2008 | Retrospective

Director Luis Buñuel

“Luis Buñuel had an incorruptible perspective on societies around him… At the same time he is someone for whom in film the real and the imaginary are not really two distinct worlds.” The Retrospective of the 58th Berlin International Film Festival honoured the Spanish director Luis Buñuel (deceased 1983) with a comprehensive showcase of his films. Also shown were movies on which he worked as assistant director, scriptwriter or producer. A series of lectures and discussions complimented the film programme. We spoke to Rainer Rother about Buñuel’s artistic qualities, his often revolutionary visual language and surprises in this Retrospective.

Buñuels Ensayo de un crimen (1955) with Ernesto Alonso and Miroslava Stern

After several years of thematic programming, the upcoming Retrospective will once again focus on the work of one filmmaker. How was this decided?

Precisely for that reason. Traditionally we alternate between person-focused Retrospectives and theme-centred Retrospectives. And since the thematic orientation had the overhand in the last few years, it was time to do something about a director again. Luis Buñuel made sense because 2008 will mark the 25th anniversary of his death. And so we’re using the occasion to take a look back at a supposedly well-known oeuvre. But as always, if one looks more closely, one notices that one knows several films, but not the entire body of work. And therefore we have decided to dedicate the next Retrospective to Luis Buñuel.

Already in Buñuel’s early films, one finds a fundamental critique of bourgeois Christian morality and value systems which surfaces again in later works. What other thematic threads does one find over Buñuel’s career.

I think that two aspects are especially characteristic of him: Buñuel was a very independent spirit, which means that he didn’t let himself get taken in by anything, either by his Spanish heritage, his Catholic upbringing, nor by the his closeness for a certain time to the Surrealists and left-wing movements. He had his own unflinching perspective on society around him in which he saw social and ideological changes that he addressed in his films. At the same time he was someone for whom in film the real and the imaginary weren’t really separate worlds. In Buñuel’s films there are always scenes in which he plays at loosening the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, between ‘real’ reality and dream reality.

Jeanne Moreau in Le journal d'une femme de chambre (1963/64)

You say that Buñuel had a good eye for the ideologies that dominated society around him. Basically he fought against narrow-mindedness for his entire life. In this regard, does his work also display moments of desperation or resignation or did this urge sustain him uninterruptedly? Is it really the right approach to try to understand him in such concrete political terms?

I don’t believe Buñuel linked his films to the hope for immediate change. And so he couldn’t resign himself if nothing changed. I believe it was important for him to show how surrounding reality is – an impulse he expressed in very different ways. It can be an attack on a very ossified, conservative, clerically dominated society. For example, in Las Hurdes, a film he made when Spain was still republican and shows a very rural, utterly impoverished region. Or in his Mexican films, such as Los Olvidados/The Forgotten Ones, in which he deals with the suffering of street children who grow up practically without love and affection and react to their poverty with criminal behaviour.

Diversity of cinematic form and collaboration

During the viewing process, when you were able to get an overview of the many films, were there also particular moments or aspects that surprised you?

Very surprising was the strength of the Mexican films, which, in my opinion, are somewhat undervalued. It’s an impressive body of work, which is very closely connected to the rise of the Mexican film industry in the 1950s. Apart from that, it’s surprising that Buñuel worked in other ways when he wasn’t in the director’s chair. As producer and also as a scriptwriter he tended towards comedy. It’s very surprising to see that there are Buñuel comedies – not directed by him, but produced or written by him – which seem comparatively conventional. Here he often prefers the straight and simple path, by, for example, using humour and situation comedy that borders on slapstick.

Silvia Pinal and Francisco Rabal in Viridiana (1961)

Do the close working relationships to different people that Buñuel maintained over his life suggest that he valued and needed the cooperation and input of other people? Or should one describe him, with his extraordinary style, as a solitary soul?

No, I think he was simply a very good director. That means he saw cooperation as an opportunity to realise his vision in a certain medium. He saw through and respected the rules of this medium. With the additional experience he gathered as a producer, scriptwriter or, in the beginning, assistant director with Jean Epstein – in whose films he even acts in some minor roles – he realised that film is only possible in this cooperative form. And once you have accepted this fact, one naturally looks for people with whom one can work together very well. They can be cameramen like Garbiel Figueroa, with whom he made several films in Mexico. Or it can be someone like the scriptwriter and writer Jean-Claude Carrière, with whom he made a considerable number of films, on which both men left their own mark. One could say that Buñuel, who is certainly a widely recognised representative of European auteur film at the same time was someone who used the rules of the film industry very well for his own purposes. He didn’t have to leave his own stamp on everything by doing everything on his own. Far more, he developed a specific form of filmmaking that was only possible with collaboration with equal-minded partners.

You have already mentioned that in the works on which Buñuel did not work as a director, but to which he contributed in capacities other than directing, different aspects of him became apparent. I read that at certain times he also worked on smaller projects, such as when, during the Second World War, he worked as a commentator for US army films. Are these side projects also suited for presentation in the Retrospective?

