Sierra de Teruel = Espoir

Sierra de Teruel = Espoir

Image: Sierra de Teruel (Espoir), André Malraux.


18:00 Presentation: Santos Zunzunegui

19:00 Sierra de Teruel, André Malraux, France, 1937-1939, 88' (OV ES)


Within the context of André Malraux’s increasingly active political militancy and deep commitment to the anti-fascist cause, the world-renowned writer and intellectual would arrive in Madrid during the first days of the Spanish Civil War (specifically, 25 July 1936) to study possible means of supporting Spain’s legitimate government that could be orchestrated from France. Back in Paris, all of his energy would be concentrated on facilitating the delivery of fighter planes to Spain that the Republic needed. Yet the French government was resisting this operation at the time due to pressure from right-wing parties and limits imposed by their international agreements. Finally, some sixty planes piloted by aviators who were offered mercenary contracts arrived in Spain in early August. These planes made up the "España” Squadron, with which the writer played an active part in more than seventy combat flights.


When in December 1936, with the squadron already incorporated into the regular military (following the mercenaries’ departure the month prior), André Malraux was involved in a dramatic accident at the La Señera airport (near Valencia), the Republican government suggested to the novelist that his activities to support the Spanish people may be more efficiently beneficial if he were to exploit his intellectual notoriety. As such, Malraux would leave for the United States and Canada in mid-February 1937 in representation of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals Alliance with the purpose of raising funds for Republican hospitals and, above all, to spread acceptance of the legitimate Spanish government’s justification in their fight against factious soldiers, and to attempt to mobilise public opinion against the arms embargo imposed on Spain by the US Congress on 6 January 1937. For two months, Malraux would speak at numerous conferences in the US and Canada and, according to the repeated testimonial of Max Aub, it would be during this tour that the catalyst for Sierra de Teruel appeared: an offer was made to Malraux to make Republican propaganda available at some 1,800 cinemas in the United States, where a film would shown fictionalising the events that Spain had experienced. With average daily ticket sales estimated at two thousand, an opportunity had appeared to reach more than tree million hearts and minds.


The days of the American tournée also saw the beginnings of the novel that would bear the title L’Espoir, whose public appearance would take place first as a serial drama in Louis Aragon’s paper Ce soir, the monthly magazine N. R. F., and the weekly Vendredi, before finally being published in book-form in December 1937. Everything seemed to indicate that the first découpage of the film was created in January 1938. On an unknown day in April or May of 1938 at the Ministry of Public Instruction, the following conversation took place between André Malraux and Max Aub, then Secretary of the Central Council of Theatre: 


-I’ve been on the fence between Corpus and you. You.

-I don’t know anything about film.

-Me neither.

-If it were theatre...

-It’s film. Here’s the synopsis. They’re finishing the script in Paris. Vayo is on-board. Negrín too. Translate this. You’ll translate the script. Organise what you need to and look. Then the technicians will come. 


At that point, Malraux’s project had full support from the Ministry of Propaganda, which was directed at the time by Manuel Sánchez Arcas. With filming in France with French actors dismissed due to a lack of funds, the film ended up being shot in Spain with Spanish actors, which added to its “nationalisation” by providing the Republican government 100,000 French francs and 750,000 Spanish pesetas of unprecedented economic support.


Filming took place between the months of July 1938 and January 1939 in Barcelona’s Orphea studios and the city’s own streets (Santa Ana, Montcada, Pueblo Español), as well as various regions of Catalonia (Prat del Llobregat, Tarragona, Cervera, Collbató, Monserrat). As previously mentioned, Max Aub worked on translating the original dialogues to Spanish, while also collaborating in the search for the right natural scenes and securing the necessary coordination with Spanish authorities. When Barcelona fell into Franco's hands in January of 1939, a considerable number (eleven to be exact) of the scenes planned in the script (39 in total) still needed to be filmed. Thanks to the fact that the negatives would be developed in France, Malraux was able to capture essential images with continuity in the Parisian studios of Joinville and in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, whose Notre-Dame square became Linás, as a way of completing his work. Voice-over work was also completed there (with Max Aub providing the voice of Schreiner played by Pedro Codina) with the help of French producer Edouard Corniglion-Molinier. Meanwhile, at the advice of Denise Tual, the wife of Roland Tual (co-director of the film’s production together with Fernando Gómez Mantilla), Malraux would ask Darius Milhaud to compose the film’s score. This soundtrack would only cover the final sequence of the wounded pilots’ “descent” from the Sierra. 


