The story of Guernica’s darkest day reaches the cinema screen
‘There are still two versions of what happened that day,’ says film’s director Koldo Serra
The bombing of the town of Guernica was one of the defining moments of the Spanish civil war. The attack by the German Luftwaffe on the Basque town, on a market day in April 1937, killed dozens of civilians, highlighting the horror of the conflict. But it also confirmed Nazi military support for Spain’s right-wing rebels, adding to the war’s international subtext and its status as a prelude to the second World War.
Within weeks, Pablo Picasso had immortalised the episode with his famous Guernica painting. But for nearly eight decades, film-makers stayed away. As Eldiario.es newspaper put it, this was “a black hole in the history of our cinema”. Until now, that is.
Koldo Serra, a Basque director, has brought the bombing of Guernica to the big screen, the first time this has ever been done in Spain. Guernica (or Gernika in Basque), which opened this month in Spanish cinemas, tells the story of the attack from the point of view of a group of foreign journalists who are covering the war.
With an international cast, a love affair between the jaded American newspaper reporter Henry (James D’Arcy) and Teresa (María Valverde), a press censor working for the leftist republic, is played out against the backdrop of the build-up to the bombing.
“I think there was a pending debt with Guernica,” says Serra (41), speaking in a cafe in his hometown of Bilbao.
“It’s something which has hardly been tackled. Abroad, when we were trying to sell the film, we were surprised to find out that people know the [Picasso] painting, but they don’t know the story behind it.”
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Among the reasons why film-makers have avoided Guernica in the past (there have been documentaries and a TV mini-series), Serra lists the technical and financial challenges. But there is another difficulty: the lack of consensus about what took place.
“When we were preparing the film, we spoke to survivors who would describe the three-and-a-half hours that the bombing lasted and then there were people who said it wasn’t like that, that it only lasted 10 minutes. There are still two versions of what happened that day.”
Among the details which have lacked consensus is the number of casualties. The official death toll is just over 100, but much higher according to other sources.
Any film about Spain’s civil war is liable to be scrutinised for evidence of bias. However, although it is Franco’s German allies who bomb the town, the Soviet influence on the leftist Republic is cast in a particularly sinister light.
“We’ve tried to be impartial,” Serra explains. “We thought criticism would come more from the political right, but actually it’s come more from the far left, saying that we’re anti-communist. But the film isn’t anti-communist, it’s anti-war.”
Although much of Guernica focuses on the romance, the drama inevitably builds towards the bombing itself, which is conveyed in brutal fashion.
Although the film is a fictionalised version of events, Serra chose to use some verified details to devastating effect, such as the image of a woman standing, key in hand, before an empty space where her home had been seconds earlier.
Therefore, the emotional reaction of many members of the public has been particularly gratifying.
“In Barcelona [after one showing of the film], one elderly woman came up to me and she wanted to say something but she couldn’t find the words,” he says. “So she just hugged me. She couldn’t talk because she was crying so much.”