Taking a day off in the City? Check out two vintage Spanish Civil War docs playing afternoons this week at the MoMA. You can come late too.
The first feature is Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth, best remembered for the commentary and narration by Ernest Hemingway. It takes it name from the arid stretch of land that might feed the embattled Madrid if brave Republican farmers can finish their irrigation project. Evidently, this is the plain in Spain where it never rains. Hemingway tells viewers “we” have always wanted to irrigate the land but “they” would not allow it.
Despite its reputation, Earth does not hold up well. Ivens, a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize, was a doctrinaire Communist. For all the talk of human dignity in Earth, Ivens had no qualms about whitewashing slave labor when filming a documentary about a Soviet construction behemoth in 1931. Frankly, his visuals here are not particularly strong. While always completely earnest, many his scenes of peasants marching through the rocky fields cry out for Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, as they resemble the technical films MST3K used to send-up.
Earth fails precisely for the reasons the writings on the same war by Orwell and Hemingway himself are timeless. Their books capture the chaos and ambiguity of the Civil War, with its frustrating in-fighting between the Communists and anarchists, and the atrocities committed by both sides, including the Republicans, especially against the Church (which is conspicuously absent in Earth). Frankly, the film is not particularly effective as propaganda either, employing class warfare rhetoric and a grating score by longtime Communist Marc Blitzstein (when trying to generate Spanish sympathy, why not try some flamenco?).
Conversely, Return to Life from celebrated photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and leftist director Herbert Kline is much more successful, both as film and propaganda. As would be expected, it is visually much more striking, and the soundtrack effectively uses traditional Spanish folk music. Convincingly describing the war in terms of democracy under attack and focusing on the Republican medical corps, Return is essentially a Why We Fight for the Loyalist cause.
Interestingly, both films mention in passing the Moorish legions fighting with Franco’s Royalists and Mussolini’s fascists. It was a little remarked upon early case of cooperation between Islamists and fascists that has continued to develop, as explicated in Barbet Schroeder’s documentary Terror’s Advocate.
Earth has historical significance largely as vehicle to hear Hemingway’s voice. His words about the “good fight” are far richer in For Whom the Bell Tolls and his short stories. While it was certainly also produced for propaganda purposes, Return is a very watchable film, continuing to serve the historic interests of the Republican cause. Both films screen together at MoMA today and tomorrow.