Armand Guerra (1886-1939) Movie-maker and pioneer of militant moviemaking

A short biography of Spanish anarchist filmmaker, Armand Guerra, written by Eric Jarry.

Submitted by Steven. on July 10, 2017

It is particularly hard to retrace the life of Armand Guerra, the Spanish type-setter, anarchist and movie-maker. When he died in Paris in 1939, a refugee from a Spain that had fallen into the clutches of Franco, he was not even carrying any identity papers. He had been on his way to the embassy to obtain fresh documents when he stopped in his tracks. A weary traveller who slipped away almost without fuss. The earliest movie libraries were just coming into being, but his movies had already vanished. In Perpignan in 1942 when the Nazis invaded the south of France, his wife spirited away the last of the writings she had retained, fearful that Guerra’s past as an anarchist who had spent more than ten years living in Germany, might be turned up and provide the pretext for reprisal actions. For more than fifty years, Armand Guerra was to be left in oblivion, until one of his movies Carne de Fieras was rediscovered in 1992 by the movie library in Zaragoza. Through his articles in the libertarian press or movie magazines, through police archives and movie libraries, we can arrive at a rough reconstruction of his life journey.

Armand Guerra (his real name was José Estivalis) was born in Liria near Valencia on 4 January 1886. His father was a peasant and his mother was already busy with his five year old brother, Vicente. A happy child, José was sent to a seminary in Valencia to complete his studies and emerged from this experience as a rabid anti-clerical.

He started work at a printer’s in Valencia around 1899, at the age of 13, only to join his brother at another firm in the city. Around 1907 a strike by type-setters led to his being tossed into prison. Police sources indicate that he then took ship for the West Indies. Be that as it may, in 1908 he moved to Paris - still with his brother in tow - and mixed with anarchists. In 1909 he was attending meetings of the ‘Germinal’ anarchist group in Geneva and keeping up a correspondence with Pedro Vallina, the Spanish anarchist doctor then in exile in London. From 1910 to 1914 he was a regular contributor to Tierra, the Cuban weekly published out of Havana, but was also writing for Le Réveil, the Swiss anarchist weekly published by Bertoni, using the nom de plume of Silavitse, an anagram of his real name. Armand was forever on the go: in February 1911 he passed through Italy on the way to Egypt, only to meet up in Cairo with a tiny Italian community centred upon a printworks in the city centre near the El Muski bazaar. There he helped produce the trilingual newspaper L’Idea, published in Italian, French and Greek. When an Arabic version was forbidden he quit Cairo where he had thought that it might be possible to “sow the seeds of rebellion”. He then embarked upon a long voyage from Istanbul to Braila (Romania) and Salonika, under continual police surveillance. They even went so far as to order him off the ship whilst at the same time banning him from setting foot ashore! Faced with these contradictions, the ship’s master came to his defence… On returning to France, first to Toulouse and then to Deauville, he penned a few articles about his eventful travels. A book entitled Stefanoff, filled with his memoirs, was published in Cuba in 1914 (to date not a single copy of it has been traced). During the summer he worked in a printer’s at 40 rue du Casino in Deauville. It was in the summer of 1912 and on a Deauville beach that Gaumont operatives managed to produce the first coloured moving pictures in cinematic history (using a very complicated technique that was later abandoned). On his return to Paris in 1913, José made a movie for the Eclair company, A Cry in the Jungle, on the basis of a script written by Bidamant, the then secretary of France’s Union des Syndicats. It was Bidamant who suggested that he make a ‘social’ movie. And so began the Cinema du peuple (People’s Cinema) venture during which his alias of Armand Guerra first appeared.

At the time that he was making movies for the People’s Cinema (movies like Les Misères de l’aiguille, Le Vieux Docker and La Commune) he was living in the Rue des Vignerons in Vincennes, directly opposite the Pathé building. He was working as a type-setter at the Maison de la Presse at 16 Rue du Croissant in Paris (the address plaque is still there today) where most newspapers were printed and in a street intersecting with the one where Jean Jaurès was assassinated on 31 July 1914 before the very eyes of Nono (Jean Vigo), another movie-maker dear to anarchists. Again according to a police report of the time, he was believed to have married Jeanne Marquès, the elder sister of Marcelle Capy, a staffer with La Bataille Syndicaliste, who later made her name as a feminist and pacifist writer.

His movie La Commune became among other things the subject of a painting by the anarchist painter Maximilien Luce. Armand Guerra carried on reporting on developments in People’s Cinema for Tierra and, thanks to him, Tierra opened a subscription in support of People’s Cinema activities (a subscription was featured alongside another one on behalf of the Mexican revolutionaries around the Flores Magón brothers).

Armand Guerra’s anti-militarism was probably what prompted his expulsion from France under a ministerial ordinance on 27 September 1915. Ever since 1909 in fact he had been under surveillance in connection with the publication in Nice of the newspaper Tierra y Libertad of which he had been the director and editor. In the wake of the week-long insurrection in Barcelona in 1909 (in opposition to the sending of young conscripts to Morocco) - one of the results of which was the execution of the libertarian educationist Francisco Ferrer - anarchist newspapers had been under a ban in Spain. Which is why, as in Armand Guerra’s case, certain newspapers were printed in France for shipment to Spain.

