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Buñuel Bows Out

Paul Hammond

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1. José Francisco Aranda, letter to the writer of 26 April 1978. Collection Paul Hammond.

In 1978 I was corresponding regularly from London with José Francisco Aranda in Madrid. The theme of our letters was, needless to say, Buñuel.
Although we English already had the studies of Ado Kyrou, Ray Durgnat and Freddy Buache on our shelves, Aranda’s biography – translated in 1975 – was by far the richest source available. At a certain moment I asked Francisco about Buñuel’s politics following his break with the Surrealists. ‘There was no formal splitting’, Aranda told me, ‘but from 32 to 38 he was very pro-Communist, although he has sworn (to) me he never belonged to the Spanish C P (but his mother had told me the contrary).’ (1) At the time I took Buñuel’s – and his biographer’s – word for it: to have admitted that the director may have been a PCE member – given what the Stalinists did in Spain during the Civil War – would have undermined my faith in his more or less abiding allegiance to Surrealism. In London in 1978 we few dogged believers in the ongoing viability of the Surrealist project needed all the culture-heroes we could get: the Hayward Gallery had just mounted its sepulchral Dada & Surrealism Reviewed exhibition, and Thatcher the Putrefact was about to come to power ...


2. Mark Polizzotti, Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 1995, p. 375; p. 689. Marguerite Bonnet (ed), André Breton: Oeuvres complètes II, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, Paris, 1992, p. 1302, n. 5. Buñuel’s letter is contained in a dossier of 222 documents on the ‘Affaire Aragon’ compiled by Breton and today deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; reference: Nouv. Acq. fr. 25094, folios f. 102-103.

3. In French in Paul Louis Thirard, ‘Colloque à Pordenone’, Positif 471, Paris, May 2000, pp. 64-64. In Spanish in Javier Herrera (ed & tr), ‘Me adhiero al PCE, dejo el surrealismo’, El Cultural, supplement to El Mundo, Madrid, 13-19 February 2000, pp. 6-7.

Twenty years after, an almost lapsed believer by now, I didn’t need to save anyone’s soul – or ideology – least of all my own: I’d grown to like my gods with feet of clay. Aranda’s irreconcilable statement about Buñuel’s politics still niggled, for all that.

And so, at the end of 1998, after following up a couple of leads – one in Mark Polizzotti’s monumental biography of André Breton; the other in Marguerite Bonnet’s splendid notes to volume two of the Pléiade edition of Breton’s writings (2) – I acquired a copy of Buñuel’s letter of resignation from the Surrealist group. Addressed to Breton on 6 May 1932, this, to my mind epochal, document has now been published in its original French and in Spanish translation. (3)

Aside from giving us chapter and verse on Buñuel’s changing aesthetic and personal allegiances, this is the first documentary evidence we possess of his membership of the PCE. As such it dispels decades of disavowal and obfuscation on the part of the director.

4. For another discussion of the same facts see Paul Hammond, ‘Hacia el paraíso de los peligros/ To the Paradise of Pitfalls’, in Mercè Ibarz (ed), Tierra sin pan. Luis Buñuel y los nuevos caminos de las vanguardias, IVAM Centre Julio González, Valencia, 1999, pp. 81-95, 211-217.   On top of that the May ’32 missive sheds light on the most obscure and pivotal – nay, cataclysmic – period of Buñuel’s life: the 1930s. My aim here is to direct a beam into these dark corners, particularly during the years 1931-1933; that is, between the filmmaker’s return to Europe after his deceptive sojourn in Hollywood, and the shooting of Tierra sin pan. (4)  



5. See note 3.

6. André Breton, ‘L’Union libre/ FreeUnion’, in Jean-Pierre Cauvin & Mary Ann Caws (eds & tr), Poems of André Breton, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1982, p. 49.

7. Louis Aragon, Front rouge, in José Pierre (ed), Tracts surréalistes et déclarations collectives (1922/1969), tome I (1922-1939), Éric Losfeld, París, 1980, p. 464.

