When, in November 1970, I first met Emeric Pressburger at Michael Powell's offices in Albemarle Street, I made certain to arrive on time.
At the back of my mind was playwright Rodney Ackland’s acerbic description of Pressburger’s inscrutable “flat Hungarian face”, that would make “the visages of Dr Fu-manchu, Charlie Chan and the beloved po-face of Alan Ladd look, by comparison, like mirrors of tempestuous emotion.”
Ackland had worked with Pressburger on 49th Parallel in 1941, but learnt little about him, for when Ackland turned up for a conference half an hour late, as was his custom, Pressburger would have disappeared, only sometimes leaving a note. (Ackland also co-wrote – with Wolfgang Wilhelm – the screenplay of 1939’s The Silent Battle, from a Pressburger scenario, and worked again with him on Wanted for Murder in 1946.)
Neither Powell nor Pressburger ever so much as mentioned Ackland in reference to 49th Parallel. Indeed, on Ackland’s own account, when Powell rose to make a speech at the celebration luncheon for the film at Claridges, he “thanked everybody, from stars to clapper boy… except Miss [Elisabeth] Bergner (who had left it in the middle and fled to the United States) and me.”
In Pressburger I was immediately struck by a feeling of intimacy completely absent in Powell. If Powell was something of a boyscout, clipping his account of events, signalling but rarely detailing essential information and never questioning his own judgment, Pressburger had a reflective presence, as if he was considering an issue for the first time. The films that he made with Powell are like diaries. “Nothing in the world,” he said to me in 1971, “was as important as for me to transfer to Michael how I feel about an idea, who on the floor made it into what it was finally.”
Their working partnership had ended in 1956 with Ill Met by Moonlight and he was discussing the past, but he spoke of his feelings in the present tense. Powell could isolate his emotions, cutting off or ignoring uncomfortable elements in his life; for Pressburger the past always existed in the moment of memory. He talked of Deborah Kerr’s multiple role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: “I think that I myself used to be like that, and I think that many people have a certain type that they are always chasing through their lives, trying to find their lives again and again and again.” Sometimes he was aware of the autobiographical component; sometimes it crept in “involuntarily”. “Everybody,” he said, “has something in his own make-up which recurs without him being conscious of it.”
I invited him to appear on stage with Powell at the culmination of a retrospective which I was organising at the National Film Theatre. There had been considerable resistance to this season. Powell was still unpopular (he was thought arrogant, although I never found him so). No one, it was feared, would come to watch their sentimental drivel, and critical interest was elsewhere (with Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks and Jean-Luc Godard). I felt that it was something of an achievement to have mounted it at all.
Would Pressburger come? Yes, he would, but in the end two things intervened, and he didn’t show. I had wanted to call this first retrospective of their work ‘Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’. But as I was programming some of his earlier ‘quota’ films, Powell said (and I can hear his voice now), “Oh, you can’t call it that as you’re including films which weren’t made with Emeric.” He immediately suggested an alternative: ‘Michael Powell in Collaboration with Emelic Pressburger’ (in A Life in Movies, when he fires off alternative suggestions for titles, seemingly on a reflex, it rings an immediate bell with me).
Pressburger, I learnt a little later, didn’t take well to this shift in emphasis. The films were, after all, “Written, Produced and Directed” by them both. Then, at my request but not with my phrasing, the National Film Theatre wrote him a patronising letter: “We understand that you would like to appear on the stage with Michael Powell…”. When I received a copy I sensed doom and spoke to Pressburger on the telephone. He kept reading and emphasising this phrase to me; he was used to the way this country treated its writers and would now not appear. I pleaded for him to reconsider, but his mind was made up.
It was characteristic of Emeric, as I was to discover later, to be intransigent and obdurate. He wouldn’t or couldn’t explain his unequivocal certitude, and I came to believe that he saw the minutiae of living as an expression of moral integrity. Hence his toying with the offending phrase from the National Film Theatre’s letter, and his distress that, as one of only a handful of significant British screenwriters, he should be treated so shabbily.