Following an arduous editing process, the first copy of the film was ready to be shown in early June 1939. By that time, the war in Spain had ended with a rebel victory. Everything seemed to point to the film being shown just twice in the months of July and August that same year in Paris. These two showings would be private sessions, as public screenings of the film had been banned through censorship actions that September, which appear to have resulted from pressure exerted by the then French Ambassador to Madrid, Marshal Philippe Petain.


During the Second World War, the German occupying forces destroyed the negatives and all copies of the film that they could find. Only one of these was saved, after being found by mistake in another film’s cans. It was precisely this copy that served as a starting point for the colour-matched print run that paved the way for those allowing for a June 1945 commercial release following the end of the global conflagration. In December of that same year, the film was honoured with the Louis-Delluc award. By that point the name had been changed to Espoir, with its header being modified to omit, for example, the name of Vicente Petit (responsible for the sets) and more than a few Spanish actors. The names of Corniglion-Molinier and Roland Tual had been added as producers, together with seven supposedly explanatory subtitles written by Denis Marion (also responsible for the French subtitles) that were meant to fill the gap apparently left by the sequences not filmed. As if that weren’t enough, a pompous and unnecessary speech by Maurice Schumann was added as a prologue to the film, which was thought to be an attempt to update its meaning. Much more succinct and precise was the prologue that Corniglion-Molinier included in the final print of the film. It merits retaining the idea this prologue highlights, explaining that Sierra de Teruel demonstrates “the nobility of a fugitive fight on the ground amongst unaffected elements that assist the combatant and remain, while man is destined to move on”. This idea points directly to the harsh, mythical core of Malraux’s work.




With all of the above stated, the scope and value of the film remains to be explained. To do so, it is important not to forget that, from our modern perspective, Sierra de Teruel/Espoir appears to be an essentially decentralised piece that relates to a whole series of nodal aspects around which the problems of the cinematic creation revolve.


Firstly, Sierra de Teruel seems decentralised if we consider it from an authorship perspective. Although this is simply because we are discussing the only piece of film by a writer, adventurer, politician, and man of action that embraced film from a creative perspective one single time under unique, once-in-a-lifetime circumstances. Undoubtedly, this unique aspect has something to do with some of the qualities of the film that, as André Bazin understood, makes it a “great fan film”. Insomuch as it is impossible when viewing Sierra de Teruel, to rid ourselves of the sensation that we are before someone that is contemplating the creation of a film with a total lack of preconceived notions, with an openness of spirit that is not typically found in those that chose film making as their profession and craft. 


Admittedly, later contact with Malraux’s film remains relevant: firstly, as the author of a short text published in 1946 reflecting on the seventh art (although, Malraux would point out, written in 1939 based on experience gained from creating “the fragments” –the italics are my own- of L’Espoir) entitled Esquisse d’une psychologie du cinéma; secondly, when he was Minister of Culture in De Gaulle government’s and developed the law to protect cinema at the end of the 1950s based on the famous “avance sur recettes” (payment in advance for box office performance) that allowed for the emergence of the “Nouvelle Vague”.


Yet this decentralisation adopts complex forms. This because, while true that we find ourselves before a piece from a non-filmmaker, it remains true that we are dealing with a writer whose style has been described on more than one occasion as having cinematic nature . Meaningless are the reproaches made against the film for being an incomplete piece whose understanding, they say, is made difficult by its unfinished state. Malraux’s creative conception is not judged by what Bazin, in his memorable text on Sierra de Teruel, called “the aesthetic of the discontinuous selection of moments”. If the French critic is indeed correct in recalling that, in film, “true gaps of cinematic narration are rarely perceived as an ellipses”, it is no less true that in Malraux’s art (literary, cinematic), ellipses and gaps are used to stimulate the audience’s imagination, while most filmmakers and writers tend to treat them as beings devoid of intuition, if not intelligence. To the contrary, in Sierra de Teruel the lack of certain transitional scenes is integrated naturally with the piece’s final sketch in the same way that discontinuity was already an essential dimension of the project’s peculiar stylistics. 