From 1 November 1915 onwards Guerra was working as a type-setter in Lausanne. His landlady told police that he received “a huge number of newspapers on the themes of anarchy and free thought.” At the end of 1917, he returned to his movie connections by launching a firm of his own, Cervantes Films, in Madrid. After making six movies this venture was abandoned for reasons as yet unclear (probably having to do with funding, in that most of his movies were shot out of doors, raising his costs far above those of competitors who shot theirs in studio settings). Most of these movies were inspired by tales involving gypsies and bullfighters, rather conventional themes that went down well with contemporary audiences. Yet The Curse of the Gypsy Woman had been shot in order to ridicule the superstitions of a profoundly religious Spain.

In 1920 he returned to Lausanne with his brother Vicente, only to travel on to Berlin. This was the beginning of a lengthy period from 1920 to 1931 when he turned his hand to all sorts of jobs connected with movies - actor, director and script translator (Guerra was fluent in seven languages). In those days Berlin was trying to compete with Hollywood and its directors - people such as Pabst, Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder - brought prestige to the movie industry of the Weimar Republic. In 1925 he featured in a Hans Neumann movie Sommersnachtstraum (Summer Night’s Dream) alongside another libertarian actor well known to movie-lovers - Alexander Granach.

Just as another Spanish anarchist, Valeriano Orobón Fernández, had done, during the 1920s Guerra worked as a script translator for a Spanish-German firm, Filmfono. In those days he frequently shuttled between Berlin and Spain. On 2 May 1926 in Valencia he was present at a preview of a talkie that the Diario de Valencia newspaper described on 5 May 1926 as a significant “scientific event”. That same year he directed Luis Candela, el Bandido de Madrid followed by Batalla de damas (1927). Die geschenkte loge (1928) on the other hand was banned by the German censor on the pretext that a gardener busy watering his garden appeared to be urinating: the movie never made it to the screen. Armand Guerra also became the Berlin correspondent of Popular Film, a Barcelona movie magazine run by none other than Mateo Santos (the very same Santos who was to make the first documentary on the Spanish civil war on 20 July 1936 for the CNT). In 1930, Guerra was approached to work in Spain for a movie production company unhappy with the original director: it was suggested that he take over the direction of El amor solfeando. It was on this occasion that he directed the celebrated Spanish actress Imperio Argentina. In 1931, with his brother’s backing, he bought some land near Valencia as a site for movie studios but after his other partners pulled out the venture fell through. Because of the new protectionist laws he left Berlin once and for all and settled in Madrid, reunited with his lover Isabel Anglada with whom he had a baby girl, Vicenta. In 1934 he played the part of a clown in Sabino Antonio Micon’s La Alegría que pasa. The Francoist coup of July 1936, countered by the libertarian revolution, caught him in the middle of a remake of his movie Carne de fieras.

Armand Guerra was to write detailed memoirs from this period in A través de la metralla (‘Midst the Shrapnel). Ezequiel Fernández’s documentary Armand Guerra: requiem for a Spanish movie-maker lovingly reconstructs the context in which this movie, Guerra’s last fiction, was made. Shortly after completing a re-shooting of Carne de fieras, Guerra and his crew made civil war documentaries for the CNT. A letter of his dated 17 December 1936 and discovered in the CNT archives informs us, among other things, that he was negotiating unsuccessfully for a movie about Durruti.

At the end of 1936 the CNT had need of his oratorical skills and Guerra therefore had to set movie-making to one side. A brilliant public speaker, Armand Guerra had already spoken on the Spanish anarchists’ behalf in Paris on 1 May 1914. So, in the early months of 1937, while his newsreel Estampas guerreras was showing in Madrid, he was involved in a series of lectures in the south of France, speaking on the CNT’s behalf together with his friend Manuel Pérez whose pamphlet Four Months of Barbarism: Mallorca under the Fascist Terror Guerra had translated. To anyone who reminded him that Mexico was not the only country providing arms to Spain he would retort that the USSR had never given any arms, it had sold them.

Jailed from 8 April to 26 August 1938 by the SIM (the Communist-dominated military investigation service) on the prison hulk Uruguay in Barcelona harbour, Guerra wrote to CNT general secretary Mariano Vázquez asking him to intervene to secure his release. In February 1939 he managed to sail for Sète in France before fleeing to the concentration camps, the only places where the French socialist government would accept Spanish antifascists. Less than a month later, having rejoined his family in Saint-Mandé, Armand Guerra passed away on 10 March 1939 of an aneurysm. An unfinished draft screenplay was left behind on his typewriter…

Was Armand Guerra the movie-maker any good? Unfortunately, since that movie rediscovered in 1992, no more Guerra movies have yet come to light in the film libraries. And it is very hard to reach a conclusion as to the artistic merit of his output since only a few short fragments of his early movies have been traced - the very movies shot on the meagrest budget. By contrast his last movie, Carne de fieras, had to be shot in a hurry under bombing (and regularly without any light) and shot reluctantly in that he was eager to return to the front. So he will remain an unknown quantity in movie making … unless the Barcelona film library, which last year acquired about fifty documentaries shot during the Spanish revolution and impounded by the Francoists, has some splendid surprise in store for us. Meanwhile, the search goes on.

From: Bollettino Archivio Giuseppe Pinelli (Milan), No 18, December 2001 . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.

Taken from