Luis Buñuel, Existential Filmmaker

Hugo N. Santander


  Versión española

During his golden years, at the peak of his career, Luis Buñuel frequently regretted his critic's disregard for his Hispanic cultural background. He indiscreetly denounced the politics of art and importance: «Steinbeck wouldn't be someone without the American cannons... Is a country's power that decides over the great writers? Galdos is as a novelist as good as Dostoievski, but, who knows him outside Spain?».1

Buñuel's international renown remains associated to the surrealist movement, an offshoot of 1920s European culture. Buñuel himself often corroborated his surrealistic credentials. Nonetheless, he spent most of his childhood in Calanda-his hometown. In 1917 he moved to Madrid, to pursue a University degree in entomology. In addition to studying the instinctual behavior of insects-which he displayed skillfully later on in films such as 'Susana, Devil and Flesh' and 'Wuthering Heights,' Buñuel had the opportunity to meet the most prestigious Spanish writers of his generation.

It was only in 1925, after completing a fourteen-month military service, when Buñuel went to Paris as secretary to a Spanish diplomat. A screening of Fritz Lang's 'Der mude Tod' ('Weary Death', 1921,) persuaded him to devote his career to cinema. He volunteered as an assistant of Jean Epstein for one year, until, during the production of 'La Chute de la Maison Usher' ('The Fall of the House of Usher', 1927), Buñuel called Abel Gance a hack (pompier). Epstein sustained a bitter argument with his Spanish assistant and dismissed him. After two years of imprecise work, as a cine club consultant and theatre director, Buñuel associated with his old friend from the Madrid University years, Salvador Dalí, to write, produce and direct a surrealist film: 'Un chien andalou'. On 1929 surrealism was a dissident movement. Poems and photographs were published in their official magazine, 'La Révolution Surréaliste'. 'Un chien andalou' was screened to a private audience gathered by Man Ray. The film was a grand success and the surrealists immediately approved and promoted the public opening of 'Un chien andalou'. This film turned out to be the artistic work that introduced surrealism to the Parisian Bourgeoisie. After an eight-month run in Studio 28, Buñuel saw suddenly himself in the paradoxical role of being the most prominent member of a group he scarcely knew. 'Un chien andalou' remains, seventy three years after its release, the most representative film of surrealism: «The second [French] 'avant-garde' had its roots in the literary and artistic movements of dadaism and surrealism.. [surrealism] wished to create a pure cinema of visual sensation divorced from conventional narrative... 'Un chien andalou' represents the [French] avant-garde at its most mature, most surreal.»2

Buñuel stated his relation with the surrealists in terms of affinity, rather than of dogma: «More than anything else, surrealism was a kind of call heard by certain people everywhere-in the United States, in Germany, Spain, Yugoslavia-who, unknown to one another were already practicing instinctive forms of irrational expression. Even the poems I'd published in Spain before I'd heard of the surrealistic movement were responses to that call...»3

Buñuel, as many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century artists had understood innovation as a precondition of success. As early as 1910 Leon Trotsky had put into question the condition of the artist: «They [writers, artists, sculptors, entertainers] offer the public their work or their personalities; they depend on its approval and its money, and so, whether in an open or a hidden way, they subordinate their creative achievement to that “great monster” which they hold in such contempt: the bourgeois mob.»4 Trotsky's remark-more inspired by Nietzsche than by Marx5, lay emphasis on the socioeconomic factors that influence artistic creation. Surrealism, as Dadaism, was first conceived as an uncompromising response to both the ideological numbness of the bourgeoisie and the intolerant insight of Communism. Buñuel often justify the ideological imprecision of a movement mostly recognized as a formal breakthrough: «[Poets] write verses that seem to be surrealistic, but they are only on the surface… Surrealism is another thing-it's a moral.»6

