A Fortnightly Review.
Salvador Simó, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
1h 20min | Animation, Biography, Drama | UK release 16 July 2020
By SIMON COLLINGS.
SALVADOR SIMÓ’S BUÑUEL in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, an 80-minute long animation, opens with a heated debate among a group of intellectuals in a Paris café. It’s the eve of the first screening of Buñuel’s second film, L’Age d’Or, co-written with Dali.
The topic under discussion is the relationship between art and politics. Can art bring about social and political change, and if so how does it achieve that? This was a crucial debate among Buñuel’s friends at the time. In the movie, we first see Buñuel when he is asked for his opinion on the issue. He is dressed as a nun, and seems not to have an answer.
The Surrealists had just split over whether or not the movement should align itself with the French Communist Party (PCF). The Surrealist leader André Breton believed it should, others could not reconcile their Surrealism with the PCF’s conservative cultural policies. Buñuel and Dali were two important new recruits for Breton’s faction. The films the two Spaniards co-wrote, Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), were seized upon by Breton as a way to enhance the credentials of his group. L’Age d’Or created a scandal, provoking a far-right group to ransack the cinema where the film was showing in Paris. In the ensuing public review of events, the film was banned for its radical anti-clericalism and assault on bourgeois values. The wealthy aristocrat, Charles de Noailles, who had financed L’Age d’Or, came close to being excommunicated by the Pope. In Simó’s film we see his mother pleading with the pontiff on her son’s behalf.
A further split in the Surrealist movement would occur in 1932, after the foundering of Breton’s attempts to form a collaborative relationship with the Communists. This time Buñuel sided with the anti-Breton group which included Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and the poet Pierre Unik. The café scene in Simó’s animation shows Unik taking an active part in the discussion. He would later collaborate with Buñuel on several film projects, including Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (English title: Land without Bread), the subject of Simó’s animation.
Following the café sequence, we see Buñuel at a public screening of L’Age d’Or, which is greeted by the audience with a mixture of violent denunciation and enthusiastic applause. After the film he’s approached by the cinematographer, Eli Lotar, who gives him a copy of an ethnographic study by Pierre Legendre called Las Jurdes: Étude de géographie humaine. This is the book on which Buñuel based his third film. Lotar later joined the team which Buñuel assembled to make the film.
These scenes, the café discussion involving Buñuel, the film screening, and Buñuel’s conversation with Lotar afterwards, lead us into a labyrinth of artifice. Buñuel was in fact in Hollywood, under a six-month contract with MGM, when L’Age d’Or opened to the public in Paris at Studio 28 on 28 November 1930. He had sailed for the USA at the end of the previous month and did not return to Paris until the start of May 1931. He learned of the scandal through telegrams and press reports.
SIMÓ’S FILM DRAWS on a graphic novel of the same title by the Spanish writer and animator Fermin Solis, first published in Spanish in 2008.1 Solis’ novel tells the story of the making of Las Hurdes and many of the scenes are carried over into the film Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, though in a revised order, sometimes substantially modified, and with many elements added.
Solis’ novel, for example, opens with the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Buñuel in a dream. She has the face of his mother. She shows him a giraffe and invites him to look inside it. When he presses one of the patches on the animal’s side it opens to reveal a nesting box occupied by an angry hen. This image then morphs into a nightmare in which Buñuel is surrounded by hens. In Simó’s film this sequence appears as one of a series of dreams Buñuel has while making the film, and it is given an added erotic dimension.
Las Hurdes was part-financed by a friend of Buñuel’s, the Spanish poet and anarchist Ramon Acín. In Solis’ narrative Buñuel is woken from the chicken nightmare by the hotel night porter telling him he has a call from Spain. It is Acín phoning to announce that he has just won the lottery. A flashback takes us to September 1932, with Acín and Buñuel in Paris walking the streets late at night in search of a café that’s still open, and debating issues of politics and art. The evening ends with Acín promising to fund Buñuel’s Las Hurdes project if he ‘wins the lottery’.
In Simó’s animation the night-time wandering is significantly shortened, and is transplanted to Acín’s home town of Huesca in Spain. The political discussions are reimagined as the film’s opening sequence in the café. Some sections of the graphic novel Simó doesn’t use, and there is much material which he adds. The novel ends with Buñuel explaining his intentions behind the film to a giant turtle. This is absent from the animation.
