The Bootleg Files: To Die in Madrid

BOOTLEG FILES 745: “To Die in Madrid” (1963 Oscar-nominated documentary by Frédéric Rossif).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube, albeit without English subtitles.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Most likely due to a problem with rights clearance.


In March 1962, the Spanish government of Generalissimo Francisco Franco received a request from French producer Nicole Stephane for permission to shoot a travelogue-style documentary called “Eternal Spain.” Stephane identified French director Frédéric Rossif as the creative talent behind the camera.

At first, the Francoist authorities were puzzled by the request. Rossif had been praised across Europe one year earlier for his documentary “Le Temps du ghetto,” about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – why would someone who created a film about an extraordinary tragedy suddenly turn around to do a frothy celebration of Spanish culture? However, the cultural attaché at the French embassy in Madrid assured the Spanish authorities that Rossif planned to create a film that would show Spain in the most positive light imaginable. And not only was permission granted, but the Spanish authorities offered generous assistance to Rossif and his crew during their five weeks of filming across the country.

Alas for the Francoists, they should have listened to their initial gut feelings. The proposed “Eternal Spain,” with its happy presentation of flamenco dancers and matadors, was never made. What Rossif created instead was “Mourir à Madrid” – better known in the English-speaking world as “To Die in Madrid,” a provocative documentary on the brutal Spanish Civil War that brought the Franco dictatorship to power.

In approaching “To Die in Madrid,” it helps if the viewer already has more than a working knowledge of the individuals and events that defined the Spanish Civil War. Rossif’s film is not an introductory history lesson, but an artistic framing of the war’s horror. Indeed, the early parts of the film include a rush of names, places, incidents and dates – often without attaching photographs or film footage to what is being cited. For the uninitiated, this data overload will create a very confusing experience. In fairness, Rossif worked within a compact 85-minute running length, so in-depth background material could not be rolled out easily.

Furthermore, Rossif is not an impartial historian. “To Die in Madrid” gives the impression that the only atrocities committed during this conflict were the work of the Nationalist side led by Franco and their allies from Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, with support from the Roman Catholic Church.

But even if one dives in without advance preparation on the subject or an awareness of Rossif’s politics, “To Die in Madrid” quickly jolts the senses due to his discovery of compelling historic footage of the war. Much of this footage came from multiple archives across Europe and had not been widely seen outside of their respective countries of origin.

Rossif correctly notes that pre-war Spain was a nation of extraordinary poverty, where half of the population was illiterate and much of the land was owned by a tiny percentage of the wealthiest Spaniards. Madrid is shown as a cosmopolitan city that is reduced to chaos as the war evolves, with crowds running in panic for shelter amid showers of bullets and bombs.

The film details how Germany used the Spanish Civil War as a test-run for its invasion of Europe, particularly in the use of aircrafts to bomb civilian populations. In this film, a great deal of attention is given to the bombing of Guernica, arguably the bloodiest loss of life during the conflict. Somewhat less attention is given to the International Brigades of foreign Communist mercenaries who came to support the Republican side of the war.

Where footage does not exist – most notably in the segments on the siege of the Toledo Alcazar and the murder of poet Federico García Lorca – Rossif intelligently uses still photographs, Maurice Jarre’s elegiac score and a solemn narration to explain what took place. (The film used multiple actors for narration, including Suzanne Flon, Pierre Vaneck and Jean Vilar.) In one genuinely subversive sequence, a failed peace conference to end the war is depicted by pompously-attired diplomats entering a grand building over and over – a warped film loop that mirrored the warped effort to inject decency into war’s obscenity.

As for the footage that Rossif shot in Spain under false pretenses, it is inserted throughout the film to highlight how the war failed to empower and enrich the Spanish people. Rossif’s grim black-and-white cinematography is a far distance from the sunny Spain that Franco wanted the world to imagine.

“To Die in Madrid” offers a harrowing consideration of a poor country ripped to pieces. The vigor of the combatants firing off their rifles and hand grenades is appalling, and the newsreels of the crowds cheering their sides with glee (Hitlerian salutes for the Francoists, closed raised fists for the Communists who allied themselves with the Republican government) gives way to the grim stillness of human wreckage and national ruin.

Rossif’s work had its premiere out of competition at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival and won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo. Not surprisingly, Franco’s government was furious at Rossif and quietly tried to limit its worldwide release – and it had some leverage because Spain was a much-desired location for many international productions as well as an unlikely ally for Western countries united against the Soviet threat. An English-dubbed version with John Gielgud and Irene Worth among the narrators didn’t open in the U.S. until 1965 and in the U.K. until 1967 – but the film’s value was appreciated and it received an Oscar nomination and won the BAFTA Award. Spanish audiences wouldn’t see “To Die in Madrid” until 1978, three years after Franco’s death ended the dictatorial regime and saw the return of a democratic government.

Today, “To Die in Madrid” is a strangely elusive work. The English-dubbed version is nowhere to be seen in any home entertainment format – unless I am mistaken, its last U.S. appearance was a broadcast over several PBS stations around 1975. The original French-language version is on YouTube, but without English subtitles. There is a collector-to-collector service that has English-subtitled version, but it is immediately obvious upon view this is not an authorized release. Nonetheless, this dubious offering is – for the moment – the best way to see a fascinating and important work of nonfiction filmmaking. Hopefully, a serious label will rescue “To Die in Madrid” and enable today’s moviegoers to experience Rossif’s distinctive talents.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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