Although surrealism, as a movement, relied on scandals, Buñuel preserved a conservative temper: «I'm lucky to have spent my childhood in the Middle ages, or, as Huysmans described it, that 'painful and exquisite' epoch-painful in terms of its material aspects perhaps, but exquisite in its spiritual life. What a contrast to the world of today!»7 Jeanne Rucal, his wife, depicted Buñuel as a possessive patriarch who reduced her artistic aspirations to the care of her children and her husband.8

Surrealism was assumed by Buñuel as an aristocratic response to the ailments of capitalism: «Most surrealist institutions were correct-for example, their attack on the notion of work, that cornerstone of bourgeois civilization, as something sacrosanct.»9 'L'Âge d'or' (1930), his second film, was entirely subsidized by de Noailles, an aristocratic couple who sponsored the artistic manifestations of the avant-garde: «'Our proposal,' Charles de Noailles said to me after dinner as we sat in front of the fire, 'is that you make a twenty-minute film. You'll have complete freedom to do whatever you want. There is only one condition: we have an agreement with Stravinsky to write the music for it'.»10 Buñuel-in a display of political adaptability, also managed to collaborate as a spy for the Spanish socialist interim government of 1936.11

Buñuel was introduced by the surrealist to the work of an aristocrat writer, Alphonse François Donatien, Marquis de Sade, whose introduction to 'Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome' consolidated his distrust towards religious and political institutions: «Criminal in virtue, and virtuous in crime.»12 But, contrary to most of his contemporary artists, Buñuel avoided nihilism. He believed, as one of his characters from 'Charme discret de la bourgeoisie' that «it's not enough to reject acquired beliefs. It's necessary to replace them for a personal morality.'13 By placing the individual over his institutions and creeds, Buñuel echoed the existentialist philosophy discussed in Spain during the 1910s.

During his stay in Madrid he had discussed the scope and boundaries of an art constrained by tradition: «There was also [in Madrid] the great Eugenio d'Ors, a philosopher from Catalonia... He was the author of a line I often cite against those who seek originality at the expense of everything else. 'What doesn't grow out of tradition', he used to say, 'is plagiarism14 «Those of us who grew up in the early teens were profoundly influenced by the extraordinary writers Spain produced at the turn of the century. I was lucky enough to know most of them-Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno, Valle Inclán, d'Ors...»15 Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) remains as the most renowned Spanish philosopher of the 1898 generation. He published 'Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida' in 1913. Widely read in Germany, France and the US16 'The Tragic Sense of Life' turned Unamuno into an international figure. His vehement opening paragraph announces existentialism as an intimate, rather than a systematic discourse: «Our man is the man of flesh and bone: me, you-my reader, he who is beyond us. All men who are on earth at this very moment.»17 Drawing passages from classical and modern poets, from Terence to W. Wordsworth and Walt Whitman, Unamuno criticizes the dehumanization of instituted philosophy. His main inspiration is the work of an unknown philosopher from Denmark: Sören Kierkegaard. Unamuno learnt Danish in order to translate and quote extensive passages from Kierkegaard's work. Originally written against Hegel, they apply to systematic philosophers such as Plato and Marx: «'The [Hegelian] abstraction's risk is precisely in reference to the problem of the existence, which Hegel ignores in order to resolve. He brags afterwards about his resolution. Hegel beautifully explains immortality as a general concept, and identifies it with infinity-which is, precisely, the mean of thinking. But his abstraction fails to cope with the real problem: whether we are immortal or not. Abstraction is just not interested to answer, but existence remains interested in existence-that is the real difficulty. Whoever exists longs for an infinite existence… ' How truthful this bitter invective against Hegel-the prototype of a rationalist, who intends to cure our fever by taking away our life, and who promises us abstract immortality, rather than the concrete immortality we all long for.»18