Pressburger was more than the scenarist whose work Powell rewrote, a fact plain from even a casual look at films either side of their working relationship. His films are distinct, playing with fantasy and personal relationships, rhapsodic and nostalgic. In his partnership with Powell, he created most of their stories, was responsible for most of the producing, collaborated (but never on the floor) in the directing, and worked patiently in the editing room.
He was born in Hungary in 1902, the son of a land manager, Jewish, musical, literary and ambitious. He went into manufacturing radio sets but was soon out of business and left for Berlin, where (after a struggle writing short stories for newspapers) he landed on his feet as a screenwriter at UFA, Germany’s most prestigious film production company.
When Hitler came to power in 1933 Pressburger left for Paris and two years later arrived in England. His career was one of many permanently scarred by the savage impact of Nazism and involuntary exile. Languages which he once spoke fluently deteriorated through disuse, and whilst he could finesse in English he spoke it atypically. For the rest of his life he was haunted by a sense of loss, for an unrequited love of his youth, Magda Róna, and for the memory of a dearly loved mother who disappeared into Auschwitz.
Whilst lighting-cameramen and designers (Günther Krampf, Curt Courant, Oskar Werndorff, Ernö Metzner) were able to adapt to exile with little language conversion, the careers of actors and writers were frequently ruined (Fritz Kortner, Albert Bassermann, Walter Schlee, Herbert Victor). Pressburger was one of only two exile script-writers who shaped significant careers in Britain (the other was his friend Wolfgang Wilhelm). He is unique in that the sense of emptiness and dejection that he experienced as an exile was incorporated into his films. By asserting the essentiality of the perceiver he located himself within the tradition of Romantic thought; his work increasingly emphasised the relation of man to nature and the interior to the transcendent imagination. The Romantic qualities of the films they worked on together – as The Archers – are usually attributed to Powell, but they are to be found in all of Pressburger’s writing, and with greater emphasis. His partnership with Powell, free from the constraints of external producers, provided the space for Romanticism to flower. Powell, with his attachment to the Greek myths and their outright Paganism, extended it beyond despair and into fantasy and the hallucinatory.
When Conrad Veidt as the Spy in Black arrives at the schoolteacher’s doorway, he exchanges a few pleasantries in German with his contact (Valerie Hobson). “From now on please speak in English,” she instructs him, quickly correcting his mispronunciation of “butter”. “These English are a long time feeling the pinch,” he says as he attacks the ham with the carving knife. Veidt and Hobson are Hardt, a German submarine captain, and his contact the teacher (and double agent) respectively; spy and counterspy in The Spy in Black, the first film Pressburger wrote for Powell to direct. Here are language, food and romance – all central concerns in Pressburger’s life. Though when he discussed it in 1970, 30 years on, he didn’t recall it as having a distinct personal quality: “I did not have very much to do with choosing the subject. But of course I was young and bursting with all sorts of ideas… so there might be something in it. But not intentionally, of course.”
As we look back on it now, aware that Pressburger was less a writer who bubbled with ideas than one who constantly adapted and reworked his personal experience, the autobiographical component is clear. It was always present – except when he was hacking, writing such scripts as the unmade Double Crime on the Maginot Line for producer Marcel Hellman, The Silent Battle (Herbert Mason, 1939) for producer Curt Alexander or Spy for a Day (Mario Zampi, 1939) for producer Ludovico Toeplitz.
Veidt’s Captain Hardt – the outsider, the foreigner struggling with English – is the first in a line of characters invented by Pressburger confronted with a new language and culture. Others are Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a less obvious Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) and Sergeant Bob Johnson (John Sweet) in A Canterbury Tale, and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) in I Know Where I’m Going!, all of whom apprehensively experience a new world.
Between 1939 and 1945, Pressburger’s characters increasingly adopt English characteristics. Kretschmar-Schuldorff enters the country as an exile from Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of war. Alison Smith, a Londoner, is conscripted and despatched to work on a farm near Canterbury where the local dialect leaves her mystified. “I’m English and I don’t speak their language,” she sighs to the American army sergeant. (The difference between them is that the American was brought up, as Pressburger was, on a farm – the living proof that culture, which is international, should be distinguished from nationality.) In I Know Where I’m Going!, Joan Webster, off to marry her rich prince on an island off Scotland, listens in wonderment as villagers talk in Gaelic. When World War Two ended and Pressburger took British citizenship, the cycle carne to an end.
