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The Powell and Pressburger Cult

The British-Hungarian filmmaking duo Powell and Pressburger — celebrated in a new documentary presented by Martin Scorsese — made complex high art out of Empire, the British class system, and wartime renewal.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I worked as a Test Operative for a French food services and management delivery company contracted by the Conservative government to deliver mass virus testing at public expense. In car parks around Greater Manchester, I put swabs up noses and down throats.

When the shifts were busy — like the week leading up to Christmas 2020 — they were very busy, but most of the time us essential workers had essentially very little work to do. The employment was casual — you ‘bid’ for your hours on a glitchy smartphone app — and it was quite normal to work closely with someone that you’d suddenly never see again in your life. Long, empty weeks had to pass somehow, and I would smuggle paperbacks into the cabin under my PPE. Some brought iPads to stream Netflix series, others blissed out on strong prescription drugs. Sometimes, there really was nothing else to do but have a conversation with your colleagues.

One day, I got talking to a colleague about my age — then, mid-twenties — from Moss Side about films. Luring me into a conversational trap, we spoke about British film. This, he argued, was something that was good until the 1950s ended. This was a take. By the release of the 1951 technicolour opera The Tales of Hoffman, he argued carefully, the team around Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were operating to such a high level in every single area of film production — script writing, camera, editing, colour, costume, set design, acting, you name it — that it embarrassed everything that had called itself cinema on this island since.

Kitchen-sink realism? Free cinema? Derek Jarman? Pull the other one: this was the only specifically British variant of cinema that had ever convinced. Rightly, he thought it was laughable that I had watched no Powell and Pressburger beyond The Red Shoes. I detected a smirk under his protective face covering. I got to work bingeing Powell and Pressburger films, ready to take up the conversation in a shift that never arrived. I never saw him again.

The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger inspire evangelism. Though mainstream releases in their day — A Matter of Life and Death had a Royal premiere, The Red Shoes was nominated for five Academy Awards — in their afterlife the films of The Archers have thrived as a cult. There have been wilderness periods and periods of reclaiming. One of those cultists is Martin Scorsese who, in a film directed by David Hinton with the collaboration of the filmmakers’ estates, presents Made In England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger.

Intended as the centrepiece of last year’s nationwide BFI Powell and Pressburger retrospective, the 131-minute documentary was delayed as Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker — Powell’s widow — finished work on Killers Of The Flower Moon.

Made in England begins in Manhattan’s Little Italy. In the early 1950s, the infant Scorsese developed a taste for the English films which were syndicated cheaply across US network television: Ealing Studios, the Rank Organisation, Hammer Film, and The Archers. Who were The Archers? Michael Powell was a good middle-class boy gone astray. Born in Kent in 1905, Powell had rejected his private education and promising banking career when he heard the vocational call of the new film industries. Imre József Pressburger was born in 1902, a Jew in Hungary who spent the Weimar years in Germany working at Ufa films, the legendary studio that pioneered German expressionism. This came to an end with the rise of Nazism in 1933, and an obscure ruse involving Barclays Bank permitted Pressburger’s permanent emigration to Britain. In 1939, under the stewardship of Hungarian film producer Alexander Korda, Pressburger — who had changed his name to Emeric — first collaborated with Powell on 1939’s The Spy In Black. In 1942 the two set up a joint production unit: The Archers.

Made In England tees up a chronological voyage through the peak period of Powell and Pressburger’s activity, with Scorsese speaking straight to camera augmented by film clips, stills and archive interview footage. The video essay format — arguably a little too trad for its subject matter — will be familiar to viewers of Scorsese’s 1990s series’ My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Clips from Scorsese’s own works show how his own masterpieces Raging Bull and the still underrated The Age of Innocence were inspired by the duo, with Scorsese even relaying his gentle disbelief that Powell had chided him over the lashings of the colour red in breakout film Mean Streets. It had been, we learn, a habit Scorsese had picked up from his hero’s own luscious colour palette in The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom.

There is a chunky section on 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which Scorsese correctly terms their first masterpiece. Hailed today as one of the finest British films of all time — and, fairly, not even in the consensus top three of The Archers’ output — Blimp tells the fictional story of the fogeyish British military man Clive Wynne-Candy in flashback from 1902 to the then present-day Blitz. Deeper, it is a humane meditation on how those lucky enough to grow old are punished by the journey from plucky upstart to dusty relic.

