Johannes Bernhardt fought in World War I, obtained the Iron Cross, made him an honorary general of the SS, and later became a powerful businessman and the main intermediary between Franco and Hitler. Starting in 1936, he built and maintained a financial empire, Sofindus, based on exchanges between Spain and Nazi Germany. This included the trafficking of tungsten, which, extracted from the mountains of Galicia and Salamanca, was sent to Berlin to shield the battle tanks. In 1945, American espionage warned that Bernhardt had “more ascendancy over Franco than the British and American embassies combined.” What is much less known is that, after the Second World War, he entered the world of cinema. And that produced both the first works of the old republicans Antonio del Amo and Manuel Mur Oti as well as films of the monarchists Edgar Neville or Luis Escobar, and even of avant-garde such as Enrique Gómez or José G. de Ubieta. A book, Sagittarius Films. Nazi gold for Spanish cinema (Shangrila), by the researcher, screenwriter and director Santiago Aguilar, now rescues that story.
This confluence of interests can only be explained by the autarky in which the regime was installed. This is how Aguilar (Madrid, 61 years old) understands it, who reels off the businessman’s business and the films that Bernhardt financed in Spain. On the one hand, the dictatorship needed to activate an isolated economy at the international level; on the other, Bernhardt, protected by Franco but in the crosshairs of the allies, had difficulty moving the money from his business with the Third Reich. And, thirdly, Aguilar explains by videoconference, there was a group of filmmakers seeking funding in the context of extreme precariousness of the Spanish film industry.
The ignorance of Bernhardt’s film activity (Osterode, 1897-Munich, 1980), which Aguilar found referenced in CIA files, has contributed to the fact that those who associated with him never had much interest in elaborating on this connection. Del Amo, a communist who had been sentenced to death, directed his first three films under Bernhardt’s auspices: Four women (1947), The guest of darkness (1948) and Wings of youth (1949). He never mentioned in any interview the first two (which lacked social or political content), and denied the third, a propaganda production (carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Air) that justified that “it was necessary to adapt to the imperatives of the industry”.
Mur Oti, who had met Del Amo in the war, wrote those films and made his directorial debut with another production of Sagittarius, A man goes down the road (1949). He is the only one who has told the origins of the company. According to his version, he was looking for someone to finance the filming of one of his scripts, and a friend, Santiago Peláez, told him about “a German editor” with money to pay for the film. Peláez was one of the many figureheads that Bernhardt used to circumvent the rule that no Spanish company should exceed 25% of foreign capital. Mur Oti explained that he met with the businessman and that he did not show interest, so it was he who convinced him after explaining the system applied by the film protection regime. The initial nucleus of the company revolved around him, Del Amo and technicians also from the Republican side, such as the musician Jesús García Leoz or the operators Juan Mariné and Manuel Berenguer.
Luis Escobar, for his part, was looking for a producer for his second feature film and, according to what he said, it was his brother José Ignacio, a notorious Nazi fil-Nazi, who insisted that it be “a German friend of his”. Escobar wrote in his memoirs: “I resisted. But in the end I gave in, among other reasons because I had no other ”. Aguilar states in his book that the American secret services considered this actor and playwright a Nazi agent who operated under the code name RIYKI, but the author himself does not give much credence to that statement. “Because of his personality, he doesn’t hit me very much,” he ditch. The fact is that Escobar filmed with Sagittarius on biopic (biographical film) The song of the Malibran (1953) and left the cinema until Berlanga recovered it to play the Marquis de Leguineche in The national shotgun (1978).
Bernhardt also produced two films by Edgar Neville from Madrid: Mr. Esteve (1948) and Fairy tale (1951). Neville, like Escobar, was “a nostalgic for the monarchy” and neither of them had the sympathy of either the early Falangism or the Catholic conservatism that controlled the regime in the late 1940s: “Escobar, for homosexual; and Neville, for being tainted and adulterous, ”explains Aguilar.
The bouquet of filmmakers and films accounts for the eclecticism of Sagittarius, facilitated by the fact that, for Bernhardt, the cinematographic leg of his business, to which he would add a distributor, Europa Films, and Cinearte studios, had a single purpose: to bill “Products that were placeable on the market” and allowed capital to circulate. The more he did it, the more complicated the Allied control over Nazi funds in Spain became.
Even so, several productions of Sagittarius have for Aguilar “a family resemblance”: a link “with a certain Germanic vein of the cinema of Michael Powell and Emeric Presssburger, such as The red slippers (1948), the great distribution success of Europa Films, or The Hoffmann Tales (1951) “. A fantastic drift that includes “a look at women as a strange element, almost out of the world” and that can be traced both in The guest of darkness O Fairy tale, as in one of the unrealized projects of the production company, and perhaps the most delusional, The experiments of Dr. Tagliardini, a script written, this yes, by a Nazi black leg, Josef Hans Lazar, who had been head of the propaganda of Goebbels in Spain.
At the end of 1950, Spain reestablished diplomatic relations with the United States. With the fence closing in on him, Bernhardt flees with his family the following summer to Argentina, where he has previously sent his funds. He takes the official credits that he had been given to make the last Sagittarius films, which he will never return, and a painting by El Greco that, he presumed, Franco himself gave him.
In Spain he left his companies undercapitalized. The production company and the distributor disappeared, but the Cinearte studios still operated for decades. Aguilar came to work on them: there he mounted and rolled partially Matías, linesman (1996), the second of the three films that he co-directed as a member of the La Cuadrilla collective. The Sagitario Films estate was burned in a fire. Of the 10 films he produced, three are lost, and the rest are only copies in poor condition. Bernhardt also set up companies in Argentina. Then he would go back to Germany. He died in Munich in 1980, according to the obituary published in the newspaper Abc.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.