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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter
by Kevin Macdonald (Emeric's grandson)

A review by John Ellis

A biography of Emeric Pressburger is both necessary and impossible. Necessary, because he is otherwise destined to remain the second term in his film-making team with Michael Powell; impossible, because he was a deeply elusive individual.

Pressburger came from that now vanished generation of Europeans who honed their lives into a portfolio of fascinating anecdotes, as full of conceits and lightning changes of perspective as the newspaper feuilletons they created. As Kevin Macdonald was Pressburger's grandson, he heard more of these stories than any ordinary biographer could possibly hope. And the biography is best where Pressburger was best, in providing a vivid story of his transition from stateless Hungarian Jew to successful scriptwriter, and his flight from Hitler's Germany.

Pressburger found his later life more difficult to anecdotalise. His heady success with Michael Powell during the 1940s was followed by a period of creative uncertainty in the 1950s and undeserved obscurity thereafter. Pressburger found no way of making this into a grand narrative, and neither does Macdonald. Neither, it seems, was able to hone it into small pearls of anecdote.

Pressburger evidently held the same ambivalent attitudes to himself as he did to his wonderful range of central characters: Thomas Colpeper in A Canterbury Tale; Sammy Rice in The Small Back Room; Clive Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in Colonel Blimp (the magnificent final draft script of which is published in Ian Christie's edition alongside Macdonald's book; Faber & Faber, £9.99). To put these feelings in a screenplay or novel is one thing; to speak them directly about yourself, especially in your declining years, is quite another.

So Macdonald is thrown back on his own resources, and despite his prodigious research, the result is unsatisfactory. He relies too much on contemporary judgments of the wonderful canon of films for which Pressburger receives the extraordinary credit: "Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger". Curiously, Macdonald takes it as a cardinal sin for a screenwriter that Pressburger turned after the war to adaptation of novels rather than the creation of original stories.

Since it is an adaptation from Nigel Balchin's novel, he misses the audacity of The Small Back Room in 1949. As Ian Christie points out in his incisive study Arrows of Desire: the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Faber & Faber), this film "struck a very different note from the cosy unanimity of most British war films, long before it became fashionable to challenge such myths ... The violence and implicit sexuality seem alien to the genteel naiviety that still dominated British films."

This was a slap in the face to a Britain that was desperately trying to mythologise its war. Such a gesture defines Pressburger's uneasy status here. He was an alien; he loved the place; yet he feared absorption just as much as he desired acceptance. As a result, he gave us a series of awkward fictions, exposing raw feelings and ambivalences whose existence the British would rather not acknowledge.

Pressburger did this in a fictional register that is profoundly alien to British naturalism. His first published work is already a fine example of this: a short story from a Berlin newspaper (which Macdonald usefully reproduces), of a flirtation bound up with aphoristic philosophy and lightning changes of perspective. Pressburger had a taste for artifice that coincided exactly with Powell's obsession with the mechanism of the cinema illusion. Their films appear modern, despite the period trappings, because they have that level of self-awareness necessary to avoid crass naivety.

Such self-awareness ran against the grain of the 1950s. Macdonald seems to collude with the contemporary disappointment with Pressburger and Powell's films of that period like Tales of Hoffmann, asserting that "it is true that the films were no longer personal or passionately felt". Inevitably, this paints Pressburger as a failure for the last 30 years of his life, whereas there is a case, from Macdonald's own evidence, for a view that would bring more ambiguity.

Pressburger wrote a novel, "The Glass Pearls" (1966), which deals with a Nazi war criminal now living in disguise with an invented past. His war crimes involved medical experiments on the nature of human memory; his invented past contains many elements of Pressburger's own. This sounds like an attempt at expiation of the vast guilt that he must have felt facing the Holocaust. His moment of greatest success and public acclaim coincided with, and even owed itself to, the unimaginable horrors suffered by friends, acquaintances, even his own mother. Such feelings must have gnawed away at him, finding an outlet only in this misunderstood novel.

No wonder Pressburger was ill-equipped to deal with the recurring crises of the postwar British film industry. His later achievements appear disappointing only when compared to the extraordinarily complex view that he brought to his adopted Britain during the 1940s. Perhaps, after this, he was a man crushed by the complexity of his own private feelings.

New Statesman & Society
27th May 1994 v7:n304. p46(2)

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