It is The Archers’ most politically complex work. Blimp was a wartime production with a clear propaganda aim. It concludes with an argument that the only way to defeat Nazism is by modern warfare that does not flinch from the darkest methods imaginable (‘otherwise, there won’t be any methods but Nazi methods.’) But it also contained a critique of a British military establishment that the film suggests is terminally outdated, anticipating the post-war moment of leftist national renewal. At the height of war with Germany, Blimp contains a storyline that is highly critical of the Treaty of Versailles and crafts a highly sympathetic portrayal of a German character. The ‘good German’ character is performed by the Jewish Austrian emigré (and gay man) Anton Walbrook, and is given far more humanity than Roger Livesey’s fogeyish General Wynne-Candy, an innocent but not at all innocent.

Churchill — who Pressburger seemingly adored — leaned heavily on the Ministry of Information to shut down the film, even waiting outside the stage door of a West End production to personally chastise Anton Walbrook. The war leader was granted a private screening at the Odeon cinema on Leicester Square, where he decided that the Powell and Pressburger work was — on balance — probably unlikely to have a detrimental effect on army morale.

Blimp was followed by another major wartime work, 1944’s A Canterbury Tale, which flopped. Made In England convincingly reframes this mystic English meditation as proto social realism, a film that took ordinary Britons and their wartime hopes and aspirations seriously (Pressburger termed it a ‘crusade against materialism’.) You can view some of this in 1945’s Highlands romance I Know Where I’m Going. Made In England posits a ceilidh dance scene as a celebration of hardscrabble working-class values against the stuffy (but creatively fruitful) English repression of the picture’s industrialist elites.

It was after this, though, that Powell and Pressburger went electric: their work between 1946 and 1951 remains the work on which the Archers cult is founded.

A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and 1951’s The Tales of Hoffman are the films on which the Powell and Pressburger cult truly rests, breaking decisively away from realism into fantasy, surrealism and erotically charged drama. Or at least, this was a decisive break in British cinema, but did so by diving further into Pressburger’s scholarship in Weimar-era cinema.

These are not leftist films, and nor should there be any motivation to claim them, but A Matter of Life and Death contains useful flavours of the new post-war mood. David Niven’s dying Lancaster Bomber character identifies himself as ‘Religion? Church of England. Politics? Conservative by nature, Labour by experience.’ In 2024 this still gets a good laugh in cinemas: 18 months into Labour’s landslide 1945 government, it must have got even louder ones. There are also some darker jokes in Pressburger’s script: an Englishman, on trial in the afterlife, demands a fair trial drawn from jurors from all corners of the planet. His wish is granted and, bad news, it turns out every nation has their reason to hate the colonial Brits.

This experimentation carried on up into The Red Shoes, which Scorsese praises as the ultimate subversive mainstream picture. Discussing the antihero characters that have populated his own films, the director draws a line between Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and The Red Shoes tortured impresario Lermontov. They are both voyeurs, thwarted, and alone. Its still shocking extended dance sequence would find full expression in 1951’s The Tales of Hoffman which created a British ‘composed film’ out of a toolkit of influences from 1930s cinema. It is a thrilling vindication of, as Scorsese terms it here, ‘the heightened emotion achievable only by artifice.’

It’s a shame, then, that the Powell and Pressburger revival — first in the 1970s by critics like Ian Christie, and then more decisively in the 1980s with the help of Scorsese — came at the height of the relevance of auteur theory. Disavowing the collective, critics advocated for the singular (male) vision. As in life, in Made In England, it is still Emeric Pressburger who emerges overshadowed by his bombastic and undoubtedly brilliant collaborator (‘do I claim to sit with the Masters?’ wrote Powell in his recently reappraised 1986 memoirs, ‘yes, I do.’)

Pressburger’s grandson Kevin MacDonald’s biography of Pressburger presents a complex man — a complexity evident in his awkward, quiet manner during the footage in Made in England. Born in the industrial city of Miskolc in the north of Hungary, Pressburger left his home nation and never really returned.  A Jewish man in Berlin at the wrong time, his career at Ufa was cut dramatically short by the Nazi rise to power in 1933, with Nazis storming Ufa film sets and demanding the dismissal of Jewish workers. In England, he cultivated a hugely developed understanding of English manners and identity, allowing him to revolutionise British cinema in a language that was not his own.

But he remained a Hungarian: the MacDonald biography shows him in old age — living in Aspall in Suffolk, a long way from where he came — importing Pilsner Urquell to wash down his chicken paprikash — with Hungarian-British figures like Arthur Koestler or the humourist George Mikes as visitors. More of this would have been good in Made In England. Last winter, during the BFI retrospective on Powell and Pressburger, I watched a pre-recorded introduction to Blimp by the broadcaster Stephen Fry. The audience laughed warmly at Fry’s genial whimsy about how Blimp was such an English film, and how much it said about Englishness. Fry, a prominent Remain campaigner, made no reference to the deep European influence on the film he was introducing, and it was a shame. Today, in Aspall, the Church of England graveyard at Our Lady of Grace carries only one gravestone marked with the Star of David: Emeric Pressburger.