At Home & Through the Window

In Meanwhile, in the living room…, Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum document the moments leading up to the occupation of places designed for human habitation: a young couple in the throes of moving into a new flat subsidised by the authorities and their stroll around the area, the landscaped and paved and asphalted areas that have already been completed but have not yet been taken over by society.

These are fictitious yet possible constructions that record the regulation of public and private spaces by means of urban planning in the era of late capitalism and which have inspired the analysis that follows. Through the scenes in four films, we reflect on the family and the space it adopts as its own, the home and the role of the family institution in shaping the ever fragile and unstable boundaries between private space and public space.

No particular selection criteria were applied when choosing the films. On occasions, greater weight has been accorded to capricious factors, such as the way the film remains in the mind’s eye rather than the theme itself. Examples of American films, the cultural form that has wielded the greatest influence over modes of behaviour in the last 50 years, have been deliberately excluded.

The four films come from specific genres and contexts: the social critique of an allegorical nature in Mexico, with its sharp social inequalities, El ángel exterminador (1962, distributed in English under the title The Exterminating Angel); the biting satire of manners of El verdugo (1963, distributed in English as The Executioner and also known as Not on Your Life), set in poor Spain during the years when Franco was looking to achieve growth and development; the television series turned into a film, Secretos de un matrimonio (1973, distributed in English under the title Scenes from a Marriage), that blends light ironic melodrama with the existential torture of the Scandinavian welfare state at its height; and the humanist and poetical gaze of twilight socialist Poland in Amator (1979, distributed in English as Camera Buff). Despite these varied origins, all these films are framed within the same historical process, the process prior to the slide into the post-industrial era or late capitalism.

The conclusion of this final slide can be perceived in just one of these films, the only one in which a TV set appears: in Amator, Filip, the young amateur filmmaker, shows off his new camera on the night of the birth of his daughter, and shoots the end of the celebrations in his living room at home. His rapid panning around his friends ends up facing the television. The camera halts there, fascinated, unable to move while on the screen a pianist performs a piece of music.



Look, look at the camera”. Two girls, a man and a woman pose on a green sofa in front of the photographer’s camera while the voice of a journalist from a women’s magazine can be heard off-screen. Secretos de un matrimonio, by Ingmar Bergman, begins with this static image, the portrait of a nuclear family.

Needless to say, the image of the ‘ideal family’ crumbles over the course of the following two hours. In the following scene, Johan and Marianne, the bourgeois couple with a comfortable life, played by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, are having dinner at home with a couple of friends, Peter and Katerina. Johan is reading an article from a magazine aloud in a parodying tone of voice:

“Listen to how it continues: ‘Marianne has blue eyes that seem to shine from inside. If I ask her how she manages to combine home life and her career, she smiles to herself, as if she is hiding a sweet secret, and gives evasive answers. They get on very well together.’ And I agree with them. ‘There’s consensus, when he enters the room and sits on the pretty sofa that they inherited, her face lights up, he puts his protecting arm around her and she slides over towards him.’”

After the meal, they go out for a late-night drink at an elegant club. It’s not the drawing room with the green sofa, the papered walls from which hang portraits of venerable relatives from the 19th century. This other drawing room could feature, as ‘minimal style’, in any home décor magazine from the last 30 years. The large space is decorated in pale colours, while the furniture has straight lines and the lighting is muted. Sitting on two white sofas and drinking coffee and liqueurs, the two couples are dressed in such a way that is in perfect keeping with the setting. Suddenly, a bitter argument explodes between Peter and Katerina and the illusion of harmony is shattered.

In legal literature, the term ‘couple’ is associated with the term ‘family’ and is regarded as its natural precondition and legal foundation. As the guarantors of family stability, the parties to a marriage contract are required to have arrived at a degree of agreement1, which the journalist on the magazine for female readers, Secretos de un matrimonio, terms a consensus.

