Jorge Semprun - Writer

Writer. Nationality: Spanish. Born: Jorge Maura Semprun in Madrid, 10 December 1923. Education: Studied philosophy and literature, Sorbonne. Career: Joined the Spanish Communist Party, and fought

Jorge Semprun
Jorge Semprun
against Franco during the Spanish Civil War, 1930s, deported from Spain to France, 1942; fought in the French Underground against the Nazis, and was imprisoned for two years in the Buchenwald concentration camp, 1942–1945; worked as a journalist for UNESCO, 1950s; began writing novels and screenplays, 1960s; expelled from the communist party, 1965; appointed Minister of Culture in post-Franco Spain, 1988. Awards: Edgar Allan Poe Award (shared with Costa-Gavras), Best Motion Picture for Z , 1969; Jerusalem Prize for Literature, 1997.

Films as Screenwriter:


Objectif 500 millions (Schoendoerffer) (co-sc); La Guerre est finie ( The War Is Over ) (Resnais) (+ ro as Narrator)


Z (Costa-Gavras)


L'Aveu ( The Confession ) (Costa-Gavras)


L'Attentat ( The French Conspiracy ) (Boisset) (co-sc)


Les Deux memoires ( The Two Memories ) (+ d)


Stavisky. . . (Resnais)


Section speciale ( Special Section ) (Costa-Gavras) (co-sc)


Une femme a sa fenetre ( A Woman at Her Window ) (Granier-Deferre) (co-sc, dialogue)


Les Routes du sud ( Roads to the South ) (Losey)


Les Trottoirs de saturne (Santiago)


L'Affaire Dreyfus (Boisset—for TV) (co-sc)


K (Arcady) (co-sc)

Other Films:


Je t'aime, je t'aime (Resnais) (ro, uncredited)


Netchaiev est de retour ( Netchaiev Is Back ) (Deray) (based on novel)


By SEMPRUN: books—

La Guerre est finie , Paris, 1966.

L'Evanouissement , Paris, 1967.

Le Grand voyage , Paris, 1969.

La Deuxieme mort de Ramon Mercader , Paris, 1969.

Le 'Stavisky' d'Alain Resnais , Paris, 1974.

Autobiografia de Federico Sanchez , Barcelona, 1977.

El desvanecimiento , Barcelona, 1979.

Quel beau dimanche , Paris, 1980.

L'Algarabie , Paris, 1981.

Montand, la vie continue , Paris, 1983.

La Montagne blanche , Paris, 1986.

Netchaiev est de retour , Paris, 1987.

Federico Sanchez se despide de ustedes , Barcelona, 1993.

L'Écriture ou la vie , Paris, 1994.

Semprun, Wiesel: se taire est impossible , Paris, 1995.

Adieu, vive clarte , Paris, 1998.

Le Retour de Carola Neher , Paris, 1998.

By SEMPRUN: articles—

"Les Deux memoires," interview with G. Braucourt, in Ecran (Paris), February 1974.

"Alain Resnais, Jorge Semprun et ' Stavisky '," interview in Ecran (Paris), July 1974.

Interview in Amis du Film et de la Television (Brussels), July/August 1974.

Semprun, Jorge, and P. Kjaeruiff-Schmidt, "En form for politisk film," in Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 3, 1976

"The Truth Is Always Revolutionary," interview with T. Blomquist, in Cineaste (New York), no. 4, 1979.

Interview in Cinema 80 (Paris), July/August 1980.

On SEMPRUN: books—

Faber, Richard, Erinnern und Darstellen des Unausloschlichen: uber Jorge Semprun's KZ-Literatur , Berlin, 1995.

Soto-Fernandez, Liliana, La Autobiografia ficticia en Miguel de Unamuno, Carmen Martin Gaite y Jorge Semprun , Madrid, 1996.

Nicoladze, Francoise, La Deuxieme vie de Jorge Semprun: une ecriture tressee aux spirales de l'histoire , Castelnau-le-Lez, 1997.

Cortanze, Gerard de, Le Madrid de Jorge Semprun , Paris, 1997.

On SEMPRUN: articles—

Gardner, Paul, "Perhaps Another ' Marienbad ?'," in New York Times , 2 January 1966.

Flatley, Guy, "Movies Are Passions and My Great Passion Is Politics," in New York Times , 11 January 1970

Grenier, Cynthia, "The ' Z ' People Make a Confession," in New York Times , 6 December 1970.

Davis, Melton S., "Agent Provocateur—Of Films," in New York Times , 21 March 1971.

Klemesrud, Judy, "Costa-Gavras: I'm Not Anti-American," in New York Times , 22 April 1973.

Alvarez, A., "Alain Resnais—The Man Who Makes Movies of the Mind," in New York Times , 10 October 1976.

* * *

Jorge Semprun's filmography is sparse. Since earning his first screenwriting credit in 1966, he has worked on barely over a dozen features. Most of his significant celluloid contributions came early in his career, on films directed by Costa-Gavras ( Z, L'Aveu , and Section speciale ) and Alain Resnais ( La Guerre est finie and Stavisky. . . ). His most characteristic films are explorations of time and memory, and evolve directly out of his life experience. They are overtly political in nature, and feature thinly veiled recollections of his early idealism and struggles, with his status as an exile and his political disillusionment often reverberating throughout.

For Semprun, film primarily is a political tool, a medium with which to express his left-of-center concerns. His screenplays often spotlight characters who are leftists, and explore the nature of their political commitment, their personal struggles, and how their views directly impact on their lives. Nonetheless, it must be stressed that Semprun is no dogmatic armchair radical, a theorist who spouts rhetoric while ignoring everyday practicality. Nor will he lambaste the excesses of right wing dictatorships while justifying those of communist governments. In his heart he is a humanist, and he would be quick to acknowledge that oppression exists on all sides of the political spectrum. He would condemn a political leader or regime that trounces on human rights, whether that government was left- or right-leaning.

