Nov 28, 2019

Land Without Bread

As a virtual lifelong loather of the sort of debasing deluded dreams that Hollywood so sickingly sells like a pimp attempting to pass off a seasoned slack-jawed STD-ridden streetwalker as a prized virgin beauty, I have naturally always been more attracted to a sort of realism that borders on the surreal; whether it be Bavarian sensation Werner Herzog’s morosely morbid depiction of infamous necrophile Ed Gein’s hometown in Stroszek (1977), the somehow mystifying yet simultaneously demystifying avant-garde docs of Dutch auteur Henri Plaat (Fragments of Decay, El cardenal), or the hypnotically darkly humorous aesthetically nihilistic excesses of Harmony Korine’s delightfully deranging debut feature Gummo (1997). Needless to say, as both a cinephile and longtime Luis Buñuel fan, I should have probably watched the Spanish auteur’s third film and sole documentary contribution, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933) aka Land Without Bread aka Unpromised Land, a very long time ago, yet I just recently endured it for the first time after being inspired by the animated feature Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018) aka Buñuel en el laberinto de las Tortugas directed Salvador Simó. While I am not a huge fan Simó’s of film—a somewhat superficial and even hagiographic semi-fictional tribute to Buñuel’s personal mein kampf while making Land Without Bread that, at least partly, feels inspired by the troubled Walt Disney-Salvador Dalí collaboration Destino (1945/2008)—it certainly did its job in terms of inspiring me to finally watch the documentary, especially after I watched the extra features included on the Shout Factory blu-ray and discovered the Dutch documentary Buñuel's Prisoners (2000) aka De gevangenen van Buñuel where modern-day descendants of the Spanish region depicted in the doc express both great hatred and loving respect for the Spanish auteur.

Indeed, Buñuel’s 28-minute doc—a pioneering cinematic work that is described as both a ‘pseudo-documentary’ and ‘Ethnofiction’ on Wikipedia yet anticipates cinema-vérité and is surely both more intriguing and subversive than anything Jean Rouch has ever directed—has ultimately proved to be such an influential film that it has inspired multiple documentaries and a virtual children’s animated feature, yet it seems that no one can actually agree on what the film actually is or the auteur's intent in what is arguably a playfully morally dubious experiment in understated cinematic savagery of the delectably distastefully tragicomedic sort where the misery of man is ruthlessly rubbed into the viewer’s face with an almost demonic dispassion. Depicting the everyday destitution and surely surreal poverty of the Las Hurdes region of Spain, the short does the seemingly impossible and equally nonsensical by being a true ‘Surrealist documentary’ that makes a mockery out of the sort of nauseatingly naive proto-Rouch-esque ethnographic racial fetishism associated with frog surrealists like Michel Leiris.  In short, in Land Without Bread, the viewer is shocked to discover that even parts of Europe exhibit the same sort of perturbing sub-Lumpenproletariat impoverishment and almost transcendental backwardness that is typically associated with the Dark Continent.

 As a cinematic work that was directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time, funded by the lottery winnings of an anarcho-syndicalist sculptor-cum-painter named Ramón Acín that was murdered by supposed fascists during the first year of the Spanish Civil War (which, ironically, the film supports the start of!), and co-written by a commie Surrealist named Pierre Unik who died in a concentration camp in 1945, Land Without Bread is undeniably an important piece of both cinema and (meta)political history where the loony leftist idealism of its creators now seems genuinely absurd on retrospect.  In that sense, the film seems even more innately surreal today than when it was first released in what is ultimately a great example of an artist (or, in this case, artists) becoming a victim of his own youthful political naïveté (not surprisingly, Buñuel's political views, or lack thereof, would only become more nuanced and cynical as he aged). Taking its title from a reference by Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin about how every social and political problem can supposedly be cured with mere bread, the film would seem relatively political ambiguous if Buñuel had not later added a sort of patently preposterous postscript that reads: “The generals’ rebellion aided by Hitler and Mussolini would restore together with the privileges of the owners, the peasant workforces. But the works and peasants of Spain will defeat Franco and his accomplices. With the help of anti-fascists all over the world, tranquility and happiness will make way for civil war and forever eradicate the pockets of misery this film has shown you.”

