Wolfgang Suschitzky obituary: a cameraperson of the world

To commemorate photographer and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who died last Friday aged 104, we republish a tribute originally written to celebrate his centenary, alongside list of 19 of his finest film accomplishments.

First, Patrick Russell pays tribute to a cosmopolitan, committed talent and delightful human being.

29 August 1912–7 October 2016.

Patrick Russell
Updated:

Wolfgang Suschitzky at BFI Southbank in 2012

Wolfgang Suschitzky at BFI Southbank in 2012
Credit: Lucas Aliaga-Hurt

Even given his grand age, Wolfgang Suschitzky’s death last week caused much sadness to many. His exquisite pictorial talent leaves us a finely evocative visual record of much of the last century.

Suschitzky was among the last of that generation of talented middle Europeans who arrived in London in the tumultuous 1930s and 40s (in his case in 1935). Emigrés, migrants, refugees, use what term you will: in making homes, families and careers here they’ve enriched our national life and, remarkably many of them, our film and TV industries in particular. A salient point, not often enough made, is that many of them developed a great and knowledgeable respect for Britain’s home-grown working class. This is true of Suschitzky in spades, evidenced by many of his photographs and more than a few of the films he shot.

Suschitsky was a photographer first and a cinematographer second but his artistry in the one medium hugely informed his craftsmanship in the other. His attitude to filmmaking was thoughtful but straightforward: “I tried to put on screen what the director wanted… My contribution was perhaps in the choice of lenses and lighting.” One director has told me that compared to all other cameramen he’d worked with, Suschitzky always took less than half the time to prepare a shot, always doing so with twice the effectiveness.

In person Wolf possessed tremendous modesty, charm and kindness laced with a dry, disarming wit. And he was a film fan – big time. I speak for many in saying that bumping into him at screenings – which one constantly did since he went to so many – always brought a smile to the face and gave the soul a fillip.

He’d go on forever, we told each other. The sad truth is that nothing and no-one does. Given which, last Friday my colleague Becky Vick put it best, via Twitter:

 

Get Suschitzky

from our August 2012 issue

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

The titles begin. Light at the end of a tunnel slowly swallows the black frame with onrushing train track. Cut to Michael Caine in his seat, pan past his fellow passengers, via warehouses and factories speeding past the train window…

The iconic opening sequence of Get Carter (1971) forms, among other things, the junction at the centre of the criss-crossing career of the man directly behind the camera. Knowing northeast England, intimately familiar with industrial Britain, he doubtless feels at home, far from any studio, shooting mute footage of gritty landscapes. But he’s also fluent with the human face – and with helping his director (in this case Mike Hodges) expose the truth within the drama, as well as finding the drama in documentary images. Director of photography Wolfgang Suschitzky was, at the time, pushing 60. Fast-forward to 2012 and he’s still standing.

Get Carter (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

What is it about DPs? They may not all be long-lived, but there sure is a pattern. Stanley Cortez made it to 91, Henri Alekan to 92, John Alton to 94… Turning to Britain, consider Jack CardiffFreddie YoungRonald Neame, leaving life at 94, 96 and 99 respectively. Christopher Challis died recently, at 93. Oswald Morris remains with us at 96, as does Douglas Slocombe at 99, and Slocombe’s friend and elder: Wolfgang Suschitzky, known in the business as ‘Su’, who turns 100 on 29 August this year.

A few weeks before that, 19 July sees the centenary of Su celebrated in public (to the slight embarrassment, no doubt, of this self-effacing man). At a special event at BFI Southbank, BAFTA will honour this long-standing, still-active member with a Special Award for Creative Contribution, concluding an evening of tributes from colleagues, screenings of evocative extracts (some long unseen) and thoughts from the man himself.

Anyone with any feeling for the recent past is prone to a certain star-struck sentimentality when in the presence of people of distinction living among us in great old age. Certainly, durability is worth celebrating. In Suschitzky’s case, his place at the head of not just two but three generations of cameramen adds a further twist: his son Peter, among many illustrious credits, is best known as David Cronenberg’s long-time DP; grandson Adam, meanwhile, has done fine work in features, documentaries and, particularly, TV drama (from Life on Mars to the recent ITV miniseries Titanic).

