director David Mauas
In September of 1940, in the coastal village of Portbou, bordertown of France and Spain, the great writer/thinker/philosopher/cultural critic Walter Benjamin died. He had been escaping from Paris, which had just been invaded by the Nazis, through Spain to Portugal to America. A German Jew, radical thinker affiliated with the Left, Benjamin knew that the Nazis were after him.
The Spanish documentary Who Killed Walter Benjamin… investigates the case of his death, some 65 years later, visiting the pretty little village, whose people still bear the scars of WWII and the political divides that came into bearing at the time and would linger for years under the Franco regime. It’s not clear what exactly director David Mausas hoped to find among the memories and erasures, but given his understanding of Benjamin and his thinking, perhaps the queries and their resonant echoes play out enough.
The facts are indeed befuddled. It’s written into history that Benjamin committed suicide with morphine capsules upon reaching Portbou and finding his papers insufficient to carry on his journey to the US. But much is obfuscated. Much is doubtful. And much else can easily be suggested or projected. Mysteries abound.
What happened to his heavy briefcase that potentially contained his final and important manuscript? If he committed suicide, why was he allowed to be buried in hallowed Catholic soil? Was the Gestapo afoot? Was he murdered?
The search for answers isn’t necessarily fruitful but the history, even with the lack of clarity of certainty utterly evident, is interesting. The documentary’s interrogations are broad-based, from locals who recall many of the people of the time to friends of Benjamin’s or scholars. Mausas sounds out the questions which shed light in many directions if not factual truths or knowable alterations to the “formal” history of the case.