Of course, as everything from intentional Soviet famines like Holodomor to the current starvation plaguing much of Venezuela today, commies are not very good at feeding people—whether it be moldy Bolshevik bread or otherwise. Idiotic youthful idealism aside, the doc was a valiant act of cinematic rebellion and a film that apparently could have gotten Buñuel killed, or as the auteur explained in his memoir My Last Sigh (1982), “When the Republican troops, backed by Durutti’s anarchist column, occupied Quinto, my friend Mantecon, the governor of Aragón, found a dossier with my name on it in the files of the civil guard. In it, I was described as notoriously debauched, a morphine addict, and the author of that heinous film, that crime against the state, LAS HURDES. If I could be found, the note said, I was to be turned over immediately to the Falange, where I would receive my just deserts.”  Of course, Buñuel collaborators Acín and Unik were not so lucky, but such was the spirit of the age as artists were purged from both sides of the political spectrum.  For example, upon France's so-called liberation during WWII, French filmmaker Jean Mamy—a one-time leftist that acted as the editor of Jean Renoir's Baby's Laxative (1931) aka On purge bébé—was executed in part for directing the Vichy anti-Freemasonry propaganda film Occult Forces (1943) aka Forces occultes (in fact, the film's writer Jean Marquès-Rivière and producer Robert Muzard were also sentenced to death, but they both managed to ultimately survive).

 Notably, despite only covering a couple pages of Buñuel’s excellent book, you arguably learn more about the history of Las Hurdes, which the auteur was initially inspired to make a film about after reading the anthropological study Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927) by Maurice Legendre, by reading the auteur’s autobiography. As Buñuel explains in My Last Sigh, “Once upon a time, the high plateaus of Las Hurdes were settled by bandits, and by Jews who’d fled the Inquisition,” though one surely would not know that after watching the film as Jews and banditos seem like otherworldly Übermenschen compared to the fiercely forlorn modern-day inhabitants of the region.  In Land Without Bread, the viewer discovers a seemingly endless arid wasteland that is described as follows by narrator Abel Jacquin, “Throughout this labyrinth of mountains…the 52 villages that make up Las Hurdes are scattered…with a total population of 8,000 people. Ahead, we must descend a steep slope…and cross the splendid valley, Las Batuecas…currently inhabited by an old monk who lives here…surrounded by a few servants.” Apparently, for four centuries, the valley was inhabited by monks, the Carmelites, who preached Christianity in the main villages of Las Hurdes, but now the monasteries are completely deserted aside from a sole monk and his handful of loyal servants. Despite the decline of spiritual leaders in Las Hurdes, the nicest buildings in the area are all churches, which surely reminds its lowly inhabitants of their ultimate value in the face of god almighty. In fact, it seems that the only thing these pitiful peasants have is religion as that don’t even really have a folk culture, or as Buñuel explained in his memoir, “As for folk dances, those trite expressions of misplaced nationalism, Las Hurdes didn’t have any.”  Indeed, instead of pesky fascistic volk dances, the area is plagued by roaming packs of rock-throwing inbred mutants, or so one discovers while watching Buñuel's oftentimes organically grotesque yet hardly garish film.