Wolfgang Suschitzky

Credit: E.R. Roberts, Dublin

But the romance of longevity notwithstanding, Suschitzky’s is a rewarding and singularly instructive career to look at. In Britain at least, 20th-century screen history was as much as anything the sum of its subplots. Though his camerawork was always excellent, Suschitzky’s career wasn’t studded with certified masterpieces of narrative cinema (as was Cardiff’s, say).

Get Carter is the exception in this respect (and was divisive in its day). Instead Suschitzky personifies the diversity both of the business and of the art of filling the screen: classics, cult items, curios; features and shorts; documentary and fiction; cinema and TV; industrial, charity and natural-history films; and, last but not least, innumerable commercials (most destined never to be documented).

Connections

Wolfgang Suschitzky’s career also makes illuminating connections between motion and still photography. Suschitzky is renowned as a committed, beguilingly gentle photographer of human and industrial scenes, animal life, occasional distinguished portrait sitters, and the world’s children. There’s much to be gained from study of the artistic connections between his work in the two media (a pair of attractive volumes from Austrian publisher Synema make a fine starting point) – and the practical connections, too: it was film commissions that took Suschitzky to many of the places in Britain and abroad where his best photographs were taken.

Suschitzky was born in Vienna in 1912, to a Jewish (non-practising) and socialist (very much practising) family. Both of these allegiances would likely have lost him his life long ago had he not fetched up in London, via the Netherlands (his sister Edith Tudor-Hart, herself an important documentary photographer, settled here first). After 77 years in Britain, Suschitzky retains his distinctive Austrian accent and his left-leaning politics (he for one laments the decline of strong trade unionism in Britain’s film and TV industries in the years since his retirement).

Wolfgang Suschitzky

Credit: Julia Wincklers

While simultaneously pursuing his photographic career, Suschitzky entered the movies while still in his twenties as a cameraman at Paul Rotha Productions – part of the Documentary Film Movement, whose civic commitment attracted him. In 1944 he was one of the Rotha employees, led by the charismatic Donald Alexander, who departed to form DATA (Documentary and Technicians Alliance), Britain’s first film cooperative. He was an active member for 12 years. Hoping to produce radical documentaries, DATA became best known for quintessential post-war consensus filmmaking: the National Coal Board’s cine-magazine Mining Review (which occasioned its makers’ exposure to, and deepening respect for, Britain’s coalfield communities).

Rotha’s fiction debut was also Suschitzky’s first feature: the unusual Irish tinker drama No Resting Place (1951). Jack Clayton’s The Bespoke Overcoat (1955) won an Oscar for Best Short, while Suschitzky’s first foray into TV came via episodes of a Charlie Chan series. Through the next decade, he alternated quirky features, ads and a steady stream of nonfiction shorts (an increasing number of them in glossy colour, directed by such established but underrated documentarists as Sarah Erulkar, Peter de Normanville and Paul Dickson). He also worked with rising talent: for Hugh Hudson, for instance, he shot several corporate films and many commercials. From the late 1960s, Suschitzky was increasingly in demand as a feature DP, though he never abandoned his nonfiction origins, still photographing industrial training films as late as the 1980s.

Suschitzky has been retired since 1987. This lifelong filmgoer remains a dedicated one, regularly spotted at screenings. Usually with partner Heather Anthony, sometimes solo, he comes by bus, takes the stairs, and often ends his evening with some red wine. “Art can be produced with any medium,” he insists, “but only in the hands of an artist. Unfortunately there are not many of those about. I certainly don’t claim to be an artist. I am content if I am considered a craftsman.”

 

Man with a movie camera: 19 of Wolfgang Suschitsky’s finest moments

Children of the City

Budge Cooper, 1944

Children of the City (1944)

This Paul Rotha production is a stark study of Dundee poverty. More social-democratic films would follow in Suschitzky’s DATA years, including the trio below.

