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.
I then told the audience of something Landau had said when he came back from a visit to Cuba soon after the Cuban revolution. Speaking to the University of Wisconsin socialist club, Landau said that “Fidel Castro had made the Cuban revolution without and against the wishes of the Cuban Communist Party.” Castro was, he insisted, a nationalist and humanist who believed in real democracy. As he would put it later in an article, Castro was both a Jeffersonian and a Marxist.
By the time of the debate, it had been well established that Castro, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara were all secret Marxist-Leninists, and no one disputed that they had worked hard to transform Cuba into both a Communist state and an ally of the Soviet Union in the Americas. I reminded the audience of what Landau had said after Castro took power, and told those in attendance:
You lied to us then about Castro and what he believed, just as you are lying to us now about the Sandinistas and what they intend for Nicaragua.
Landau, I recall, did not have any comeback to dispute my argument.
In 1988, Landau had established his connections with the American media, who saw him as their go-to guy if any television network wanted contacts that would allow them to report from Cuba. This was also the year in which the late Academy Award winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros, along with Jorge Ulla, produced the amazing film Nobody Listened — a two-hour documentary about political repression in Cuba by the Castro regime. (Almendros had previously made another documentary, Improper Conduct, about the Cuban regime’s repression of homosexuals.) I interviewed Almendros about the film, and in particular about the problems he was having getting PBS to broadcast it.
PBS had shown many pro-Castro films, including the film that first made Landau famous — his 1968 documentary Fidel, in which he drove around the Cuban countryside with the dictator. Landau depicted Fidel Castro as a concerned leader trying to interview his countrymen about their needs and hopes. It was perhaps the first film to establish for many that Castro was a great people’s leader, and this helped lead to the adulation of him by so many leftists and liberals.
Almendros and Ulla found it next to impossible to get their anti-Castro documentary broadcast. At the same time, Saul Landau was showing his new film about Castro’s Cuba, The Uncompromising Revolution, and was also sending it to potential TV networks for viewing.
Almendros told me that it was he who met Landau during his first trip to Cuba, introduced him to the film community, and who then taught him the art of filmmaking. Almendros said:
The biggest mistake in my life was to teach Saul Landau how to use a movie camera.
Eventually, after a long fight, PBS broadcast a truncated one-hour version of the Alemendros-Ulla documentary — but only on the condition that it was to be immediately followed by a panel made up of some pro-Castro commentators. Further, they insisted on a showing of Landau’s new pro-Castro film immediately afterward! (The full story of the travails Almendros had with PBS can be found here.)
Almendros told the press:
I saw the Landau film, and Jorge and I decided it was so bad that it couldn’t do our film any harm. Its “balance” would have no consequence against the crimes of the Castro regime. We decided it was better to have our film packaged with Landau’s than not shown at all. We were willing to accept any format to get our film on the air.
As for the main point, he added:
There’s something very wrong somewhere when PBS, funded by the American people … refuses to broadcast by itself a film about Cuba’s communist dictator.
This exposes the lie in the Washington Post obituary, where Landau is quoted as having told the paper in 1982:
I found Fidel a sympathetic figure and a hell of a good actor. You have 999 anti-Castro films. So why don’t you run one pro-Castro film?
The truth is that more pro-Castro films were — and are — shown on a regular basis, and hardly any opposed to the Cuban Communist state and to the Castro brothers make it to American television. This is even more true now than it was decades ago.
The further truth is that Saul Landau saw his main task to be that of gaining support for all third-world dictatorships of the Left. If they won their fight and weakened the United States, then it would be all the easier to attain “socialism” in “the belly of the beast,” as the Left called the United States.
When David Horowitz, then on the Left and editing Ramparts, condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Landau wrote a letter to the editor arguing that Castro was correct to support the invasion. If Czechoslovakia became independent and left the Communist bloc military alliance (the Warsaw Pact), he argued, it would weaken the Soviet Union. The USSR, he said, protected the Cuban Revolution from being overthrown, and therefore, the Soviet Union’s power had to be preserved against all assaults on it.
Recently, in his January 10 post written with Danny Glover, the two refer to American Alan Gross — imprisoned by Castro for trying to bring computers to Cuba’s small Jewish community — as a man “tried to set up non-traceable satellite systems inside Cuba as part of an effort to subvert its government.”
The imprisoned Cuban spies, tried and convicted of espionage in an American court of law, however, are viewed simply as Cubans who came to try to stop bombing attempts against the Cuban government in Havana by exile groups — which justified their actions.
In a 2012 entry, Landau condemns Israel for using “its superior military force and technology to kill civilians in Gaza,”and he supports Turkey’s prime minister in calling Israel “a terrorist state.”
Finally, if you want to see how the crazed Leftist Landau saw the world, you have only to read this from a blog at the time of the overthrow of Gaddafi’s government in Libya:
The Saudi King, the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen, the UAE, and Syria more than threatened their opposition: their repressive forces opened fire. Israel routinely kills alleged Palestinian “rebels,” has 10,000 Palestinians locked up and routinely destroys Palestinian homes and entire villages. It sent troops to intercept and kill members of an aid flotilla in international waters under the guise of protecting its security. Yet, Obama raised the horror of Gaddafi possibly attacking his own people. How humanitarian of him, the relatives of the millions of Korean and Vietnamese civilians killed in those wars most Americans cannot explain — never could.
From everything Saul Landau has done, in words or film, his record is clear: he was a defender of totalitarianism, an enemy of American democracy, and a supporter of Marxist-Leninist regimes and Communist revolution.
What an era we live in. Glowing and uncritical obituaries are written of a man who was a moral monster.