Óscar Aibar’s latest film, a thriller anchored in grotesque historical fact, owes its existence to a random holiday meal a decade or so ago.
The Spanish director was in Valencia for the summer when he looked up from his plate to study the pictures of famous people on the restaurant walls.
“Among them was a very small one that showed five or six men wearing SS and Wehrmacht uniforms and with hairstyles from the 1960s,” says Aibar.
“I thought they must have been dressed like that for a film or something, but when I asked about the photo, they told me they were the Germans from Dénia.”
The “Germans from Dénia”, it 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 flourished and built profitable businesses.
The photograph was the inspiration for El sustituto (The Replacement), which tells the story of a jaded, alcoholic police officer who stumbles across a colony of proud and unrepentant Nazis in the Valencian town of Dénia in the early 1980s. In one of its set pieces – based on real festivities – the detective finds himself at a party where his fellow guests are wearing their SS uniforms and iron crosses.
El sustituto is not alone in revisiting one of the more startling corners of 20th-century Spanish history.
A documentary released last year – Europe’s Most Dangerous Man: Otto Skorzeny in Spain – chronicled the postwar career of the infamous SS officer who sprang Mussolini from captivity and died in Madrid in 1975. Skorzeny also appears in Los días rojos (The Red Days), a new novel by Miguel Herráez about a student tasked with obtaining a picture of the former lieutenant colonel as he travels to Valencia. And then there is Netflix’s Jaguar, a 1960s-set show about a Spanish survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp and her search for justice. All have arrived a decade after Clara Sánchez’s prize-winning novel Lo que esconde tu nombre, which was published in English as The Scent of Lemon Leaves.
Aibar, who made the film partly to educate younger people about what happened, attributes the mini-boom to a greater willingness to talk about the past – and to the resurgence of the far right in Spain and across the globe.
“It’s happening all over Europe: a month ago, Mussolini’s granddaughter was re-elected as a councillor in Rome,” he says. “I’m not a journalist, I’m a film 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’s happening now.”
Despite its police uniform, El sustituto is also a reflection on the fragility of democracy. The film is very deliberately set in 1982 – the last year when the Nazis of Dénia are known to have put on their uniforms to publicly celebrate Hitler’s birthday, and also the year when Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy ended with the general election victory of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE).
As Aibar points out – and as his film shows – the country endured years of far-right terror between Franco’s death and the PSOE’s arrival in office, and memories of the 1981 coup attempt were still raw. El sustituto nods towards the current political situation in one of its final scenes, when the action moves to the present day and a key villain is revealed to be a candidate for a party that bears more than a passing resemblance to the far-right Vox.
Herráez also believes the renewed interest in Spain’s Nazis may be informed by the contemporary political situation.
“I think there’s a link between that and all the fragility we’re feeling at the moment,” he says.
The writer, who is 64, reckons that while many Spaniards have always known about their Nazi guests, they didn’t know just how deep their roots went.
“The facts are all coming out now about the uniforms and the bands and the runic symbols,” says Herráez. “I’m not young but I’m not that old, either. My generation thought all this was prehistory but it was happening during the Transition.”
Joan Cantarero, an investigative journalist and the 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 flurry. The world’s fascination with evil’s banal servants endures and, as Cantarero puts it, “Nazis sell”.
Nevertheless, he thinks the increasing 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 uncomfortable when they learn about it all,” says Cantarero.
“It might also allow us to go further and to look into 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, about the crimes committed during the [Franco] dictatorship, and about all the mass graves.”
That day, however, may still lie a little way off. Aibar remembers a particular conversation he overheard while on location for El sustituto.
“I was in an old guys’ bar in the town and they were talking about how a film was being made about ‘our Nazis’,” says the director. “They talking about these Nazis as if they were the local tomatoes, or the local church; as if they were something very typical of the region.”