Consensus, however, like the very idea of stability that supports it, invariably invokes its opposite. In the opening minutes of the film, the petit-bourgeois couple, consisting of Johan and Marianne, seem in their portrayal to be the paradigm of the perfect married couple, with even their various occasional disagreements agreed in advance. Later, when Johan leaves Marianne for another woman, the conversations and confessions present a very different picture. This consensus is instead now built on the basis of silences, things left unsaid and small disappointments, all of them imperceptible flaws that are a feature of everyday existence and which do not lead to outright dissent but to something far worse2.


Filip returns exultant from the city: they are going to show his films on a TV programme about films made by amateurs. When he gets home, he finds Irene, who is pregnant again, packing her bags to leave him:

Filip: “But why now? Now that that things are beginning to work out. Now that I’m starting to understand what it all means. Now that my life is beginning to acquire a meaning. I wanted to do all this for you! Why now?”

Irene: “Because it’s not what I want.

Filip: “What do you want?”

Irene: “The same that you used to want. Peace and quiet in my life.”

Filip: “That’s not true. What’s happened is that you don’t love me.”

In Amator, dissent finds its way into the couple’s relationship and, as Irene comments elsewhere in the film, “everything collapses”, as the couple no longer bring “peace and quiet” to the family institution but instead the entire social corpus depends on them. In the Spanish Constitution of 1978, for example, the couple is presented as one of the fundamental pillars supporting “the political order and social peace”3. As Filip, the father, husband and creator of documentaries and fictional pieces, well knows, this ideal of peace and quiet is not easy to maintain but can only be achieved in the static, frozen moment of the family portrait with which Secretos de un matrimonio opens, in other words, a depiction4.


Filip gets back from the factory and tells his wife: “Do you know what they asked me? How had I managed to get everything I wanted? You, Irenka, the flat… I replied that it’s what I have always wanted and that when you set yourself a goal, you achieve it.”

Irene hugs Filip: “Perhaps because you are a good man. Maybe there is justice in the world.”

Before the abandonment, we see the intact image of the family and its private space, its home. The family home is the place that renders the institution of the family meaningful and is the physical expression of its longing for stability. Of the four films chosen in this analysis, only in two—Amator and El verdugo, the films that deal with working-class people and stories—does the house appear, and even then it is shown as a right or something that is given rather than as an achievement or the symbol of a rise in society.

Thus, in El verdugo, there is a long via crucis leading up to the moment that Amadeo receives notification that he has been granted a flat in a building especially for public employees constructed by the National Housing Institute. During the first part of the film, the viewer is given a tour of a whole host of miserable properties unfit for human habitation, a portrait of the extreme poverty in Spain in the post-war years5. In this early part of the film, we visit the basement that José Luis shares with his brother and his brother’s family, half home and half a tailor’s workshop, with the wheels of the cars going by at head height, and the residential block in which Amadeo and Carmen live, a block that is, as the concierge says, “a decent house” that an executioner is not worthy of, a house where bits of fabric and curtains serve as the walls.

Amadeo gets home out of breath. Carmen, his daughter, rushes out of the room in her petticoat: “Carmen, listen, we’re in a hurry, I’m ready now… They’ve given it to us, a beautiful flat, we have to go and see it. Look, look at this, three bedrooms, heating…”

Carmen: “The fact is that I love José Luis. He’s here, he wants to talk to you.” She lifts up a curtain and José Luis appears in his vest and underpants.

The news and the way it is given trigger the action that follows: a hurried wedding, the groom moves into Amadeo and Carmen’s home… On a sultry day, the father-in-law and the newly-weds visit the flat accompanied by the security man on the construction site:

Amadeo, once again out of breath, while Carmen, by now heavily pregnant, eats an ice-cream. José Luis exclaims with joy: “What light! What views!”

The guard, in wearied tone: “Third right.”

Amadeo: “It’s a room.”

The guard, ignoring the comment, points to the sole space between the reinforced concrete pillars and rattles off: “Kitchen, toilet, living-cum-dining room with outdoor terrace, one bedroom, another bedroom and another bedroom.”

Amadeo, plan in hand, turns to an empty space and says: “This one’s mine.”


José Luis: “And here’s the terrace. In summer, with a beer… Come and look, Amadeo, what a marvel!”