Unamuno proceeds then to analyse the concept of immortality. Life implies an instinctual acceptance of eternity. Man creates God as a response to his desires and emotions-manifestations of his essential nature. Following Kant, he recognizes that God cannot be grasped from a rational standpoint. He assumes, accordingly, an irrational perspective. Without an instinct for immortality, man's existence would be annihilated: «What we called logical truth, prompts me to consent that the immortality of the individual soul is a contradiction in itself. It is not only irrational, but against reason. Nonetheless, certitude drives me to affirm I can not accept such logical truth, and I protest against its validity. Truth is felt, rather than thought, and is based on what I see, what I touch and what I hear-a stronger truth.»19

Buñuel left in his memoirs an account of his personal relationship with Unamuno: «[Unamuno] used to visit us often in Madrid... He was a serious and very famous man, but he always seem pedantic and utterly humorless to me… [Years later] I found out that Unamuno was in Paris... He participated in a daily meeting at La Rotonde in Montparnasse... I went to La Rotonde almost every day... and sometimes I walked with Unamuno back to his apartment near the Étoile, a distance that gave us a good two hours' worth of conversation.» 20

Whereas Sade's work allowed Buñuel to stage and discuss perversity throughout his films, Unamuno's existentialism prompted his own conception of morality. His curiosity in Catholic theology intrigued supporters and detractors. When the Spanish writer Max Aub praised him for his theological erudition, Buñuel retorted with edgy modesty: «Those are things I have read lately, while making 'Simon of the Desert'.»21

Buñuel also imbibed from Unamuno his fascination for mysticism. The tenth chapter of 'The Tragic Sense of Life', entitled 'Religion, afterlife mythology and apokatastasis', is a brief metaphysical treaty. In a clear and vibrant style, Unamuno quotes poets, mystics, saints, philosophers, theologians and atheists to point out that immortality, rather than death, is the constant drive of human nature: «Eternity, as our present, would be lifeless without memory and hope.»22 A quote from the Spanish mystic Miguel de Molinos anticipates the happiness and frustrations of Buñuelian characters such as Viridiana, Nazarin and Simon of the Desert: «Whoever comes to mysticism must deny five things: first, creatures; second, temporary goods; third, spiritual gifts; fourth, the self, and fifth, God himself.»23 Buñuel, as many mystics, assumed atheism as a religious experience. The Jesuit priests Artela Lusuviaga S.J., whom Buñuel regarded as the only man who ever grasped his religious disposition, described him as a saint: «I see a consummated atheist in Buñuel-as a result of an ideological decision. In private Buñuel is a strictly religious man-subconsciously or effectively: you cannot be precise. And he is a strictly Christian religious man. That's why I find the mystic theme in him, and that's why I often include him amongst the greatest mystics.»24

Buñuel's interest in metaphysics consternated conservatives and liberals alike. The irreverent portrait of the Catholic clergy in 'L'Âge d'or' caused the expulsion of Charles de Noailles from the Jockey Club: «The Pope was on the point of excommunicating him».25 On the other hand, the 'The Milky Way' offended the sensitivity of anticlerical Latin American writers: «At a private screening, I [Buñuel] invited some friends: Hernando Viñez and his wife, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, etc. When it was over, Fuentes was enthusiastic but Cortázar was very cold. He bid me adieu very politely and left. I asked Fuentes: 'What did Cortázar think of the film?' Carlos answered, 'He said it was paid for by the Vatican'.»26 After a journalist inquired him about his faith, Buñuel answered «I'm an atheist, thank God». To those who, as Cortazar, were unable to conciliate atheism with immortality, he displayed his atheist prize, the Prix du Chevalier de la Barre.27 «Buñuel's sensitivity and ideology start as a revolt against an injustice. An injustice justified by a particular religion or faith.»28 But his critique was not limited to the clergy. In 'The Forgotten' he portrayed a devoted mother scorning her own son; in 'Susana' an exemplary father who courts and seduces his son's lover. In 'Diary of a Chambermaid' a would-be aristocrat sexually harasses his oldest atheist maid. She cries ambiguously-either of happiness or pain. The struggle of a particular existence against dogma is the main Buñuelian theme. The particular existence of Viridiana, Tristana and Simon of the Desert are in open conflict with their religious and secular institutions: «The God created by man-that's the soul of evil.»29 Such a God has been incarnated by the inquisition, the Napoleonic chauvinism, the Nazism and, more recently, by fundamentalist Islam.

