The Great Screenwriters: Part 18 – Emeric Pressburger

Fish and chips, tea and cake, Powell and Pressburger… some pairings are archetypically English. However, just like so many other supposed “British institutions” (including tea, which only arrived in England from the Far East in the 17th century), Powell and Pressburger were actually half-foreign, as the screenwriter in the great writer-director team initially hailed from Hungary. Like so many great 20th century screenwriters, he was Jewish, and so had to flee the Nazis when they rose to power in the 1930s. However, unlike so many other European Jewish filmmakers, he fled not to Hollywood but to Britain, and that is to the eternal good fortune of British cinema. That is because Pressburger was to write some of the greatest and most quintessentially British films ever made, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the process, he became the ultimate “outsider turned insider” and one of the most acute observers of England and Englishness in any art form.

As is the case with many other great screenwriters and indeed many other great writers in general, “Emeric Pressburger” was not a real name but a nom de plume. Pressburger was born Imre József Pressburger in Hungary in 1902, one of two children (and the only boy) born to the kind of classic “Mittel European” Jews who had done so much to build the society and institutions of central and eastern European countries but who would ultimately be almost completely wiped out by the Nazis. He was apparently an excellent student, whose early interest and training was not in the arts at all but in mathematics and engineering, which he studied at university, first in Prague and then in Stuttgart. Given the superb understanding of structure that Pressburger would go on to demonstrate in his best screenplays, he would almost certainly have been an outstanding engineer or mathematician, but the early and untimely death of his father forced him to abandon his studies and instead find work to try and support his mother and sister.

Like so many other great writers and directors of Eastern European Jewish heritage – including perhaps the finest of them all, Billy Wilder – Pressburger first found gainful employment as a journalist, and as with Wilder that journalistic training (in particular, the ability to spot a good story when he saw one) stood him in good stead when he gradually took up screenwriting at the end of the 1920s. He first wrote for one of the great German film companies, UFA, but as the rise of the Nazis became seemingly inexorable he moved to Paris, where he continued to work for UFA but outside of Nazi Germany. Finally, however, in 1935, as the Nazi pogroms in Germany grew worse and war in Western Europe appeared inevitable, he made the final leap to Britain, where he was effectively a refugee.

As happened in Hollywood, where the first wave of European Jewish emigres helped the succeeding waves as they tried to escape the Nazis, Pressburger found work and his proverbial “big break” through his relationship with another, earlier Hungarian immigrant, the great Alexander Korda. Korda had followed a path to Britain that was similar to that of Pressburger, albeit that Korda spent time in Hollywood before settling in England. He was already one of the major figures in the British film industry, which in the 1930s was not the “cottage industry” it would subsequently become but a genuine, national cinema that employed thousands and was a genuine rival, or at least companion, to the might of the American movie industry. Consequently, Korda, who had really made his name by directing The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), an enormous hit starring Charles Laughton, was able to find writing and editing work for his compatriot, Pressburger, when he showed up, virtually penniless, at Korda’s London Films studio. It was there that Pressburger would meet the only person who was more important to him in his career than Korda, the English director Michael Powell, and eventually, one of the greatest of all filmmaking partnerships was established.

The first product of the Powell and Pressburger pairing was The Spy in Black (1939), which was based on a novel set in WWI that Pressburger and his English co-writer, Ronald Pertwee (the father of Dr. Who actor John and founder of the Pertwee acting dynasty), found great contemporary resonance in, given that a second, even greater and uglier war was just beginning. The Spy in Black was no classic, but in bringing together Powell and Pressburger to make a film together for the first time it is undoubtedly a film of historic importance.

The first major product of the new film-making team was 49th Parallel (1941), which began as a straightforward British propaganda film but subtly evolved into Powell and Pressburger’s conscious attempt to enlist American support for Britain against the Nazis. It did so by telling the story (based on an original idea by Pressburger) of a German U-boat that begins attacking North American shipping. Despite the immense logistical difficulties involved, some German U-boats did make it into North American waters and so Powell and Pressburger’s film played on contemporary American and Canadian anxiety about foreign invasion. As the proud Pressburger remarked after the film became a great hit on both sides of the Atlantic, “Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I’d show him a thing or two”. He did so not by making a straight propaganda film, of the type beloved by the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, but by smuggling the propaganda into the artful tale of six German soldiers who are left stranded in Canada when their U-boat is sunk and who effectively become a small terrorist group as they try to fight their way to what was then the neutral USA.

