Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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From London Evening Standard
Chips off the old Pressburger
With the re-release of a British screen classic,
Matthew Sturgis meets Emeric Pressburger's film-making grandsons
This Friday, a new print of Powell and Pressburger's 1946 classic, A Matter of Life and Death, is released. The capital's cinephiles are a quiver with pleasurable anticipation. It's one of that choice group of Forties and Fifties films issued under the unique collaborative credit: "Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger".
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, through their blend of visual invention, narrative daring and almost mystic intensity have touched and inspired talents as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, Bernardo Bertolucci, Derek Jarman and Steven Spielberg.
But this impressive spread of influence has, also, a less public face: Pressburger's two grandsons. Andrew and Kevin Macdonald are the sons of Pressburger's daughter - and only child - Angela.
As the producer of The Beach, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and A Life Less Ordinary, Andrew, 34, has done much to reassert the claims - and re-establish the self-confidence - of British film-making. His younger brother, Kevin, 32, has forged a reputation as a documentary maker; his latest film - One Day in September - about the massacre at the Munich Olympics, has been nominated for an Oscar, [It won - well done Kevin] and is due for cinema release in May.
Their grandfather would be proud of them. Pressburger died in 1988, but his films are frequently enlivened by visions of heaven. [Frequently? There's often mysticism, magic or religious ideas but no other heaven(s)] And it is easy to imagine him contemplating his familial legacy to the contemporary film world with satisfaction from some Bauhaus-inspired, Alfred Junge designed celestial sphere.
Andrew and Kevin recall his eruptions into their lives as touched with magic. "He used to come up to Scotland to stay with us for Christmas," Kevin says. "He would arrive with dozens of presents all carefully wrapped and numbered." These treats had to be enjoyed in exactly the right order.
"He would always be cooking," recalls Andrew. Wearing an apron over his smart, tailored clothes, he would make incredibly rich puddings involving dozens of egg-whites and even more marrons glacés.
He was that interesting émigré combination: distinctly foreign (he never lost his Hungarian accent, nor his habit of travelling with at least one whole salami) [and a bottle opener because "You never knew when you'd find a bottle of beer"] and yet more British than the British in other ways. He loved English shoes (from Lobb) and being a member of the Savile Club. As a Hungarian-born Jew granted refuge from Nazi Europe, he considered that he owed an almost personal debt to Winston Churchill. He queued for hours to see the great man lying in state. He also had deep and infectious passions for music and football. His support of Arsenal FC was one of the sustaining loves of his life - and one he passed on to Andrew, if not to Kevin.
It was only gradually that the grandsons became aware of their grandfather's cinematic life. During the Sixties and early Seventies the reputation of Powell and Pressburger's films was almost non-existent. "I remember the first of their films that I saw was Ill Met by Moonlight" recalls Andrew. "I was about 11. It was on telly one afternoon and I was allowed to watch it because it was by Emeric. It was a war story about kidnapping a German general, so I liked it."
To begin with, it was Powell and Pressburger's war and adventure films that appealed to Andrew and Kevin most - Battle of the River Plate, 49th Parallel, The Elusive Pimpernel. It was only gradually that the real achievement of Powell and Pressburger's vision dawned. "There was a revival of interest in the late Seventies," recalls Andrew, "with a season of their films on the BBC." Kevin remembers going to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at university and being bowled over by it. Both brothers tell of their grandfather's excitement at this return to favour after years of critical neglect.
Nevertheless, even before then the very fact of Emeric's profession had made an impact. "It was just good to know that a 'film-maker' was something that you could be," says Andrew, who very rapidly decided it was something that he might like to be himself. "When I was at school I made one of the worst Super-8 films ever: the usual depressing adolescent stuff. All the interior shots were pitch black. It was done on a budget of £20. Emeric gave me £10 and persuaded Michael Powell to put up the other £10. So, if nothing else, it can perhaps claim to be the last ever Powell and Pressburger production."
It was also a rare instance of direct practical assistance. When Andrew was trying to climb the lower rungs of the film-industry ladder - doing gofer jobs at the National Film School and on commercial TV productions - Emeric said: "I'll try to help if only I can remember the people who might be able to help." There was a possibility of working on a David Lean film but it came to nothing.
In other ways, however, his influence was important and useful. Pressburger's life became the subject of an acclaimed documentary that Kevin made in 1994. [The Making of an Englishman] And he was a store of proverbial wisdom about film-making and life. "He was always very secretive about whatever he was working on," recalls Kevin. "He used to say that a story is like a steam engine. If you tell people about it, it that lets the steam out around the wheels. It reduces the pressure that should be driving you to write it all down. I think that is a very good lesson." Unsurprisingly, then, neither brother is very forthcoming about future plans just yet. Andrew is off to Japan for the Tokyo opening of The Beach. And Kevin is heading to Hollywood for the Oscar jamboree, hoping to emulate his grandfather's achievement.
Although Powell and Pressburger never received a Best Film award for one of their productions, Emeric did win the Best Original Story Oscar in 1942 for 49th Parallel. He, however, didn't get to go to America to receive it. As Kevin records, he read about it by chance - in the Evening Standard.
The Matter of Life and Death is at the NFT from Friday, as part of the Powell-Pressburger season. Box office: 020 7928 3232
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 21 March 2000
See also the accompanying article about Jack Cardiff.
See also the photo of Kevin Macdonald (L) getting his Oscar for One Day in September (1999). That's Uma Thurman in the middle, she presented the award, and co-director Arthur Cohn on the right.