Ask the Professor: What was the political background of Buñuel’s “Exterminating Angel”?


ScreenPrism: Luis Buñuel made Exterminating Angel (1962) in Mexico, after leaving Spain for the second time when his previous film, Viridiana (1961), also starring Silvia Pinal, caused controversy with censors. How did the political backdrop of The Exterminating Angel affect the film? Is this history apparent in the film?

Professor Julian Cornell: The experience of his second exile from Spain shows up in Exterminating Angel’s very deft criticism of the kind of morality that was used against him: on what grounds is he really being ostracized? For having different political views? A lot of his films are about the way in which people are led to conform, the way the herd mentality operates, and you certainly see that in this film or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) or That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). You certainly see that idea that people are sheep.

Still from Buñuel Exterminating Angel (1962)

Buñuel made about 20 films in Mexico. He originally went there after he kind of got kicked out of Spain for pissing off too many people. Obviously, his perspective was always a Marxist one. He was clear on that, and that was an issue in both Spain and Mexico. It was the Cold War, after all. He was finally let back into Spain, and Franco was still the dictator at that point, and the political climate was certainly not amenable in the early 1960s to someone who says he is a Marxist or at least who is thought of as being a communist.

Throughout the years, his fundamental political perspective was always the same: it was always ridiculing the institutions that supported bourgeois morality. My favorite Buñuel films are Exterminating Angel and Land without Bread (1933). His satire is so precise, and it’s so incisive. It’s clearly meant to be political and to be in your face. He’s not shy about pissing people off. While some of Buñuel’s films may be seen as more straightforward, the ones that were popular, the ones that got widely seen, were ones like Viridiana that are critical — especially critical of the state and the church— and do have a Marxist perspective.

Still from Buñuel Land Without Bread (1933)

[But while his base views always stayed the same, the context changed and his approach shifted over the course of his life.] When Buñuel started making movies in the 20s and 30s, it was before the Cold War. Communism was not held in disrepute as much as it would be in the Cold War. You also had the competition of fascism, whereas in the post-war period it became capitalism versus communism, one side or the other. There seemed to be a plurality in the 20s. To be a Marxist in France in the 20s is not the same thing as being a Marxist in Mexico in the 60s.

So in some sense Exterminating Angel is less explicitly political than L’Age d’Or (1930) or Land without Bread. But it’s not that he’s trying to soft-pedal it or that he’s changed his views on it. In some ways it’s more nuanced and subtle. It’s still an indictment of the same things he was indicting to begin with. He was a middle-class guy. He wasn’t from a poor family, but he wasn’t from a rich family. He was a regular middle-class guy. So he has that perspective, too. He sees the institutions of society as being the same negative forces that he always saw them as. He was always critical of the Catholic Church’s influence in Spanish and Mexican society, so that’s not going to change. But Simon of the Desert (1965) is actually, I think, respectful about religion. That would be my view.

He certainly was opposed to any kind of bourgeois morality his whole life. I don’t think he changed, but maybe he figured out a more effective way to aestheticize it and make it accessible. I don’t know how many people have seen Un Chien Andalou (1929) when it came out, probably not that many. But The Exterminating Angel was meant to be seen. Later Buñuel films too, the ones that came after that, they were meant to be popular art films.

Read more from Ask the Director: Why do Buñuel’s “Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” both satirize the ritual of eating?

Julian Cornell is a Lecturer in Media Studies at Queens College – CUNY, where he teaches Film Genres, National Cinemas and Film Analysis. He also teaches Film at New York University in the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television in the Tisch School of the Arts, and Media at the Gallatin School For Individualized Study. He has also taught Film Studies at Wesleyan University. He received his B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, an M.A. in Film and Television from the University of California, Los Angeles and his PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University. Prior to teaching, he worked in Scheduling and Network Programming at HBO and Cinemax, and in independent film production. His primary research and teaching areas are American, Scandinavian and Japanese cinema and genre cinema, including disaster movies, science fiction, children’s films, animation and documentary.