The Masters  
The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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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Submitted by Terry Hanstock

The press on Pressburger wasn't always as flattering as it is now

Peter Birnie; Vancouver Sun, October 11, 1995

Angela Pressburger once asked her famous father the secret of his success as a screenwriter.

"Well you know, Angela," Emeric Pressburger replied in his thick Hungarian accent, "there are very few people in the world who can write a good script and deliver it on time."

Emeric Pressburger delivered some of the finest writing ever seen on screen. Best known for a 14-year collaboration with British director Michael Powell, Pressburger handed in scripts ranging from the elaborately artistic The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann to the mystic Black Narcissus.

The Vancouver International Film Festival has been presenting four of the wartime propaganda films made by Powell and Pressburger for the British ministry of information, including 49th Parallel and A Matter of Life and Death. Later this year a series at Pacific Cin mathque will offer even more Powell/Pressburger titles, 14 in a group of 17 Powell titles recently restored by the British Film Institute.

In an interview at the Hotel Vancouver, Angela Pressburger recalls a childhood spent observing the close-knit duo in a partnership of producing, directing and writing to be envied by such modern equivalents as Wayne Wang and Paul Auster.

"As Michael once said, it was like a marriage without sex," Angela notes. "We went on holiday together and they pretty much lived in each other's pocket at that time."

Pressburger was one of those wonderfully eccentric fathers who had known such hardship that life became an ode to joy, and mischievous fun.

"I'd sit in a restaurant in London with him," Angela says, "and the waiter would come around to ask him how he liked the meal, and my father would say, 'Thank you very much, it was absolutely dreadful, it was the worst meal I've ever eaten.' "

As a young man following the First World War, Pressburger found his way like so many others to Berlin, then the heady capital of European innovation and decadence.

For a time the impoverished Hungarian immigrant froze water in the shape of coins for the gas heater in a tiny flat. But he was soon another of many victims of the Weimar Republic's economic chaos, living in a park and writing his first stories on the backs of telegram forms because there was free light and free ink at the post office.

"Of course he had no idea if any of his creations found a home," Angela says, "because he had no mailbox. One day he was sitting in a cafe, reading the back of someone else's newspaper, and there was his story."

Three months later he was writing scripts for UFA, the German film giant.

"He had a tremendous ability," Angela says, "to notice all the little mannerisms and details of what life is like, and what makes life different in Germany from France, from England, from Hungary, from anywhere he went."

By the time Nazi jackboots set off the Second World War, Pressburger fled from Berlin through Paris (where he stopped to write a few French films) and on to England, where he was introduced to Powell by producer, director and fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda.

"On the stage of life, Michael was very vibrant and always seemingly cheery, telling jokes and being outrageous," says Pressburger's daughter. "Emeric just sort of sat in the corner."

The "marriage" was an instant success as innovation seemed to flow from their fingers.

"See the beginning of A Matter of Life and Death," Angela notes, "and you're out in the cosmos, and it feels infinitely more cosmic than the set-up to Star Wars."

Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola would someday hail Powell and Pressburger as important influences (and Scorsese's Oscar-winning editor for Raging Bull, Thelma Schoonmaker, would become Powell's third wife). But fame long eluded the team, Angela notes.

"Powell and Pressburger were not as lauded in their day as they are now. The Red Shoes was a flop and taken off the screen after a week, and people were always a little worried about what they were going to get. Peeping Tom, thought by many to be Michael's greatest film, did him out of the film industry at the time."

They'd already experienced censorship when Winston Churchill himself banned 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp for offering too sympathetic a portrait of Germans.

Both men failed to cap their careers with honor after the collaboration ended in 1956. Pressburger retreated in later life to a house he built in Austria, filling freezers with food to satisfy his gourmandise and dying a recluse in 1987.

But as in any good P&P production, there's a happy ending. Angela found her feet in the film industry by moving to Halifax, where her documentary Whisper In the Air chronicled the birth of radio in Canada.

And her son Andrew Macdonald brought things full circle last year by winning the Alex Korda award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for his production of Shallow Grave.
[Angela's other son, Kevin, has since done quite well as well, winning an Oscar and many other awards for his documentaries]

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