On Monday of this week, Stalinist-Castroite filmmaker Saul Landau died at his home in Alameda, California. His death inspired major obituaries in our country’s leading mainstream newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and, as expected, the New York Times. If there is one thing you can count on old media for, it is that they will run laudatory tributes whenever a member in good standing of the far Left passes.
I wouldn’t be surprised if during the Academy Awards, when his photo is flashed and his name mentioned in the tribute to those who left the film colony in the past year, there is loud applause and the usual suspects stand in respect. After all, his current project was a film praising the convicted Cuban spies — the so-called Cuban Five — which he was filming with Danny Glover.
It is remarkable how Landau’s politics are described in the obits.
The headline of the NYT obit read: “Saul Landau, Maker of Films with a Leftist Edge, Dies at 77.” I love that term, “leftist edge.” It implies he was an objective observer of the subjects he filmed, but put a slightly leftist tint on them. As writer Douglas Martin put it, Landau “aspired to marshal art and literature to illuminate social and political problems.”
You would believe that was his goal, if you think that painting Fidel Castro as a humanist god on earth whose life is devoted to the welfare of the Cuban people is objective.
The Washington Post described Landau as a filmmaker who “made films with an unabashedly leftist point of view.” That might be a slight improvement over the NYT characterization, but it still muted the real truth: Landau made films taking the stance Lenin had called on all Communists to take in the 1920s.
Communists, the Bolshevik leader wrote, had to “powerfully develop film production, taking especially the proletarian kino [theaters] to the city masses.” Of all the arts, he added, “the motion picture is for us the most important.” In America, European cultural commissar Willi Munzenberg advised the comrades to “develop the tremendous cultural possibilities of the motion picture in the revolutionary sense.” Writing in the Party’s daily newspaper The Daily Worker on July 23, 1925, he called on all revolutionary Communists who worked in the field of “agitation and propaganda” to use film “and turn it against” the ruling class.
Saul — whom I knew quite well — spent a lot of time reading all the Marxist-Leninist “classics,” as they were called. I’m certain he had come across Munzenberg’s admonition; it was quoted in many places in the old Communist movement.
My acquaintance with Landau went back to my leftist student days at the University of Wisconsin, where Landau and I were both members of the Communist youth movement on campus and later worked on the radical New Left intellectual journal Studies on the Left. As I moved on and left those circles, we became bitter political enemies.
In the 1980s, when I went to Nicaragua to report for The New Republic and on human rights missions with Nina Shea for a group she led called the Puebla Institute, my experiences led me to become a critic of the Sandinistas and their program to turn Nicaragua into a second Cuba in the western hemisphere. It was as a critic of the Left in Central America at a time when the American left was leading “U.S. Out of Central America” marches and condemning the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in the region that I debated Landau in Washington, D.C. on the eve of one of their major pro-Communist rallies in support of the Salvadoran Communist rebels and the Sandinistas.
In those days before YouTube and iPhone cameras, there was no one filming it. I do, however, recall one major exchange. Landau tried to describe the Sandinistas as radical nationalists who simply wanted to gain independence from U.S. imperialism’s grasp, and to build a free and democratic society devoted to the poor rather than to the benefit of U.S. capital. I argued that, in effect, the Sandinistas used nationalism as a guise for their very real belief in Marxist-Leninist tenets, and I provided evidence to back up that assertion.
Landau replied that it was propaganda to claim that Daniel Ortega and company were Marxists.