For years von Gundlach focused only on documentaries that portrayed the wildlife of Socialist countries. In his first series of documentaries titled Socialist Nature he masterfully captured—with a strange combination of precision and passion—the natural world in countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the USSR. The works of Eugene von Gundlach are difficult to categorize, they constantly shift from nature to geopolitics, and his films are documents of great interest for science and at the same time for politics.
What is the difference between a deer from socialist Poland and one from West Germany? What is the difference between a Hungarian colony of aspen trees and a French one? Specialists can answer these questions with accurate answers but von Gundlach answered them with his 16mm Arriflex film camera using beautiful black-and-white tones that portrayed with subtlety the nature of the communist East, the world that, at that time, was forbidden to experience for the capitalist West.
Two years before leaving for Cuba von Gundlach realized that it wouldn’t be possible to bring his 16mm camera with him. The Cuban government— especially during the 70s—had severe regulations about film cameras and journalists traveling to the island. This particular condition made him think in a different way and compelled him to create a master plan. What is known today as the “von Gundlach strategy” is linked precisely with Eugene von Gundlach’s first trip to Cuba.
His strategy consisted of dismantling his 16mm Arriflex camera in Germany and cataloging every single piece of it in order to put them back together once he reached Cuba. In this way, Eugene von Gundlach smuggled his camera into Cuba during the spring of 1970. Hundreds of little screws and parts made their way concealed in his clothes, shoes and books. The precious luggage also included a complete photo inventory of every single element of the camera and, inside of his handbag, the last but not least important thing: a tape recorder with a precise voice recording of the assembly instructions. One of the most demanding of all tasks came later, while assembling some mechanisms; he realized that some important parts were missing. During his entire first month in Cuba von Gundlach concentrated exclusively on handcrafting the missing camera parts. By the end of June 1970 he managed to get his Arriflex running perfectly.
Socialist Hummingbirds was the working title that von Gundlach used for the documentary that he and a small crew of Cuban enthusiasts started shooting during the summer of 1970 nearby El Escambray, a mountain range located in the former province of Las Villas. With the help of some locals von Gundlach penetrated a dense tropical forest and arrived at the very core of Banao, the holy place where the smallest living bird lives, El Zunzun.
“Silence, I need silence” he would often write in his travel diary. I guess he wanted to get as close as possible to the Zunzun but the shooting sound of his 16mm camera did not allow him to do so. As a result of his technical struggle Socialist Hummingbirds rather than the birds themselves shows in detail the magical places where they live. After watching the documentary many times, I am not sure anymore if E. von Gundlach was disturbed or satisfied with his camera noise. In one of the last entries in his diary he wrote: … for the first time I am aware while filming that I am carrying a camera. I know by heart every single part of this camera; I can tell by the way the camera sounds when I must stop filming and start watching in silence what surrounds me.