BUÑUEL’S LIFE BETWEEN his first trip to America in 1930 and the start of the Second World War has, until recently, received relatively little scholarly attention. This is a gap Román Gubern and Paul Hammond have done much to fill with their book Luis Buñuel: The Red Years 1929–1939. This meticulously researched study begins with a detailed reconstruction of the making and screening of Buñuel’s first two films, and the events surrounding the banning of L’Age d’Or, including Buñuel’s response from Los Angeles.
In chapter 9 of the book the two scholars provide a thorough account of the making of his third film. The territory of western Spain known as Las Hurdes was largely unknown until the early twentieth century when it became a by-word for primitive living conditions and abject poverty. Pierre Legendre’s research, published in 1927, was an important milestone in the scientific study of the region, attracting press coverage, and helping to prompt interventions by the government. The king, Alphonso XIII, twice visited the area, in 1922 and again in 1930, as part of a public-relations exercise designed to improve the image of the monarchy.
Buñuel was not the first cinéaste to conceive of making a documentary about Las Hurdes. In 1930 Yves Allégret (brother of the well-known film director Marc Allégret) travelled to Spain with the intention of making a documentary based on Legendre’s book. He was accompanied by his wife, Renée Naville, and the cameraman Eli Lotar. But the project ran into difficulties because of the volatile political situation in Spain. Viewed with suspicion by the authorities, because of their left-wing sympathies, the French visitors were told to leave the country.
It was this failed project, mentioned to Buñuel by either Allégret or Lotar, plus Buñuel’s previous knowledge of the area, which led to the making of Las Hurdes. It would be Buñuel’s only documentary, filmed on a shoestring budget in 1933, in the midst of the political turmoil leading to the civil war.
CENTRAL TO SIMÓ’S account of events is a conflict between Buñuel and Acín during the shoot. In Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, the filming of Las Hurdes becomes a kind of road-to-Damascus experience, a defining moment when, confronted with the omnipresence of death, Buñuel is transformed from a bourgeois individualist, preoccupied with his art and future fame, into a serious filmmaker committed to serving humanity. It is this transfigured Buñuel who is later reconciled with Acín when they share a glass of wine to celebrate the completion of the editing.
But this doesn’t accord with what we know of Buñuel from his writings and his letters. He was cynical from the start about avant garde ‘art’ films, as were his fellow Surrealists. In a short magazine piece, ‘The comic in cinema’, published in 1929, he eulogised the movies of Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton. ‘The equivalent of Surrealism in films can be found only in those films,’ he wrote, ‘far more surrealist than Man Ray.’2
By the time he filmed Las Hurdes, Buñuel was a member of the Spanish Communist Party, having joined in late 1931. From 1929 he had been wedded to the idea of Surrealism serving the revolution, as then espoused by Breton. Buñuel resigned from the Surrealists in 1932, after Breton’s falling out with the French Communist Party. Buñuel’s documentary was from the start intended to expose, in uncompromising terms, the poverty and misery of Las Hurdes.
Simó includes a section, based on Solis’ novel, in which Buñuel shows up one morning dressed as a nun, scandalising the local community. While it’s true Buñuel would in his early years sometimes don religious garb, a typical Surrealist prank, this episode in the narrative is another piece of invention. Gubern and Hammond make no mention of conflict among the people making the film. On the contrary they say: ‘In those days, notwithstanding their ideological differences, it was not unusual to come across collaborations between anarchists and Communists – two revolutionary groups, both of them enemies of the bourgeois Second Republic – all the more so if personal friendship intervened.’3
The Spanish academic Mercè Ibarz makes a similar observation in her contribution to Luis Buñuel: New Readings. She says: ‘Also unforgettable was the co-operation between the members of the crew, whose inevitably different attitudes and opinions would divide them during the war and subsequent dictatorship.’ Later she continues: ‘Unik and Lotar were communists and Acín and Sánchez Ventura were libertarians, but their militancy and differences did not prevent them from working together. Thus, Land Without Bread is a touching, intimate experience of what history tends to bury: collective co-operation.’4