Likewise, numerous literary critics have pointed out various dimensions of Malraux’s literature that allow it to be characterised as “cinematic”. Without entering into debate regarding the logic of such an assertion, I will focus on some elements whose parallel stylistic use (in the novel, in the film) once again allows for the identity of the creative activity to be underlined regardless of the material medium in play. Firstly, this is the case for the author’s extreme sensibility towards the universe of sound in which the scenes described or filmed unfold. Two examples, taken just at the start and end of L’Espoir (Man’s Hope) the novel, reliably illustrate this idea. Anyone who reads the book’s first few pages could not help considering the extraordinary sound environment that is established with the Estación del Norte's central telephone. This environment is dominated by the ringing of telephone calls that take place over a background of “lorry racket” (page 3), and “the sound of songs and recoiling riffles” (page 5). Further on, that same night, Malraux would describe “the night so charged with turbid, limitless hope, the night when every man had something to do on the ground. Ramos heard a far-off drum as the beating of his heart” (page 21). No less suggestive is the sound description that brings the book to a close (which echoed the opening to a certain extent), where interior and exterior sounds were superimposed until they melted together in Manuel’s consciousness: “For the first time, Manuel heard the voice of that more grave than the blood of men, more worrisome than their presence on the ground: the infinite possibility of his destiny; and he felt within himself the mixed presence of the sound of streams, and the footsteps of prisoners, persistent and profound as the beating of his heart” (page 491). 


The film shares a similar sensitivity to sound, with the benefit of having the sounds convened directly. Throughout the development of action, dialogues are placed on a bed of sound that weaves a sort of tapestry of background texture comprised of rattling machine guns, bleating sheep, mooing cows, and singing birds. James Agee described the quality of the sound texture in Sierra de Teruel by affirming that in it coexisted 


“mixtures and harmonies in a street where echoes abound, the wallows of the cattle, the crow of the rooster on top of the metallic, vindictive sound of the prodigious guitar of modern war”. 


Agee goes a step further by defending the musical dimension of a film whose way of organising itself, he would say, is based on “miscellaneous scenes of exhibition”, similar to the moments when an orchestra is tuning its instruments before launching (the night take off over the orange trees) into its climax (the bombing of the enemy aviation camp, the air combat), then finally building a descending coda (both narrative and visual) that brings the story to a close.


As if that weren’t enough, it should be noted that Malraux’s writing is often structured as if it were governed by a moving target that takes focus on and off of fragments of reality in the same way a filmmaker directs viewers’ attention towards different points within the space. The scene in which the Asturian dynamiters face the rebel tanks in section II, II, 7 of Part One of the novel offers a perfect example of this technique: 


    “Pepe just dropped to the ground. González stretches out. The tank is four hundred metres away, and is hidden by the silhouettes of the grasses that would catch on his friends’ sleeves as a child, a plot of wild oats and a tall daisy; the ants are already wandering around it. A tiny spider as well. Beings that live that way, there at ground level, in this oasis of land far from life and war. Behind the busy ants came the roaring and rumbling shadow of the oblique tank” (page 231). 


    Throughout the film, when the men’s actions are confronted by the indifference of nature (the ant that runs crazily around the sight of the bomber’s machine gun), we can’t help but recognise one of the established hallmarks of Malraux’s style (see below).




More precisely, this leads us to question the relationships that are established between the novel (L’Espoir) and the film (Sierra de Teruel). Is Sierra de Teruel an adaptation of L’Espoir? Yes, insomuch as the entire final block of the film comes directly from part III, section III of the book. No, insomuch as all of the action before that is original, even if dialogues, situations, and images taken from different sections of the novel are used extensively. We see some of these “slides” from the literary text to the cinematic script that provide the story with a particular density. Some of these are moments such as the car crashing into the cannon, and later flight of doves (swallows that would change direction mid-air in the cinematic version) that cast a shadow on the faces of the fallen (pages 33-34 of the Spanish edition). Another of these moments would be the famous quote from a country girl during the funeral that opens the film. In the novel, this line is given to a waitress at the bar of an airport where (as in the film) a Republican plane just took a nosedive in flames (“you need at least an hour before the soul can start to be seen”, page 162). Also resurrected for the screen is the moment in which, “on the wall, between the maps, a box of butterflies. A bombshell explodes quite near the farm house. A second bombshell: a butterfly comes loose, falls to the base of the box, the pin still stuck tight” (page 390), which would be used in sequence IV within the back room of a drug store. 


