A surreal commitment to Stalinism

Román Gubern and Paul Hammond’s excellent new biography of the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel reveals the reactionary impulses behind his anarchical facade.

James Heartfield

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Filmmaker Luis Buñuel made a name for himself, along with the painter Salvador Dali, overthrowing the rules of filmmaking with surrealist masterpieces like Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or (meaning ‘Age of Gold’, it also sounds like ‘Large Door’ in English). These were followed by avant-garde films like That Obscure Object of Desire and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. But until now, Buñuel’s work in Spain, and for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), has been largely unknown. Román Gubern and Paul Hammond’s brilliant and exhaustive new book, Luis Buñuel: The Red Years, 1929 – 1939, fills in the gap.

Surrealism was dismissed in Britain for many years. Un Chien Andalou was very rarely screened: the surest way to ‘see’ it was by listening to the singer and critic, George Melly, retell every one of its series of nightmarish scenes. The surrealists overturned the symbolic meaning of things, bringing together jarring images in their wilful disruption of aesthetic beauty and meaning. Nowadays it is commonly understood that this was the most interesting movement in modern art and it’s a shame that the surrealists’ ideas were diluted down to homoeopathically small doses in Pop Art and, later, in the works of the Young British Artists. As a result, surrealism has lost its shock value. In their day, and to their delight, the surrealists’ work caused outrage, just as dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (a urinal signed ‘R Mutt’) had a few years earlier. By contrast, today, visitors to Tate Modern in London, where the urinal is on permanent display, walk reverentially around it, as if it were a holy relic.

The surrealists set out to wage war on bourgeois respectability. The movement was bound up with the growing social revolution that challenged the capitalist order in the early twentieth century. According to Buñuel’s collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, ‘the real desire was not aesthetical, but social; revolutionary. It was a revolutionary movement. They were young and they really wanted to change the world, using scandal, provocation, poetry, dark explorations of the mind as weapons.’

‘Of course it was a chimera’, Carrière goes on to say, ‘but that was the point’. Gubern’s and Hammond’s book shows that the surrealists’ goal of revolutionising society brought them into alliance – and then conflict – with the Communists who put themselves at the head of the revolution.

Both Buñuel and Dali were latecomers to surrealism. As students in Madrid they, along with poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, were thrilled by stories of the outrageous anti-art movement led by Luis Aragon and André Breton in Paris. Buñuel wangled a job with the League of Nations’ cultural department in Paris and stalked the surrealists at their favourite cafés. He made little impact, though. His friends were already noted talents in painting and poetry so Buñuel sought out jobs in the new cinema industry.

Between them, Buñuel and Dali worked up the extraordinary scenario of Un Chien Andalou – with its remarkable opening sequence of a girl’s eye cut open with a razor (they cut from the actress to a dead calf, shaved and made up, Gubern and Hammond tell us, to get the effect). Each vetoed any image that the other came up with if it seemed predictable. Their aim was to impress the cliquish surrealists – and it worked. The surrealists had already made quite an impact and the film’s reception boosted their reputation still further.

The revolutionary wave that swept the world at the close of the First World War, going furthest in autocratic Russia where the Tsar was overthrown and the first Workers’ and Peasants’ Government was founded, added to the feeling that the old order was falling apart. All over the world, radical agitators and working-class militants gathered in Communist parties inspired by the new Soviet Union to overthrow capitalism. Their declaration of intent, though, isolated them. As the European revolution ebbed, the Communists became more defensive and more conservative. Hoping above all to save the Utopia in Russia (and unwilling to accept that it had descended into a dictatorship), the Communists mobilised workers to lobby for a better life and increasingly struck a conservative note, decrying capitalist ‘decadence’ and immorality. The great cultural experiments of the Soviet Union in the 1920s gave way to deadening formulae, first of a stodgy ProletCult, and then of a cod-classical Socialist Realism. For the surrealists reaching out to this wider movement, the Communists’ cultural conservatism was confusing.

The surrealists were called into the Communist headquarters in Paris to be told ‘by a comrade from Agit-Prop’ that ‘Surrealism was a movement of bourgeois degeneration’ (similar accusations were made by George Orwell against Dali and by Georg Lukacs against Ernst Bloch). Breton took the point, writing: ‘I don’t want to provide any fodder for aristocrats and bourgeois, I intend to write for the masses … even if it means abandoning surrealism.’ Here, the best and most prophetic lines are Dali’s in a letter to Buñuel (although the impact is undermined somewhat by Dali’s later sucking up to the Fascist Franco) : ‘[T]he mere fact of becoming a member of the Communist Party nullifies all trace of intelligence in individuals like Aragon and you… Today, everything is violently censured by the Stalinists, who are preparing the most chaste, backward society history has ever known: playing draughts, physical culture and so-called wholesome natural love(!).’

Down with the reactionary, bourgeois optimism of the Five Year Plan! Long live Surrealism!

Dali got the key point about the dramatic, but instrumental, films coming out of the USSR: ‘It isn’t a question of artistic errors… The films, the proletarian literature shit, etc, etc. These are films and works with a message, with an aim that’s exclusively to do with propaganda.’ Buñuel understood the criticism, but he did not share the political judgement. As Gubern and Hammond have painstakingly uncovered, Buñuel was not just a fellow traveller but an enthusiastic member of the Communist Party, in spite of the strictures against ‘decadent art’.

