Article abstract: With his first three films, Buñuel virtually defined the genre of Surrealist cinema. The thirty-two films that he directed (and often coscripted) establish him as one of the century’s most gifted film auteurs.
The eldest of seven children, Luis Buñuel was born in Calanda, Spain, on February 22, 1900. His father, Leonardo, was a landowner with intellectual interests who died in 1923; his mother, Maria, was a well-educated, devout Catholic. Although Buñuel soon moved with his parents to Zaragoza, he regularly revisited Calanda for Easter weekend, when he would join hundreds of other males in a two-day drumming ritual called the Procession of the Drums. Buñuel received top marks as a student; among his interests were music and zoology. Following his father’s urgings, he entered the Students’ Residence in Madrid to become an agricultural engineer; in 1920, however, he surreptitiously began a two-year course of studies in entomology. A sports enthusiast, he also became the amateur boxing champion of Spain in 1921.
By the early 1920’s, Buñuel had become acquainted with a group of friends that included Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí. Increasingly involved in literary and theatrical pursuits, he began the study of philosophy and letters at the University of Madrid, receiving his degree in 1924. He moved to Paris in 1926 with a letter of introducton to the pianist Ricardo Viñas, who soon assigned him to act as scenic director in the 1926 Amsterdam production of Manuel de Falla’s El retablo de Maese Pedro (1923) under the musical leadership of Willem Mengelberg.
Soon afterward, a viewing of Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod (1921; Destiny) awakened Buñuel to the possibilities of film as an art form. After receiving an introduction to Jean Epstein, he spent the following two years working as assistant director on Mauprat (1926) and La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928; The Fall of the House of Usher), as well as the Josephine Baker vehicle La Sirène des Tropiques (1927; Siren of the Tropics). Buñuel also partook of more personal endeavors, enjoying some recognition as a writer, organizing screenings in Spain, and trying to initiate a number of film projects. Besides writing fiction and poetry, he edited the cinema page of La Gaceta literaria hispanoamerica, writing eight articles that reflected his commitment to Surrealism. In 1928, he helped to organize the Cineclub Español, the second such organization in Spain. That same year, he completed Un Chien andalou (1928; An Andalusian Dog), a collaboration with Dalí.
The seventeen minutes of An Andalusian Dog, among the most unforgettable and widely analyzed in cinema, provided both Buñuel and Dalí with their entry into the Surrealist circle. Buñuel’s savage slicing of an eyeball comprises the film’s most emblematic moment, for, with its revolutionary mixture of brutality, sexuality, and amour, Buñuel’s first film opened Surrealist eyes to the potential of cinema to provoke the public into confronting previously unexplored truths.
Insisting that An Andalusian Dog, with its violent succession of titles and sequences, was “a desperate and passionate appeal to murder,” Buñuel voiced dismay upon discovering that some had found beauty in it. Though L’Âge d’or (1930; The Golden Age) utilized a more coherent story line, it nevertheless sparked one of Paris’ great controversies. An irreverent examination of the tension between human passions and social mores, the film opens with a documentary sequence about scorpions and proceeds to launch stinging attacks on a number of institutions, Catholicism among them. After Fascists and anti-Semites interrupted one of the film’s first screenings, vandalizing the theater, L’Âge d’or was banned in France.
Buñuel left the Surrealist movement in 1932 but remained very sympathetic to its spirit. His documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (1932; Land Without Bread), narrated in bitter, sardonic tones, was a landmark study of life in an impoverished region of Spain. As in his previous films, Buñuel used lush classical music, in this case excerpts from Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, as his score.
Over the following years, Buñuel worked as a dubbing director in Paris and Madrid and oversaw the production of four comedies for the Spanish company Filmófono, leading crews with characteristic discipline and financial restraint. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he assisted the Republican government in Paris, where he supervised the production of a documentary about the conflict.
Following the war’s cessation, Buñuel went to New York, where he worked at the Museum of Modern Art Film Department from 1939 to 1941. There he created documentaries from previously existing footage until anti-Communist paranoia and Dalí’s comments regarding Buñuel’s religious views precipitated his resignation. After a brief stint as a commentator for United States Army Intelligence films, Buñuel lived with his wife,...
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