Unamuno had already taught him, in his early youth, that ethics determine metaphysics, rather than metaphysics ethics: «When Catholic theologians want to justify rationally the dogma of an eternal hell, they are ridicule and childish... What is goodness and evilness? It should be approached by ethics, instead of religion».30 The Mexican writer Octavio Paz, accepting religion as a human manifestation, and denouncing any dogmatic conception of God, writes about 'Nazarin': «Buñuel drives us to experience... the banishment of the divinity's illusion and the discovery of the man's reality.»31

Born in a nation scourged by inquisitors and tyrants, Buñuel continuously denounced in his work the hypocrisy of new dogmas. Glauber Rocha, one of his closest friends-and his disciple, wrote about Buñuel's work in 1981: «In the absurd framework of the reality of the Third World, Buñuel is the possible consciousness: in the face of oppression, the police, obscurantism, and institutional hypocrisy, Buñuel represents a liberating morality, a breaking new ground, a constant process of enlightening revolt.»32

Artela Lusuviaga S.J. may add that we cannot grasp Buñuel's themes, in particular eroticism-which is one of his greatest themes, without Christian mysticism.33 A critic of Christ, but an admirer of Virgin Mary, Buñuel understood mysticism as an unconditional dissolution of the self and its beliefs into an unpredictable ecstasy: «I see the Virgin, shining softly, her hands outstretched to me. It's a very strong presence, an absolutely indisputable reality. She speaks to me-to me, the unbeliever-with infinite tenderness... My eyes are full of tears, I kneel down, and suddenly I feel myself inundated with a vibrant and invincible faith. When I wake up my heart is pounding, and I hear a voice saying: 'Yes! Yes! Holy Virgin, yes, I believe!'... The erotic overtones are obvious.»34

Buñuel never accused men of wickedness: «Society is the wicked one.»35 His work is a reflection on freedom, and on the right to imagine a depiction of the voluntarily perverted mind's virtues and the mechanically virtuous mind's crimes. Viridiana suffers on account of her idealization of human nature. She wants to see poverty as a gift, and invests whores and beggars with the innocence of a dogmatic heaven. Raped and nearly killed she pays the price, but instead of rethinking her dogmatic mind, she hastens her doom by engaging in a ménage à trois. Raised by nuns, without a space for imagination, her attitudes are extreme: good or evil without happiness between: saint or whore. Jean-Claude Carrière, Buñuel's closest collaborator, concisely wrote: «After writing nine scripts with Buñuel, I can give testimony of his particular talent. He often repeated that imagination is innocent. Each one of us can think on cutting our father's neck, in raping our mother, in betraying our nation. No crime is committed then. The sin of intention only exists in the catechisms. Every artist has even the duty to practice this exercise.»36

Buñuel was, amongst the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, the most serene artist. His main characters are overcome by the serene happiness of their friends or servants: Viridiana by her cousin Jorge, Simon of the Desert by a dwarf, Séverine by Pierre. Having denounced the religious institutions of his time, Buñuel was pleased to include priests and nuns amongst his audience: «I know the Jesuits liked 'Nazarin'. The film the Dominicans liked was 'Simon of the Desert'.» A confessed atheist, Buñuel was fascinated by the ceaseless manifestations of religion. In 'L'Âge d'or' the male character casts an archbishop to his unfaithful lover through a window. In 'Simon of the Desert', a saint says to his mother: «No earthly love can be interposed between God and me, mother». Soon after a bishop proposes him to become a priest. Simon, who recognizes the Church as his metaphorical mother, rejects his proposal with contempt. In 'Nazarin' a priest confesses an agonizing woman who, unable to accept heavenly happiness without the company of her lover, replies: «Heaven no, Juan yes.» In 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie' a moribund calls an archbishop for his last sacrament. The man confesses to have murdered a couple-his patrons, decades ago. The archbishop walks out and comes back with a rifle. He announces to be the orphan of the deceased patrons and shoots the contrite parishioner in the head.

