BFI unveils Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger

Our celebration of the groundbreaking filmmaking duo will take place from 16 October to 31 December 2023 and include a major BFI Southbank season, UK-wide cinema rereleases and more.

28 June 2023

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) © ITV Studios Global Entertainment/Park Circus

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger is a major BFI UK-wide film celebration of one of the greatest and most enduring filmmaking partnerships in the history of cinema: Michael Powell (1905 to 1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902 to 1988), best known for iconic films including The Red Shoes (1948), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947), the latter of which premiered on Wednesday night at Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore as part of Il Cinema Ritrovato, screening from a brand new 35mm print made by the BFI

From Martin Scorsese to Matthew Bourne, Kate Bush to Tilda Swinton, Powell and Pressburger have influenced creatives for decades and this is the largest and most wide-ranging exploration ever undertaken about the work of the legendary writer-producer-director team. The celebration will kick off this autumn with the BFI Distribution re-release of I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), recently restored by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with ITV and Park Circus, and back in cinemas UK-wide from 20 October. 

“Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s bold, original and beautiful films changed cinema,” says Arike Oke, executive director of Knowledge and Collections, “and the potency of their vision still resonates today across the creative worlds of art, design, theatre and dance brought together so sublimely in their productions.

She continues: “Martin Scorsese, Derek Jarman, Kate Bush, Matthew Bourne, Sally Potter, Wes Anderson, Manolo Blahnik – just some of the great artists whose work owes a debt to The Archers’ films. Headily romantic, but also daringly political, the partnership that produced such passionate British productions as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes was rooted in a fusion of the English with the European, of the conservative with the progressive, that demonstrates that the best British film always has diversity at its heart. Theirs was a cinema unbound, which BFI are thrilled to present in as complete a form as possible for audiences across the UK to enjoy today, and to help inspire the next generation of fearless creators.”

Thelma Schoonmaker, film editor and widow of Michael Powell, says: “It is my honour to be, alongside Martin Scorsese, the keeper of the legacy of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And I am indebted to the BFI National Archive, and their expert conservation, preservation and curation teams, who have worked tirelessly for years to restore many of their films and bring this vast project to audiences around the UK. Along with The Film Foundation, the BFI have long championed Powell and Pressburger’s work, and it is a joy that audiences now have the opportunity to immerse themselves fully in their creative universes – from rarely seen early works to their unrivalled masterpieces – and I look forward to joining audiences in the UK during the season.” 

Filmmakers Kevin and Andrew Macdonald, grandsons of Emeric Pressburger, say: “We couldn’t be more thrilled that the BFI is honouring Michael and Emeric with a full retrospective at UK cinemas. When one remembers that the Powell/Pressburger canon was almost entirely ignored, even reviled, during the 1960s and 70s it’s almost miraculous that their reputation and influence is now so wide reaching and continues to grow year by year. Thank you to everyone at the BFI who has made this retrospective possible – and to the public who continue to make BFI Southbank the beating heart of cinephile culture in Britain. We can’t wait to see you all at the screenings!”

Hein Heckroth design for The Red Shoes (1948)
Estate of Hein Heckroth/ITV/BFI National Archive

The season will mark the 75th anniversary of the iconic dance film The Red Shoes (1948), with a dazzling free exhibition at BFI Southbank The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror, running from 10 November to 7 January. For the first time the exhibition will open up public access to a wealth of material related to the film, preserved by the BFI National Archive, including around 100 unseen costume and production designs, treatments, scripts, behind the scenes photographs and posters. These items will be presented alongside key loans including the iconic red ballet shoes featured in the film, loaned to the BFI by the Martin Scorsese Collection; personal items from Shearer’s family estate; and costumes and props from Matthew Bourne’s recent ballet adaptation. The Red Shoes will also be re-released in cinemas UK-wide from 8 December, while Bloomsbury will publish a new BFI Film Classic about the film by Pamela Hutchinson on 5 October.

