DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES: TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS LATER
by Charles Oberndorf
Dreams and Nightmares (1974). Directed by Abe Osheroff and Larry Klingman; written by Abe Osheroff; director
of photography Stevan Larner; edited by Larry Klingman; music by Jim Gitter; produced by Abe Osheroff;
narrated by Abe Osheroff and Sally Smaller. Running time: 54 minutes.
I was 21 when I first saw Abe Osheroff's Dreams and Nightmares. It was the spring of 1981, and my mentor,
Tony Geist, with Abe's help, had organized what was then the largest symposium in the United States on the
Spanish Civil War. At the time I reviewed books and movies for the college newspaper, and Tony asked me to
support the symposium. "I have a movie by a friend. I'd like you to review the film and interview the friend." I had
spent a lot of time those days in the film department. I knew exactly how a good "a movie by a friend" would be,
which is to say not very good at all.
I signed up for a viewing booth--this was in the days when the easiest way to see a movie was to posses the
actual film itself--and I threaded the 16 mm film into the projector. And there on the screen, was a middle aged
carpenter, his beard rapidly turning gray, pounding nails into the frame of a house under construction, and there
we were, at the rubble that was once the town of Belchite, destroyed in 1937. Abe, in voiceover, asks, "Are these
the tombstones of all we fought for?"
To answer that questions he takes us back to his youth, growing up in a "Brooklyn ghetto," becoming politically
active during the Depression, and yearning to do something to stop the advancements of Hitler, who initially
struck 18 year old Abe as everything he hated: "super-cop, super-boss, and super-anti-Semite."
We switch now to a different narrator, Sally Smaller, who tells us of the events in Spain leading to the Civil War.
Now Abe faces a choice: to fight in Spain or to stay home with a young woman who has won his heart. This
marks the nature of Abe's storytelling: there's always the personal before he moves to the larger events. We
follow Abe to the war, where he's wounded, and we follow Spain, its fall to fascism, a fascism that is allowed to
persist because a fascist Spain could play an important role as an American ally in the Cold War.
We jump ahead to the 1970's. Abe has become so intensely curious about Spain after three decades of fascism
that he returns to Spain. He meets with students, worker-priests, and members of the underground. But Spain
had become "the largest nuclear arsenal outside the United States." A vast majority of Spaniards wanted
change. What if there were a popular uprising? What side would the United States take?
Since 1981, I have seen the film a number of times. I've watched it with Spanish college students, with American
seventh graders, and with my own son. Abe does a marvelous job of compressing a lot of information into 54
minutes, and that information is always presented in a dramatic form. The DVD transfer on an old fashioned TV
set looks quite good given that the film was shot on 16 millimeter and makes use of extensive newsreel footage.
It would be an ideal film for any high school or college history class that has just a day or two to spend on the
Spanish Civil War. It makes a great primer for those who want to learn about the war. And it serves as a
marvelous example of standard American cold war policy: support a suppressive dictator to insure a place for
American bases or American commercial interests.
Some caveats. It's not a perfect film. To avoid Cold War politics, the film never mentions that Abe was a
member of the communist party, nor does it look at Stalin's support for the Spanish Republic. The film is also
unfair to the early Spanish Republic, saying it "did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the people." Abe, in later
years, would admit this point was unfair. In 1931, in the face of worldwide economic failure, the Republic had very
limited resources to help anyone. Finally, an expert use of sound in the 1970's now sounds a bit hollow to
twenty-first century ears trained to Dolby complexities.
But those are caveats. The films makes effective use of newsreel footage to create time, place, and action. The
pace, especially in the first half, is headlong, and always captivating. It is one those movies you can watch again
You've discovered this review because you've clicked onto Abe's website and you've followed a link to find out
more about this film. You're already interested in Abe or aspects of the life he's lead. If you haven't seen
Dreams and Nightmares, you should.
Charles Oberndorf is the author of three novels and teaches middle school English. He's written book reviews for
the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Volunteer, and the New York Review of Science Fiction. He is currently at work
on a biographical novel about Abe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.