  Let’s take a brief look at this ‘purloined letter’. Triggered by the so-called ‘Aragon Affair’, to which I’ll return in a moment, Buñuel tells Breton that the very fact of becoming a member of the Surrealist group led him, ipso facto, to join the vanguard party of the Revolution, the PCE. That it is only of late that he has perceived a contradiction between group and party. Now, the mutual distrust and irreducible will-to-power of the two movements has obliged him to choose: ‘given the current state of things there could be no question for a Communist of doubting for an instant between the choice of his party and any other sort of activity or discipline.’ Consequently, Buñuel faults Breton’s ‘closed’ conception of poetry, as expressed in L’Union libre (June 1931), preferring to it the agit-prop transparency of Louis Aragon’s Front rouge (July 1931), a poem that is not ‘above the class struggle’. (5) To give a flavour of the dissonant textual strategies in play I will cite a few lines from each poem. L’Union libre is an example of the rhetorical device of effictio, the lyrical head-to-tie listing of a woman’s charms: ‘Woman of mine with champagne shoulders / Like a fountain of dolphin heads under ice / Woman of mine with matchstick wrists / Woman of mine with fingers of chance and the ace of hearts / With fingers of mown hay / Woman of mine with armpits of marten and beechnut.’ (6) If there’s a trope dominating Front rouge it’s epic bombast of a singularly terroristic kind. Here Aragon is lauding the soldiers of the Red Army: ‘Each cry of yours bears the fiery Breath / Of the Universal Revolution afar / Each respiration of yours disseminates / Marx and Lenin in the sky / You are red like the dawn / red like anger / red like blood.’ (7) It is to such proletkult messianism, then, that Buñuel feels most drawn by May 1932.  



Aragon’s 350-line paean to the unerring Communist Party of the Soviet Union sprang from his November 1930 trip to Kharkov for the Second International Conference of Proletarian and Revolutionary Writers. What he experienced there was tantamount to a religious conversion, one that many a leftist intellectual of the period would undergo. Taken on the 20th-century’s version of the Grand Tour, he marvelled at the forced fruits of the Five-Year Plan: the showplace dams and power stations and blast furnaces. Awestruck, he was even prepared to denounce those anti-Soviet heretics Breton, Freud and Trotsky, a volte-face that kick-started his meteoric rise as a cultural commissar. Although Aragon smoothed things over with Breton on returning to Paris, by the Spring of 1931 he and other Surrealists – Georges Sadoul, Maxime Alexandre and Pierre Unik – were in the PCF, a party intolerant of signs of divided loyalty.

On 16 January 1932, seven months after its publication, the author of Front rouge was arraigned and charged with ‘demoralisation of the army and the nation’. No matter that he’d betrayed Surrealism in Kharkov, Aragon’s criminalisation by the class enemy led to a series of tracts written by Breton, Éluard, Crevel et al; tracts that became increasingly sceptical of the poem and the man. In short, a point was reached where Aragon had to choose between Surrealism and Communism. He chose the latter, disavowing Breton in the 10 March issue of the PCF newspaper L'Humanité. The other PCFers – Sadoul, Alexandre, Unik – followed suit. And bringing up the rear, the unique PCE-Surrealist, Buñuel.

There was, of course, a logic to these events. Had not the Surrealists courted the PCF ever since July 1925, as part of a cohort of Left-Oppositionists grouped around the abortive La Guerre Civile project? Didn’t the twin crises that bracket Buñuel’s own Surrealist trajectory – the first around the purging of the Georges Bataille faction in 1929; the second, the ‘Aragon Affair’ – pivot around the problematic of putting Surrealism at the service of the Revolution, the one the PCF would lead? One thing that had changed in the interim was the vanguard party itself: if in 1925 a certain pluralism prevailed, in keeping with Soviet ‘NEPotism’, by 1931 the now-Stalinised PCF operated on the principle of ‘if you want to be a Communist why do you need to be a Surrealist?’


8. Román Gubern & Paul Hammond, ‘Buñuel, de l’union libre au front rouge’, Positif 482, Paris, April 2001, pp. 63-67.   Since Buñuel did accept to make the choice, how might we periodise his time in the party? (Here I must pause to say that some of what follows draws on an article Román Gubern and I have published in the French magazine Positif). (8) When Buñuel affirms to Breton that ‘The very fact of having united my own ideological future to that of Surrealism was able to lead me some time afterwards to give my adherence to the PCE’, how are we to interpret this ‘some time afterwards’?  

9. André Breton, ‘Sur ‘Los olvidados’’, in Étienne-Alain Hubert (ed), André Breton: Oeuvres complètes III, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, Paris, 1999, p. 1127.
  Fortunately we now possess information, with the publication of a Breton inédit, to help us – I repeat, to help us – date both the beginning and end of Bunuel’s PCE career. In a generally eulogic text intended to coincide with the 1951 general release in France of Los olvidados, Breton says, ‘I am conscious of not revealing a secret in mentioning that from 1930 to the war Buñuel was a member of the Communist Party, which, you realise, was calculated to harm our relations more and more.’ (9) Taking Breton’s words literally, one might venture to date the director’s party membership to sometime after 30 June 1930 – and the chaotic first private screening of L’Âge d’or to the Surrealist group – or to sometime between that date and 28 October of the same year, when Buñuel left France for Hollywood.  



