Land and Freedom
by Richard Porton
Cineaste v22, n1 (Wntr, 1996):32 (3 pages).
In recent years, however, a wealth of scholarship, unearthed by historians without an axe to grind as well as by committed anarchists and independent Marxists, has punctured the popular assumption, still shared by most well-intentioned liberals and leftists, that the defense of the Spanish Republic was merely a conflict between evil fascists and noble standardbearers of the Popular Front. Even many historians who do not Press RETURN to see next screen. Type PS to see previous screen. share Murray Bookchin's anarchist convictions would, nonetheless, now agree with his assertion that "it is not a myth but a sheer lie - the cretinous perversion of history by its makers in the academy - to depict the 'Spanish Civil War' as a mere prelude to World War II, an alleged conflict between 'democracy and fascism.'" Anarchists such as Bookchin, the Marxist writers Pierre Broue and Emile Timine, and the non-aligned historian Burnett Bolloten, who devoted fifty years of his life to debunking received ideas concerning the Spanish Civil War, came to essentially the same conclusion: the upheaval of 1936-1939 was distinguished by both Western Europe's only noteworthy political and social revolution led by workers and peasants and a bloody period of repression in which the Communist Party, aided and abetted by the NKVD, sought to smear the left opposition as objective allies of the fascists and finally succeeded in crushing the dramatic urban and agrarian collectivization spearheaded by the CNT-FAI (Confederacion Nacional del political adjunct, Federacion Anarquista Iberica).
Yet if George Orwell's lucid account of his experience as a soldier on the Aragon front, Homage to Catalonia, had not attained the status of a minor classic, the vantage point of the anti-Stalinist left might have been doomed to even greater obscurity. Although Franz Borkenau's roughly contemporaneous, and more comprehensive, The Spanish Cockpit offered a strikingly similar perspective, the allure of Homage to Catalonia was its ability to encapsulate the fervor of a non-Communist, but unassailably radical, left within the form of a compelling narrative. Although Orwell's book is a fine example of autobiographical journalism, it is also a deceptively straightforward work of literature which resembles an eighteenth-century Bildungsroman - a narrative of self-education and moral edification. In fact, Homage to Catalonia's literary achievement is ultifaceted enough that its paradoxical resemblance to both a picaresque novel and a secular conversion narrative takes nothing away from its moral and political astuteness. In almost classically comic picaresque fashion, Orwell finds himself fighting for the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion, the anti-Stalinist Marxist party, allied in a marriage of convenience, but not of ideology, with the CNT), despite the fact that he came to Spain convinced of the soundness of the Communist Party line. In addition, Orwell, who, despite his veneer of self-deprecation, is undeniably the 'hero' of this work of nonfiction, emerged from his crise de conscience to become the twentieth century's archetypal version of an intellectual liberated from the chains of cant - the man who, according to Lionel Trilling, defined "our sense of the man who tells the truth."
Ken Loach's new film, Land and Freedom, shares much of Homage to Catalonia's moral earnestness, even if screenwriter Jim Allen's (Loach's longtime collaborator) frequently creaky narrative structure has little in common with the lucid compression of Orwell's reportage. Loach and Allen attempt to find a fictional equivalent for Orwell's saga of Stalinist betrayal, but their story is tethered to a thesis that much too often holds an admirable political stance hostage to wooden dramaturgy. This is not to say that Land and Freedom will not prove revelatory for many viewers unfamiliar with the convoluted internecine warfare of the Thirties or that Loach and Allen's film is not often extremely moving in spite of itself. This eminently well-intentioned film merely demonstrates that it is extremely difficult to transform an event as intricate and riven with contradictions as the Spanish Revolution into a populist epic.
