Henri Cartier-Bresson Film Found in ALBA Archive
In late summer 1937, former editor of the journal New Theater, Herbert Kline, traveled to Spain with French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and cameraman Jacques Lemare to shoot a documentary about the sanitary services of the American Medical Bureau, an organization created in the United States to aid Spanish democracy.
The previous spring, Kline had been in Madrid working as a journalist for EAR, the Spanish government’s English language shortwave radio broadcasting station. He had been approached by the Hungarian photographer Gerza Karpathi to write a script for Dr. Norman Bethune to create a film on the work of his Blood Transfusion Institute in Spain. Neither Karpathi nor Kline had ever made a movie, but they became filmmakers overnight to produce the footage that was later edited as Heart of Spain.
Kline returned to New York City and gave the film to his friends Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz of Frontier Films, who, with additional footage from newsreels and discards from Joris Ivens’ Spanish Earth, created the documentary. When the film was released in September 1937, Kline was already in Spain, this time with a commission from the American Medical Bureau to collaborate with Henri Cartier-Bresson on a second film produced by Frontier Films.
Cartier-Bresson had studied documentary filmmaking with Paul Strand in New York City in 1935 and had been assistant director to Jean Renoir in two films in 1936. He had decided to become a film director and leave behind his career as a photographer. Frontier Films knew Kline had the contacts needed in Spain to produce the film, and Cartier-Bresson had the experience, although limited, to direct the movie. Return to Life would be his first film.
After working on a script in Paris, the newly appointed documentarians went to Madrid to shoot, and later to the hospital of the international brigades, Villa Paz, in Saelices, near the Spanish capital. They traveled to the Valencian coast to film the recovery of wounded volunteers in the villas of Benicassim. They took two days off from the shooting to visit the Abraham Lincoln Brigade near the front to document its actions in Spain. The diaries of Robert Merriman, Chief of Staff of the Brigade, place the filmmakers in Quinto on the Aragon front on October 28, 1937, where the Americans were stationed after the fight for Fuentes de Ebro, just before moving to Ambite, near Madrid. Merriman reports that they were shooting two movies, one “sanitary film” on the medical aid to Spain, and another one on the “L.W. Boys [Lincoln-Washington battalion].”
At the time Pierre Assouline wrote his biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1999, the filmmakers had forgotten ever having shot With The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Although the documentary is mentioned in several filmographies of the Spanish Civil War, all assumed the film was lost.
During my research on the photographs taken by the Photographic Unit of the XV International Brigade, I found several images of the three filmmakers shooting in Quinto with their 35mm Eyemo movie cameras. The photographs show the filmmakers in action, documenting scenes that match those shown on a short film that the office of the Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade has had for decades. It is indeed the lost documentary that the Daily Worker announced on May 20, 1938, as showing “intimate scenes of the American volunteers in the war against fascism.”
With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain narrates the life of Americans in Spain from the time they trained near the front, waiting to be mobilized, to the time they saw action, were wounded, and were sent to hospitals. It features close-ups of the volunteers, the nurses who treated them, and the locals they met while recovering from their wounds. There are never-before-seen scenes of Madrid during the fall of 1937, the first of only two showers the internationals ever took in Spain, courtesy of the French Steel Workers Union, and an unlikely soccer game in Benicassim.
The film was used in the United States to raise funds to bring American volunteers back home. Although shot in 35mm, it was distributed around the country in 16mm to be shown in union halls, clubs, and other small venues.
The photographs of the shooting at Quinto help clarify the role of the three filmmakers during the shooting of both Return to Life and With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain and confirm what Kline had declared in the 1970s about the shooting: “The visual ideas were mostly Cartier-Bresson’s.” While Kline acted as producer, securing the contacts needed to shoot both with the Brigade and at the hospitals, Cartier-Bresson and Lemare handled the cameras to fulfill the visual narrative that Cartier-Bresson had in mind.
The editing of Return to Life was done in Paris by Laura Séjour, working closely with Cartier-Bresson. The editing of the different sequences of With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade probably happened simultaneously. The production of the intertitles, aimed at an American audience, might have been done either in Paris, with the input of Kline, who was familiar with some of the members of the Brigade, or back in the United States at Frontier Films. Kline declared that although Laura Séjour was the editor of Return to Life, Cartier-Bresson should be fully credited for the editorial decisions of the movie, a statement we can extend to the editing of With the Lincoln Brigade in Spain, since some of the scenes that appeared in it were shot simultaneously with the shooting of materials for the other film.
Unscripted and apparently free from the constraints of having to fulfill a formal commission, With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain seems to have allowed the still photographer to explore the possibilities of the moving pictures, placing himself behind the camera. Adding a temporal dimension to portraits of the volunteers and the crab dolly shots he used in several sequences, Cartier-Bresson contributed his sensitivity as a photographer to a medium that he ultimately would abandon after World War II, but that witnessed the transition between his photographic work from the early 1930s, influenced by the surrealists, and his later work, imbued with a humanism he embraced during the Spanish Civil War in contact with the Spanish people he encountered.
With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain shows the impact of the documentary work of Luis Buñuel and the images that his photographer friend Eli Lotar shot as cinematographer in Las Hurdes. Land without Bread (1932), but released in France only months before Cartier-Bresson left Paris to shoot in Spain. The appearance of With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain is an extremely interesting transitional episode in the career of the French photographer and offers further evidence of the intertwining of photography and documentary cinema during the Spanish Civil war, while showing unique and beautiful images of the American volunteers in Spain.
Juan Salas is a scholar of visual studies and an independent curator of photography.
- Leonard Lopate, at WNYC, interviews Juan Salas and Jeanne Houck about Cartier-Bresson’s With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
- Review of HCB screening at IFC’s Best of Orphan Film Festival
- Books by and about Cartier-Bresson at Powell’s Bookstore
- Cartier-Bresson at the International Center of Photography
- Charlie Rose on Cartier-Bresson