The big screen celebration will also feature a UK-wide cinema programme presented in partnership with the BFI Film Audience Network and a major retrospective of Powell and Pressburger’s work – together and separately – at BFI Southbank, which will premiere new restorations by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with Studiocanal of The Small Back Room (1949) and Peeping Tom (1960). Peeping Tom will be released in UK cinemas by Studiocanal on 27 October, and on home entertainment formats on 27 November. The Small Back Room will be released in early 2024 by Studiocanal in celebration of the film’s 75th anniversary.

Cinema Unbound will also present a number of 4K remasters made by the BFI National Archive, including rarities, early films made by Powell before he met Pressburger, and a selection of Powell and Pressburger’s home movies.

Ian Christie and Thelma Schoonmaker introduce the BFI National Archive’s new 35mm print of Black Narcissus at Il Cinema Ritrovato
Michele Lapini/Getty Images

Following the huge success of the inaugural BFI Film on Film Festival, the season will offer audiences a chance to experience the magic of seeing films projected on film, with new 35mm prints of Black Narcissus (1947), which premieres tonight at Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore as part of Il Cinema Ritrovato, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and The Red Shoes (1948) all made with funding from the National Lottery and the additional support of donors to the BFI’s Keep Film on Film campaign.

BFI Distribution will also release a Blu-ray of Powell’s bold realisation of Bartok’s only opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1964), newly restored by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with The Ashbrittle Film Foundation, unavailable for many years. The film’s pristine restoration will also screen in cinemas during the season. There will be a new book published in partnership with Bloomsbury on October 5 – The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger will be a lavishly illustrated collection of essays with contributions from Thelma Schoonmaker, Tilda Swinton, Sandy Powell, Tim Walker, Michelle Williams Gamaker and many more, bringing a series of fresh perspectives on the filmmaking duo and spotlighting previously unpublished material from the BFI National Archive. A selection of titles will also be available to watch nationwide on BFI Player, from beloved classics to early rarities. 

The BFI will also reveal, through online content, the projects that could have been – using the wealth of material from the Powell and Pressburger paper collections preserved by the BFI National Archive. The BFI will tell the story of films that Powell and Pressburger wanted to make, and the talent they wanted to work with, although sadly these projects weren’t to be. They ranged from The Tempest, starring James Mason and Mia Farrow, and the Broadway adaptation of Ondine, intended for Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, to Thirteen Ways to Kill a Poet, an ambitious series conceived for television, to have focused on different poets, and to have involved a wide range of contributors, from Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader to David Bowie, and Kenneth Anger to David Cronenberg, as well as a proposed film of Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy trilogy The Tales from Earthsea.

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
Restoration by BFI National Archive/The Film Foundation in association with ITV/Park Circus

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a bold, subversive and iconoclastic cinema. Their artistic collaboration spanned 24 films together between 1939 and 1972, including classic titles such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Their masterpieces were so numerous that in 2022 six of their films appeared in the Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time Poll (a feat only matched by Hitchcock). 

True cinematic visionaries, Powell and Pressburger worked with an exceptionally talented creative team of long-term collaborators as The Archers. This included Alfred Junge (production designer), Hein Heckroth (production designer and costume designer), Jack Cardiff (cinematographer), Ivor Beddoes (sketch artist), Arthur Lawson (art director) and Brian Easdale (composer) as well as actors including Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron and Sabu.

Together they created some of the richest and most memorable films in the story of cinema, the influence and impact of which continues to be felt today by international audiences and creators as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Kate Bush (whose iconic album inspired by The Red Shoes, as well as her self-directed tie in featurette The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993), both mark their 30th anniversary this year), Tim Walker, Sandy Powell, Manolo Blahnik, Matthew Bourne, Greta Gerwig, Guillermo Del Toro, Joanna Hogg, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Derek Jarman.

Cinema Unbound is conceived by lead season programmer Robin Baker (BFI National Archive head curator), James Bell (BFI National Archive senior curator of fiction film) and Claire Smith (BFI National Archive senior curator of special collections), featuring work by expert teams from across the BFI, with a major focus on BFI National Archive restoration and conservation work. Hear more from the curators in a special launch video about the season:

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