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John Cunningham

From Imre to Emeric

Emeric Pressburger: a Hungarian Screenwriter in England

In many respects the British film industry of the time was British in name only. Its most dominating figure and personality was another Hungarian, Alexander Korda. There was also a small Hungarian emigré community and a number of refugees from the German film industry some of whom Pressburger had known at UFA-Rudolph Cartier (formerly Katscher), Wolfgang Wilhelm and his old boss Gunter Stapenhorst.

Not suprisingly, in this kind of environment Pressburger was able to use his contacts and obtain work. It was probably the Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa who first introduced Pressburger to Korda. He was handed the script for The Spy in Black, a star-vehicle for Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser in Casablanca). Pressburger went away and rewrote it and presented it at a meeting where Michael Powell was in attendance. Powell was impressed; "It was a real piece of conjuring", he said. Recollecting their first meeting, Powell described Pressburger as:

citation a short compact man, with beautiful observant eyes, and a broad intellectual forehead, formally and neatly dressed. Although small in stature, he looked well made and strong, both in person and in his convictions. And he obviously feared nobody, not even Alexander Korda. (p. 145)

As a spy film set in the First World War, The Spy in Black had a certain topicality; it was released on 12 August, less than a month before the Nazi invasion of Poland. Pressburger had seen the war coming, and a year earlier had offered his services to his adopted country. He wrote to the Ministry of Labour: "I have been living here for three years and was always keen to find a way to express my gratitude towards this country and the British people. I would like to express my anxiety to serve this country as best I may in the event of war." At the outbreak of the war he was put on the Central Register of Aliens with Special Skills.

The Archers' 1943 production of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, however, evoked the wrath of none other than Winston Churchill. He saw its criticism of the British officer class as detrimental to army morale. The film also featured a sympathetic portrayal of a German refugee (brilliantly played by Anton Walbrook, one of the Archers' favourite actors) echoing their ambiguous, sympathetic portrayal of a German prisoner in 49th Parallel. Stupidly and ineffectively, Churchill tried to have the film banned. Of course, this only made it more popular than ever and it played to packed houses everywhere, advertised as "The Film Churchill Tried to Ban!"

The first retrospective of Powell and Pressburger films came in London in 1971; others were to follow, including a full retrospective at the National Film Theatre, London, in 1978. In 1980 they were both invited to appear on Desert Island Discs, BBC radio's popular but slightly oddball music programme. Gavin Millar's 1981 BBC-2 programme, A Very British Affair, introduced new sections of the British public to their work, and Fellowships in the British Film Academy and British Film Institute were awarded to them in the 80s. After the lean years of the 50s and 60s, the two were now receiving a second wave of recognition.

New generations of film-makers discovered their work, Martin Scorsese for example, and up and coming British directors such as Derek Jarman were also influenced. The fledgling film-makers found in the work of the veteran duo a love of cinema as cinema, as spectacle and not just as a "carrier" of a message. In MacDonald's opinion the newcomers found "passion, colour, irony and wit in the Archers' films and admired and imitated them." Perhaps above all they found films not bound or restricted by the norms of realism, films not afraid of extending or violating boundaries, of exploiting the film medium to its full potential.

John Cunningham,

born in Yorkshire, England, has lived and taught in Hungary for four years.

The Hungarian Quarterly, Volume XXXVI No. 139 Autumn 1995

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