Pressburger was not the sole screenwriter on 49th Parallel. He was aided by the great British playwright and screenwriter, Rodney Ackland, whose finest work was The Pink Room, or The Escapists (1945), which was a depiction of Bohemian Soho during the war and consequently went largely unstaged until it was revived (and renamed as Absolute Hell) in the 1980s. Although the extravagant and colorful Ackland and the more reserved and watchful Pressburger were unlikely writing partners, there seems no doubt that Pressburger learned a great deal from the more experienced Ackland (who had been a screenwriter for Hitchcock in the 1930s) and was ultimately able to establish himself as the sole screenwriter that Powell needed. Indeed, he became so important to Powell that they became business partners as well as creative collaborators, and their names would become permanently linked, such that it was impossible to think of “Powell” without also thinking of the words “And Pressburger”.

The two men quickly capitalized on the success of 49th Parallel, for which Pressburger had won a Best Writing Oscar (thus showing their success in making truly artful propaganda), by making another war movie,  One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). It was almost a companion piece, or sequel, to 49th Parallel, but inverted the plot of that film by showing British airmen having to abandon their burning plane over Holland and then trying to escape back to Britain with the help of the local resistance movement. As the tagline for the film proclaimed on its posters, “This time WE are the invaders!” In that respect, One of Our Aircraft is Missing was almost an uncanny cinematic foreshadowing of the far greater invasion – D-Day – that was to follow less than two years after the film’s release. Also, in its depiction of Englishmen desperately trying to appear foreign, it was a pleasing reversal of Pressburger’s own story of an Eastern European who was determined to become English. All the fear and mistrust and explorations of identity in the film must have been directly related to Pressburger’s own experience as a Hungarian who had to flee his homeland, first for work and then to save his life, and ended up as a central figure in a British film industry that was intent on supporting the nation’s war effort.

Once again, Pressburger was Oscar-nominated for his script for One of our Aircraft is Missing and although he did not win on that occasion, the success of the film was proof that he and Powell had formed a remarkable creative relationship, whereby they would work together on a script that Powell would direct and that Pressburger would often co-produce, no doubt using all his old mathematical ability to keep costs down while still achieving incredible results on screen.

In total, Powell and Pressburger would make about 20 films together during their long working life together. Not all of them are classics (that would be almost impossible in the notoriously unpredictable world of cinema), but a high proportion of them are and they were certainly on an unstoppable roll during WW2. Their next major collaboration was on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which, unlike their early black and white movies, was shot in Technicolour. It also expanded their artistic range in its extraordinary and extraordinarily sympathetic depiction of an elderly Major-General who had been a hero of WW1 but struggles to adapt to the even nastier and more brutal world of WW2. It is not just one of the great cinematic explorations of England and Englishness but one of the all-time great artistic examinations of English national identity, and Pressburger often mused on the irony of a foreigner such as himself being regarded as the great chronicler of all things “Anglo”.

There were few filmmakers on the entire planet during World War Two, let alone in war-torn England, who could match the artistic and commercial success of Powell and Pressburger, and their Archers production company. The war and its impact was their initial and enduring source of inspiration, particularly in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which was made after the war but still sought to enlist US sympathy for a Britain that was struggling to adapt to the peace that followed the war. However, they also extended their range to encompass such seemingly unlikely genres as romantic comedy, with I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and romantic, even existential, drama in Black Narcissus (1947).

I Know Where I’m Going was an intentionally ironic title for a film that came out soon after the end of WW2, when England, like almost every country in Europe if not the world (with the exception of the USA, which had emerged from WW2 as the planet’s sole superpower), had little if any idea where it was headed. It told the tale of a headstrong young woman, played by Wendy Hiller, who is determined to marry money, in the form of a wealthy but much older man, but who is stymied in her attempt to do so by the wild weather of the Scottish coast. Finding herself falling in love with a local landowner, played by Roger Livesey (who, like Hiller, was an almost permanent member of the ensemble of actors that Powell and Pressburger often worked with), she makes increasingly desperate efforts to escape the mainland and reach the island where her fiancée is waiting for her. Finally, in her almost manic desperation, she pays another, much poorer local man to take her to the island, despite the weather closing in. The climax of the film, in which Livesey sets to sea to save Hiller, then scold her for her unthinking selfishness, before finally falling for her completely when she, at last, realises she is in love with him and not her sugar daddy, is one of the most brilliant and, crucially, most satisfying endings of any romantic comedy, in showing how the happiness of the happy couple is very hard-won.