It is amazing how quickly refugee ex-UFA writers such as Wilhelm, Curt Siodmak (Robert’s brother) and Pressburger, none of whom spoke English when they arrived in Britain, established themselves. Siodmak sat in the cinema watching the same film all day to learn useful phrases and idioms. Michael Balcon, he claims, told him that he was needed at Gaumont-British to teach “our boys” how to write scripts. Wilhelm was promptly employed on knockabout comedies, polishing up the dialogue. Pressburger methodically taught himself English with a course book and a dictionary, searching for an intimate relationship with the language, trying to avoid cliche and the simple phrases of tourism, teaching himself puns and inversions. Siodmak was quickly off to Hollywood whilst Wilhelm established himself working variously with Balcon, Korda, Leslie Howard and Launder and Gilliat.
Pressburger worked closely with Gunther Stapenhorst, his producer from UFA, and then for Korda, before finally meeting up with Powell. Powell knew from having to direct so many British scripts how inadequate they could be, and recognised immediately that he had at last found a soulmate.
Whilst writing this I remembered that James Park wrote gloomily, in Sight and Sound in Summer 1990, of the condition of contemporary British scriptwriting, and called for a creative collaboration between writers, producers and directors. He could have been describing a congenital defect in British filmmaking: in June 1937, C. A. Lejeune was despairing of films costing £120,000 going on the floor half-written.
The intense training in all fields of production that UFA gave Wilhelm and Presburger provided them with the skills to create what Park describes as the “internal connections and the tight coherence of a finished script”, an endowment that has rarely existed in Britain.
It is precisely this quality that Powell identified – “a marvellous continuity” – at his first meeting with Pressburger. Pressburger’s own concerns lie just below the surface of so many of his films, even those seemingly dominated by Powell’s visualising skills, a latent experience for the viewer: ground-bass in constant variation form, with Powell’s varied harmonies erected over it.
Dramatic value and underlying seriousness, rarely apparent in Powell without Pressburger, are affected by Pressburger’s measured writing. Powell, although he always rewrote Pressburger’s scripts to reflect his own perspective, never questioned his dramatic skills and sometimes shot sequences blindly, “but they were all right most of the time”, as he said to me. He “couldn’t have cared less about such remarks (in A Matter of Life and Death) as Dickie Attenborough’s ‘It’s heaven isn’t it?’ and Kathleen Byron’s ‘For many people on earth it would be heaven to be a clerk.’” For him, they meant nothing in a film.
Discussions of their films nearly always emphasise the visual (Powell’s sometimes intense imagery and his adventurous use of cinema technology) but the concentration on relationships, the dispirited desolation that the strongest characters often feel (in short the human face of their joint films) are entirely Pressburger’s. This scene from A Matter of Life and Death, almost irrelevant to Powell, reveals Pressburger still uncovering layers in the English language, discovering the varying ways in which the same word can be used, finding inflections and changes in pitch that effect meaning. It was a habit he did not abandon. During the late 50s he took to linguistic philosophy and the study of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Pressburger’s films are examples of an untapped area of study within British cinema: the film of exile, and perhaps also in his case the film of adaptation.
What struck one, talking to Powell, was how he saw the cinema as “a wonderful toy”. In A Matter of Life and Death, Pressburger “would have written the scene with [Roger] Livesey… standing at the window looking down at a village… street… ‘This is my street’ and so on! I would seize on this, introduce the camera obscura idea as a wonderful trick to get everyone interested and excited…”
Pressburger described the films quite differently; they sprung from his own experience. He was telling a story, certainly, but one shaped by his own moral sensibility. I Know Where I’m Going! is “about this girl who was brought up to become a superior sort of being. Her standards were entirely different from the standards I was aiming at or people I liked were aiming at. As against her, there was a young man who was in a way a happy-go-lucky sort of man who was doing what everyone was trying to do well during the war.” It is not impossible to recognise Pressburger in this Roger Livesey character.