 Due to poverty, malnutrition, poor hygiene and inbreeding, among other things, genetic degeneration in Las Hurdes is a serious problem to the point where the area is plagued with dwarfs and violent mental retards that tend to throw rocks and attack people, including Buñuel’s small film crew.  Indeed, while the auteur's intent is certainly dubious, there is no denying the nightmarish reality of the genetically forsaken sub-troglodytes featured in the film. Naturally, senseless death is also an everyday occurrence in the area, as Buñuel encounters a small little girl lying on the ground that, as the narrator reveals, apparently died only a couple days later after the footage was shot. At one point, the viewer encounters a seemingly elderly woman breast-feeding a baby with her completely deflated bean-bag boobs, only to be told by the narrator that she is actually only 32-years-old (admittedly, I found this claim to be more than a little bit improbable). Most people in the area only have the choice of potatoes and beans as food (with the slightly richer inhabitants occasionally partaking in pork), though, every so often, goat meat becomes available when said livestock accidentally falls off a cliff (for the film, Buñuel did not have time time wait for such an accident so he shot a goat off a cliff himself!). Dysentery is also a big problem in the area as the locals tend to eat unripe cherries out of  sheer desperation. Even death is not easy in the region, as corpses have to be carried many miles as most of the villages lack cemeteries (for these admittedly rather realistic scenes, Buñuel had an infant ‘play dead’ and somehow the fly-plagued babe does a good job acting!). While the primary food industry in the area is beekeeping, the locals do not actually own the bees, thus making it all the more absurd that goats, mules, and people are ofentimes killed by said bees. In short, death seems to be the main concern for the locals of Las Hurdes and, as an old woman says at the very end of the doc, “Nothing keeps you more awake than to think always of the dead. Recite an Ave Maria for the peace of their souls.”  Of course, considering Buñuel’s own staunchly cynical stance on his ancestral faith, the inclusion of the poor wretched old woman's words seems all the more bleak yet simultaneously playfully nihilistic.

 At the end of the film, the narrator less than passionately declares, “After a two-month say in Las Hurdes…we leave the country,” but, as referenced in the documentary The Journey of a Surrealist, Buñuel later remarked, “Once you’ve been to hell, how do you get out?” Cynical exaggeration or not, the doc makes its case with very little effort that Las Hurdes is a miserable virtual pre-medieval hellhole and, as the auteur intended, the idiotic sort of European xenophiles that fetishize African poverty merely need to travel a couple miles to find the ugly extreme of abject of human suffering, just as the white liberal and Judaic intellectuals of today pretend tend to weep for the melanin-privileged people of the world without batting an eye for the poor whites of Appalachia (who, in their disgustingly deluded slave-morality-ridden minds, believe that these poor whites deserve it due to imaginary privilege being part of their magical racial birthright). Rather ironically, despite the film’s contrived commie postscript, Buñuel was later forced to concede to Mexican actor and screen writer Tomás Pérez Turrent that Francisco Franco enriched Las Hurdes, confessing, “Yes, some years ago I went to Las Hurdes. It had changed somewhat because it had become part of Franco’s favorite region. There was electricity in some towns and they made bread everywhere.” In short, ostensible fascist Franco brought bread to the land without bread. Political intent aside, Buñuel felt the doc was part of the same personal Surrealist Weltanschauung as his previous two films Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Age d'Or (1930), noting, “It’s in the same line. The first two are imaginative, the other is taken from reality, but I feel it shares the same outlook.” Still, the film was distinct to the auteur in at least one way as he stated to José de la Colina, “Nothing is gratuitous in LAND WITHOUT BREAD. It is perhaps the least gratuitous film I have made.” 

 In the worthwhile compilation The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock (1975), André Bazin noted, “With LAS HURDES (LAND WITHOUT BREAD), a ‘documentary’ on the poverty-stricken population of the Las Hurdes region, Buñuel did not reject UN CHIEN ANDALOU; on the contrary, the objectivity, the soberness of the documentary surpassed the horror and the forcefulness of the fantasy. In the former, the donkey devoured by bees attained the nobility of a barbaric and Mediterranean myth which is certainly equal to the glamour of the dead donkey on the piano. Thus Buñuel stands out as one of the great names of the cinema at the end of the silent screen and the beginning of sound—one with which only that of Vigo bears comparison—in spite of the sparseness of his output.” Indeed, while Land Without Bread does not quite transcend the singular shock of an eye being slit like in Un Chien Andalou (1929), it manages to defile the soul in a striking fashion to the point where death feels like it can be virtually touched and the smell of decay is not too far away, which was surely the auteur’s intent in depicting his homeland as a place of deathly destitution and dystopian delirium where the crucifix is a symbol of death and the legacy of Catholicism is one of starved disease-ridden corpses and perennially smirking retards. While Bazin would also argue in regard to the film, “The documentary on Las Hurdes was tinged with a certain cynicism, a self-satisfaction in its objectivity; the rejection of pity took on the color of an aesthetic provocation,” I personally deeply respect Buñuel—a bourgeois boy that had no real innate personal understanding of the human misery he encountered—for not succumbing to conspicuously contrived bleeding-heart buffoonery by taking the easy gutmensch route and pretending to weep for people that need everything but misspent tears. 

