Death and the Maiden crashes in on the listener as Schubert begins the first movement, “Allegro”, with a startling fortissimo. Ariel Dorfman starts the play with the same foreboding ambiguity, revealing reaction without yet delivering the intention. The audience only at first perceives a clearly vexed woman with a gun, advancing with an air of paranoia throughout her dark home as she observes a muffled conversation outside. What they cannot see is a dark, gripping past of torture from a dictatorial military regime, which has led her to be untrusting and anxious when an unfamiliar car pulls into her driveway. They don’t see a woman fighting to repress torturous memories because no one sees that. We see a psychologically deranged woman with a gun in her hand.
The first act progresses, littered with clues that never seem to come together cohesively to explain the actions of the characters. The film echoes this same equivocality in the first few scenes, but progresses much more quickly in tension and coherence. Polanski’s cinematographic entrance into the home of Paulina Escobar, played by Sigourney Weaver, forces the audience into the house so that they feel as if they are intruding, but desperate to leave the cold rain outside. The audience finds themselves placed into the home of someone with whom they are entirely unfamiliar, witnessing a curiously tenuous interaction between a woman and her husband. At first it seems to be a common fight between a married couple, and Paulina is perceived as an ordinary apprehensive wife. This first scene continues to fluctuate between tension and tenderness as the audience relates to the classic emotional push-and-pull love games between Paulina and Gerardo, without knowing the circumstance of their relationship.
The mood quickly shifts to a pianissimo triplet figure, establishing the violently oscillating elements that resonate throughout the entire piece. The work transitions irresolutely from lyrical harmony to a “Sturm und Drang” quality through each of the movements. The characters each take their turn at tormenting and testing the egos of the others. Paulina and Gerardo find ways to blame each other for trivialities while maintaining a level of innate affection, which momentarily eases the listener before again agitating into a storm of accusations and anguish. Paulina’s emotions remain in uncertainty as the audience witnesses her seemingly irrational robbery and destruction of the car of the man who helped Gerardo earlier that night when he was stranded with a flat. “The question of whether the man Paulina promptly ties up and threatens with a gun really is her torturer remains fascinatingly ambiguous, and the anguish of her husband, torn between love of his wife and the desire for the due process of law.”
Her overreactions to the visitor appear at first entirely bizarre until the audience discovers her suspicion that the man was the same doctor who raped her repeatedly when she was interned by the government. The audience is momentarily sympathetic and understanding, until they realize her unjust accusations and conclusive indictment of Doctor Roberto Miranda through the eyes of the lawyer. The sudden changes in temper throw the audience into moral uncertainty as they begin to question the system of justice. “The second movement is responsible for the nickname of this quartet, “Death and the Maiden,” since it is a set of variations on…