In his novel The Glass Pearls, about a concentration camp doctor, Otto Reitmüller, hiding in London under a pseudonym and haunted by the idea of being hunted down, the boarding house in which Reitmüller lives recalls the one in Pressburger’s first feature film for UFA: Robert Siodmak’s Abschied (1930), with its lodgers meeting and gossiping in the hall. Reitmüller, a violinist like Pressburger himself, has escaped from Germany to Paris and is now trying to camouflage his past, earning his living as a piano tuner.
The novel conveys Pressburger’s horror at the paradox that otherwise cultured people – people who like himself “adored Rosenkavalier”, educated figures who had taken the Hippocratic oath – could behave monstrously and participate in horrific crimes. “I always believed, and I have to say that there are also good Germans, one or two, though the great majority of them proved to be pretty awful, pretty horrible,” he said.
In the mid-60s he researched in the Wiener Library, and also met the fascist writer Bill Hopkins, the author of the reviled The Divine and the Decay (1957). Hopkins later told Kevin Macdonald, Pressburger’s grandson, that in Pressburger’s eyes “to be Jewish was a pejorative term… cheap, vulgar, detestable… “, but I never caught a hint of this and don’t believe it. It tells us something about Hopkins but nothing about Pressburger, who was more likely researching fascism, wanting to meet the enemy face-to-face. Their differences in attitude towards life were displayed in their attitude towards food. Hopkins saw it as “just faeces” that “would emerge·from my bowels before long as shit”. Pressburger, a gourmet, saw food as a celebration and expression of existence; the differences between them were those between life and death.
The Archers, the most fascinating partnership in British cinema, was nonetheless an uncomfortable one for it. Contraband, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, I Know Where I’m Going! and The Small Back Room, their black-and-white films of British integrity, received an immediate if grudging acceptance.
But The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann – all colour films of sometimes startling brilliance and originality – were discounted as the product of filmmakers of aberrant taste, outside the national concerns of such films as Victor Saville’s Hindle Wakes (1931), Basil Dean’s Sing as We Go! (1934), Charles Frend’s The Foreman Went to France (1942), Launder and Gilliat’s Millions Like Us (1943) and some of the post-war films from Ealing.
When Richard Winnington reviewed A Matter of Life and Death in November 1946, he considered that it was “even further away from the essential realism and the true business of the British movie than their two previous films,” and felt that Powell and Pressburger “seem to have reached their haven at last – in the other world, which is just like all the Other Worlds film producers have cooked up for us – an illimitable Wembley Stadium surrounded by tinkling music and mists, from which all men of taste… would quickly blaspheme their way out.” Such views, by no means uncommon at the time, look quaint today, when these films have established themselves at the very centre of British cinema history.
Pressburger’s ideological position allowed Powell the space to play. It was only when the stories were not original or were tied down with fact that Powell found them difficult, sometimes impossible, to work on. It is strikingly difficult, outside of those specifically located in World War Two, to date any of the action within them. Pressburger’s films are consciously defocused, impossible to pin down.
In the Blimp script, the evening when General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) is banned from talking on the BBC is specifically dated: it is the day that Pétain carne to power. But this key articulation is absent from the film: quite deliberately the work was not pinned to a specific time and place. The Red Shoes could take place at any time after the invention of radio; A Matter of Life and Death, although it opens on “the night of the 2nd May, 1945”, does not use the war even as a backdrop.
This “wonderful conjuring trick”, as Powell described it, derives in part from a novel (from which much else is taken, also): A Journey Round My Skull, by Frigyes Karinthy. This well known Hungarian novelist and poet describes the onset and development of a series of hallucinations caused by a brain tumour requiring major surgery – these events, although a subjective experience, are underpinned by political events: “The big headline of the evening paper was now set up. It ran “Italians enter Addis Ababar” and “Budapest. Monday, May 4th… There were rumours that Leon Blum was going to form a Government…”.
