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The Face of Evil

by David Tosco, Director
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2006
52 mins., col. / b&w
Sales: $390; rental/VHS: $100
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art
University of Northern Iowa
Website: www.bobolinkbooks.com


This is a fascinating film about physiognomy, the study of people’s outward appearances (facial features, in particular) for the purpose of learning more about their inner qualities, such as their personality traits. There is a long tradition of this, tied largely to superstition, going back at least to Ancient Greece, a tradition that has often merged with other interpretive pseudo-sciences, such as phrenology, palm reading, graphology, eugenics and anthropometrics. The focus of this film is on certain misguided efforts by sociologists, criminal prosecutors and others to catalog literal "earmarks" among those whom they believed to be "born criminals," "inferior races," and other "degenerates"–to define, as foretold by its title, "the face of evil." This subject is not merely historical. It has once again come to the forefront because of the screening policies of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies at airports or in traffic stops (the current term is "racial profiling"). As is too soon forgotten, it is a threat to human rights for any society to assume that a "terrorist," "drug dealer" or "child molester" can reliably be spotted by his or her appearance. The Nazis thought otherwise, as this film discusses in detail: In 1943, the German police arrested Bruno Ludke, a semi-literate, feeble-minded peasant whom they accused of necrophilia. During extended periods of police interrogation, it was claimed that Ludke had confessed to 51 separate murders (committed over a period of 20 years), making him the worst serial killer in history. Emboldened by what they considered to be brilliant crime solving, and aided by their adroit use of physiognomic stereotypes, the authorities continued to interrogate Ludke, in response to which he allegedly confessed to and then acted out, at the various crime scenes, the details of various murders. Yet he was never prosecuted. Instead, Ludke was adjudged insane and committed to a hospital. During his confinement, numerous photographs were taken and measurements made (including a live plaster cast of his entire head) of his mental and physical features. In 1944, while still confined, he purportedly died by injection in the process of being subjected to medical experimentation. This film is strengthened by its use of interviews with criminologists, sociologists, historians and, last but not least, Ludke’s relatives. Its effect is also heightened (be warned, it is not always easy to watch) by excerpts from a German documentary about the Ludke case, vintage photographs and film footage, and a clutch of gruesome artifacts. At the film’s end, one does not know for certain if Ludke was guilty or innocent of the murders (whether one or more)–nor can one stop from thinking about the truthfulness of statements made under torture and intimidation, as is in fashion once again.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2007.)



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