Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933): Making of Bunuel’s Chronicle of Spain’s Poorest Region

In 1932, Luis Buñuel, riding high after the success de scandale, L’age D’Or, was invited to serve as documentarian for the celebrated Mission Dakar-Djibouti, the first large-scale French anthropological field expedition.

Led by Marcel Griaule, it unearthed some 3,500 African artifacts for the new Musée de l’Homme. Although he declined, the project piqued his interest in ethnography.

After reading the academic study, Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927) by Maurice Legendre, he decided to make a film about peasant life in Extremadura, one of Spain’s poorest states. The film, called Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), was financed on a budget of 20,000 pesetas donated by a working-class anarchist friend named Ramón Acín, who had won the money in a lottery.

In the film, Buñuel matches scenes of deplorable social conditions with narration that resembles commentary delivered by a detached-sounding announcer, while the soundtrack thunders inappropriate music by Brahms.

“Though the material is organized with skill, the conception of ‘art’ seems irrelevant. It is the most profoundly disturbing film I have ever seen.”  British director Tony Richardson on Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan.

Las Hurdes was banned by the Second Spanish Republic and then by the Francoist dictatorship.

The film continues to perplex viewers and resists easy categorization by historians. Las Hurdes has been called one of the first examples of mockumentary, and it has also been labeled a “surrealist documentary,” a term defined by critic Mercè Ibarz as “A multi-layered and unnerving use of sound, juxtapositing narrative forms from the written press, travelogues and new pedagogic methods, as well as a subversive use of photographed documents understood as a basis for contemporary propaganda for the masses”.

For Catherine Russell, in Las Hurdes, Buñuel reconciled his political philosophy with his surrealist aesthetic. Surrealism became “a means of awakening a Marxist materialism in danger of becoming a stale orthodoxy.”

After Las Hurdes in 1933, Buñuel worked in Paris in the dubbing