Buñuel goes as far as discussing the morals of the uncanny. He affirmed to have met in Calanda, as a child, a man who recovered his chopped hands by the intersection of the Mother of God. He staged his miracle in 'Simon of the Desert'. The handicapped is a robber whose hands were chopped by the hangman. After a vehement petition, Simon and his community pray on his behalf. The handicapped recovers his hands and uses them immediately to punch mercilessly his child.

Buñuelian characters struggle against the mud of written morality and law. They are the couple buried in the sand at the end of 'Un chien andalou,' or the crowd of 'The Exterminating Angel,' who unable to move dies of hunger in a luxurious house. Their liberation may be easy, but as Estragon and Pozzo-Samuel Beckett's characters-they are reluctant to stand up. His cinema exposes the absurdity of self-imposed burdens. Family ties are literally portrayed as ties: in 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Viridiana' thoughts of incest annihilate the main characters. Patriotism is staged as a crime: in 'Diary of a Chambermaid' a chauvinistic citizen is rewarded after he rapes and murders a child. Even sainthood is put into question: Simon of the Desert becomes a bitter and unhappy man. Longing for the divinity, he spends his life over a column, scorning his fellowmen and nature. Dogma drives Simon to see perversity in every creature that crosses his eyes: sodomy in a joyful priest; zoophilia in a friendly dwarf; incest in his abnegate mother; gluttony amongst his protectors; masochism, transvestism and pedophilia in Satan.

Aristotle wrote in his 'Ethics' that all men desire their Supreme Good.37 Buñuel grasps desire as anterior to wellbeing. Women and men long for love-unboundedly given and unboundedly received. Mysticism emerges not as a manifestation of eternity, but as eternity itself: an impetuous force able to defeat laws, nations and creeds. Reason may flounce as a constraint-for, as with Don Quixote, the good deeds of Nazarin and Viridiana are spoiled beforehand by the yoke of the Realpolitik.

In a medium conditioned by financial gain, very few filmmakers can articulate a personal discourse. Buñuel not only succeeded-in doing so he became the main character of his films: from the barber that cuts the eye of his viewer in 'Un chien andalou' to the mall that goes off with the main characters of 'That Obscure Object of Desire'. Reality, which has been seen with an eternal eye, is ultimately consummated in eternity.

Throughout his films, Buñuel debated ethics in a negative way-for, as Dante, he is interested in the tortures of the doomed. His cinema invites viewers to recognize their animality-to listen to instinct before logic, in order to conciliate life and death, heaven and earth, the universe and the particular, men and society. Only then humanity can be.

Unamuno, Buñuel's foremost influence, appealed to the irrational in order to understand existence. The 'Exterminating Angel' was prefaced by a title card that echoes Unamuno's philosophy: «If the film you are going to see strikes you as enigmatic or incongruous, life is that way too… Perhaps the best explanation for Exterminating Angel is that, 'reasonably, there isn't one'.». Buñuel remained faithful to irrationality until the end of his life. In 'That Obscure Object of Desire' Fernando Rey identifies two women as the same. But Buñuel's irrationality is not chaotic. His discourse is the discourse of eternity, or-as Artela Lusuviaga S.J. understood, the discourse of a mystic.