Why does Pressburger not use this device when he takes so much else from the novel? In the script for the film, the long opening trajectory through space contains a revealing statement: “There is music wherever there is harmony, order or proportion; and thus we may maintain the Music of the Spheres… Great suns and moons and stars roll in their orbit… huge molten masses tremble and flare with spectral, incandescent vapours, comets and shooting-stars hurtle by. Yet there seems a pattern, ‘a well-ordered motion full of harmony’ and behind it all a theory and a purpose…”
This is more than a Platonic perception of the universe: it reveals that Pressburger, at a point in his life when he was corning to terms with his personal losses from the war, maintained a deeply religious appreciation of existence that transcended immediate political events. Earlier in 1946, the year of A Matter of Life and Death, he had bought a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, itself partially written in response to the war. The chapter on Plato’s Theory of Ideas opens with a quotation which argues that the human race will never have rest from social and political evil until political greatness and wisdom meet in one. Only then will “our State have a possibility of life and hold the light of day”.
Powell-Pressburger films were often resisted on grounds of “questionable taste”, but it may also be because their themes, summed up by Raymond Durgnat as “embracing soft-centred systems of mystical belief”, appeared to spit in the face of political necessity whilst in fact revealing “a serious belief in… wayward natural forces”. They were concerned less with the practical requirements of winning the war and of social reconstruction and more, as Pressburger put it, with “looking beyond it”, with emphasising universality and a vision of truth that would bring nations together.
Russell draws an analogy in History of Western Philosophy that reminds one of the Powell-Pressburger approach to film-making, of first walking all over a mountain in a mist, until every path, ridge and valley is separately familiar, and then from a distance seeing the mountain whole and clear in bright sunshine.
We can see from Powell’s early films, The Fire Raisers (1933), Red Ensign (1934), and The Edge of the World (1937) in particular, that nature asserts an amoral power over life: life emerges from the elements and returns to them. A literary parallel can be identified in the earlier work of Pressburger. In 1935, while Powell was still struggling to develop a style, emulating Hitchcock in passages of Her Last Affaire, Pressburger was already writing mature if less than original films. Written in exile in Paris and produced the same year, Monsieur Sans-Gêne (Karl Anton), is a case in point – as is its American remake, One Rainy Afternoon (Roland V. Lee, 1936). The story, had it not been turned into a film, might have graced the pages of Woman’s Journal or True Romances (Graham Greene, writing in the Spectator in July 1936, strongly disliked it). The personal and sentimental aspect of his work, is already present.
At a Parisian cinema, the matinée audience for L’amour Secret watch their own dreams of love on the cinema screen. Not wanting to be spotted, a lover and his mistress, a young actor and the wife of a senior politician, regularly sneak into a cinema after the lights go down and creep out before the end of the film. He complains that he joins the film only after the girl has been snatched from the arms of her lover and leaves before they are reunited, seeing nothing but unhappiness. For Lubitsch, who with René Clair was a strong influence on Pressburger, the theme of coitus interruptus would have run through the film; for Pressburger, the preoccupation is rather true love, of the immediate spiritual variety (as in the Powell-Pressburger films). The actor (Fernand Gravey in the French version, Francis Lederer in the American) sits in the wrong seat and makes advances to another woman (Josseline Gaël; Ida Lupino).
As in I Know Where I’m Going! and A Matter of Life and Death, the right woman has been found by a chance meeting. Charged and convicted for being a public nuisance, the actor is photographed, a number 6663636 hanging on his chest. (Aware of the way in which Pressburger introduced elements of his life into his film scripts one might speculate about the meaning of the number itself.)
Although written at a time of intense political upheaval in France, Monsieur Sans-Gêne avoids politics in favour of fantasy (even if 6663636 turns out to be a telephone number, or that of Pressburger’s identity card). 1935 was the year in which the Paris Writers Congress took place, attended by Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Ernst Toller and E. M. Forster. There was fear of a rightwing coup in France, the Popular Front was emerging and Jean Renoir completed the politically conscious Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. But social or political conflict is as absent from Monsieur Sans-Gêne as it is from the films Pressburger made with Powell at the height of the war. Pressburger’s individual moral position isolated him from politics and Powell’s swank protected them both, up to a point, from the realities surrounding them.