Amadeo: “Careful! You’ll break your neck!”

Their joy fades when a group of three women dressed in black and a pre-adolescent schoolboy, also dressed in black, appear with a note advising them that as relatives of a public employee, they too have been given the right-hand flat on the third floor. They all go down to the building administrator’s office and, amid shouting and protests between the two families, they establish that only if a relative takes the job that Amadeo is about to retire from will they be given the flat. José Luis refuses to countenance this, but eventually changes his mind in response to pressure from his family, the imminent birth of the child, the prospect of a steady income and the hope that there will be little opportunity to actually do the job.

Months later, when they are by now living in their new home, life is less ideal than it looked on paper. Carmen sighs: “It seemed so big.”


This phrase, which has entered common parlance, is a variant on the saying “the family that prays together stays together”, popularised by Father Peyton. This Irish priest, who emigrated to the United States, was the staunch advocate of saying the rosary. A man of profound faith, as well as an attentive observer of the rapid changes taking place in contemporary society, he began in 1947 to exploit the potential of the mass media (firstly radio and then later television) to spread the Catholic message and its values, social cohesion and family harmony6.

Religion, the “opiate of the masses”, thus reached into almost every home by the grace of television. And it was not long before the medium replaced the message as the great narcotic (in the Marxist sense of ‘alienation’). The sudden appearance of television sets in homes was one of the most decisive changes in social behaviour in the second half of the 20th century. On the one hand, it contributed to the gradual blurring of the public sphere and the private realm: the public entered the private space par excellence, the family home, through the room set aside for social intercourse, the living room, where visitors are received. On the other, it altered the modes of behaviour in the family unit. Thenceforth, the family gathered in the living room, not with rosary in hand but in front of the television. Family harmony was achieved through the shared passive experience7.

The opiate that families sighed for in socialist Poland was access to the consumer society. And television, which spewed forth incessant moving images, was both the window onto this longed-for world and its symbol. More than the element of cohesion-alienation of the family that watches television together stays together, television in Amator is a prized consumer item and an inalienable part of the family’s birthright.

The wife of the leading character in El obrero, the film by Filip that has just been shown on television, in the woman’s home, with a lithograph of the Holy Family in the background: “And tell me, why has your wife left you? You’re a famous man now.”

Filip: “I don’t know, to tell you the truth. Perhaps it’s for the best. She’s undoubtedly done what she had to do.”

The worker’s wife: “Did she take the TV set?”

Filip: “No.”

The worker’s wife: “Then she’ll be back. There’s no need for you to worry.”


In Amator and El verdugo, the protagonist is a young man who is weighing up two options, family life and the ‘other possible life’. José Luis saves up in order to emigrate to Germany, the land of opportunities and the promise of freedom (financial, political, sexual, etc.) in comparison with the poverty and repression of Franco’s Spain. However, the undertaker’s employee will end up surrendering, in the words of film director Luis García Berlanga, to “the elemental lures presented to him by circumstances and is thus subject to the clutches of a state of life that is not the one he would privately have wished for”: life en famille as a public employee.

In the two stories, sedentary life closes the doors to the boundless possibilities of nomadism; the definitive act of forming a family is interpreted as the renunciation of individual freedom. As faithful portraits of a period—when only husbands used to “go out to get cigarettes”—the leading characters are, unsurprisingly, male and their wives, at the opposite extreme, one of them an indolent whiner and the other a complaining, grieving victim, appear as a portrayal of the conservative forces that served the totalitarianism of “peace and quiet”.

During the difficult and unpleasant process of separation in Secretos de un matrimonio, Marianne, who works as a marriage lawyer, warns Johan that he will have to sell his boat as one of the tolls he will have to pay for abandoning the family home. This figure also operates as an allegory of renounced freedom in El verdugo:

José Luis travels to Palma de Mallorca with his entire family, wife, son and father-in law, in order to exercise for the first time. There, they enjoy their first developmental holidays.

On the deck of the ferry taking them back to the mainland, an extremely dejected José Luis, a knotted handkerchief on his head and surrounded by cages of noisy chickens, swears repeatedly, “Never again! Absolutely never again.”