Despite Breton’s punctiliousness, however, it seems most probable that Buñuel joined the party after his return from America on 1 April 1931, and this as a consequence of being in Spain during the heady days of the proclamation of the Second Republic on 14 April, and/or as a result of peer pressure: the induction of his friends Aragon, Sadoul, Alexandre and Unik into the PCF. Where Buñuel’s quitting the PCE is concerned, the outbreak of World War II – 3 September 1939 – seems too tardy. Even if his diplomatic status protected him when he arrived in Hollywood for the second time in September 1938 as an advisor on pro-Republican civil war movies, Franco’s inevitable victory and the American producers’ embargo on such films, together with the expiry of his diplomatic passport on 22 December 1938, would have elicited closer attention on the part of the American state authorities. It is at this point that the director may well have proceeded to cover his tracks.

Given the above, it seems likely that Buñuel’s official membership of the PCE extended from sometime in the year between April 1931 and May 1932 up until December 1938 at the latest. That his Stalinist sympathies extended long after the latter date is borne out by many of his statements in the 1960s and 70s.


10. Cf. Antonio Elorza & Marta Bizcarrondo, Queridos Camaradas. La Internacional Comunista y España, 1919-1939, Planeta, Barcelona, 1999, p. 307.
  As to the confusion among certain commentators about whether Buñuel belonged to the PCE, to the PCF, or to both, I believe that the answer may lie in the day-to-day working of the parties themselves. Until 1939 the headquarters of the PCE was in Paris and all business between the Comintern – the Communist International in Moscow – and the party was written not in Spanish, but in French. On top of that, the imposing PCF always acted as a ‘chaperone’ to the more modest PCE (even during the Spanish Civil War). (10) May not the bilingual Buñuel, with his contacts in both Paris and Madrid, have acted as an intermediary, an emissary, between the two parties? Have functioned as a kind of ‘Federico Sánchez’ avant-la-lettre?  





11. André Thirion, Révolutionnaires sans Révolution, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1972, p. 340.

12. Cf. Stephen Koch, Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Münzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals, HarperCollins, London, 1995 (1994).

  The degree, and nature, of Buñuel’s commitment to the Realpolitik, cultural or otherwise, of the PCE, and of the Comintern, is something we may never know in any detail. As it is, his political partisanship during the 1930s was typical of thousands of leftist intellectuals, given that in Western Europe the perceived epic successes of Socialism in One Country – the first and second Five-Year Plans and the collectivisation of the peasantry – augmented the allure of the USSR as the only viable antithesis to both a decadent colonialist capitalism and an ascendant fascism. Added to which, there was paid work to be had; no small attraction to a generation of avant-gardistes pauperised, and hence politicised, by the Wall Street Crash. (As André Thirion would wickedly remark, Louis Aragon et al ‘went over to the Communists because they needed jobs’.) (11) Gainful employment aside, for the militant image-maker a commitment to the Comintern made sense, since the International possessed a sophisticated and highly combative propaganda apparatus – the so-called ‘Münzenberg Trust’ – to fabricate and disseminate pro-Soviet imagery in the print and visual media. (12) Setting forth on this new avant-garde path assuaged many a leftist intellectual’s instrumental anxieties. That in the USSR the Stalinists were silencing, humiliating – and sometimes murdering – their own avant-garde is not the least gruesome and abject irony of this politically polarised period.  











13. Ferdinand Alquié, letter to André Breton of 7 March 1933, published in Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution 5, Paris, 15 May 1933, p. 43.

  In Paris the ‘Münzenberg Trust’ found expression in a PCF front-organisation launched on 17 March 1932: the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (AEAR). Along with other fellow-travelling cultural entities – Henri Barbusse’s Monde collective, for instance – the Surrealists sought entry. Indeed, Buñuel, together with Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, had represented the group at an exploratory AEAR session in late January. However, given that a week before the March inauguration the ‘Aragon Affair’ had reached its traumatic conclusion, the Surrealists were a dissident element at this founding meeting. Not so Buñuel, and it is probable that, along with most of the other 200 artists and writers present, he gave his vote to an executive committee made up exclusively of PCF-members: Paul Vaillant-Couturier, Léon Moussinac, Jean Fréville, Paul Nizan and Louis Aragon. Vaillant-Couturier, the director of L’Humanité, continued to woo the Surrealists, offering Breton the editorship of a new AEAR journal, Commune, in January 1933. Given Breton’s hesitation, the post would go to Comrade Aragon in July, establishing him once and for all as a cultural powerbroker, somebody very useful to know. That same month the Surrealists finally broke with the AEAR, ostensibly around PCF criticism of certain anti-Soviet views expressed in the fifth issue of Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution (15 May 1933), views elicited by the release of The Road to Life. Nikolai Ekk’s movie, the first Soviet sound film, depicts the social integration, thanks to the efforts of a Makarenko-style pedagogue, of a gang of bezprizorni, homeless delinquents orphaned during the civil war years. The ‘cretinising’ sight of ‘young idiots for whom work is the only goal, the only means of living ‘was more than the Surrealists could bear. (13)  