 Notably, at one point in Land Without Bread, Buñuel plays virtual art critic in a scene featuring morbid midgets and mental defectives juxtaposed with the deadly serious narration, “The realism even of a Zurbarán or of a Ribera falls far short of such a reality. The degeneration of this race is primarily due to hunger, lack of hygiene, poverty and incest.” While some might find such sentiments to be as cold as an unclad Icelandic female corpse, I am also reminded of the auteur’s words, “I’ve always believed that the imagination is a spiritual quality that, like memory, can be trained and developed.” After all, only Buñuel could arrive to such a charmingly twisted yet aesthetically truthful conclusion after being confronted with such miserable misbegotten untermenschen that have no time or taste for the bourgeois luxury of fine art. Thankfully, Buñuel did not pull a Forough Farrokhzad who, after finishing her sole film The House Is Black (1963)—a 22-minute doc depicting the horribly disfigured individuals of an Iranian leper colony—decided it would be wise to adopt two leprotic children due to her haunting experiences while working on the film (notably, she died only four years later in a car wreck, thus assumedly leaving those kids orphans once again). The last thing the world needs, especially the cinematic world, is another documentary where we are supposed to feel sorry for poor brown people and thus it comes as a great relief that one of cinema’s greatest and most singular artists created a classic documentary that is the total opposite of the Michael Moore school of ludicrously lame liberal agitprop of the unwittingly shamelessly grotesque sort.  In short, Buñuel was a pinko-leftist the same way German Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn was a National Socialist.

Literal documentary or not, it is hard to imagine Werner Herzog’s underrated second feature Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) without the existence of Buñuel's short doc due to certain striking aesthetic similarities, especially when it comes to the ‘ecstatic truth.’  Although Buñuel would never again direct a documentary, he apparently edited together an abridged version of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) featuring elements of Luftwaffe auteur Hans Bertram's Feuertaufe (1940) aka Baptism of Fire for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), but it unfortunately has never been released. While Buñuel would even demonstrate an apparent antifascist stance in later works like Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), I somehow doubt his MoMA edit of Naziland is as unflattering as his depiction of Las Hurdes in Land Without Bread. After all, as certain wise people sometimes say, you cannot polish a turd but you can certainly polish a Stahlhelm.  Either way, I think it is safe to say that no modern-day leftist would believe the film was made by one of their brethren. As for the poor people of Las Hurdes, thank god that Franco could do what Buñuel’s (or, more literally, André Gide's and Jean Cocteau’s boy toy Marc Allégret’s) camera could not.  Admittedly, while Land Without Bread is one of the Buñuel films that I am least likely to revisit anytime soon, if I am feeling in enough of a masochistic mood to experience very vintage human suffering, I will certainly choose it over French master auteur Alain Resnais' obscenely overrated shoah showcase Night and Fog (1956) aka Nuit et brouillard.  In describing one of his later masterpieces, Manny Farber—the virtual Sam Fuller of film critics—argued in regard to Buñuel, “His glee in life is a movie of raped virgins and fallen saints, conceived by a literary old-world director detached from his actors but infatuated with his cock-eyed primitive cynicism.  It's this combination of detachment and the infatuated-with-bitterness viewpoint, added to a flat-footed technique, that produces the piercingly cold images of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL.”  Of course, the same could also be said of Land Without Bread but it is exactly Buñuel’s so-called “cock-eyed primitive cynicism” that allows us to face the harsh truth of the dreadfully primitive in a wondefully wicked way that reminds one of the classic Spanish phrase: “¡Viva la Muerte!

-Ty E

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