Cotton Come Back

Donald Alexander, 1946

Education of the Deaf

Jack Ellitt, 1946

Fair Rent

Mary Beales, 1947

 

The Bridge

J.D. Chambers, 1946

The Bridge (1946)

Two-man unit Chambers and Suschitzky shot this fascinating record of reconstruction in post-war Yugoslavia, in tough conditions.

 

Mining Review

various directors, 1948-56

Suschitzky’s contributions to the early years of the world’s longest-running industrial newsreel exemplified its strengths: unassuming, economical artistry, technical exactitude and a generous, unforced optimism that’s bittersweet in retrospect.

 

The Bespoke Overcoat

Jack Clayton, 1955

The Bespoke Overcoat (1956)

Adapted from Gogol, this award-winning short bridged Suschitzky’s documentary and feature careers, revealing a latent mastery of interior cinematography laced with ghostly expressionism.

 

The Small World of Sammy Lee

Ken Hughes, 1962

The Small World of Sammy Lee (1962)

An excellent, energetic British genre pic, dripping with authentic Soho atmosphere, thanks not least to incredibly mobile off-the-cuff, on-the-streets camerawork.

 

Lunch Hour

James Hill, 1962

Lunch Hour (1962)

By contrast with The Small World of Sammy Lee, this flawed, fascinating curiosity, from a John Mortimer script, is improved no end by the way the photography accentuates its intense claustrophobia.

 

Stone into Steel

Paul Dickson, 1960

Stone into Steel (1960)

Industrial documentary at its most majestic. Elemental yet futuristic, this is silent cinema for the 1960s, in Eastmancolor.

 

Snow

Geoffrey Jones, 1963

A great short is a thing of joy forever. Several weeks’ heavy-weather shooting yields nine minutes of gleaming camerawork, rhythmically cut to evoke – everlastingly – a notoriously bad winter.

 

The River Must Live

Alan Pendry, 1966

The River Must Live (1966)

This Shell short launched the strange cycle of contemplative environmentalist films sponsored by oil companies. Suschitzky’s evocations of nature, spoilt and unspoilt, were crucial to its impact.

 

The Tortoise and the Hare

Hugh Hudson, 1966

The Tortoise and the Hare (1966)

Corporate film with a difference. This novelty hit from the future director of Chariots of Fire is a thoroughly enjoyable, pleasingly dated modern fable, sponsored by Pirelli tyres and set on Italy’s roads.

 

Ulysses

Joseph Strick, 1967

Ulysses (1967)

Joyce’s proverbially ‘unfilmable’ book prompts an inevitably imperfect film – but an underrated, creditable, rewarding one. The first-rate photography reflects Suschitzky’s absorption in a novel he reread many times.

 

Cast Us Not Out

Richard Bigham, 1969

Cast Us Not Out (1969)

Among many moving NGO films, this conscience-pricking documentary (directed, by the future Viscount Mersey, for the Jewish Welfare Board) stands out for its candour, clarity and caring attention to careworn faces.

 

Entertaining Mr Sloane

Douglas Hickox, 1970

Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970)

This fine Orton adaptation was one of Suschitzky’s frequent collaborations with the flamboyant Hickox, remembered by the DP as a man without “a subtle bone in his body”. See also Theatre of Blood (1973), starring Vincent Price.

 

Worzel Gummidge

James Hill, 1980-81

Worzel Gummidge (1979-81)

The subtle camera mood changes are quintessential Suschitzky, crucial to the atmosphere – bucolic, autumnal, a little sinister – of this children’s TV series, which lingers in the memories of many of today’s middle-aged.

 

Staying On

Silvio Narizzano, 1980

Staying On (1980)

This TV adaptation of Paul Scott’s novel reunites Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as a British couple remaining in India after the end of the Raj. Suschitzky remembers being reduced to tears by Johnson’s performance.

 

The Chain

Jack Gold, 1984

The Chain (1984)

Ensemble comedy as social commentary, Suschitzky’s last major feature is – in photographic terms – as deft a mix of locations, moods and modes as his career high Get Carter.

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