Communists loved Dean Reed. Coming, as he did from America, but rejecting his home country’s imperialistic meddling in the affairs of others, he was the perfect poster boy for the superiority of socialism over capitalism. Reed, after all, had been performing in concerts all over South America, and saw first hand how the CIA helped Onganía and Pinochet take over the governments in Argentina and Chile. Reed had been living in Buenos Aires, where he moved when he discovered that his records were more popular in South America than in the States. After the military coup in 1966, he found himself persona non grata in his adopted land. He went to Italy, where he starred in several spaghetti westerns, but Reed’s affable, good-looking anti-heroes never caught the public’s fancy the way that Clint Eastwood’s gruff and silent “Man With No Name” did.
In 1973, he went to East Germany to work on the film Kit & Co., based on Jack London’s Kit Bellew stories. The film was a hit and Dean Reed became the new darling of the Eastern Bloc. He sang like Elvis, looked so darned American, and was making movies in East Germany! He was a dream come true. Although on paper, the GDR wasn’t keen on the idea of matinee idols, they made a few exceptions when people proved to be good box office. Reed was one of those people. He took full advantage of his popularity and the perks that came with it, co-writing the screenplay for his next film (Blood Brothers), which was also a hit, and then directing El Cantor, a TV-movie based on the life of his good friend, Victor Jara.
Jara was a popular singer, theater director, and political activist in Chile. While Reed was singing at a concert there, he met Jara, and the Chilean communist had a big impact on the young man from Colorado. Reed saw first hand the extent to which the rich were walking on the backs of the poor people in South America, and he became outraged. He started appearing at protest movements and giving free concerts in poor neighborhoods all over South America.
Victor Jara was a strong supporter of Chile’s socialist candidate for president, Salvador Allende. When Allende was elected , the CIA backed the military coup on September 11, 1973, led by General Augusto Pinochet. One of the first things Pinochet did was round up anyone who publicly supported Allende, and that included Victor Jara. The next day, Jara and the other prisoners were taken to the Estadio Chile, where they were held for several days. When a soldier, jokingly referred to as “The Prince,” recognized Jara while the singer was moving to another part of the stadium, he shouted “What is this bastard doing here? Don’t let him move from here. This one is reserved for me!”* Jara was taken to the basement where he was repeatedly kicked and beaten. His hands were smashed with the butt of a rifle, and he was told, with venomous sarcasm, to try and play guitar. He responded by singing “Venceremos” (We Will Win). Enraged by his defiance, his tormentors set upon him once again, pummeling him and finally shooting him 44 times. His body was dragged into the street and left next to a graveyard on the outskirts of Santiago.
Dean was already in East Germany when he heard what happened to his friend. He convinced the DFF (East Germany’s state-owned television company) to let him make a movie about the Chilean singer-activist starring Reed himself. He would also direct the film from a screenplay he wrote. It was the perfect socialist story: peace-loving Marxist is brutally murdered in a coup financed by the United States. Who could ask for anything more? Working with Wolfgang Ebeling, who also co-wrote the Blood Brothers script, Reed created a mostly factual retelling of the life and death of Victor Jara and the troubles he encountered in his fatal battle for social equality in Chile.
Made, as it was, for East German television, El Cantor suffers from a few problems. The first, and the biggest one is Dean Reed himself. Reed was great at playing likable American knuckleheads, and he gives his portrayal of Jara his all, but Reed neither looks like nor sings like the dark-eyed and unmistakably Latino Jara. It is always a risky proposition for an actor/director to portray a famous person. Reed was one of the first people to engage in this one-two combination, Ed Harris did it in Pollock, but he didn’t have to sing. Closer to the mark, Kevin Spacey did it in Beyond the Sea, portraying Bobby Darin. Spacey, like Reed, is a good singer, and he also co-wrote his script.
The second problem with the El Cantor is the budget. Expensive location filming wasn’t an option, so East Germany has to stand-in for Chile, sometimes to the film’s detriment. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons there are very few wide-shots or scenes that convey the magnitude of the story. When the people are rounded up and herded into Santiago’s National Stadium (renamed for Victor Jara in 2003), we only see a small group. In truth, the stadium was filled with hundreds people held in inhumane conditions. In Joan Jara’s account of the morgue where she identified her husband’s body, the scene far a far more gruesome scene that the movie suggests:
“We go down a dark passageway and emerge into a large hall. My new friend puts his hand on my elbow to steady me as I look at rows and rows of naked bodies covering the floor, stacked up into heaps in the corners, most with gaping wounds, some with their hands still tied behind their backs … there are young and old … there are hundreds of bodies … most of them look like working people … hundreds of bodies, being sorted out, being dragged by the feet and put into one pile or another, by the people who work in the morgue, strange silent figures with masks across their faces to protect them from the smell of decay.”*
Another problem for the film comes, inevitably, from its timeliness. Pinochet was still in control in 1978 when the movie was made. Many of the facts about what happened to Jara only came out after the dictator was ousted from power. Reed has to rely on third-hand accounts and best guesses to fill in the story. Given that, he does a pretty good job with the information that was available at the time. The soldiers remain anonymous in the film. Since that time, some have been identified and charged, while another, Edwin Dimter, reportedly the infamous “Prince,” recently had his office invaded by protesters.
Starring opposite Reed as his wife (named Janet in the movie) is Friederike Aust, a dark-haired beauty who acted primarily in East German made-for-TV movies, and in popular television shows, such as Polizeiruf 110 and Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort. Ms. Aust is an attractive woman and a good actress who deserves more attention that she’s received. After the Wende, She moved into the field of voice dubbing, replacing the voices on popular American TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Santa Barbara, and Six Feet Under.
The cinematographer for El Cantor is Hans Heinrich, not to be confused with the director of the same name. Heinrich first worked with Reed on Blood Brothers, and Heinrich’s work on that film is spectacular, with scenes that Hollywood only matched after the invention of the Steadicam. His work in El Cantor is more restrained but no less effective. The colors are less vivid, but that is probably a conscious choice, based on the fact that the film was intended for television. Those old CRT set were very bad at handling vivid colors, especially bright reds, so Heinrich works here from a softer palette of grays and greens.
El Cantor is a valiant effort to bring the story of South America’s most charismatic and idealistic martyr to a wider audience. It is a story that certainly deserves to be—no, needs to be—told. But the definitive movie on Victor Jara remains to be made. It is a gut-wrenching and shameful story that everyone, especially we Americans, should know.
* An unfinished song: The life of Victor Jara, by Joan Jara