As for the rest, Malraux himself made it perfectly clear in his response to Bazin’s criticism when he affirmed that the connection that can be found between specific landscapes in the book and certain scenes in the film 


“do not come from the book’s influence, but rather obsession, the power of memory in both cases. From a sort of submission to this memory, for the desire to film (and write) exact things on the ground in the war when dealing with events that I witnessed”.


From here, the most reasonable would be to consider both pieces as the result of a single creative impulse, insomuch as the two respond to an identical demand to come to terms with a recent, traumatic experience. An experience before which art later reveals itself as the only way of accessing the possibility of bringing order to chaos or, if you prefer, using Malraux’s double formula of “organising this apocalypse” whose exercise was carried out on Spanish soil with the purpose of “converting an experience into awareness spread as widely as possible”.




The decentralisation of the film also extends to its nationality. If we set aside the administrative and other types of vicissitudes that have transformed Sierra de Teruel into Espoir , thus “nationalising” it as French, the most sensible thing would be to confirm that we are dealing with a Spanish film by a French author. This is less paradoxical than it seems if we think along with Jorge Semprún that 


“It should be noted that Sierra de Teruel is a Spanish film, and we must add that this Spanish character was quite important to André Malraux. His life and work were in function of a mythological perspective on Spanish realities, in function of the major themes of all his work: the theme of death, the theme of brotherhood, the theme of tragic destiny. In Spain, not just with the Civil War, but also other prior events, there is a coincidence, a knot that was never untangled: Malraux’s political commitment and involvement, his tragic vision of the life that in Spain is expressed absolutely (...) The agreement between this intense feeling of brotherhood, the feeling of commitment, of passion, and the commitment to solidarity are all included very beautifully in the book and film”.


From the perspective of Sierra de Teruel, a terrain is presented in which two movements converge under the imperatives of a commitment both political and artistic. On one hand, the individual drive of an artist (French) whose fundamental concerns were finely tuned to a high degree with a substantial part of the cultural traditions of the country where the film was shot; on the other, the collective will of a people (Spanish) and their political representatives to produce a singular artistic work that would spread the story of the Spanish people’s fight in defence of their liberties through the power of film and fiction. As nearly the only case in history, this work can be considered to be the second plate of a diptych formed of two distinctive works due to the expressive materials employed, but profoundly connected in spirit and aesthetic mechanisms set in motion.




No less is the eccentricity of Sierra de Teruel if we wish to consider its place in film history. There is unanimity in considering that the film prolongs a tradition while foreshadowing another to come. Unquestionably, it prolongs the tradition of political films that had been building up an entire repertoire of committed work during the previous two decades from leftist positions, essentially at the hand of Soviet cinema. It foreshadows film that could barely be imagined at that time (the end of the 1930s), and would have to wait until the end of the Second World War to make its début on the scene. It is precisely its restrictive situation straddling the past and the future from which a large part of Sierra de Teruel’s aesthetic strength is retrospectively extracted. This is configured as the necessary link connecting two antithetical ways of understanding film: on one hand, the lessons of Soviet film of the 1920s with its appeal for collective support, its emphasis on the materialist epic, and its open political discursiveness; on the other, the emergence of certain characterisations that would later be predicated by neo-realist film such as the attention to inserting the particular into the general (which would be one of the essential lessons of films such as Paisà), the way limitations -money, technical means, time- are transcended in the specific work of the filmmaker up to the point in which they are naturally integrated into the creative development of the piece and, quite particularly, the exemplary synthesis between documentary and fictional strategies that Sierra de Teruel proposes. To the first set belongs both the use of non-professional actors in important roles, or using professional actors in roles that were radically different from their previous experience, such as the use of concise dialogues or dialogues full of expressions that are extraordinarily sensitive to dialectal accents and successfully imitating popular speech –through the use of refrains, interjections, or seeking out rural pithiness- without renouncing flowery archaisms of a clearly literary nature, without it being necessary to insist upon the essential role played by Aub’s translation of Malraux’s beautiful dialogues in this area. To the second set belongs the importation of parallel editing used in the first part of the film, or the establishment of a certain degree of suspense regarding whether the Republican air force would achieve their goals. 