Amadeo: “That’s just what I said the first time!”

While they are waiting for the ferry to depart, they stand on deck, watching a group of rich and beautiful young people dancing on the deck of a yacht to the rhythm of Guateque music. Another group arrives in a soft-top car, climbs on board and the yacht sets sail, carrying off the young dancers and the music, while the word FIN (end) appears on screen.

Filip, in contrast, has opted for freedom:

It’s the middle of the night and he and his friend Witek are drunk. Witek sings a song about returning home after victory and exclaims: “You are a genius. Six months ago, you had nothing. Now, you’re making films! You’re free!”

Filip: “How do you mean?”

Witek: “I mean, you’re on your own. You’ve escaped from Irka and the kid.”

Filip tries to punch Witek, but they are both too drunk.

Kieslowski’s film demonstrates that the business of life cannot be reduced to dichotomies along the lines of ‘individual freedom versus suffocating commitment’. A silent scene in the middle of the film shows us Filip returning home after a screening of his films at a festival in the city. At the station, he buys two magazines to read on the train. But he spends the entire journey watching the landscape through the window. Tired, he arrives home at night. Irene comes out to meet him. They embrace and begin to take off their clothes. Filip’s raincoat falls to the floor. The two magazines Film and Politika can be seen sticking out of the pocket. So begins the only love scene in the film, with a question on where the personal resides in the debate between aesthetics and politics.



If there is one aspect that characterises the inadequate housing shown by García Berlanga in El Verdugo, it is overcrowding. His subjects crowd rather than live together in the insalubrious, ill-lit and poorly ventilated living space that is their lot:

In the cellar-workshop that he shares with his brother and his brother’s family, José Luis complains while awaiting his turn to use the bathroom: “One of these days, I’m going to take half the furniture and just leave.”


His sister-in-law comes out of the bathroom with a crying child. José Luis makes as if to enter and the sister-in-law bitterly remonstrates with him.

José Luis: “Listen, I’m going to have a wash.”

Sister-in-law: “Washing’s not the problem. There are certain jobs that leave smells…”

The change brought about by the move to the flat on the right-hand side of the third floor is evident: now, at least, there are walls between the rooms. José Luis, who has become the model citizen (husband, father, son-in-law and public employee) thinks that at least there he will have accomplished one of his dreams, access to unlimited sex. The truth of the situation is very different, however, as every potential encounter with Carmen, a housewife constantly dressed in a petticoat, is thwarted by the arrival of others: the postman with an urgent telegraph, hammering on the door; the grandfather calling out for help from his small bedroom that has no outside window, the child that howls constantly, etc.

In El ángel exterminador, three high-society women get up in the morning in the drawing room of a grand townhouse which, for no apparent reason, they are unable to leave. They pass the time in light conversation. One of them talks about her recent trip to Europe and the terrible experience of a train derailment.

A young blonde woman remarks: “In my opinion, ordinary people, lower-class people, are less sensitive to pain. Have you ever seen a wounded bull? Impassive.”

Another blonde woman, though not as young, comments: “Well, I’m going to touch up my make-up. We all look a sight… but this is so amusing!”

With her argument, the young, blonde woman seems to suggest that it is the brutish character and lack of sensitivity of “ordinary people” that has made them deserving of the conditions that are their lot (extreme poverty, overcrowding, lack of privacy, etc.). The fact is that the comment is apt, though the cause and effect are quite the reverse: the reason why José Luis, Carmen and Amadeo are unable to enjoy any privacy is to do with class8.


Things end up changing, however, in the lives of José Luis and his family: paid holidays on Mallorca, a newly built flat, a job as a public employee…

Scene 1: Just after they have met for the first time, José Luis, Amadeo, Carmen and José Luis’ boss and his wife go on a picnic in the undertaker’s van. They park in a beauty spot alongside a reservoir, undoubtedly built as a result of Franco’s insatiable policy on water.

