Of the great filmmakers whose work could be considered surrealist–Fellini, Jodorowsky, Lynch–none were as acutely aware of nor as eager to address class in their work as Luis Buñuel. Known today as the father of cinematic surrealism, the Spanish filmmaker first rose to prominence collaborating with fellow enfant terrible Salvador Dalí to create the iconic short film Un Chien Andalou in 1929. Intended to be a shocking act of counter cultural art, it was ironically well received by the elitists it was meant to offend. When instead of being outraged, the bourgeois class was impressed by the avant garde techniques and dreamlike aesthetic conjured by the two young surrealists, Buñuel and Dalí were defeated, feeling that they failed in their mission to shock and offend the sensibilities of polite society. “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or is about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?”, Buñuel wrote in an edition of La Révolution surréaliste, a popular publication at the time among Paris surrealists.
L’Age d’Or (Age of Gold) was Buñuel’s next film, which he again wrote with Dalí. However, before production began on the film, a rift emerged between the two artists when a stark difference in their politics became apparent. Apparently, Dalí was chiefly interested in offending the Church with blasphemous imagery, whereas Buñuel sought to criticize the entire upper class and make a leftist political statement with his film. Buñuel ultimately won out and directed the film, despite having little knowledge of filmmaking. The result was so shocking and bizarre that it caused extreme controversy at the time of its release in 1930; riots over the sacrilegious imagery erupted, led by right wing, anti-semetic protestors who chanted “kill the Jews” as they stormed the exhibition venue, destroying paintings by Dalí and other surrealists. The rioters ultimately got their way and the film was banned from public presentation, but Buñuel had no doubt succeeded in this latest effort to scandalize high-society.
The film was so controversial in 1930 largely due to its satire of the Catholic Church, but watching it in 2020, what stands out as equally relevant is its skewering of the upper class. A ruthless satire of modern society, specifically targeting the sexually repressive nature of the Church, Age of Gold is filled with imagery that makes apparent Buñuel’s distaste for institutions of power and the bourgeoisie. In a particularly memorable and darkly hilarious scene, a kitchen full of servants burns to death while a gathering of 1-percenters sips cocktails, barely moved by the sight of their servant’s fiery demise. This crude, unsubtle vignette marks an early example of Buñuel’s eagerness to visualize class relations, and though his technique as a filmmaker would evolve extraordinarily over the subsequent five decades, his main thrust as an artist never strayed too far from the political sentiments expressed in Age of Gold: a bitter resentment towards both the bourgeoisie and the Church, the two consistent targets of his caustic satire.
In 1931, Buñuel shocked the elite again with the release of Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread), a staged ethnographic piece documenting the people of the Las Hurdes region of Spain. The documentary showcases the extreme poverty of the region, openly depicting the disease, disfigurement, famine and desperation of its citizens. Political in its intent, Land Without Bread reads like a statement about how certain areas of Spain had been left behind, their residents abandoned by modern civilization. Like Age of Gold, Land Without Bread was banned from distribution, as it seemingly embarrassed both the Spanish government at the time of its release as well as the conservative government that later took over the country.
Buñuel’s politics and worldview were molded dramatically by the Spanish Civil War, which was going on concurrent to his own rise in artistic prominence. Moved by the rise of the far-right Falange party in Spain, Buñuel joined the Communist party in 1931 and spent the war years of 1936-1939 as a devoted employee of Spain’s leftist Republican government, honing his cinematic techniques by making propaganda films. Meanwhile, Salvadore Dalí found himself aligned with the far-right Falange. While Buñuel remained resolute in his opposition and eventually left Spain, Dalí had become a sympathizer of Franco and the Catholic Church.
Buñuel’s career spanned 5 decades, and would see him work in Spain, the United States, Mexico and France. He made films of all varieties and concerning many subject matters, perfecting his technique and ability to use film as a method of storytelling and political statement. Buñuel never seemed interested in surrealism as a form of fantasy or escapism from the realities surrounding him; for him, it was always a tool to illustrate his worldview and philosophy in a manner both strikingly explicit and uniquely his own.
In 1962’s The Exterminating Angel, made in Mexico, Buñuel returned to a thesis he realized many times throughout his filmography: that the rich are little more than primitive animals in disguise. In the film, a bougie group of aristocrats meet for a dinner party, but when the meal is over, they simply do not, and cannot leave. This goes on for hours, then days, then weeks, until even these aristocrats–society’s most elegant and sophisticated–are reduced to savage beasts, unable to control their primitive wants and needs. An allegory for the elite class of Franco’s Spain, The Exterminating Angel represents Buñuel’s satire at its very most savage and unforgiving.
Luis Buñuel never abandoned surrealism as a form of storytelling and expression, nor did he ever abandon his leftist values as a filmmaker. In the twilight of his career, Buñuel wrote and directed a series of masterpieces, including Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and Belle de Jour (1967), the iconic Catherine Deneuve-starring tale of a French housewife who becomes a daytime prostitute. In Belle de Jour, as most all Buñuel films, class dynamics lie prominent in the background of everything. The film’s ultimate point, that an upper class lifestyle is inherently a bit boring, and would leave anyone unfulfilled, is one of his least scathing or sardonic. 1970’s Tristana, however, which likewise starred Deneuve, is one of Buñuel’s most overtly socialist and feminist films, and one of his works most due for a rediscovery. Notable for its provocative deconstruction of oppressive patriarchal structures prevalent in society, Tristana is one of Buñuel’s most unfairly ignored films.
In his “Search for Truth” trilogy, the director came into his final, most absurdist form. Hungry for answers and eager to offend, Buñuel made The Milky Way in 1969, a cinematic pontification on religion which completed his career-long obsession with satirizing the Church and questioning the every inherent value and cultural tradition of Christianity. Then came The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1972 and Phantom of Liberty (the title of which is a reference to the Communist Manifesto) in 1974, two career-defining masterpieces which serve as syntheses of Buñuel’s favorite themes and ideas. This trilogy of subversive classics, in addition to his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire, comprise a final act of Buñuel’s career that perfectly concludes the director’s body of work. In these films, the rich and “sophisticated” are lampooned to no end, painted as dumb, out-of-touch elitists whose servants refer to them as “master” and whose affairs Buñuel finds endless joy in probing and deriding. Though many of these later-period films seem more concerned with pontification and searching for answers than in casting judgements or making bold moral declarations, Buñuel’s politics were always at the forefront of his cinema, and color the moral fabric of his art to a foundational degree.
From his years as a Paris surrealist provoking the elite to the end of his career making distinguished fine-art films, Luis Buñuel’s surrealist cinema was always defined by an overtly proletarian perspective. It’s this class-conscious lens, as well as his relentless satire of the Church’s relationship to culture, which makes Buñuel’s work so enduring to this day, especially in the United States, where economic disparity between classes is at outrageous levels and the ruling class wields increasing power over a working class no longer able to determine their own livelihood or future. Surrealism was a radical artistic movement, and it’s fitting that one of its founders was likewise a revolutionary, always aware of and eager to destroy society’s most oppressive institutions.