FINANCIAL TENSIONS BETWEEN Buñuel and Acín are another aspect of the drama recounted in Simó’s animation. Buñuel is portrayed as being profligate with Acín’s lottery winnings, and is accused by Acín of departing from the agreed shooting script.5 In fact, Buñuel was well known for tight budgeting and he had a reputation for bringing projects in under budget. His correspondence with Charles de Noailles about the finances for L’Age d’Or show him to have been meticulous in his concern over costs. He completed this film well within the budget Noailles had made available.6 He displayed similar attention to financial control when he joined Filmófono in Madrid in 1935 as head of production, and indeed throughout his career.7
With limited film stock and only a month available for shooting the footage, Buñuel worked to a tight script, filming scenes which were staged with the cooperation of the villagers and based on themes suggested by Legendre’s book. In a talk he gave before a screening of the film to students at Columbia University, New York, in 1940, Buñuel said: ‘Generally, in making a documentary, one films not only those scenes that correspond to a preplanned scenario but also any scenes that arise spontaneously and might later be interesting for the final edit of the film. I was able to do none of that.’8
Mercè Ibarz, commenting on the unused footage from the film says: ‘The people of Las Hurdes were directed at every given moment, posing in front of Lotar’s camera in a way that repeatedly confirms the cooperative spirit of the film.’9
BUÑUEL AND UNIK began to work on the commentary for the film in July 1933, after they returned to Paris. They finished the script, written in French, in March 1934. Buñuel did the editing of the film late in 1933 in Madrid, working at his kitchen table using scissors and a magnifying glass. The first screening was in December 1933, at the Palacio de la Prensa, with Buñuel providing a live commentary. The film was promptly banned by the right-wing government because of its radical critique and anti-clericalism. It would be three years before Las Hurdes gained circulation as part of a propaganda exercise in support of a left-wing Republican government under attack from Franco’s Falangists.
At the time the filming took place, the Communists in Spain were opposed to the Republican government, and Buñuel’s film was critical of reformist efforts, represented by the school scenes in Las Hurdes where children are being taught to ‘respect the property of others.’ In 1935, with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the Communists’ policy changed to favouring an alliance with reformist parties in a ‘Popular Front’ against Fascism. During this period Buñuel re-wrote the commentary to Las Hurdes several times, and later added an epilogue to bring the film into line with the new directive: ’The misery you have just been shown is not without remedy,’ it begins. ‘Workers and peasants elsewhere in Spain have already succeeded in improving their conditions.’
Sonorisation of Las Hurdes took place in Paris in 1936, where Buñuel was working at the Spanish embassy, and the title was changed to Terre Sans Pain. It was in this French-language version that the film was finally released, in December 1936. The English-language version, Land Without Bread, would follow. The Spanish version (Tierra Sin Pan) was shown only once in Spain during the civil war.
THE AIM OF the film, Buñuel told the Columbia University students in 1940, was to ‘objectively transcribe facts offered by reality without interpretation, still less any invention.’ As Gubern and Hammond argue, the logic of the film is profoundly pessimistic, and hardly a spur to action. Buñuel was fascinated by the way the Hurdanos themselves perpetuated a life of misery and pain, seemingly unable to escape it, religion playing a significant role in this. He quotes an old woman they met who said: ‘Have you come to remedy our poverty? Well, you should know that there is no remedy. If you want to save us from this hell, take us away from here by force, since we won’t leave of our own free will.’
Las Hurdes parodies ethnographic films and newsreels of the time to create a disconcerting account of its subject. There are many surrealistic elements in the film which contribute to this radical destabilising of its narrative. The gory images of cocks having their heads pulled off in the opening section echoes the slashing of the eye at the start of Un Chien Andalou. The dead donkey swarming with bees recalls the rotting donkeys in Un Chien. The burial sequence toward the end of the film has an improbable theatricality about it, and was invented by Buñuel.
The commentary also invites us to question our assumptions about what we are watching. The tone is matter-of-fact and unsentimental, the delivery clipped as in a newsreel. The inclusion of the scenes involving the beheaded cockerels is excused on the grounds of the filmmakers having a duty ‘to be objective’. A few moments later there is reference to the obvious ‘psycho-social symbolism’ of the ceremony ‘which we won’t analyse now’.
Statements made in the commentary sometimes contradict what we’re seeing, as when we’re told that the oldest of the ‘cretins’ is 28, although he looks about fourteen. The use of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony for the soundtrack also has a wonderful incongruity about it, recalling the use of Wagner‘s Tristan in Un Chien.
