Guernica film premieres on 79th anniversary of bombings

The first ever film made about the horrific bombing of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War will premiere at the Malaga Film Festival on Tuesday.

Guernica film premieres on 79th anniversary of bombings
Photo: Pecado Filma

George Steer, a British journalist covering the Spanish Civil War wrote a now infamous description of the bombing of Guernica, bringing the atrocity to the world’s attention and exposing German involvement. 

His words inspired Pablo Picasso to paint what, for many, is his masterpiece, which depicts the casualties of the bombing, carried out by the German Luftwaffe.

“In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history,” Steer wrote.

And it was indeed unparalleled: the first time a civilian population was subjected to a large-scale bombing campaign by a modern air force, it would become the precursor to the horrors that awaited Europe during the Second World War. 

Steer’s article appeared in both The Times and The New York Times and his story has now been made into an English-language film, the first depicting the horrific bombing that came to symbolize the destruction of the Spanish Civil War.

The premiere of Gernika – which uses the Basque spelling of the town – will take place at the Malaga Film Festival on Tuesday, 26th April, the 79th anniversary of the bombing.

Guernica after the bombing. Photo: AFP

“When they offered me the film the first thing I thought was 'again!' but afterwards I realized that, on the contrary, film has never dealt with this subject,” director Koldo Serra, himself from the Basque Country, told Spanish daily El Mundo.

“I don’t know why there is this silence, maybe it is still a taboo subject but it touches me very closely. I have many friends whose grandparents were there and I have grown up with the story of Guernica,” added the director, who was born in Bilbao.

In the film, a joint Spanish-US production, George Steer becomes Henry, an American, played by British actor James D’Arcy. He crosses paths with Teresa, played by Spanish actress Maria Valverde, a censor for the Republicans in Guernica.

Serra has taken real accounts from people who lived through the bombings to construct an accurate backdrop to the central characters’ love story.

The Spanish-language trailer for Gernika. 

German aircraft bombed the town of Guernica, a base for many republican fighters, on behalf of the nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco who would go on to become dictator of Spain until his death in 1975.

Basque estimates put the dead at up to 1,500, but the number is still disputed to this day. Steer wrote how “Guernica was not a military objective”; two army barracks and a factory making war materials located outside the town were untouched.

“The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race,” he wrote.

George Steer was commemorated with a statue in the town in 2006 and has a road named after him in Bilbao. 

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New law aims to boost hunt for Spain’s Franco-era mass graves

Spain’s government finalised a bill on Tuesday aimed at boosting the search for the remains of people killed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship and the country’s civil war.

New law aims to boost hunt for Spain's Franco-era mass graves
A search team exhumes the remains of people dumped in mass graves during the Spanish Civil War a tMount Estepar near Burgos on July 24th 2014. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP

Known as the “Law on Democratic Memory”, the legislation makes the state responsible for finding and identifying the remains rather than leaving the task to relatives.

Campaigners say the remains of more than 100,000 people are in unmarked graves across Spain, a figure which Amnesty International says is only exceeded by Cambodia.

Franco’s Nationalists won the 1936-1939 civil war and honoured their own dead but left their opponents in unmarked graves.

Many more people went missing or were killed under the dictatorship, which ended with Franco’s death in 1975.

The bill is expected to be passed by parliament despite hostility from the main right-wing opposition, which says the left is needlessly opening old wounds and has promised to repeal the law if reelected.

“Today Spain is settling a historic debt with its past. We have passed the democratic memory law that lets us move towards recognising the victims of the civil war and the dictatorship,” tweeted Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

“It is a much-needed law that lets us become a better country.”

The passage of time and the lack of records about the executions has made both finding and identifying victims difficult.

‘Dignified country’

The bill sets aside public money to search for the missing, map the mass graves and create a DNA database to help identify the remains.

It also annuls the convictions of opponents of the Franco regime and provides for the appointment of a prosecutor to probe human rights abuses during the civil war and dictatorship.

Until now, all such moves have been prevented by a 1977 amnesty law, which was seen as essential to avoid score-settling in the fledgling democracy.

Under a 2007 law, the state simply offered support to help families trace and exhume relatives buried in unmarked graves.

But Sanchez’s government has sought to bring Spain in line with other European countries that have gone through dictatorships.

“With this law, we are making Spain… a more dignified country,” said Democratic Memory Minister Felix Bolanos.

He added that the law took care of the victims and did not forget those who died fighting a dictatorship.

Spain has been criticised for shortcomings in its efforts to address the legacy of the civil war and the dictatorship.

The UN Human Rights Council said leaving victims’ relatives to search for their loved ones highlighted “the indifference of state institutions”.

Since coming to power in 2018, Sanchez has made several moves to deal with Franco’s legacy.

In October 2019, he had Franco’s remains transferred from a vast basilica near Madrid to a small family plot.