What is the difference between objectivity and even-handedness? The War on Film, an eight-part Spanish television program showing for the first time in its entirety outside of Spain as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s three-week-long “Spanish Cinema Now,” offers copious amounts of the latter, but not much of the former.
First shown in Spain last year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, The War on Film
is a vast compilation of wartime documentaries from both sides of the battle line—Loyalists, Communists, and anarchists on the left, and Spanish and German Fascists on the right.
The result is less mural than palimpsest, with each voice-of-God narrator asserting a version of the truth. Anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti is either a modern-day Don Quixote or a “common criminal,” depending on whom you ask; the Fascists bombed Guernica—or maybe it was the secret Communist “incendiary squads” sent by Moscow.
The only thing the two sides can agree on is the significance of propaganda. A Communist short calls the backbone of the Fascist insurgency “black crows of the Church inspired by the Vatican” and accuses priests of “murdering children’s minds.” Franco’s forces, in turn, scrupulously devote the bulk of their films to honoring the Fascist martyrs.
The War on Film is not easy to watch. Its attempt at equal time pits us between dueling sets of exaggerations and outright lies, and the effort involved in sifting through the tall tales rapidly grows exhausting. There are no unfiltered truths.
As to differences between Fascist and Loyalist filmmaking, the Fascists (with an assist from the Nazis—one film is credited to Hispano Film-Produktion Berlin) take a page out of Leni Riefenstahl’s playbook, with long, sweeping shots and God’s-eye points of view—not to mention image after image of marching soldiers and weeping women. The Loyalists, by contrast, betray an unfamiliarity with the medium, their cheery music and relentless optimism lacking cinematic fluency.
History is written by the victors, and the Fascists’ propaganda, no more or less truthful than that of its opponents, has become the accepted version of the civil war for Spaniards. In the last segment of The War on Film, children passionately salute as waves of military vehicles pass through the streets of Madrid. Objectivity is rarely on display in The War on Film, but once Madrid falls to Franco, there is only one version of the truth left.