Born in the Bronx, New York on January 15, 1936, Saul Irwin Landau was a journalist, documentary filmmaker, and commentator. He was also a professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, where he taught history and digital media.
Landau earned BA and MA degrees in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), where in 1959-60 he helped edit a magazine titled Studies on the Left, which sought to “revive radical scholarship in the United States and … create a new radical understanding of the American political economy.” Also during his time at Madison, Landau became involved in a so-called “Joe Must Go” club advocating the recall of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) over his allegations against suspected Communists and Soviet spies in the 1950s. “I came out of Madison with a passion for social justice and the idea that you only get one shot at participating in the history of the world and that you have to make the most of it,” Landau recalled in an interview years later.
Following his time at UWM, Landau began, but never completed, a doctoral program at Stanford University. He also served a stint as a researcher for the famed sociologist C. Wright Mills, whom he accompanied on trips to Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and Cuba. And he worked with the Marxist economist Paul Baran at a Stanford, California center for the study of Latin America.
Described by his own daughter as “incredibly supportive of the ideals of the Cuban Revolution,” Landau began visiting that country in 1960 and soon joined the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which called for the U.S. to end its economic embargo. Further, he befriended Fidel Castro and went on to make six films about him and his nation—generally portraying the dictator as a charismatic, benevolent leader, and praising Castro’s famous Marxist ally, Che Guevara, as “a saint.” “I found Fidel a sympathetic figure and a hell of a good actor,” Landau told The Washington Post in 1982.
Residing in San Francisco (where he was employed as a social worker) during the early 1960s, Landau gravitated strongly to the Beat poets and the emerging New Left movement. He joined the Students for a Democratic Society and helped organize the leftist publications Ramparts and Mother Jones. He also joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a theater group that produced shows making social commentary, for which he wrote a parody titled A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel.
In 1965 Landau was hired as a producer at KQED Television, where he began making documentary films infused with his own personal social commentary.
When the Soviet Union overran Czechoslovakia in 1968, Landau praised Fidel Castro for supporting the invasion. The filmmaker reasoned that if Czechoslovakia were to become independent and leave the Communist bloc military alliance (the Warsaw Pact), the USSR, which had aided the Cuban Revolution, would be weakened—something he did not wish to see happen.
Landau became a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in 1972, and at the anti-corporate Transnational Institute (in Amsterdam) two years later. He would retain both of these posts for the rest of his life.
In a 1976 letter which he wrote to a friend, Landau said: “I think that at age forty the time has come to dedicate myself to narrower pursuits, namely, making propaganda for American socialism…. We cannot any longer just help out third world movements and revolutions, although obviously we cannot turn our back on them, but get down to the more difficult job of bringing the message home.”
In the seventies as well, Landau became friends with the socialist Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier. After Letelier and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, were assassinated in a 1976 car bombing, Landau—with the backing of the Institute for Policy Studies—co-authored two books about the killings, never mentioning that Letelier was a Cuban agent. In the second book, titled Assassination on Embassy Row, Landau stated that one of his first acts upon hearing of the killings was to go to Letelier’s office and thoroughly check his files “to ensure that materials that could compromise the Chilean resistance inside Chile or in exile would not fall into the hands of the FBI.” After Letelier’s death, papers were found in the ambassador’s briefcase which showed that he was receiving $1,000 per month from Cuba. Also discovered in the briefcase was a 1976 letter from Saul Landau to a friend in Havana, in which the filmmaker had written: “I think that at age forty the time has come to dedicate myself to narrower pursuits, namely, making propaganda for American socialism.… We cannot any longer just help out third world movements and revolutions, although obviously we cannot turn our back on them, but get down to the more difficult job of bringing the message home.”
Over the course of his professional career, Landau created and directed more than 40 documentary films. In a 2005 interview with The Capital Times, he said that he saw no difference between documentary and fictional films. “One has to simulate reality,” Landau explained. “The other one says, ‘Here’s reality,’ whether it is or isn’t.”
Landau also authored 14 books, wrote thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and reviews, maintained his own Internet blog, and periodically gave voice to his deep and enduring hatred of Israel.
Landau died of bladder cancer on September 9, 2013 at his home in Alameda, California. At that time, he was in the midst of working with actor Danny Glover on a new film praising the so-called Cuban Five, a Miami-based, KGB-trained, Castro spy ring whose activities had been uncovered by the FBI in September 1998.
Shortly after Landau’s death, historian Ron Radosh wrote that the deceased filmmaker, a voracious reader of Marxist literature, had “made films taking the stance Lenin had called on all Communists to take in the 1920s.” Said Radosh: “Communists, [Lenin] wrote, had to ‘powerfully develop film production, taking especially the proletarian kino [theaters] to the city masses.’ Of all the arts, he [Lenin] added, ‘the motion picture is for us the most important.’ In America, European cultural commissar Willi Muenzenberg advised the comrades to ‘develop the tremendous cultural possibilities of the motion picture in the revolutionary sense.'” “The further truth,” Radosh elaborated, “is that Saul Landau saw his main task to be that of gaining support for all third-world dictatorships of the Left. If they won their fight and weakened the United States, then it would be all the easier to attain ‘socialism’ in’“the belly of the beast,’ as the Left called the United States.”
For additional information on Saul Landau, click here.
Further Reading: “Saul Landau, Maker of Films With Leftist Edge, Dies at 77” (NY Times, 9-11-2013); “Saul Landau” (Keywiki.org); “Saul Landau: Death of a Propagandist” (by Mark Tapson, 9-12-2013); “Saul Landau – Documentary Filmmaker – Dies” (San Francisco Chronicle, 9-11-2013); “‘Fidel’ Filmmaker Saul Landau Dies at 77” (Los Angeles Times, 9-11-2013); “How the Death of Saul Landau, a Supporter of Repressive Communist Regimes, Is Celebrated by Major U.S. Newspapers” (by Ron Radosh, 9-13-2013).