The cinema of Buñuel cannot be fully grasped without Hispanic culture. He, as Unamuno, as Molina, as Saint Theresa, was born in a nation of saints and visionaries. E.M. Cioran, a philosopher profoundly influenced by Unamuno's work, wrote succinctly in 1937: «Spain symbolizes the pitiless desert of the soul. Its merit is not only to have saved the absurd for the world but also to have demonstrated that man's normal temperature is madness. Thus saints come naturally from this people which has done away with the distance between heaven and earth.»38



1. Buñuel, Luis, Mi Ultimo Suspiro (Madrid: Plaza y Janes, 1982.) p. 216. Mon dernier soupir (Paris: R. Laffont, 1982.) The US translator softens the meaning: "It seems clear to me that without the enormous influence of the canon of American culture, Steinbeck would be an unknown..." My Last Sigh (New York: Knopf, 1983.) p. 222

2. Ellis, Jack C. A History of Film (New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1979.) p. 327.

3. Buñuel, Op. cit., p. 105.

4. Trotsky, Leon. «The Intelligentsia and Socialism», en Fourth International, Autumn-Winter 1964-65.

5. «Sie [Künstlers] waren zu allen Zeiten Kammerdiener einer Moral oder Philosophie oder Religion; ganz abgesehn noch davon, dass sie leider oft genug die allzu geschmeidigen Höflinge ihrer Anhänger- und Gönnerschaft und spürnasige Schmeichler vor alten oder eben neu heraufkommenden Gewalten gewesen sind.» Nietzsche, Friedrich, Zur Genealogie der Moral, III, 5.

6. Aub, Max, Conversaciones con Buñuel (Madrid: Aguilar, 1985.) Entretiens avec Max Aub (Paris: P. Belfond, 1984.) p. 61.

7. Buñuel, Op. cit., p. 18.

8. Rucar de Buñuel, Jeanne, Memorias de una mujer sin piano, written by Marisol Martín del Campo (México, D.F.: Alianza Editorial Mexicana, 1990.)

9. Buñuel, Op. cit., p.123.

10. Ibid., p. 115.

11. Cfr. Aub, Op. cit., pp. 84-93, and Buñuel, Op. cit., pp. 150-170.

12. «Criminel dans a vertu et vertueux dans le crime.» Sade, Marquis de, Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, introducción.

13. «Il ne suffit pas de rejecter les idèes reçues. Encore faut-il les remplacer par une morale personnelle.» Citado por Carrière, Jean-Claude, Préface a Aub, Op. cit., iv.

14. Buñuel, Op. cit., p. 70.

15. Ibid., p. 58.

16. Unamuno, Miguel de, The Tragic Sense of Life tr. By J. Crawford Flitch (New York: Dover, 1921.)

17. Unamuno, Miguel, Del Sentimiento Tragico de la Vida (Madrid: Sarpe, 1983.), p. 25-26.

18. Ibid., p. 128-129.

19. Ibid., p. 134.

20. Buñuel, Op. cit., pp. 78-79.

21. Aub, Op. cit., p. 19.

22. Unamuno, Ibid., p. 262.

23. Ibid., p. 230. Enfasis mío.

24. Aub, Op. cit., p. 323.

25. Colina & Perez, Objets of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, ed. and tr. by Paul Lenti (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1986.), p. 25.

26. Ibid., p. 199.

27. Cfr. Ibid., p. 200.

28. Aub, Op. cit., p. 323.

29. Ibid.., p. 19.

30. Unamuno, Op. cit., p. 253.

31. Paz, Octavio 'El cine filosofico de Buñuel,' in Corriente Alterna ( Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1976.), p. 39.

32. Rocha, Glauber, Revoluçao do Cinema Novo (Rio: Civilizaçao Brasileira, 1963.) Citado por Miriam Rosen en World Film Directors I, ed. by John Wakeman (New York: The H. W. Wilson company, 1987), p. 91.

33. Aub, Op. cit., p. 324.

34. Buñuel, Op. cit., p. 95.

35. Aub. Op. Cit., p. 169.

36. Ibid. iv.

37. «tagaqon kai to ariston.» Aristóteles, Etica a Nicómaco, I, ii.

38. Cioran, E.M., Tears and Saints, tr. by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.) p. 61.


© Hugo N. Santander 2002
Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

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