The Hangman's Daughter


This English edition of "The Hangman's Daughter" is Lee Chadeayne's translation of "Die Henkerstochter", by Oliver Potzsch. The mystery's last chapter is titled "A Kind of Postscript", where Potzsch describes how he is a descendent of the real-life Kuisl executioner family. He uses the names of a real forebear for his protagonist, Jakob Kuisl, the offical town hangman, and Jakob's immediate family. Though Potzsch has researched the life and times of a Bavarian hangman and the town he lives in, this particular storyline, murder and other characters are fictional.

This is very interesting stuff. As is made clear in the novel, executioners were necessary for carrying out legal death sentences, but they and their families were shunned outcasts. They pretty much married only within other executioner families. In addition, executioners were the torturers back when a confession through torture was the legal method of determining guilt. Humans have unlimited ability to rationalize anything. So a suspect is tortured until she confesses to the crime. She is not guilty until she confesses. The torture continues until she confesses, after which she is put to death, or until she dies from the torture without confessing. The moral of the story is, don't make anyone mad enough to blame you for something.

This segues into Inquisitional torture. It wasn't just the church that held trials for accused witches. Anybody could claim injury from a witch, and the secular authorities held their own trials for witchcraft. This is certainly what happened in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials.*

And this is what happens in "The Hangman's Daughter". A midwife is accused of witchcraft and murder. Jakob Kuisl must legally torture her for the politically expedient guilty verdict the village council desires. However, Jakob doesn't believe she's guilty, and takes it upon himself to find the real murderer. The mystery takes place in Schongau, a village in 1659 Bavaria (there was no German state yet). I'm not sure when Bavaria outlawed legal torture, but I'll take Potzsch's word for it that it survived in Bavaria to this time.

I liked the characters in this book. Actions and reactions ring true, even if they are sometimes over the top. You have the super-practical Jakob who still has to get drunk the night before an execution. His daughter, cut from the same cloth. Simon, son of the local quack, who can't get any respect because he's into new-fangled medicine instead of bloodletting and purging. The court clerk, intelligent, but willing to cut any corner to avoid a scene in his town. The village burgomasters, running the gamut from young & idealistic to old & drunk.

I'm rating "The Hangman's Daughter" four stars for the plotting and characterization and five stars for the historical interest. It is a long book and can get just a bit wordy. Incidentally, don't let the occupation of Jakob Kuisl worry you. There is no graphic violence or even graphic language.

Though the accused in Salem were mistreated before sentencing, only one was technically tortured. Eighty-year old Giles Corey refused to enter a plea, as a protest against the court's mania. In an effort to force a plea, the court ordered that stones be piled on his chest until he couldn't breathe. It took him two days to die and he never entered a plea.

127 Hours: A Review

Aron (James Franco) is the loner with a penchant for extreme sports. He goes off hiking to Grand Canyon but a little accident causes his right hand to get trapped between a bounder and a solid rock wall. He tries to get it free and after five odd days with his food, water and energy out, he has no option but do the unthinkable – to try and cut his hand off before he slowly starves to death. 

It was easy for Godard to say what he did, but try making a film like that and you know how tough it is, especially to keep the audiences glued to the seats. Thankfully Boyle has many tricks he has used in delightful films like ‘Trainspotting’, ‘Millions’, ‘Sunshine’ and his Oscar winner ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. 

He uses multiple split screens, dreamy flashbacks, bright hallucinations, macro photography, film speed variation and quick zooms. He thus travels not just within and outside his imprisoned character, but into his past and future, while giving you a macroscopic view of his surrounding present. This heightens his incarceration and claustrophobia.

 It was definitely not an easy film to make, and it isn’t an easy one to watch. A few scenes will make you squirm so bad in your seat, as if you too are a prisoner there. Thankfully the Indian censors have been intelligent enough to let the scenes be. Without them the film would have lost its impact.

 James Franco proves himself to be an actor with reckoning. After the immature ‘Spiderman’ to the mature ‘Milk’, he transcends himself as the man trapped not just by a boulder but by his own selfishness. The 127 hours trapped by the side of the rock become his time to not just question his life but to find a possible resolution to it, a meaning.

 One thing Franco and Boyle tell us is to pause a while in our life, lest our life speeds past us. You don’t have to be trapped for 127 hours under a boulder or go to a 10-day silent Vipassana to do it. You can pause your life daily to reflect on it.

 ’127 Hours’ is a film, as Aaron discovers, about the choices we make in life. Your life is a sum total of your choices made or not made. And your entire past has conspired to bring you to this moment. For Aaron it is a moment that will lead to his death-trap. Obviously he regrets the choices he made that led him here.

 This 127 hours-long near-death experience leads him to inspect his entire life, and his motivations and through his hallucinations and desire to give up, he finds the strength to do the unthinkable to not just survive, but for once in his life, really live.

 
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