Audacious filmmaking

David Hinton on Made In England: The Films Of Powell And Pressburger

by Paul Risker

David Niven and Kim Hunter of the set of A Matter Of Life And Death (1946).
David Niven and Kim Hunter of the set of A Matter Of Life And Death (1946). Photo: courtesy of Altitude

Director David Hinton's Made In England: The Films Of Powell And Pressburger draws on a rich array of archival material to craft a captivating celebration of one of cinema's great collaborative partnerships. Together, the English Michael Powell and Hungarian Emeric Pressburger were the creative forces behind some of British cinema's most memorable films: The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter Of Life And Death, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp and The Tales Of Hoffmann.

Martin Scorsese narrates and hearing him express his love for these films makes it feel like Made In England is a meeting with destiny. He was the only choice, not only because of his personal and professional relationships with Powell and his longtime editor, and Powell's widow Thelma Schoonmaker, but because of his enthusiastic energy, driven by his deep love for cinema. Listening to him talk about films is moving and inspiring. His narration expresses the bold energy which Powell and Pressburger poured into these films.

David Hinton
David Hinton

In conversation with Eye For Film, Hinton discussed the un-English sensibility of Powell and Pressburger's cinema, and how the pair were forgotten only to be rediscovered.

Paul Risker: Do you remember the moment you first discovered the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger?

David Hinton: I vividly remember seeing the opening of A Matter Of Life And Death on television - the scene in the burning bomber. That seared itself into my consciousness. Then I got into the work through the man, Michael Powell. In the 1980s, I made an episode of The South Bank Show when the first volume of his autobiography came out. That was a collaboration with Michael, and it took me deep into the movies.

PR: Having collaborated with Powell, what do you consider to be the defining characteristic of their films?

DH: I love what Scorsese says about them being subversive commercial filmmakers - that's the most beautiful way to define what's special about them. They managed to work in the mainstream and yet do wildly adventurous and inventive things. So, the first words I always think of are 'audacity' and 'boldness' - the scale and adventureness of their movies is incredible.

In The Red Shoes, you're telling a story and halfway through you just stop to present a ballet. That's such a radical thing to do in a film [laughs]. No one had ever done it before, and it took a huge amount of guts. Or, if you look at something like The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, it's the genius of the structure of the script that enables them to tell the whole story of a man's life inside two hours, without the film ever feeling hurried and overloaded. It's a beautiful job of construction and screenwriting on Emeric's part.

PR: Might we describe them as stirrers or troublemakers?

DH: Michael in particular loved being the rebellious one and, of course, he often felt himself to be at war with the industry and the producers. He took great pride in doing his own thing and not always the perceived wisdom of what he ought to be doing.]

PR: How different were their personalities and is it surprising they were able to get along?

DH: They were very different, and so much of their chemistry is evident in those little scenes of the two of them sitting together. Michael is the showman; he's the one who thrusts himself forward and has this very visible energy. Emeric is very quiet and more restrained, but he has this very dry humour, and he has his own kind of internal confidence.

When they talk about having these arguments, it's actually Emeric who ends up saying, "In the end, he [Michael], sees that I'm right." In some ways, Emeric was the older brother of the partnership, the quieter one, but Michael always trusted his judgement and that made it work.

Karlheinz Böhm and Michael Powell in a darkroom on the set of Peeping Tom (1960).
Karlheinz Böhm and Michael Powell in a darkroom on the set of Peeping Tom (1960). Photo: Studio Canal, courtesy of Altitude

PR: Picking up on Martin Scorsese's point that they were subversive commercial filmmakers, they were sometimes subtle and other times louder in their dissent. How did their contrasting personalities contribute to this subversive approach?

DH: Even though they're English filmmakers, so many of their films are un-English, or they were at the time. So, it had little to do with what people expected from English movies. Obviously, that's partly to do with Emeric bringing with him from Hungary, Germany and France this very European sensibility and Eastern European quality to his imagination, of the kinds of stories that stirred him.

You have to also remember that Michael's apprenticeship wasn't in England at all, it was in the south of France working for Rex Ingram and a big American studio. This gave him a sense of what cinema might be, which was much grander and flamboyant than what was expected of British filmmakers at that time. There's also the fact that Emeric was a purely cinematic writer of films.

In British cinema of that era, most writers either came from the theatre or they came from literature, whereas Emeric bypassed all of that. He just wrote movies and what Michael loved about him was that he thought in terms of images. It's not a kind of literary cinema and a lot of people in that era thought of British cinema as a literary cinema - stagey, theatrical, words and actors. Powell and Pressburger brought this whole ambitious scale of image making to what they did.

PR: You can still see the literary and theatrical roots in the films, but out of these they created a pure, yet nuanced concept of cinema.

DH: When I say they're not literary, that doesn't mean they're not complex. And when I say they're not stagey, that doesn't mean they're not theatrical. They're complicated; they're all those things.

What a complex character Clive Candy [The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp] is. You don't even know as the audience how you're supposed to relate to him. Are you supposed to laugh at him? Are you supposed to admire him? Are you supposed to pity him? Is he a tragic figure? Is he a comic figure? What engages you so much is that they don't spell everything out for you. So, it has a literary or novelistic complexity, but it all works in purely cinematic terms. Or if you take the theatre point, a film like The Tales Of Hoffmann, nothing could be more theatrical, could it? But within that theatrical world they're doing things that would be impossible to do on a stage. They're using everything that film technique offers you, together with very stylised theatrical imagery. So, it's all of those complexities.