14. Cf. J.P. Morel, Le Roman insupportable. L’Internationale littéraire de la France (1920-1932), Gallimard, París, 1985.



  The aesthetic platform of the AEAR, in line with that of its Moscow-based mentor, the Union International d’Écrivains Révolutionnaires – an adjunct of the Comintern – was epic, neo-naturalist and workerist: it went by the name of ‘proletarian realism’ or proletkult. (14) On 22 March 1932 an AEAR manifesto was published in L’Humanité, instauring the proletkult model. The manifesto also reaffirmed the Comintern’s ‘Third Period’ – or ‘class against class’ – strategy. Between 1928 and 1934 this dogma impeded any united front with the Social Democrats – or ‘social-fascists’, according to the catechism – and the anarcho-syndicalists. (It was a dogma infusing many militant declarations of the time, including several Surrealist tracts). By the end of 1932, with Hitler on the point of taking power, and the first Five-Year Plan coming to term, the Comintern proceeded to tone down its paranoid ‘Third Period’ rhetoric. Although the political consequences would be slower to emerge, the ideological effect was immediate, with the more populist (and less offensive) notion of ‘socialist realism’ taking over from ‘proletarian realism,’ and the frontal attack on bourgeois cultural institutions giving way to their mitigated defence. The tactics of the Popular Front period, founded on making common cause around the issue of anti-fascism, are just around the corner.  






15. This information is drawn from a contemporary PCF poster published in Carlos Pérez (ed), Infancia y arte moderno, IVAM Centre Julio González, Valencia, 1998, p. 342.

The AEAR was formed to foment this cultural revolution. Along with other bureaux – literature, theatre, and so on – the Association had a cinema section. Known activists were Buñuel himself, Jean Painlevé, Jean Lods and Jean Vigo, Jean-Paul Dreyfus, Jacques Brunius, Yves Allégret and Eli Lotar. Sympathisers included Joris Ivens, Henri Storck and Boris Kaufman (the brother of Dziga Vertov and Mikhaïl Kaufman). Its main ideologue was Moussinac, author of Le Cinéma soviétique (1928) and film and theatre critic of L’Humanité.

The activities of the cinema section extended to production, distribution and exhibition. Where production was concerned, the AEAR encouraged the making of documentaries and newsreels. If anything, Buñuel’s Tierra sin pan might be described as ‘an AEAR film,’ one to place alongside the contemporary work of the Association members I have just mentioned. Of the more anonymous and ephemeral film output of the AEAR, we know little, although there is a tantalising reference on a poster of the time to the showing of various Actualités prolétariennes, ‘éditées par l’AEAR (section ciné)’ at the 9 July 1933 inauguration of the the École Karl Marx in Villejuif. (An AEAR documentary was also shown of the construction of the André Lurçat-designed school, a showcase for the Célestin Freinet’s Pédagogie Nouvelle). (15) The then mayor of Villejuif was Vaillant-Couturier.


16. Richard Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Guildford, 1984, p. 265.





  As to exhibition, the model here was ‘Les Amis de Spartacus’ the Communist ‘ciné-club de masse’ created in July 1927 by Moussinac, Vaillant-Couturier, Lods, Francis Jourdain and Georges Marrane. Police Chief Chiappe closed it down in October 1928 after tumultuous showings of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. (16) Buñuel, of course, had been a ciné-club enthusiast since arriving in Paris in 1925, and his proselytising zeal transformed him into a film-culture filter between the French and Spanish capitals. In May 1927 he began programming, à distance, the Cineclub de la Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid and then, up until the filming of Un chien andalou, its avatar, the Cineclub Español. (Such mediating activity would, if my hypothesis is correct, have been a sort of dry run for Buñuel to function as a PCE/PCF go-between). Taking their cue from ‘Les Amis de Spartacus,’ the politicised ciné-clubs and independent cinemas of Paris and other French cities would repeatedly incur the wrath of the State by inviting the likes of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Vertov to personally present private screenings of their films. From the very inception of the AEAR, two of its members, Brunius and Dreyfus, took over a ciné-club founded in 1927, ‘Les Spectateurs de l’Avant-Garde,’ upping the class war rhetoric of the house magazine, Spectateurs and, on 27 April 1932, screening the long-banned L’Âge d’or at La Bellevilloise, a cinema run by a workers’ cooperative in the 20th arrondissement of Paris.  