While still in his teens, Semprun became a member of the Spanish Communist Party and fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Eventually, he wound up in Paris as an exile—and almost a quarter-century later he scripted La Guerre est finie , one of his most personal works. La Guerre est finie is a biting portrait of a character who easily might be Semprun's alter ego: an aging, weary Spanish communist (played by Yves Montand), long exiled in Paris. He may be fiercely committed to his political beliefs, yet despite his years of resistance his efforts to foster change have been futile. Another Semprun credit, Les Routes du sud , directed by Joseph Losey, is an extension of La Guerre est finie. It also explores Franco-ruled Spain, only here the year is 1975 and the head of state has ruled for decades. Semprun's hero (also played by Montand) is another veteran political activist who has long-opposed Franco, and long been banished to France; he remains consumed by memory as he mourns lost political struggles—and, in case there be any ambiguity, Semprun even makes the character a screenwriter. His past is endlessly impacting on his present, with his fixation on yesteryear resulting in a strained relationship with his son—and then his wife, and fellow activist, is killed in a car accident while on a mission to Spain. At their core, La Guerre est finie and Les Routes du sud are ruminations on the personal price one pays for political commitment.

Semprun's scripts are elegantly written, yet terse and to the point. For example, in Les Routes du sud , the writer's son accuses him of living in "a paradise of memory." "You know," he tells his father, "usually paradise is for tomorrow. Yours was yesterday. A paradise of memory. The day Franco really goes . . . when the real problems begin, you'll lose interest." The writer defends himself by retorting, "You must know the past to dominate the future." His son responds with a telling question: "What do you dominate?" The writer's failures are further mirrored when the details of his wife's death are described while a celebration of Franco's 39th anniversary in power plays on a television set. Later on, a news report informs the world that Franco has passed away. "He died in bed," the writer notes. "We didn't overthrow him."

"In Spain, we have a long history of knowing how to die," is a line from Stavisky. . . . Set during the early 1930s, Stavisky. . . is the story of the real-life title character, a penny-ante con man, palm greaser, and informer whose charisma allows him to maneuver his way into the upper echelons of French politics and industry. Yet clearly, it was a morally dissolute character like Stavisky who helped to weaken France during the pre-World War II years; he is contrasted to Leon Trotsky, who at the outset is granted asylum in France and, at the finale, is deported.

Semprun's scripts, Stavisky. . . included, are filled with exiled characters. In addition to Trotsky, there is a Jewish-German actress who exiled herself to Paris upon Hitler's coming to power. Then there is the line that, perhaps more than any other, helps to define Semprun: "Exile is never happy!" Another significant Semprun credit is Les Deux memoires , which he directed as well as scripted. Les Deux memoires includes interviews with those who, like Semprun, were exiled from Spain; their recollections are compared to footage of the real events of the Spanish Civil War, and remarks by those on the other side of the political spectrum.

Given the period in which Semprun himself went into exile in Paris, it is not surprising that his life there was anything but placid. First he fought in the French Underground, and then was imprisoned for two years in Buchenwald. His script for Section Speciale —the story of a German naval officer who is assassinated by French communists, and the Vichy government's placating the Nazis by ordering the execution of six essentially harmless French prisoners—is a stinging portrait of the abuse of power and misappropriation of justice in Occupied France.

Semprun's scripts expose right-wing political corruption, and offer sharp-eyed portraits of blundering fascists/military bureaucrats. His scenario for Z , the film that solidified Costa-Gavras' international reputation, involves the aftermath of the assassination of a charismatic political leader who clearly is based on Greek humanistpacifist-leftist Gregorious Lambrakis. Conversely, L'Aveu —which, like Z is a based-on-fact account—explores the excesses of communists in power. It is the story of a loyal Czech communist and government official who finds himself arrested, thrown into solitary confinement, and coerced into admitting imaginary treasonous activity. In Les Routes du sud , Semprun's screenwriter/alter ego has just penned a script about a communist who is a soldier in the army of the Third Reich. The night before Hitler is set to attack the USSR, the soldier deserts and warns the Russians. Not only does Stalin refuse to believe him, but has him executed as a provocateur. Indeed, Stalin is for Semprun an ever-present villain. In Stavisky. . . , it is casually noted that, according to Trotsky, Stalin betrayed the Revolution—but, sadly, the Party followed Stalin. Semprun emphasizes that it was just such miscalculations that resulted in the failure of communism.

As the decades passed, Semprun became disillusioned by communism—and, in Les Routes du sud , the son might as well be describing Semprun when he characterizes his father as an "exresistance fighter . . . ex-fighter for communism . . . 20 years devoted to the cult of Stalin . . . then 20 years wondering 'why' . . . ." He continues, "Ex-fighter for the avant-garde novel . . . ex-fighter for the political film . . . And the day death was really there around the corner . . . you let [your wife] take your place." Here, as is so often the case, Semprun is being pointedly introspective and self-critical.

It is customary for a filmmaker to automatically receive credit for the content of a film; the screenwriter's contribution often is downplayed, if not altogether ignored. Granted that the sensibilities of those who directed Semprun's scripts are linked to their content; Costa-Gavras was a Greek expatriate when he made Z , and Losey still was an exile from the Hollywood blacklist when he directed Les Routes du sud. Nonetheless, both these films—and, in fact, all the films on which he worked, no matter the director—bear the unmistakable stamp of Semprun.

—Rob Edelman

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