After the meal, Carmen and José Luis wander away from the older folk and begin to dance in the shade of a pine tree. In the background, music can be heard. They each talk about their plans. José Luis’ hand brushes Carmen’s breast by accident. They look at each other. José Luis removes his hand. Carmen stops him. Then: “If they want to dance, let them bring their own music”. An older couple wearing glasses wanders in and out of shot, angrily taking their portable transistor radio away with them.

Scene: During a visit to the flat while it is still under construction, José Luis measures the imaginary walls approximately with a piece of string. He goes out onto the balcony to rest and sees a young man at the foot of an embankment throwing something, a cigarette end, onto a pile of rubbish: “Hey, you’re in front of my house”.

Access to property goes hand in hand with a new relationship with the surroundings, which El verdugo exploits to the extremes of absurd humour: from now on, the owner will claim his private space at the expense of the public or communal space9.

It is now four in the morning and none of the 20 guests seem to want or to be capable of leaving the drawing room. Everyone is pretending that there is nothing strange going on.

Suddenly, the guest from the United States, who is more relaxed as regards customs and mores, takes off his jacket. The sophisticated host remarks to his adulterous wife: “Let’s stoop to his level to temper his impropriety”. And he too takes off his jacket.


A young woman feels unwell. Her older husband informs everyone that she’s pregnant. Another guest: “Are you sure the child is yours?”


The following day, another guest: “Do you think it normal that we should have spent the night in this room, flouting all the most elemental duties of etiquette, and that we should have turned it into a gypsy camp?”

A woman: “I think it highly original. I love things that are different.”

And with the arrival of bourgeois manners, decorum, that instrument of social control, makes its appearance in the space that best befits it, the drawing room. Buñuel turned the drawing room into the setting for the dismemberment of the codes of social intercourse, in which decorum and its opposite, obscenity, alternate in a random manner10.


Scene 1: Filip looks out of the window at the street. There are some labourers working: “Look, they’re digging up the pavement. And they’ll do it again a fair few times. I’m going down to film it.

His wife: “You can see it from here.”

Filip: “Of course! I need a tripod. A fabulous idea. Yes, it’ll be a documentary.”

Scene 2: Some days later, Filip is filming the same spot from the window. The pavement has now been fixed and nothing is happening. However, a couple of kids have placed two benches across the street and are playing tennis.

Until the end, when everything ends up collapsing, Filip’s world is presented in Amator as a small utopian cosmogony in which the various planes (work, leisure and family life) fit perfectly together. However, this utopian essay does not take as its model the structure of the socialist state. Filip’s world advances despite the determination of the socialist regime to regulate and control every aspect of the spaces where individuals work, spend their free time and live.

The first shot through the window, the classic image of the dictatorial regime that keeps up the illusion of full employment by dint of ditches dug out, filled in and then dug out again, reveals the control of spaces. The second shot shows the moment when individuals flout the imposed order though their subversion of the use of everyday spaces and objects. Here we have two consecutive stages: life as it is planned and life as it is lived11.

Witek, Filip’s friend, to other members of the film club: “We went there and we filmed what couldn’t be seen, you’re going to see what reality is… you’ll see the way things really are.”


The film in which ‘reality’ can be seen is shown on television. The factory boss and city leader call Filip and berate him. Filip: “You’re going to sack Osuch, an upright and honest man? Why? Because of my report? But it was you who was responsible for the façades not being painted. You don’t care if people live in pigsties so long as the exterior façade looks good.”

The boss: “The situation is more serious than you think. […] These things should not be aired in public… The life of a community cannot simply be exposed, open to public gaze. [..] Come, come here. Look at this landscape. An image that tells you that the world is beautiful. People live and love. These are things worth looking at. But with you, everything seems bleak and sad.”

Filip: “I see. The natural environment can be made public.”

The boss, a cynical representative of the regime, is clear: given the flaws in the system, the only possible way is to impose your control over individuals without any kind of compensation, because for the good of the community, the system cannot afford to be transparent (“everything by the people but without the people”) and constant readjustments, purges become necessary. And the purpose of art? To point the eye in the other direction, to show “the natural environment”. But Filip is not interested in fields of pasture with grazing cows. People do not “live and love” there but in the social space, the setting where the principles of individual freedom and collective responsibility oppose each other in permanent conflict.


