Oscar Aibar’s latest film, a thriller steeped in grotesque historical fact, owes its existence to a random holiday meal a decade ago.
The Spanish director was in Valencia for the summer when he looked up from his plate to study the photos of famous people on the restaurant’s walls.
“Among them was a very small one that showed five or six men wearing SS and Wehrmacht uniforms and with 1960s hairstyles,” Aibar says.
“I thought they had to be dressed like that for a movie or something, but when I asked about the photo they told me they were the Germans from Dénia.”
The “Germans of Dénia”, he transpired, were just some of the 300 high-ranking Nazis who sought refuge in Spain after the Second World War. Not only were they welcomed and protected by the Franco regime; many have prospered and built profitable businesses.
Photography was the inspiration for The substitute (The Replacement), which tells the story of a jaded, alcoholic policeman who stumbles upon a colony of proud and unrepentant Nazis in the Valencian town of Dénia in the early 1980s. In one of its settings – based on real festivities – the detective finds himself at a party where his guests are wearing their SS uniforms and iron crosses.
The substitute is not the only one to revisit one of the most surprising corners of 20th century Spanish history.
A documentary released last year – Europe’s Most Dangerous Man: Otto Skorzeny in Spain – chronicled the post-war career of the infamous SS officer who brought Mussolini from captivity and died in Madrid in 1975. Skorzeny also appears in Los dias rojos (The Red Days), a new novel by Miguel Herráez about a student responsible for obtaining a photo of the former lieutenant colonel during his trip to Valencia. And then there’s Netflix’s Jaguar, a 1960s show about a Spanish survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp and her quest for justice. All arrived a decade after Clara Sánchez’s award-winning novel Lo que esconde your namewhich was published in English as The Scent of Lemon Leaves.
Aibar, who made the film in part to educate young people about what happened, attributes the mini-boom to a greater willingness to talk about the past – and the resurgence of the far right in Spain and across the country. world.
“It’s happening all over Europe: a month ago Mussolini’s granddaughter was re-elected councilor in Rome,” he says. “I’m not a journalist, I’m a director, and the most important thing for me was to make a good thriller with a powerful story. But I felt I had a civic duty to use it as a mirror of what is happening now.
Despite his police uniform, The substitute is also a reflection on the fragility of democracy. The film is very deliberately set in 1982 – the last year the Dénia Nazis are known to have put on their uniforms to publicly celebrate Hitler’s birthday, and also the year that Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy ended with the victory in the general elections of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).
As Aibar points out – and his film shows – the country endured years of far-right terror between Franco’s death and the PSOE’s rise to power, and memories of the coup attempt by 1981 were still raw. The substitute nods to the current political situation in one of its final scenes, when the action shifts to the present day and a key villain turns out to be a candidate for a party that looks more than like the extreme right Vox.
Herráez also believes that the renewed interest in the Spanish Nazis may be influenced by the contemporary political situation.
“I think there’s a connection between that and all the fragility we’re feeling right now,” he says.
The 64-year-old writer believes that while many Spaniards were always aware of their Nazi guests, they didn’t realize how deep their roots went.
“The facts are all coming out now about the uniforms and the bands and the runic symbols,” Herráez says. “I’m not young but I’m not that old either. My generation thought it was all prehistoric, but it was in transition. »
Joan Cantarero, investigative journalist and author of Bootprint – a book examining the social, economic, political and criminal legacy of the Nazis who settled in Spain – is not surprised by the cultural whirlwind. The world’s fascination with mundane servants of evil lives on and, as Cantarero puts it, “Nazis sell.”
Nonetheless, he believes the growing interest in the issue could help Spain’s efforts to come to terms with its past.
“If they keep making films and documentaries about how war criminals ended up hanging out on Spanish beaches and going to parties, then a lot of Spanish society is going to feel pretty bad about it. comfortable learning all this,” Cantarero says.
“It might also allow us to go deeper and look at who let these gentlemen come to Spain for a life of luxury. And then maybe we’ll have films about what happened after the civil war , on the crimes committed during the [Franco] dictatorship, and of all mass graves.
That day, however, may still be a bit far off. Aibar recalls a particular conversation he overheard while he was there during The substitute.
“I was in a bar of old guys in town and they were talking about making a film about ‘our Nazis'”, says the director. “They talk about these Nazis as if they were the local tomatoes or the local church; as if it were something very typical of the region.