For the rest, Malraux was always quite aware of the fact that the plot of a story when limited to itself was artistically null: In fact, as proposed in his famous prologue to the French edition of the novel Sanctuary by Faulkner, plot as such had no more importance than a game of chess. The fictional plot (narrative, in more precise terms) should be at the service of a meditation on man. For this reason it is important to underline that, while it is true that the sources of inspiration for both the novel and film come from a direct line between human experience and their author, it would be worthless if he was unable to transform an entire series of abstract themes like brotherhood between men, impassiveness before death, or revolutionary hope into singular images first through literary use, and then by cinematic transposition of a series of rhetorical figures (ellipsis, comparison, metaphor)
whose handling leads the way to the appearance of what André Bazin called the langue imagée of a piece in which the concrete always follows the cosmic.


Just as he would express years later in his essay on film, in the end, “whether it wants to or not, film rediscovers a domain from which art can never remain absent: the myth”. This is an operation that film carries out by inserting human actions into the natural forces that place them in a wider perspective than would be capable the mere political contingency that appears to immediately justify them. This is the role played in Sierra de Teruel by an entire series of images, varied in their nature and recurrent in their meaning, running from the butterflies that fall from the boom of the artillery to the flight of the swallows that follows the death of Carral, the presence of withered sunflowers that punctuate the death of the fascist innkeeper, the migration of the quails observed by the aviators during their mission, or the flight of the birds of prey during the “Descent” sequence. 

Yet if we want to refer to the most meaningful moments in this sense, we must refer to the drop of water that falls inside a canister as if subtracting inevitable time, unaware of the tragedy that the group of men huddled in the back room of the drug store are about to face. Another, no less fascinating example is the ant that moves around the circle formed by the machine gun’s sight during aerial combat. This image sums up that will to “artistically unite man with the world (in the sense of cosmos) through the different means of language” that Malraux repeated expressed, helping to provide “the action with a metaphysical illumination” (Bazin’s precise words).



Taking on the marvellous final sequence is inevitable if we want to understand the precise scope of these ideas. If we consider the aviators’ final descent towards Linares, it would suffice to refer to the equivalent episode in the novel in order to become aware of the procession that engraves its wounds in Z-formation (“Z of death”, in the words of Jorge Semprún), visually transcribing the literary text in the impassiveness of the mountain:

 “They kept pace, an orderly pace that was slower on each decline; and that rhythm in concert with the pain seemed to fill that immense gorge where the birds screeched, as it would have been filled by the roll of the drums at a funeral march. Yet it was not death that, at that moment, agreed with the mountains: it was the will of men” (page 466). 

All of this incarnated in an imaginary that is conceived as a synthetic transcription of western (and Spanish) artistic tradition of the Descent from the cross and the Sorrowful Mother, with the places of these figures being occupied by the imposing rock face of Montserrat and the valley that collects the bodies of the fallen aviators in the film. James Agee saw the iconic sources of the scene with clarity: 

“The descent of the broken heroes from the rocky peak of Spain, as if descending from the cross to the maternal valley is the result of a choreography conceived so that an entire people and their territory form a triumphant Pietà for 20th-century man”.  

In this way, Malraux placed his work on a line that, since the end of the Middle Ages, had progressively been shrugging off the pathetisation to which religious art had been indulging in, replacing it with a consistent aesthetisation in 

“The search for forms that establish a distance between the spectator and the image that is totally different from the religious distance on which admiration is most confusingly slipped in”.



From here comes the complexity of meanings articulated by the film. Far from the banal celebration of international solidarity or regret over the deficient conditions of the weapons used by the Republican forces, the spectator is offered the emergency of a lyric, collective, and internationalist awareness that is articulated around the will to fight against fascism sustained by the profound unnecessariness of the act that summarised it: “No one forced him to fight”, the anonymous voice narrating the novel would point out plainly in the episode that gives substance to the last sequence of the film. “I came because I was bored”, we hear from the mouth of Pol, one of the aviators from sequence XXVI of the film, when the brigade members are discussing the various reasons that brought them to the war in Spain. 