The closing scenes of El ángel exterminador: the 20 guests manage to escape from their self-imposed imprisonment in the drawing room. On Sunday, they go to mass and repeat the same situation. Meanwhile, outside, the masses have taken to the streets and mounted police are shooting. There is revolt in the air.

And at the end of the film, the street, the open, untidy space occupied by the crowd that has no history, outside the drawing room, the regulated space in which hang portraits of the owner’s forebears.

Miren Jaio, 01-05-2012



1 “The spouses must respect each other and act in the interests of the family”, says Article 67 of Spanish Law 13/2005, popularly known as the Spanish law on homosexual partnerships that also permits ‘new family models’.

2 As a formula for harmonious co-habitation, consensus, one of the commonplaces and fetishes of social and political life in the social democracies in northern Europe, is ineffective in that it adulterates and quashes, though it does not resolve, any glimpse of dissent).

3 Inasmuch as institutions, matrimony and the family are, by their very nature, conservative and guarantee the status quo.

4 As an aside, Familia, the farce with which Fernando León de Aranoa began his career in 1997, takes this notion to extremes. Aranoa’s film opens on the morning of Santiago’s birthday and continues with the celebrations that follow. The viewer gradually becomes aware that the family normality is pure show and that Santiago’s children, wife and mother and his brothers and sisters-in-law are actors employed for the day by a man who does not want to spend his birthday on his own.

5 In Spain in the 1950s and 60s, shanty towns were a common sight on the ringroads around cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and Bilbao and were the most extreme form of inadequate housing. The Franco regime found a temporary and in many instances unsatisfactory solution to the problem in its policy on encouraging publicly and privately developed housing. Fifty years on, housing remains a social issue. However, rather than inadequate accommodation or a lack of housing, the problem is now to do with cost. High rents and sale prices have had an impact by delaying the age at which young people flee the parental nest. In recent years, local and central authorities have tried to solve the problem, in part at least, by developing subsidised housing, a situation that has changed the urban landscape, as shown in Meanwhile, in the living room…

6 Fifty years later, in the Internet era, the Catholic Church remains determined to control the private lives of believers: in 1997, John Paul II took up Peyton’s message in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae.

7 This image of members of the family sitting on the sofa watching the television in order to relate to each other via an interposed element, the television screen, has given rise to its own television genre with a mirror effect: the television viewer, sitting on the sofa, watching characters who are also sitting on a sofa, watching him while also watching the television. Examples of the genre include Married… With Children, The Simpsons and Beavis & Butthead, all aimed at a particular type of viewer, the passive, brutish viewer, the couch potato.

8 The entry into the post-industrial era or the epoch of late capitalism in the following decade coincided with a sea-change in north American films. It was then that the violent invasion of the private space of the middle classes began with A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and Straw Dogs, directed by Sam Peckinpah, both of which were made in 1971.

9 The Hobbesian social contract and private property as a right guaranteed by that contract laid the foundations for communal space’s loss of meaning at the end of the Modern Age. Centuries later, when the public space is largely understood as a space for representation, it is interesting to observe phenomena such as the botellón [congregations of mainly young people drinking in the street at night, now declared illegal in many of Spain’s large cities] and its championing as a communal forum in the public space. These phenomena sharply reveal the way the public space is treated: criteria to do with property rights [usage and exploitation] are applied to it, but there are no counter-balancing communal duties to preserve or maintain it.

10 In the era of late capitalism, when nothing is public or private any more [as rendered sharply evident by the sensationalist press and its determination to make the private lives of public figures public], the categories of ‘decorous’ and ‘obscene’ no longer work.

11 The all-encompassing and hence failed dimension of every determination to systematise spaces and make them normative, transcends the dirigiste policy of socialist regimes and can be extrapolated to any form of urban planning.

12 “In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx understood this; to be free in a post-revolutionary world, he wrote, is to overcome the need for order.” Sennett, Richard: Vida urbana e identidad personal, Ediciones Península, Barcelona, 2001.