Ibarz describes Buñuel’s film as ‘one of the most important experiments of all his work, and a decisive one in documentary cinema at the beginning of the sound era, as well as in documentary film development as a whole.’ The film carries out this experiment, she argues, ‘through a multi-layered and unnerving use of sound, the juxtaposition of narrative forms already learnt from the written press, travelogues and new pedagogic methods, as well as through a subversive use of photographed and filmed documents understood as a basis for contemporary propaganda for the masses.’10
BUÑUEL IN THE Labyrinth of the Turtles makes clever use of animation. The format allows the director to incorporate dream elements seamlessly into the film, and avoids the need to have an actor impersonate Buñuel on camera. Simó’s professional background is in animation, where he has earned a string of notable credits. The incorporation of footage from Las Hurdes at various points is a nice innovation, helping to underline the harsh realities Buñuel and his team were documenting.
The film includes frequent references to the iconography of Buñuel’s cinema — for example, the large spider Buñuel as a boy projects on a screen during a magic lantern show. Big spiders appear in several Buñuel films (as do hens). The sequence where Buñuel has a dream about his father has echoes of Crusoe’s dream of his father in Buñuel’s adaptation of the Defoe novel. One could give many other examples. Simó is clearly well-versed in the Spanish cinéaste’s oeuvre.
The history of the making of Las Hurdes, the revisions and reframings, and Bunuel’s later accounts of this, created a labyrinth of half-truths and obfuscations which Gubern and Hammond have carefully unpicked. Simó’s semi-fictional account of the making of Buñuel’s documentary, while having its roots firmly in history, also includes a significant amount of invention. Arguably this is in the spirit of Buñuel, who was famous for inventing stories about himself. His ‘autobiography’, My Last Breath, ghost-written by the cinéaste’s long-term collaborator and friend Jean-Claude Carrière and based on hours of conversation with Buñuel, has long been known as historically unreliable. As Buñuel himself says in the opening chapter: ‘…the portrait I have drawn is wholly mine – with my affirmations, my hesitations, my repetitions and lapses, my truths and my lies. Such is my memory.’
Some of the invention in Simó’s film perhaps derives from Buñuel himself. Always cagey about his Communist affiliations, the director would for many years deny he’d ever been a party member. In 1939 he wrote a short ‘autobiography’, a curriculum vitae intended to support his search for work in the USA where he had fled at the outbreak of the Second World War. In this document, written in English, he says:
In 1932 I separated from the surrealist group, although I remained on good terms with my ex-companions. I had begun not to agree with that kind of intellectual aristocracy, with its artistic and moral extremes, which isolated us from the world and limited us to our own company.’12
The text of this ‘autobiography’ is very close to the language used by Acín in Simó’s film when he accuses Buñuel of jeopardising the filming by ‘playing around as an artist’. Something very like Buñuel’s disparagement of the Surrealism of his youth, done for tactical reasons, is, ironically, thrown back at him by Acín. Simó is of course entirely at liberty to weave the stories he wants in his film, and there is a great deal to enjoy in Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles. It’s an affectionate and amusing portrait of the great cinéaste, but viewers should be wary of treating it, as some reviewers have, as historical record.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. An archive of his work is here.
- Fermin Solis, Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas, Editora Regional de Extremadura, 2008. A new Spanish edition was published by Reservoir Books in 2019, and an English version is due out in 2021.
- Luis Buñuel, ‘The Comic in Cinema’, in An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected writings of Luis Buñuel, University of California Press, 2000, pp. 131–32. The original article appeared in Spanish in Gaceta literaria, no.56, April 1929. See also the comments on Un Chien Andalou Buñuel wrote in August 1946 for Frank Stauffacher, the director of the Art in Cinema film society in Los Angeles, included in Jo Evans and Breixo Viejo eds, Luis Buñuel: A Life in Letters, Bloomsbury, 2019.
- Gubern and Hammond, p. 161.
- Mercè Ibartz, ‘A Serious Experiment: Land Without Bread, 1933’, in Luis Buñuel: New Readings (2004). Sanchez Ventura was assistant director to Buñuel during the filming of Las Hurdes but is absent in both the graphic novel and the animation.
- According to Gubern and Hammond, Buñuel lent Acín the money to buy the lottery ticket saying: ‘if you win you have to give me money to film a short in Las Hurdes’. They also quote sources which claim Buñuel’s mother, who had financed Un Chien Andalou, contributed funds. Unik’s expenses were covered by the magazine Vu for which he had been commissioned to write a series of articles.
- See for example Buñuel’s letters to Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles dated 8 Feb 1930 and 16 June 1930, both included in Luis Buñuel: A Life in Letters.
- See the chapter in Gubern and Hammond on Filmófono, pp. 200–239.
- Included in An Unspeakable Betrayal, see p. 224.
- Ibarz, op. cit. p. 37.
- Ibid. pp. 27–28