Throughout the film, a tenuous attempt to contrast the current climate of political despair with the Thirties' arduous, if more optimistic, ideological battles can be discerned. An opening shot of a Liverpool council estate's bleak stairwell, in which circled anarchist 'As' are clearly visible, sets the tone for the film, while a brief militant poem by the nineteenth-century British socialist William Morris, read by the hero's granddaughter at the end of the film, cements Loach and Allen's insistence that the radicalism of the past cannot be reduced to mere nostalgia. This implicit rejection of contemporary cynicism is nothing if not admirable, but the filmmakers devise an exceptionally unwieldy narrative ruse to convey, and to a certain extent simplify, the complexities of the past. AFter the death of POUM veteran David Carne (Ian Hart), his young granddaughter, Kim, discovers a cache of letters (stored with a mound of Spanish earth and a healthy supply of Communist and Trotyskyist newspaper clippings) written by Carne to his fiancee Kitty, which will soon coalesce into the film's voice-over narration. Carne's sojourn in Spain is also inseparable from this intellectual journey - a circuitous trek from the platitudes of Communism to the equally intransigent militancy of the anti-Stalinist left.
The interwoven flashbacks that follow form a kind of pilgrim's progress that stolidly mirror Orwell's intellectual trajectory in Homage to Catalonia, although Land and Freedom's substitution of a working-class hero for a middle-class intellectual is certainly not coincidental. Before long, David, whose grasp of internal Spanish politics is less than rudimentary, signs on with a POUM militia after failing to locate the indigenous Communists. Loach provides an excellent sense of the camaraderie and egalitarianism that flourished among the international recruits, and his decision to include a considerable amount of subtitled Spanish dialog, while casting French, German, Spanish, Italian, and American actors, serves as a useful reprimand to the ironing out of linguistic and national differences usually encountered in the commercial cinema.
The film rightly recognizes that the democratic structure of the POUM and the CNT militias differed radically from the Communist controlled "Popular Army." As an anarcho-syndicalist newspaper observed in 1936, "a CNT member will never be a disciplined militiaman togged up in a braided uniform, strutting with martial gait through the streets of Madrid...rhythmically swinging his arms and legs," and the international assortment of militants encountered by David in the militia - a defiantly upbeat young Spanish woman named Maite (Iciar Bollain), Bernard (Frederic Pierrot), an ardent French defender of the radical faith, and the passionate anarchist Blanca (Rosana Pastor) - remind us that antiauthoritarianism can sometimes be reconciled with the travails of war.
Nonetheless, in his eagerness to replace the mainstream left's saga of heroic unity with an equally heroic narrative of ultraleft unity, Loach, perhaps understandably, overlooks many of the ideological quarrels that separated the Marxist POUM from the anarchist CNT. Relations between the CNT and the POUM were often chilly, even if, due to subsequent tragic events, the destinies of anti-Stalinist Marxists and anarchists eventually became intertwined. Although it is certainly true that CNT members occasionally joined POUM militias, the naive viewer would have no way of knowing that, in December 1936, the CNT, to the dismay of its more radical members, reluctantly supported the Communist move to expel the POUM from the Catalan government. Of course, the anarchist movement itself was split by the rank and file's outraged response to its leaders' decision to accept ministerial positions within the central Popular Front government. It may seem pedantic to chide Land and Freedom for sins of omission, not commission; after all, a fiction film of less than two hours which strives to fuse historical exegesis with adventure and romance will inevitably lack the leisurely scope of a lengthy documentary. But the film is flawed not by lack of detail or outright historical distortion, but by a yearning to render a messy past seamless and comforting.
The perils of sentimentality are especially evident in the cinematic treatment of Blanca, a character who must carry the cumbersome double burden of representing both the anarchists in a film which devotes far more screen time to the POUM (a rather lopsided strategy, since the CNT/FAI membership was far larger than that enjoyed by the relatively tiny Marxist party) and the contributions of Spanish women to the war effort. After her lover, a POUM member and ex-IRA partisan named Coogan is killed in battle, Blanca functions as both David's transient love interest and an ideological guide who must introduce the fairly dense Liverpudlian to the culture of the antiauthoritarian left.
The Spanish Revolution certainly mobilized the energies of scores of impassioned anarchist women; in addition to fighting with men during the early phase of the war, their advocacy of abortion rights and denunciation of the economic exploitation of prostitutes was truly ground-breaking in the light of Spain's rigid Catholic tradition. Blanca, however, is less a flesh and blood female militant than a symbol who almost seems designed as an anarchist equivalent of La Pasionaria, the Communists' most famous female activist. Her prominent red and black scarf provides visual evidence of her anarchist affinities, but the audience is never made aware of the nuances that might differentiate her from her Marxist comrades. Blanca is also the catalyst who sets David on his irrevocable path to anti-Stalinism. After their romantic interlude in Barcelona, she chides him for his decision to abandon the militia for the Communist line and the Popular Army.