17. Luis Buñuel, Mon dernier soupir, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1982, p. 168.


18. The manifesto on Hitler’s Germany (Madrid, 1 May 1933) is reproduced in Ian Gibson, El asesinato de García Lorca, Plaza & Janés, Barcelona, 1996, pp. 316-318. For its French counterpart, Protestez! (Paris, March 1933), see José Pierre, op. cit., pp. 238-240.

  By his own account Buñuel did not warm to ‘the agenda, the interminable considerations, the cell-like spirit’ of the AEAR. (17) Nevertheless, while in Las Hurdes to make Tierra sin pan in April-May 1933 he broke off from filming and travelled to Madrid for the May Day launch of the Spanish AEAR. The anti-Nazi tract signed at that meeting by such PCE members as Rafael Alberti, César Arconada, Buñuel, Luis Lacasa, María Teresa León, Alberto Sánchez, Eduardo Ugarte, Juan Vicens and Hernando Viñes, and fellow travellers like Federico García Lorca, replicates a French AEAR declaration published one month before and signed by Buñuel, Lotar and Unik. (18) Indeed, the planning and filming of Tierra… was synchronic with the bolshevisation of a generation of Spanish intellectuals, as expressed in the launching of the ‘Amigos de la Unión Sovietica’ organisation in April 1933, the Spanish AEAR in May 1933, and the cultural review Octubre in June 1933. (A still from Buñuel’s documentary would appear on the first issue of the latter).  



19. A rough draft of this letter, which I would date to between 10 and 16 March 1932, is preserved in the Fundación Gala-Salvador Dalí in Figueras, Spain. I’ve tidied up Dalí’s chaotic syntax.


His career stymied in Paris and in Hollywood, his party membership card in order, we know that Buñuel, urged on by Aragon and Vaillant-Couturier, began seeking work in the USSR as early as January 1932. (He was still hoping to do so in February 1935, an ambition nullified by the signing of his Filmófono contract in Madrid in May of the same year). Returning to Spring 1932, it would seem that Buñuel took up the defence of recent Soviet sound films – including The Road to Life, no doubt – films springing from the industry’s draconian Stalinisation under Boris Choumiatski. We can deduce this from a vituperative letter Dalí addressed to Buñuel sometime between 10 and 16 March. Dalí lambasts Buñuel for trading Surrealism for the obscurantist discipline of the Stalinists, then says: ‘As far as the (Soviet) films are concerned you want to take importance away from the matter with a phrase that seems inconceivable in you, ‘while not pardoning their artistic errors’ – artistic (!) errors, artistic errors have nothing to do with it, the films, the proletarian literature shit, etc., etc., reveal the state of mind and morality aspired to, ’cos essentially they’re works of propaganda, not only allowed (...) but made by the government, that state of pure moral caca, of dirt, mysticism, full of underhand saintliness, etc., etc.’ (19)










20. Cf. note 3.

  Dalí’s exalted diatribe would have an altogether more calamitous consequence, and one that demonstrates just how far Buñuel was prepared to go to defend his re-visioning of the moral-poetic imperative: the rendering-down of the long-banned L’Âge d’or into a worker-friendly, agit-prop short. Buñuel announced his plan to his erstwhile producer, the Vicomte de Noailles, on 23 March 1932, one week after receiving Dalí’s deeply wounding letter. Aside from producer Pierre Braunberger, director Edmond T. Gréville (who saw it by chance), and the French censors (who refused it a certificate the following September), nobody was ever to see In the Icy Waters of Egoist Calculation, but my guess is that it centred on the botched lovemaking of Modot and Lys in ‘Imperial Rome’. Such a ‘director’s cut’ would have been legible to a proletarian audience, given that it more or less didactically represented the class struggle against the aristocracy, police and clergy. Buñuel’s announcement to Noailles of the bowdlerising of his masterwork came one week, too, after the formal founding of the AEAR. Was the re-edited film, then, the first fruit – the bitter first fruit – of the Association’s pro-Communist programme? May we not read the Icy Waters … scheme as a gruesome metaphor of the price to be paid for seeking, as Buñuel said in his Breton letter, ‘a less pure form of expression which might serve as propaganda’? (20) In short, a masochistic self-censorship, or worse still: a mortifying self-castration?  

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