Another wonderful thing I love about Michael is he's ambitious about cinema. He thought you could bring together everything that's great about all the other art forms, and cinema can be, as it were, the greatest art of all because it includes all the others. You can have painting in it, you can combine painting and design with dance and drama. You've got words and music, which are a hugely important element to both Powell and Pressburger, and also to Scorsese. So, this fascination with what you can do by combining images and music is huge for Scorsese's excitement about their films.

From the set of Black Narcissus (1947).
From the set of Black Narcissus (1947). Photo: courtesy of Altitude

PR: As cinema evolved, particularly the birth of social realism, were there consequences of Powell and Pressburger's cinematic approach?

DH: Yeah, and that's why they seriously went out of fashion in the Sixties because along came Lyndsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. Suddenly Britain had this wonderful cinema, but it was the cinema of social realism. It was like taking your camera down the street and filming what was happening out there in the world. It was very much rooted in the documentary tradition, and that made Powell and Pressburger suddenly look very creaky and old-fashioned. They were interested in artifice and the possibilities of creating spectacle, and showing what the inside of Heaven was like, for instance [A Matter Of Life And Death]. That was so out of fashion in the Sixties, when it was all about going out into the streets and showing real people's lives, as it were.

We're very lucky that they've now come back into fashion and that was only a period. The great thing was they lived to see themselves come back into fashion and that was a very joyful thing about the story. Having been forgotten, they were rediscovered again.

PR: Despite being rediscovered, is there a case to be made that they were imprisoned within a very specific time? Although, saying that, whenever I think about Michael Powell, a film that immediately comes to mind is Peeping Tom, a film he made independently of Emeric.

DH: Obviously, part of the fascination with Peeping Tom is it was just ahead of its time, and so even in the Sixties, Michael was making movies that were ahead of their time. They [Powell and Pressburger] had a golden era, and it's interesting that it coincided with the Second World War. Their productivity and run of masterpieces in the Forties was astonishing. I'm not sure there has been another run of filmmaking quite like it, but then, if you go further back, it's important that Michael learned his trade in the silent era.

In a sense, his life covered the early history of cinema. He grew up with silent movies and in the Sixties he made Peeping Tom. So, it's an incredible span, but again, talking about that silent period, what I'm saying is he didn't come out of a kind of literary cinema, he came out of a cinema of image making. Scorsese says a nice thing about how, because Michael grew up with Rex Ingram, he wasn't interested in good taste, which is another thing that English cinema was often cursed by. Michael didn't mind going wild.

PR: The ending of Black Narcissus and Sister Ruth's (Kathleen Byron) transformation immediately comes to mind - the red lipstick, the sexuality and rebelling against institutional order. Powell and Pressburger skilfully juxtaposed light and darkness in many of their films, and sometimes with incredible subtlety; for example, the darkness beneath picturesque England in A Canterbury Tale.

DH: It's related to Peeping Tom in a way, in the sense that this Colpeper character, rather like Carl Boehm in Peeping Tom, is unforgivable really, but nevertheless, you have to empathise with him. That puts the viewer in a compromised position, which is very gripping and makes the work of art into a complex thing that you then have to negotiate your relationship with.

Marius Goring, David Niven and Michael Powell on the set of A Matter Of Life And Death (1946).
Marius Goring, David Niven and Michael Powell on the set of A Matter Of Life And Death (1946). Photo: courtesy of Altitude

PR: Is this ambiguity and non-judgemental sympathy one of their strongest traits?

DH: You're never told how you're supposed to regard Clive Candy in Blimp. There are so many aspects to him that you can regard him as pitiful or heroic. That's what makes the film so rich and, famously, they kept creating these sympathetic German characters during World War Two. It was an outright case of challenging stereotyping, that they're Germans and therefore they're evil. Emeric just wouldn't go along with that because he knew lots of Germans, and he had lots of German friends. He brought that into the movies, and it immediately complicates what you're looking at.

PR: This reveals their films were blessed with emotional intelligence.

DH: Well, with Emeric that's evident, that large heartedness, that empathy and sympathy. He was a Jew driven out of Germany by the Nazis, and he had more reason than anybody to be ferocious in the way that he wrote about them, the Nazis in particular, but the Germans in general. He resisted that and what he put up on screen during the Second World War was all of these sympathetic German characters. It's an extraordinary largeness of spirit and largeness of heart, and it's very moving.

PR: Did Powell and Pressburger believe in the transformative experience of making a film?

DH: A hundred percent, yes. It was quite clear from knowing Michael personally and all his pronouncements that film mattered more to him than anything. Not only was it his livelihood, but it was also his life blood. That's why even though he didn't make a movie for twenty or thirty years, he still had to be thinking about making movies every day because, otherwise, what was the point in existing?

There's a great moment from my old Southbank Show documentary, where he talks about Moira Shearer dying for her art and Melvyn Bragg says, "What is this thing about dying for your art? Why did that fascinate you?" Michael says, because I'd do it myself. And of course, Melvin doesn't really believe him [laughs], but I believe him. Michael really did care that much about movies.

Made In England: The Films Of Powell And Pressburger was released theatrically in the UK and Ireland on 11 May 2024.

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