Soon after, David witnesses the Communist siege of the city's telephone exchange, a stronghold of the CNT. This pivotal incident in May 1937 became one of the war's most mulled-over events, part of an explicit 'counterrevolution within the revolution' (commonly known as the Barcelona May Days) marked by street fighting between Communists and anarchists. The May Days are only sketchily alluded to in Land and Freedom but, in any case, David acquires a fuzzy knowledge of Stalinism in action. His eventual decision, moreover, to tear up his CP membership card appears, perhaps inevitably, more a result of his love for a beautiful anarchist than the end-product of genuine political sophistication. There is nothing especially wrong with this admixture of love and war, but it is painful to admit that Loach's punctuation of lovemaking with anti-Stalinist polemicizing infuses fire film with an inadvertent tenor of high-flown kitsch.
Yet it is possible to temporarily suspend any doubts concerning Loach's compromised synthesis of radicalism and Hollywood-style bathos during an extensive recreation of a Spanish village's decision to publicly debate the merits of agrarian collectivization. Andres Nin, the murdered (reportedly on orders from Moscow) leader of the POUM, maintained that the Spanish experiment in self-management was a "proletarian revolution more profound than the Russian Revolution itself," and the grassroots, participatory ethos of the Spanish collectives stands in stark contrast to the bureaucratic morass created by the Soviet Union's disastrous effort to impose collectivization on an unwilling peasantry. Land and Freedom's fictional village eventually votes in favor of collectivization, but the film is noteworthy for giving equal weight to opponents of the CNT line, particularly a seemingly reasonable American named Gene Lawrence (Tom Gilroy). Although Lawrence is nominally a member of the POUM militia, he is essentially an articulate exponent of the standard Communist argument that the war must be won before revolutionary goals can even be pondered.
His warning that the anarchists "must moderate their slogans" sums up the cautiousness, occasionally sincerely pragmatic and often the product of unadorned cynicism, promoted by the Popular Front. This sequence, mixing the contributions of professional and local, nonprofessional actors, is the film's best example of Loach's earnest debt to the social realist tradition. Lisa Berger, a filmmaker and researcher who helped plan the sequence, observed that she was responsible for finding:
[P]eople who could argue for collectivization, without looking like city intellectuals, others who could be opposed, and others who could see the point, but weren't really convinced, based on real lived experience working in the countryside. The first group was comprised of young people who are currently active in the CNT in Castellon, Valencia, and Sagunto, some of whom are studying the issues of war vs. revolution in the university and are well-versed in the arguments used in 1936. The men who were opposed to collectivization were the real mayor of the village where these scenes were shot...and a local farmer who Ken and I had lots of conversations with to know what he would say.
Barry Ackroyd's fluid cinematography accurately captures the debate's vigorous fluctuations, and it is regrettable that this extremely engaging meld of fiction and documentary could not have been sustained for the entire film.
To Loach's credit, the final sequences of his film give audiences an accurate idea of the Stalinists' accelerated repression of their left-wing rivals which led by 1937 to the imprisonment of thousands of CNT and POUM partisans. Nonetheless, Land and Freedom's tragic denouement -which features Lawrence's flamboyant reemergence as a Communist apparatchik as well as the pointblank shooting of its anarchist heroine and her subsequent martyr's burial - must be deemed more a string of dubious contrivances than a satisfying thematic resolution. It is difficult not to be at least somewhat moved by these final sequences, but it is equally difficult not to feel that they are crassly manipulative.
While at times it seems like aging leftists do little else but re- fight the Spanish Civil War from their armchairs, it is instructive to learn that Land and Freedom has struck a responsive chord with Spain's young people, many of whom know little of their own turbulent history. Unfortunately, even the freewheeling post-Franco Spanish cinema has been extremely reluctant to tackle some of the thornier issues of the Civil War period. Whatever the weaknesses of Loach's film, he has done a great service in disinterring an episode from Spanish - and left-wing - history that has suffered from malign cinematic neglect for far too many years. - Richard Porton
Richard Porton teaches film at the College of Staten Island (CUNY) and Yeshiva University and has written on film for numerous publications.
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