For the other reasons, it remains paradoxical that one of the film’s titles ended up being Espoir when the piece is filled with the idea of death, even though death is accepted through the characteristic stoicism of Malraux’s heroes: “Even at full speed, if you go in sideways against just about anything, you don’t always die” / “And you miss the cannon. Even straight on you don’t always die”, goes one of the film’s dialogues, precisely at the moment in which Carral and Agustín (Negus and Puig in the book) prepare themselves to run their car into the cannon that is impeding their exit from the city. 

In fact, all of the film’s action is placed within a narrative framework created by the double homage to the fallen fighters that comprise the extraordinary secular funeral that serves as the opening and exciting final sequence.

Let us consider for a moment that, in contrast to those occurring in a film like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, S. M. Eisenstein, 1925), so many times mentioned due to its parallels with Malraux’s work, here the story closes with a scene paying popular homage to the fighters. In the novel, written one year prior, the text closes with the victorious battle of Guadalajara following this episode. If “the hope” from the book was, without question, that of a difficult but still possible final victory, the more abstract hope of the film would refer to the celebration of this “leftist blood” that, initially, was considered as the title for the film.

Ultimately, from the novel to the film, we have moved from warning to remembrance (in terms of meaning). In the same way, this is how (in terms of artistic figures) the unfinished torso that is the finished film ended up changing into a funeral tombstone for the Spanish Republic. It would be for precisely these reasons that the daring project promoted by Republican government request reached a transcendence capable of guaranteeing the survival of values of solidarity and fraternity beyond the purely circumstantial that today, more than seventy years after its translation into images, continue to speak to the contemporary viewer. That is why, together with the words of James Agee closing his review of Sierra de Teruel, appear the words:

“Homer could see in her the only work of our time that is attuned to him”.

If the vicissitudes of man in Homer’s piece stood out against the backdrop provided by the gods and their quarrels, in Malraux the missteps of the anti-fascist fighters are confronted with the unaffected nature that helps change human conflicts. That is why the last scene of the film amplifies and collects all of the images we referred to above in a single movement, giving them a unitary meaning. Nothing better expresses the value and, at the same time, the unnecessariness of the revolutionary gesture than this “secular descent” carried out in the middle of a natural landscape that will live on when the human actions taking place in its heart have been extinguished. 


* This text revises and summarises that published by its author under the title “El sueño vulnerable (Sierra de Teruel / Espoir, André Malraux, 1939)” in Historias de España. De qué hablamos cuando hablamos de cine español, Santender, Shangrila ediciones, 2018.






A) Works by André Malraux:

- Oeuvres complètes, vols. I-VI, Bibliothèque La Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard, 1997-2010.

- Psicología del cine, Buenos Aires, J.I., 1959.

- La esperanza (Spanish-language version by José Bianco), Barcelona, EDHASA, 1978.


B) About André Malraux:

- Olivier Todd, André Malraux. Une vie, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2001 (édition revue).

- Denis Marion, Le cinéma selon André Malraux, Paris, Editions Cahiers du Cinéma, 1996.


C) About Sierra de Teruel:

- “Sierra de Teruel, cincuenta años de esperanza“, Archivos de la Filmoteca, No. 3, September/November 1989; Vicente Ponce edition.

- Sierra de Teruel. André Malraux, Mexico, Era, 1968.

- James Agee, “Sierra de Teruel [L’espoir, 1938], de André Malraux“, in Escritos sobre cine, Barcelona, Paidós, 2001, pages 187-191.

- Ferrán Alberich, “Sierra de Teruel: una coproducción circunstancial“, Cuadernos de la Academia, No. 5 (Minutes from the VII Congress of the AEHC, Cáceres, December 1997), 1999, pages 43-58.

- André Bazin, “L‘Espoir. Du style au cinéma”, Poésie, No. 26-27, 1945. Included with “Une lettre d‘André Malraux”, in Le cinéma de l‘occupation et de la resistence, Paris, U.G.E., 1975, pages. 175-188, and in Le cinéma français de la libération à la Nouvelle Vague (1945-1958), Paris, Editions de l‘Étoile, 1983, pages 157-165. There is a Spanish-language version in Archivos de la Filmoteca, No. 3, pages 294-301.