The decade that Gubern and Hammond have lit up for us is one in which Buñuel worked hard for Estudia-Proa Filmofóno, the distribution and later production company. The company, which was probably set up with the help of the Comintern agent Willi Munzenberg, distributed Soviet films – and Disney shorts – in Spain. For its director, Ricardo Urgoiti, Buñuel dubbed foreign films and made many melodramas, often from the popular plays of Carlos Arniches. They included the weepie Juan Simon’s Daughter. These films were workmanlike, but hardly the arthouse cinema that Buñuel’s early shorts promised – and they were not credited to him, either. One early collaborator explains that Buñuel ‘agreed to work in Filmofóno out of friendship for Ricardo Urgoiti but didn’t want to sign the films, since it would have put an end to his fame as an enrage avant-gardist’.

These works, on closer examination, have lots of the unsettling juxtapositions and sadistic and predatory themes that mark Buñuel’s better-known work, though they are for the most part unremarkable. ‘I produced various Arniches films to amuse myself and to earn money’, Buñuel explained. He also used his time to become a master of the economy of time, planning out his filming in meticulous detail so that he used less film stock, fewer days and less money than other directors.

One project that Buñuel did put his name to was Land without Bread, a striking protest against the poverty of the mountainous northern region of Spain. The film fits many of the canons of social realist cinema, though Gubern and Hammond argue that there are many touches that are so melodramatic that they are more surreal than realist. The film’s social protest message is in keeping with the Spanish Communist Party’s marked hostility to the Spanish Republic before 1936, when its favoured slogans were ‘Down with the Bourgeois Republic!’ and ‘For a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government!’. The Communists praised Buñuel for Land without Bread, and for leaving behind the ‘complicated intellectualism’ of his earlier work. The Republic banned it, saying it was bad for Spain’s image.

In 1936, everything changed. The Socialist and Communist left won the elections and were even granted some ministerial posts in the government. The military launched its Fascist revolt against the Republic, which was quickly put down in Spain, before regrouping in Morocco to open its three-year fight to destroy democracy. The Communist Party became the chief defender of the ‘Bourgeois Republic’, which meant that Land without Bread remained banned. In the first days of the defeat of the Fascists, working-class Spaniards let rip their hatred of the landlords and the church, seizing land and smashing up churches while often disinterring the buried priests and saints. Spain had many anarchists and a tradition of Jacqueries that went back, not just to the Tragic Week at the end of the 1909 Rif War, but right back into the nineteenth century. As well as the Socialists and Communists, the anarchists had the Iberian Anarchist Federation and there was also the anti-Stalinist Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). These radical groups got a greater hearing when workers and peasants were dissatisfied with the cautious measures followed by the Socialists and Communists in government.

Buñuel, though, followed the Communist Party line and supported the Republic from 1936 onwards. Adopting that more defensive tone, Buñuel was alive to the ironic distance between his reputation as a filmmaker and his caution about the unfolding insurrection: ‘With the war in Spain everything we’d thought about, at least everything I’d thought about, became reality: the burning of convents, war, killings, and I was scared stiff, and not only that, I was against it. I’m a revolutionary, but revolution horrifies me. I’m an anarchist, but I’m totally against the anarchists.’

More than just defending the Republic, Buñuel filmed for newsreels and, in time, went to France to work as publicist, diplomat and even spy for his government. As Gubern and Hammond make clear, in politics Buñuel’s actions were always in keeping with the Communist line, defending the Republic against its more radical critics from 1936 until the Fascist victory in 1939. Though Buñuel thought little of the Arniches melodramas he made for Filmofóno, the most successful, Centinela, Alerta! played for 42 weeks in the besieged Madrid, making it the most popular film in Spain at the time.

The two ideals of Stalinist Communism and surrealist experimentation were unhappily married in Buñuel’s subsequent life. Unable to work in an increasingly McCarthyite America, Buñuel slowly rebuilt his reputation as a filmmaker, once again toiling in the mines of cheap melodramas to work up the credit and skills to make the films he wanted to make. Los Olvidados (‘The Forgotten’) took up the cause of street children and won the Grand Prize at Cannes. But it was so disturbing and lacking in redemption that Buñuel’s Communist friends attacked it. Still, he kept up his old friendships with Spanish Communists and Republicans, many of whom were exiled in Mexico. He even visited Ramón Mercader, the Spanish Communist jailed for assassinating Stalin’s greatest Marxist critic, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico. Only much later did Buñuel distance himself from the regime in the Soviet Union.

Does it matter for Buñuel’s art that his politics were compromised? It would have if he had let it, but in the main things, his pushing on with the surrealist struggle against the obvious and beautiful led to some of the most striking and inventive films and a much greater self-consciousness of the meaning of filmmaking itself.

Spike Jonze, Pedro Almodóvar, Penny Woolcock, Charlie Kaufman, Guillermo del Toro and Werner Herzog are all indebted to Buñuel. If anything, Buñuel’s plebeian and rather personalised goading of the well-to-do in The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, as well as his glee in anti-clericalism and the All Fools Day mob of Viridiana and Los Olvidados, show how he used his social views to dissolve the conventions of film and storytelling, while refusing the mediocre resolutions that were so typical of the mainstream.

Gubern and Hammond have done a great job disinterring the hidden Buñuel from Filmofóno’s back catalogue and many other unexpected sources.

James Heartfield‘s most recent book is The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909, published by Hurst and Columbia University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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