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The Basque Swastika: San Sebastian Review

The Basque Swastika Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Fascinating San Sebastian doc probes the Nazis’ peculiar relationship with Basque culture.

Venue

San Sebastian Film Festival

Directors

Alfonso Andres, Javier 
Barajas

This World War II documentary, directed by Alfonso Andres and Javier Barajas, looks at the Nazi occupation of the Basque areas of France and Spain.

A World War II documentary having its world premiere in San Sebastian holds special interest for festival audiences. The Basque Swastika is a rare film that looks at the Nazi occupation of the Basque areas of France and Spain. Featuring interviews with survivors and children of residents, as well as extensive newsreel footage, the film opens a compelling window on Basque resistance and cooperation with the Nazis. Some of the images are especially resonant, including newsreel footage of German planes crashing on the beach at San Sebastian and another scene of German boots lined up on the sand at Biarritz while the occupying soldiers took advantage of a little
R and R. Although the film may not have much life beyond this particular festival, it was well received here and proved quite eye-opening.

Other films have focused on the collaboration of citizens in Nazi-occupied countries, so this aspect of the doc is nothing new. The most intriguing element is the discovery of a short Nazi propaganda film called In the Land of the Basques, which was made right in the middle of World War II by a favored German filmmaker, Herbert Brieger. Many German propaganda films were lost or destroyed right after the war, but this one was discovered in a Berlin film archive a decade ago and led directors Alfonso Andres and Javier Barajas on this journey of discovery.

The question posed is why would the Nazis have spent valuable resources creating this folksy tribute to Basque culture while the war was raging? An answer is offered by several commentators, who suggest that the Nazis viewed the Basques, despite their opposition to Franco, as one of the “purer” races that might blend into the new Europe that they envisioned after the war. The Basques were neither French nor Spanish, so in the Nazi view, they were not tainted by the impurities of those other cultures. Perhaps the Germans’ enthusiasm also grew out of their discovery of swastika-like designs on some Basque pottery.

The character of Brieger emerges as especially interesting. His son, actor Daniel Brieger, tries to fathom his father’s role in the Nazi war effort. It seems the senior Brieger, like the far more famous Leni Riefenstahl, lent his considerable talents to glorifying the Aryan ideal. Some of the most moving sections of the film show the younger Brieger trying to come to terms with his father’s privileged position within the Nazi hierarchy.

Herbert Brieger died at the end of the war, when his son was very young, so for Daniel, the questions endure. Others who were deeply involved in the Nazi propaganda efforts lived on for decades without ever being punished. Delving into these dark corners of history, the filmmakers have compiled a rich trove of material that adds to our understanding of this endlessly intriguing era.

Directors: Alfonso Andres, Javier Barajas
Screenwriter: Javier Barajas
Executive producers: Fernando Sa, Ion Collar
Director of photography: Aitor Sarabia
Music: Pascal Gaigne
Editor: Alfonso Andres
No rating, 80 minutes