Unfortunately, he left few traces of these activities behind. For example, he apparently worked as a consultant on the Spanish versions of American films, but that was just a job to earn money. In his memoirs, he mentions that he produced a reedited version of Triumph of the Will. But there’s no evidence of this in the files in the Museum of Modern Art. The copy there is actually more or less a shortened version of the original, which displays none of Buñuel’s touch whatsoever. For this reason, these films are not part of the Retrospective.

In opposition to recordings of reality

Was he as critical towards cinematic forms and genre conventions as he was towards society? Or put more loosely: Did the concept of freedom also apply to the Buñuel’s cinematic forms?

That’s a very good catchword, if one thinks of the first film, Un chien andalou, which was absolutely scandalous for its time in the way that it revolutionised visual language. Certainly in France in the late 1920s there was a tendency to go against images that could unambiguously be interpreted as recordings of reality. Buñuel remained true to this tendency. Again and again he tried to push the boundaries of the filmic narrative. A purely realistic narrative didn’t actually interest him, because for him it was a limitation of expressive possibilities to depend upon realistic depiction. Instead, he tried to find and invent new images for his subjects. His subjects are social realities or the situation of a certain social classes like the bourgeoisie, but basically all of this played into these realities. That also includes the world of the imagination and dreams, which for him have the same relevance as a supposedly distinct reality. For this reason, his stories often appear to be a rupture to us. If we look at Cet obscur objet du désir for example, it doesn’t make sense from a realistic point of view that the woman who plays the obscure object of desire is played by two different actresses. At the end of the day it’s not about such realism and it’s not about one woman.

Nazarín (1958/59)

Is it possible to identify certain filmic trends or “schools” in Buñuel’s work?

I don’t know if one can say that Buñuel really had a successor, but there are of course directors who have a similar relationship to film. David Lynch is someone in whose work you can always draw the line between the real and the imaginary. Perhaps that’s not Buñuel’s influence, but there is a very similar conception of the filmic image behind his work.

At a comprehensive showcase like the Retrospective, one runs the risk of telling, on the one hand, a finished story, while on the other hand one hopes to achieve an opening up. Will the Luis Buñuel Retrospective follow a certain dramatic logic?

First of all, we’re showing all of his works as a director. We’re also showing examples of work for which he was recognised as producer and scriptwriter and we’re also showing several documentaries about him. We have tried to combine the known with the unknown. Of course, when it comes to planning the programme, we had to make sure that the “great” films got the most prominent programme slots. At the same time, we hope that lesser known aspects of Buñuel’s work – such as the Mexican period, which we also want to give prominent placement – will contribute to a new perspective on the filmmaker.

Will the programme be divided into separate blocks, with titles like “Buñuel’s Mexican Cinema”?

No, we won’t be doing that. If you show the entire oeuvre, you have to try to include as much as possible. On our two screens in CinemaxX Potsdamer Platz and in the Zeughauskino we will be showing a lot of films more than once – sometimes twice or three times even. As with every Retrospective, we hope to give as many viewers as possible an opportunity to watch as many films as possible.

With a filmmaker such as Buñuel, were you able to still discover films that were hardly known or that had never been shown publicly? Was it especially difficult to acquire prints?

Yes, one always has the feeling that, with Buñuel, whom everyone knows, everything must exist in high quality. But that’s not the case. Several films, especially those made in Spain in the 1930s, are only available as relatively poor prints. Therefore we still don’t know whether we can really show all of them. We will certainly show the halfway well-preserved ones, because that’s also an important aspect of his lifework. We also found in our research that not all films are available in optimal versions, for example, with English subtitles. Since the issue of language is of course important for our international audience, we won’t only show films in original version, we will be adding subtitles to many films ourselves.

Un chien andalou (1928)

Long-time friend and collaborator at the Berlinale

Which guests can visitors of the Retrospective look forward to?

The oldest son Juan Luis Buñuel and Buñuel’s long-time scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière have both confirmed they will be attending. Both will also discuss Buñuel’s work in the complimentary programme. And we’re confident that a documentary, in which both are involved, can be premiered as part of the Retrospective. It’s called The Final Script and it’s about the different places where Buñuel made his films, a view on the work of Luis Buñuel from the point of view of his son and his scriptwriter.

Does his son also make films?

Yes, his son is a filmmaker. He has already made a documentary about Buñuel’s hometown, Calanda, which will also be shown during the Retrospective.

Buñuel’s themes such as the realm of dreams, the unconscious or the real versus the imaginary, as you touched on earlier, also play a big role in film studies. Will experts in the field be invited to the Retrospective?

There will be six events at the Retrospective, and we are talking to several specialists, mostly from Spain. Of course, there will again be a publication on our theme, which will published in time for the Retrospective.