Reviewer biography

The Face of Evil

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

Reviewed by Fred Andersson


Hopefully, Cécar Lambroso’s old theory of the “born” criminal with an innate disposition for evil is thrown once and for all on the trash-heap of history. But one should remember that it was not long ago that criminology and “racial biology” shared a common interest in the classification of human physiognomies. In this documentary, David Tosco takes as his point of departure the case of the German Bruno Lüdke. This young and supposedly slightly retarded man, poor and unable to defend himself, was accused of more than 50 murders and executed without a proper trial. This was in wartime Nazi Germany, but even after the war, the myth of the “monster” Lüdke continued to grow. The allegedly “true story” of his life and crimes was turned into a movie that became a great success. The movie was called Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (Eng., The Devil Strikes at Night).

Tosco shows us excerpts from The Devil Strikes at Night and some documents that give an outline of the man behind the myth and the real circumstances of his destiny. Special attention is given to the photographs that were taken of Lüdke during the investigation, and the casts that were made of his head in order to serve as material for Phrenological examination. These documents are contextualized by means of broad historical references to the role of photography in anthropological research and the development of the strange “science” of Phrenology from the work of Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828, called “François” in the film) and other theorists. However, David Tosco doesn't stop at only the historical notions of “the face of evil,” but also extends his narrative into the science and society of our own time. He also introduces us to Lüdke's present-day relatives and their struggle to reopen his case to get him rehabilitated — a struggle that has hitherto proved unsuccessful, despite the fact that no proof has ever been found of Lüdke's guilt.

This is an informative and challenging film that has already been shown at a number of important TV-channels throughout Europe. What I personally find especially valuable is Tosco's ambition to throw light on unresolved questions and unsettled conflicts that tend to reappear in today's debates on crime and criminology. The belief that killed Lüdke — i.e. the belief that evil has a face and that a criminal can be recognized on purely physiological grounds — is an extreme variant of a more vague and widespread belief, namely that the very core of the so called “social heritage” is of a biological nature. At the end of the film, the sociologist Robert J Lilly speaks in length about this belief and its reappearance in research and politics since the Eighties. And Lilly concludes that with the means for visual documentation and surveillance that we have today, the registration of allegedly “criminal” faces is more extensive than ever.