It is no surprise that their apparent lack of commitment provoked antipathy in those who attached themselves to a more collaborative programme. Where others, such as Carol Reed with The Way Ahead (1944) and Sidney Gilliat with Waterloo Road (1944), were making films of immediate relevance to the war, Pressburger and Powell had adopted a Platonic position.
Pressburger’s one attempt at directing, Twice Upon a Time (1953), showed how greatly he depended on Powell’s sprightly visual cockiness. On the other hand, Powell’s films without Pressburger lack ambiguity and are directed with little sensitivity towards the actors. The visualisation was always predominantly Powell’s, at least in combination with their designers and photographers, but everything was discussed between the two, and it is at this point that their two imaginations met. Who knows how Powell’s or Pressburger’s careers would have developed had Pressburger left for Hollywood in 1938 (as the entertainment journalist Pem expected)? As it was, Pressburger started working for Korda on a story that eventually became The Red Shoes and Korda, shortly after, introduced them to one another.
Pressburger sometimes saw his pension in the continual optioning of stories that went unmade. If they were turned down, as was his third novel, he relegated them not to the wastebin but to the drawer of his desk, where like wine, he would wait for them to mature. Sometimes he misjudged it and the ideas went flat, as with Miracle in St. Anthony’s Lane, which he had written in Paris in 1934.
A few years earlier he had slept rough in a famous Berlin synagogue, planning to creep out just before morning service. Too late, he heard the congregation chanting, and crept down, only to be welcomed as a member of the quorum; the service had not started, and the sounds he had heard had been in his imagination. “Surely,” he claimed, “a miracle.” A René Clair-like idea, full of character, with a number of interlocking stories, Miracle in St. Anthony’s Lane was another story of exile, only a step away from this anecdote. It reached the screen only in 1957, directed by Julian Amyes, converted into Miracle in Soho. Originally a story of the German exiles in Paris, it had now become one about Italian immigrants in London.
In England Pressburger’s original story had been widely admired, but no one wanted to make it and Powell thought it lacked “substance” (a curious observation from the man who chose to direct Honeymoon). A postman is at the centre of the web of stories, linking the locals – but the miracle, if there is one, takes place in the church, when Julia (Belinda Lee) prays for her lover, the Lothario of London’s roadworkers, to return. The water-main explodes and brings him back.
Powell recognised it as too close to A Matter of Life and Death and didn’t want to tread old ground, but he might, just as readily, have thought it too similar to I Know Where I’m Going! or to Blimp. If A Matter of Life and Death was for Powell “the most perfect film”, he is talking about technical perfection; for Pressburger his finest script, although not his most personal one, is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, into which is introduced another component from Miracle in St. Anthony’s Lane.
The ‘miracle’, the hopeless dream of a girl in love, is close to the shifts that Pressburger was making in his narratives during the 1930s and 40s: the question is less whether the ‘miracle’ is actually a miracle, conjured up by a prayer in the church, but more whether it exists in the imagination of a lovesick girl. Is it another case of the Indian Rope Trick, as with the Roger Livesey syndrome of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? An event that only occurs for those who want to see or dream it in the first place? By the time that Miracle in Soho was made, in 1957, the central creative ideas had been plundered by the Archers and only the bones remained.
Music in the head
In all the most successful of Pressburger’s writing, his novels included, important and significant events occur inside the heads of the characters. Their limits are those of the imagination. He believed in music’s power to translate human experience and translate human ideals; his favourite work towards the end of his life being Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Powell and Pressburger came close to making a Strauss film that would have taken place entirely within the composer’s imagination.
Pressburger’s films, from Abschied in 1930 to Miracle in Soho in 1957, reveal more consistent themes and concerns than their Powell equivalents. Their joint praxis discloses a compatible philosophical view of the world which is essentially anti-Rationalist, expressed not only pictorially but textually, through Pressburger’s belief in the primacy of the perceiver and the role of tradition in constructing a morally integrated world.