A meal for the condemned
On January 1, 1976, Sweden abolished
capital punishment for all
crimes committed during wartime,
some 55 years after doing the same
for crimes during peace time. While
most nations considered "firstworld"
countries have taken similar
measures over the course of the last
century, many other states still practice
execution--the United States included.
For Swedish artist and filmmaker Lars Bergström, the absurdity of the death penalty in the modern era, and the rituals which surround it, warranted further exploration. In his film, The Last Supper, Bergström explores the history, implications and institutionalization of the final hours and last meal of condemned prisoners.
Bergström, who screened the film before a large audience in Lovejoy 215 on Tuesday, February 24, considers his work a form of "video art" in that it was produced with text instead of voiceovers to avoid "a documentary feeling." The film exposes the audience to a variety of interviews, still images, text and a number of staged sequences-- such as sausage links arranged in the shape of a noose and lines of soiled underwear with executed inmates names' on them. These absurd images, according to Bergström, are intended to make the viewer think critically about the fact that so much of the execution process is sickeningly institutionalized, as represented by this type of dark humor.
To produce the film, Bergström researched the history of last meals, and traveled around the globe to chronicle final suppers of the condemned in different societies. While this certainly painted a broad and diverse picture of the way in which these last rites have been bastardized and manipulated across time and cultures, the essence of the film lies in the inhumanity of the execution process. In some historical instances, the last meal was a religious rite, whereas other penal systems have used it as an extension of the punishment.
One rather sickening example involved a Burmese practice, in which the daughter of a family who was executed for plotting against the ruling power was forced to eat fried slices of her own skin as it was shaved off her day after day until she too succumbed to death.
According to Bergström, the last meal now serves primarily to palliate the process of execution for both the condemned and society as a whole. The last supper choice plays a dual role in both giving those who are about to die a final moment of choice, while also playing part in a bigger mechanism of dehumanization before death, including changing of the clothes and shaving of the head.
This duality is "part of a process designed to make the condemned man more willingly accept his fate." The ingredients of the last supper itself are then reported to the public in order to make the sequence seem "intimate...but not too intimate."
Though the film explores many aspects of execution and last suppers, the overall message--that these practices are archaic, barbaric and absurd--remains clear throughout.
The hypocrisy of it all is best captured by former inmate and death row chef Brian Price, who explained that when an inmate is executed, the state of Texas writes "homicide by order of the people of Texas" on the death certificate, highlighting the culpability of the public and the fact that, as Price said, "brother...that's just murder by another name."