For all its central importance and stature in the history of Golden Age Mexican cinema, Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s Redes (The Wave, 1936) has attracted remarkably little critical or scholarly attention even eight decades since the film’s completion. Its turbulent production background, however, is documented often and well: conceived by the government Secretariat of Public Education in May 1933 as the first (and, as it turned out, last) in a series of state-sponsored informational shorts made for and about rural Mexico’s agricultural populations, Redes soon transcended the modest bounds of producer Carlos Chavéz’s initial intentions, growing into an elaborate sixty-minute narrative fiction while retaining its shoestring documentary budget.1 Paul Strand – by then a well-established American modernist photographer and, together with Charles Sheeler, director of the seminal city symphony Manhatta (1921) – was brought on board as director of photography, with future Hollywood all-star Fred Zinnemann – fresh from his work on the Weimar non-fiction classic, Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930) – set to occupy his very first directorial post.

Deeply palpable in the three-year making of Redes were repercussions of Mexico’s 1910-20 popular revolution, a decade-long armed struggle to rid the country of its landowner oligarchs and substitute their dictatorial regime with something closer to worker-oriented democracy. In the opening of the 1930s, under the auspices of a progressive government and state-institutional interest to foster and promote socially committed cinema, a path was paved – if only for a short period before political restructuring in 1935 – for leftist film projects in the line of Redes. For Strand (who devoted almost two years to the venture, and even volunteered the use of his personal 16mm camera), Redes offered precisely the kind of politically aware documentarism he championed and dreamt of (or, to put it alternatively, as Life magazine phrased Strand’s involvement, “An American Photographer Does Propaganda Movie for Mexico”).2 And for Zinnemann (an apprentice of documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty, whom the Austrian-American never failed to list as his single greatest influence and teacher), the realist aesthetic foundation of Redes would seem to have presented a strong enough source of appeal, even as his devotion to the project’s political cause was nowhere near as intense as Strand’s.

Over the course of its popular reception, Redes has tended to be seen as something of an aesthetic precursor to the post-war movement of Italian neorealism (with Luchino Visconti’s 1948 film La terra trema often cited as the Mexican film’s most explicit descendant). The many resemblances – both with Visconti and with neorealism as such – are not difficult to trace: recorded on location in the east coast fishing village of Alvarado and performed almost exclusively by non-professional actors, Redes tells a story of workers’ organization and rebellion against their industrial exploiters, utilising many of the naturalist cinematic techniques that will later come to serve as neorealism’s defining formal traits. Our central character is the heroic strike leader Miro (played by university student and Alvarado native Silvio Hernandez, who would go on to win a bronze medal in basketball at the 1936 Berlin Olympics). Miro is a young and penniless fisherman grieving the loss of his infant child whose urgent medical treatment he was unable to afford, and which his capitalist boss (perhaps tellingly, the only non-amateur actor hired to perform in Redes) refused to provide for. Yet if Miro’s is ostensibly a narrative of personal revenge, the stakes of Redes are at the same time much higher: in scenes where Miro rallies and inspires his fellow workers, urging them towards organised resistance and revolt, the protagonist of Redes is not a fearless individual so much as a larger group or workers’ collective (in this and other respects, Zinnemann and Muriel explicitly prefigure Visconti’s tale of oppressed Sicilian fishermen in La terra trema; whether Visconti saw or was at the time aware of Redes remains largely unclear, but the film’s North American release does coincide with the Italian director’s winter 1936 visit to New York).

But if Redes is both a 1930s prefiguration of post-war neorealism as well as a rigidly Marxist piece of instructional cinema (complete with the nearly absolute absence of any female characters and more than a fair share of didacticism), then the film is also something else entirely. Recall the modernist background of cinematographer Paul Strand, whose profound impact is felt also in Redes: for every realist, observational shot in the line of Zinnemann’s semi-documentary work on Menschen am Sonntag, there is also a highly formalist, abstract, and geometrically composed static take reminiscent more of Strand’s earlier work in straight photography (most famously his 1915 Wall Street). If Zinnemann is a devoted realist, then Strand is closer to a rigid formalist, a still image artist fascinated with abstract design and mathematic composition. Redes exhibits something of a tension between two creative models – one naturalist and observational, the other abstract and rigorously crafted – as well as between its duo of directors: that during production, Strand and Zinnemann “did not get on too well” should arrive as no surprise.3

In its stylised, sometimes boat-mounted camera angles – many of which would not seem out of place in the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) – and its frames replete with carefully ordered bodies, abstract shapes, and parallel lines, Redes abandons realism and quiet observation in favour of exacting formalism and heavy fabrication. Long takes of fishermen at work are interchanged with fast-paced Eisensteinian montage sequences, while wide shots of fishing or sailing are peppered with stylized close-ups of workers’ muscles, chests, and unclothed athletic bodies (Redes is as fascinated with labour and fishing tactics as it is with the aesthetic spectacle of human torsos).

But Redes is not simply more stylised or visually enticing than much of the established neorealist canon; it is also colder, more politically explicit, even more brutal. If Redes shares with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) its narrative of a struggling father desperate to take care of his wife and son, it also departs from De Sica in its relentless cruelty: neither Miro nor his infant child will make it to the end of Redes (the former is assassinated in the film’s final minutes, the latter killed by disease in its very opening). And when the labour leader Miro speaks above a gathering of fellow fishermen about the exploiters “shackling us all with the same chains,” the Marxist underpinnings of the state-funded Redes are fully on display, evincing a level of structural analysis and political determination located far from what Karl Schoonover has called the “brutal humanism” of neorealist cinema: where De Sica and Visconti rely on a “strange symbiosis of violence and humanitarianism, spectacular suffering and benefaction,” Redes simply does not.4 Humanism is absent here, and so are any ties to redemption or religion. Yet brutality has persisted, indeed intensified, with organised resistance and structural analysis offered as the only means of survival and escape.

Naturally, the camera negative from Redes met its fate when burned in Paris by the Nazis, with screenings of the Mexican classic hard to come by for many decades to follow – that is, until the film’s 35mm restoration (initiated by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project and Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato) in 2009.

 

Redes (The Wave 1936 Mexico 59 min)

Prod. Co: Secretaría de Educación Pública Prod: Carlos Chávez and Narciso Bassols Dir: Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel Scr: Agustín Velázquez Chávez and Paul Strand, adapted by Henwar Rodakiewicz and supervised by Hilario Paullada Phot: Paul Strand Ed: Gunther von Fritsch and Emilio Gómez Muriel Mus: Silvestre Revueltas

Cast: Silvio Hernández, Antonio Lara, Miguel Figueroa, and the fishermen of Alvarado, Veracruz

 

Endnotes

  1. James Krippner, “The Making of Redes,” in Paul Strand in Mexico, James Krippner, ed. (New York: Aperture Foundation and Fundación Televisa, 2011), p. 69.
  2. “An American Photographer Does Propaganda Movie for Mexico,” Life, May 1937, p. 62.
  3. Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography: A Life in the Movies (New York: Scribner, 1992), p. 36.
  4. Karl Schoonover, Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. xix.

About The Author

Nace Zavrl is a graduate student of Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, working on issues in film theory, technology, and digitality. Nace writes on film and experimental media for Senses of Cinema, Film Matters, and Ekran, and has recently given public lectures at the Slovenian Cinematheque and the City Museum of Ljubljana. In 2016, he was the recipient of the Masoud Yazdani Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Film Scholarship.