependent worlds.

The gloomy atmosphere in the Pan’s Labyrinth’s dream sequences were influenced by drawings by the illustrator, Arthur Rackham, and Francisco de Goya’s Black Paintings. The images in the painting cycle – all marked by an impressive and fairly gruesome undertone – belong to the Spanish painter’s late period. He painted all 14 pictures on the walls of his villa near to the city of Madrid. The pictures were created from 1820 onwards; the choice of motifs, the expressive style and colour palette with dark, earthy tones can be traced back to Goya’s experiences of the Napoleonic Wars and loss of his hearing. The motifs of the Black Paintings depict grim beings with distorted faces, immeasurable suffering and demonic anguish: “From the slimy-dirty plasma of the colouring material, the broad brush produces rudimentary, swollen bodies and larva-like facial features imbued with formlessness.” (Hofmann 2003)1

Saturn Devouring His SonFrancisco de Goya: Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823   Public Domain

Saturn Devouring His Son is certainly the best known work of the Black Paintings. It depicts the Greek-Roman myth of Saturn (Titan Cronus in Ancient Greek), who, fearing that he would be overthrown by one of his children, ate each one upon their birth Guillermo del Toro’s pale-man sequence is replete with thematic aspects of Goya’s paintings and also draws on colours and stylistic elements: “Goya was an obvious reference, specifically with regards to the character of the Pale Man. There is a scene in which the Pale Man bites the heads off the fairies. That comes straight from Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son.” (Del Toro 2006)

Two Old Men Eating SoupFrancisco de Goya: Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-1823   Public Domain

The stylistic elements found within the pale-man sequence, however, are not based on Saturn Devouring His Son, but rather on another Goya painting from the same period, Two Old Men Eating Soup (see Francisco de Goya under the Moving Paintings section). This painting may not be a direct thematic template, but its gloomy colours and lighting provide the ideal undertone for the scene. The painting depicts two unknown old men. While the man with the grotesque face holds a soup spoon in his hand, the hand of the other person is only resting on the soup dish. Both individuals gaze out of the frame, almost in expectation of a third individual. The backdrop is nearly fully black while ochre and brown hues predominate in the foreground. The underground vaults in Pan’s Labyrinth draw on both the colour palette of the picture, as well as its trenchant chiaroscuro illumination (see Etherington-Wright/Doughty 2011, 17).

Goya’s critical attitude to the horrors of the real world is also reflected in del Toro’s film. Pan’s Labyrinth is not a fantasy film, but first and foremost, a film chronicling the Spanish Civil War and the reign of terror of the Franco era. “Pan’s Labyrinth constantly blurs the lines between fantasy and reality; boundaries are dissolved. That which is real appears unreal. The beings in the parallel world, by contrast, as unreal as they may appear, influence the goings-on in the real world; they are anchored to it and manifest in the most varied ways. Dreams (or nightmares) and reality go hand-in-hand.” (Hofmann 2003)2

Painted sequencePainted sequence

The Pale Man in the fairy-tale world of Pan’s Labyrinth is a horrific monster resembling something we could expect to see in one of our worst nightmares. He threatens the young Ofelia in the dreamworld into which she has fled to escape the even grimmer reality of the fascist Franco regime: “The fascist Capitán Vidal is far worse. He is the true monster of the film – he slays, murders and tortures with a sadistic smile and leaves behind him a bloody trail of terror.” (Peters 2007)3

1 Original quote: „Jetzt holt der breite Pinsel aus dem schleimig-schmutzigen Plasma der Farbmaterie rudimentäre, verquollene Leiber und larvenähnliche Gesichtszüge hervor, die noch mit Formlosigkeit behaftet sind.“

2 Original quote: „Stets verwischt in Pans Labyrinth der Kontrast zwischen Phantasie und Realität, die Grenzbereiche werden aufgebrochen. Reales wirkt sich auf ‚Irreales‘ aus. Umgekehrt nehmen die Gestalten der Parallelwelt, so unwirklich sie auch erscheinen mögen, Einfluss auf das Geschehen der realen Welt, sie sind in ihr verankert und manifestieren sich auf unterschiedlichste Weise. (Alp-)Traum und Wirklichkeit gehen Hand in Hand.“

3 Original quote: „Viel schlimmer ist aber der Faschist Capitán Vidal. Er ist das eigentliche Monster des Films, das mit einem sadistischen Lächeln brandschatzt, mordet und foltert und eine blutige Spur des Schreckens nach sich zieht.“ (Peters 2007)

Etherington-Wright, Christine / Doughty, Ruth: Understanding Film Theory. New York 2011.
Del Toro, Guillermo: Pan’s people. In: The Guardian, 17.11.2006.
URL: (accessed December 2016)
Hofmann, Werner: Goya: Vom Himmel durch die Welt zur Hölle. Stuttgart 2003.
Lommel, Michael / Maurer Queipo, Isabel / Roloff Volker (Hrsg.): Surrealismus und Film: Von Fellini bis Lynch. Bielefeld 2008.
Peters, Harald: Lauter Wunder in „Pans Labyrinth“. In: Die Welt, 17.2.2007.
URL: (accessed December 2016)