In many ways, Black Narcissus (1947) was completely different to I Know Where I’m Going. Where I Know Where I’m Going was set in Britain, filmed on location in Scotland and ostensibly a romantic comedy (although it touches on deeper and darker emotions than most “rom-com”s), Black Narcissus was set in a Himalayas that was not filmed for real but extraordinarily recreated in a London studio, and told the dark tale of the interaction between a lone British man and the nuns he stumbles upon on a remote mountainside. As exotic as I Know Where I’m Going was parochial, Black Narcissus again showed how Powell and Pressburger were eminently capable of entering the minds not just of male soldiers (as they had done in their early war movies) but uncertain young women who were struggling to make sense of their lives after the horrors of war and/or extreme isolation. It was another masterpiece and demonstrated that there was almost no subject matter that Powell and Pressburger could not successfully engage with.

The last of the absolute classics that Powell and Pressburger made during their golden run in the 1940s was probably the greatest of them all. Indeed, it is famously one of Martin Scorsese’s “Five Films To Live By”, alongside Citizen Kane (directed by Orson Welles, 1941), The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), (Federico Fellini, 1963) and The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963). That was The Red Shoes (1948) and it easily earns its place among such stellar company, because it is probably the greatest film ever made about dance in particular and about creative endeavor in general.

The Red Shoes is a literally incredible story about a fairy-tale (one of the famous “Tales of Hoffmann”) that seems to come to life, as a ballet dancer, played by Moira Shearer, performs in the eponymous ballet but finds her own life coming to resemble that of the dancer in the tale, because the “red shoes” that allow her to dance so brilliantly are also impossible to take off and ultimately propel her to her death. Life comes to resemble art as Shearer finds herself part of an odd love triangle, with the other two sides of the triangle being provided by her composer (who marries her) and her director, who is appalled when she starts to prioritize her own life ahead of the art that she is creating.

There are many marvelous things about The Red Shoes, but the script is particularly fascinating because long parts of the film are almost entirely wordless. That is especially true of the central dance sequence in which the ballet of “The Red Shoes” is performed, both on stage and screen simultaneously, encompassing fades, cross-fades and unlikely jump-cuts. And yet the film is indelibly a story shaped by a great writer. Pressburger takes the original fairy-tale and then weaves it expertly into the love triangle involving the three artists. As he does so, he seems to meditate on the whole purpose and point of artistic creation, which as a European Jew who had somehow survived the Holocaust by becoming a successful “British” writer must have been an eternal preoccupation.

The Red Shoes was the crowning effort of Powell and Pressburger’s astonishing output in the 1940s, which collectively is one of the greatest examples of a writer-director working together seemingly seamlessly over a number of different films in a wide range of genres. Perhaps it was inevitable, therefore, that their subsequent work together could not quite match up to their initial astonishing collaborations, which were all set against the backdrop of global conflict even if some of them, such as The Red Shoes, did not directly refer to that conflict. It was as if the end of the war, and even the end of the aftermath of the war, robbed Powell and Pressburger of the core of their creative relationship, and eventually, the two men began to drift apart, both creatively and personally.

They did work together on several films in the 1950s, including on another fine wartime film, The Battle of the River Plate (1956), but the relationship was never again what it had been in the terrifying but terrifyingly productive period of the 1940s. Pressburger had become an actual Englishman when he was granted citizenship in 1946 and perhaps imperceptibly he may have lost some of the acute vision that he had enjoyed as a “Johnny Foreigner”. And of course, Pressburger did not work on the most famous film that Powell made after their collaborations ended, Peeping Tom (1960), which was instead written by Leo Marks, who had been a code-breaker during WW2. Peeping Tom is often described as being one of the two films, alongside Hitchcock’s Psycho (also 1960), that gave birth to modern cinema, and specifically the cinema of horror. It was a stunning film – not least for its central and recurring image of a camera attached to a knife, showing how cinematic addiction could literally cut into someone’s life – but was widely condemned upon its release, and Powell never fully recovered from its reception. Ironically, at the time some reviewers thought that it missed Pressburger’s “civilizing” influence.

Pressburger would continue to work as a screenwriter and producer into the 1970s, but ultimately it was his work in the 1940s with Michael Powell that sealed his cinematic reputation. Pleasingly, he also established another legacy, in that two of his grandchildren, producer Andrew Macdonald and director Kevin Macdonald, have become great filmmakers themselves, working on films as superb and diverse as Trainspotting (1996) and One Day in September (1999). Both men have acknowledged the huge debt they owe to their grandfather, who first interested them in making films, by writing acclaimed biographies and making marvelous documentaries about him. And Pressburger, the great émigré who became a great Englishman, would surely have enjoyed the title of one of those films, The Making of an Englishman (1995). The irony is that a more accurate (if much longer) title would have been The Making of an Unusual Englishman, Who Created a Vision of England That Will Survive Forever


Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/


Photo credit: http://www.powell-pressburger.org