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Five Came Back‘s Guillermo del Toro on World War II, Immigration and Real Monsters

7 minute read

The Netflix documentary Five Came Back tells the story of how five American filmmakers helped changed the way citizens saw World War II and how that experience changed the movies forever. In order to summon that tale, the film enlists five modern filmmakers, including Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak), who recently spoke to TIME about the role of propaganda in World War II and its lessons for today.

TIME: In Five Came Back, you focus on Frank Capra’s role in this history. What drew you to his story?

Del Toro: I felt a great kinship with the idea of Capra being an immigrant who looks at America in a way that almost gilds it. He idealizes it in a way. Everybody talks about Capra as emotionally supercharged, a sort of syrupy filmmaker, but in reality his movies are a perfect balance of almost existential turmoil, and hope and decency. Here you have an immigrant who basically helps concoct and create really quintessential American values.

You describe It’s a Wonderful Life as Capra’s “testament film.” Have you made a testament film?

Like all testaments, they are only read after you die. Nobody knows what your testament is until they open it after you die. These are not things you plan. You cannot deliberately make a testament film.

These filmmakers are pretty clear that what they’re making is propaganda, designed to change minds about the real world. Do you think movies can still serve that role?

It is through stories that we find our place in the world, and in that we are always espousing ideas. The specific nomenclature of propaganda is the use of ideas as a weapon of change, not necessarily change for the good, just a weapon of change. The thing that was forever changed in World War II was that it was understood that a war needed to have weaponized soldiers and armaments, and it needed to weaponize ideas also. And the intelligence of Capra in creating [his series for the War Department] Why We Fight — what an aptly succinct way of naming this, Why We Fight — was that he said, “Well, Leni Riefenstahl is doing Wagner; I’m going to do Gershwin. I’m going to do a hummable tune for the man on the street. I’m not going to say how great the motherland is, but I’m going to say, You’re fighting for the values at home, you’re fighting for decency.” He appealed not to the grander sentiments, like nationalism, but he appealed to emotion, at which he excelled.

Can something be art and propaganda at the same time?

To me, propaganda is entirely dependent on the social worth of the ideas it’s espousing. Art may not be popular but still holds its own values no matter what the current thinking is.

Watch an exclusive clip from Five Came Back:

It must have crossed your mind, having spent so much time with this history, what you would have done in a parallel situation. If you were called on to make movies to spread a particular message, would you do it?

I would like to believe so. You know, the thing that I found about the book and the documentary is how of the time it is right now. We are now in a world in which, in order not to find confrontation in the arena of ideas, often at least on social media you are told, ‘Shut up about politics and talk about movies.’ That is a completely fabricated distinction. I feel that right now each side needs to truly take out what they believe is the right way to run the world and duke it out, because it’s a very aggressive time politically. The machine changes — we were talking about short films run in theaters before the feature, and that doesn’t exist anymore — but now you have social media, you have an arena like this interview. An artist is also a man or a woman and he or she needs to stand up for what they believe in.

So what are those causes, for you?

What I have stood for in every single one of my movies is the notion that when we name the other as the enemy, we stop recognizing ourselves in them, and that’s a brutal, destructive, horrifying position to take. In this world, we have doctrine that tries to relieve guilt and ensure hatred by pointing the finger at the others. There are two choices right now. Option A is you are screwed because the oligarchy and corporations are destroying your way of life. Option B is “those guys,” and you point the finger. But it’s Option A. I have no doubt.

How does this idea of otherness apply to the fantasy elements in so much of your work?

I think that the Zen masters, the Taoist masters, and Jesus and the old prophets all agreed that the only way man has to get close to the big notions in the universe at play is through parable. The sister to parable is fable, and the sister to fable is fantasy.

We talked about Capra’s immigrant experience. How has your own immigrant experience influenced your work?

In the last 20 years, I’ve seen my own experience go from incredibly difficult to seeing myself and other Latin-American and Mexican filmmakers be able to achieve things that show that we can compete in every arena. But the first couple of years here, I remember my cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, who won the Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth, he went to an agency to be represented and the agent said — and I’m not making this up — he said, “Why do I want a Mexican? I already have a gardener.” I remember going to meetings at studios, meetings with producers, where they said,“Why do you want to do these [fantasy movies] if you’re Mexican?” I said,“Why did Bertolucci want to do The Last Emperor if he’s not Chinese?” One should be rooted by his or her origin, but one should not be shackled thematically by it.

So the situation has improved?

I think so. 100%.

How do you feel that the political discourse right now, this conversation about a border wall, will affect that trend?

In the industry, I think the effect will be much more slow to be noticed. I think that the arena in which you are affected a lot is in the real-life jobs, in the red states so to speak. California is by definition an exception, but you feel it even here with the ICE raids. It’s a complete paradox, because we are at a great time artistically and a terrible time politically.

An exhibition of your personal collection of art and artifacts, now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, is aptly called At Home With Monsters. What does it bring to our lives to live amid things that scare us?

The monsters in our parables help us decipher the monsters in our lives — the ones on TV; the ones who smile and tell us that we need to be perfect and have bright teeth, nice flowing hair and deodorant; the ones who make us feel imperfect in some way. These monsters give us license to be flawed.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com