According to Spanish writer-director Agustí Villaronga, the idea for his combustible 1987 debut feature In A Glass Cage came from the case of Gilles de Rais, an early 15th-century Breton knight who served alongside Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years’ War, and spent his retirement killing children. Rais’ victims numbered as high as three digits, and accounts of his specific abuses before they were put to death are so shocking as to be beyond comprehension. Yet Villaronga, in an effort to give the story more contemporary resonance, changed his Rais figure to an ex-Nazi doctor in exile—and with that, the film added some baggage that his disquieting psychological thriller can’t quite carry. Poised between a grim treatise on human depravity and high-art exploitation, In A Glass Cage has left behind a potent enough residue to keep resurfacing in the culture—including this new two-disc DVD/Blu-ray set—but its insights don’t measure up to its provocations.
Rather than bury the lede, In A Glass Cage opens with its ex-Nazi doctor (Günter Meisner) now hiding in Spain, taking a 2-by-4 to the ravaged body of an underage boy hanging from the ceiling of his underground torture chamber. He tries to commit suicide afterwards by jumping from a tower, but his “accident” leaves him paralyzed and he relies on an iron lung to breathe. His spiteful wife (played by the great Marisa Paredes, pre-All About My Mother) nearly pulls the plug on him herself, but when a mysterious young “nurse” (David Sust) arrives to tend to him, her suspicions are (rightly) aroused and she tries futilely to protect him. Using Meisner’s old concentration camp journals as a user’s guide, Sust sets about tormenting him by reenacting his scenarios of abuse and death.
The nature of the young attendant’s connection to Meisner is revealed slowly, but the essence of Villaronga’s message is clear from start: Abuse begets abuse, the past is doomed to repeat itself, etc. Limiting the action almost entirely to Meisner’s creaky estate, Villaronga whips up an atmosphere of intense foreboding and psychosis, shooting in a cold blue-gray palette and flooding the soundtrack with an oppressive ambient hum. Despite the film’s scandalous reputation, most (though not all) of the violence and aberrant sexuality is implied, but the associations between Nazism, pedophilia, and homosexuality stir up a toxic brew, especially in service of what amounts to a moody psychological thriller. There’s no doubting Villaronga’s meticulous craft, but In A Glass Cage is careless where it counts.
Key features: The film’s recent theatrical revival in New York yields two interview features with Villaronga, including an awkward Q&A at Lincoln Center. The second disc also includes three Villaronga short films.