April 2012, arsenal cinema

The Archers: Films by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger


"Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger" – these words and the logo of their production company "The Archers" began all the films made by the unique writer-producer-director duo. Michael Powell (1905 – 1990) started his career in the British film industry during the silent movie era, working with Rex Ingram and Alfred Hitchcock among others. In the 1930s, he made a series of "quota quickies" - low-budget, quickly-made entertainment films. The producer Alexander Korda introduced him to Emeric Pressburger (1902 - 1988) in 1939. The Hungarian had worked as an author for UFA in the 1930s before being forced to flee the Nazis. He escaped to England via France. The duo's first joint works were propaganda films which anticipated their later resourcefulness and predilection for experimentation. Their extravagant work found a rather singular niche in British filmmaking that was more focused on realism. They created opulent, flamboyant and visually stunning films, which were characterized by their twin-kling charm and light-hearted humor, until they parted ways in 1957. Soon after, Powell's career came to a premature end over the Peeping Tom (1960) scandal. Powell and Pressburger's works were rediscovered in the late 1980s thanks to younger directors such as Martin Scorsese and Derek Jarman.

We open our ten-film season on 1.4 with BLACK NARCISSUS (GB 1947, 1. & 8.4.) and an introduction by Gerhard Midding. Led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a group of Anglican nuns arrives in a remote region of the Himalayas to establish a convent in a former palace once used to house a harem. In the unusual and exotic surroundings, barely suppressed old passions and erotic tensions come to the surface. Shot entirely at London's Pinewood Studios (the set designer Alfred Junge and cameraman Jack Cardiff were both awarded Oscars for their work), a completely artificial world, whose excessive colors and extreme contrasts are echoed in the sisters' feelings, is created. "BLACK NARCISSUSis a daring melodrama whose opulence brings it to the verge of comedy – it is bigger than life in every phase of its structure, gestures and images, its passion and utter artificiality." (Harry Tomicek)

49th PARALLEL(GB 1941, 3. & 12.4.) was the pair's third joint production and it won Pressburger an Oscar for the best screenplay. Like the previous two works, it was a propaganda film aimed at swaying opinion in the United States and preparing the population for war. "Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two," Emeric Pressburger later remarked. In the film, a German U-boat sinks off the coast of Canada and the six surviving sailors try to make their way to the US, which is still neutral. In their encounters with various individuals, the Nazis and thus the viewers are brought closer to the values of democracy – the peaceful co-existence of people who have different languages, traditions, opinions and religions. 49th PARALLEL packs all its concerns into an adventure film featuring beautiful landscapes that were shot on location. Released as The Invaders in the US, the film was a great success.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP(GB 1943,7. & 22.4.) tells the story of an unusual friendship between a British officer called Clive Candy (Roger Livesay) and a German officer named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) that stretches over four decades and survives two world wars. Loosely based on a cartoon character of the same name, Colonel Blimp is a gentleman who likes to play fair and thus has an issue with the new forms of warfare. Deborah Kerr shines in her triple-role as Clive Candy's dream woman in different decades. Churchill criticized the film, which did not resort to typical clichés of the Nazis, saying it was "detrimental to the morale of the army". "What Churchill, who for obvious reasons tried to ban a film that he thought was psychopathic, failed to see is that COLONEL BLIMP remains valid even if it is read as going against the grain – as an epic of failure and swan song to Britannia's military caste. Without forfeiting any degree of fierceness, this biography painted in reduced Technicolor tones seems behind its grotesque facade to be an elegy to a friendship that withstands national borders and to a love that outdoes death." (Harry Tomicek) We are showing the film in its newly-restored digital version, which was first presented as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) at this year's Berlinale.

In A CANTERBURY TALE(GB 1944,9. & 19.4.) Powell and Pressburger once again combined different genres in their typical and unique way. The film is at once a marvelous mystery and an Expressionist melodrama that constantly sways between dream and reality. At the same time, it is deeply anchored in rural England's landscapes and culture. In the middle of the war, three people meet on their way to Canterbury - modern pilgrims so-to-speak. They are an American solider who believes his fiancée has forgotten him because he no longer receives any letters, a land girl, whose fiancé is missing, and an organist who has taken refuge in cynicism. Interwoven into the film is the mystery of the "glue man" who after dark pours glue on the hair of girls accused of fraternizing with American soldiers.

I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING!(GB 1945, 4. & 20.4.) is the motto of 25-year-old Joan (Wendy Hiller) who starts off on a journey from London to Scotland where she plans to marry a rich industrialist on Kiloran Island in the Hebrides. However, a storm prevents her from reaching her destination and she has to wait on the island of Mull for a change in the weather. The encounter with the island’s mythical culture and nature as well as with a young soldier on home leave opens up a path of self-discovery to Joan (who at first is stubbornly resistant) and she turns away from materialism to real love.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH(A Stairway to Heaven, GB 1946, 8. & 21.4.) When British bomber pilot Peter Carter's (David Niven) plane is shot down, he enters what he thinks are the lasts minutes of his life and comes into contact with an American radio operator named June. As if by a miracle, he survives and coincidentally meets June in person – he falls in love. However, he soon finds out that his survival is due to an embarrassing mistake on the part of divine providence. Peter has to appear before a heavenly court to bargain over his life or death. A stairway separates heaven, which is shot in monochrome black and white, and the earth which is depicted in bright Technicolor. The film is a celebration of life and love. Or, as the heavenly messenger who climbs down to the land of the living puts it: "One is so starved of Technicolor up there."

THE RED SHOES(GB 1948, 6. & 14.4.) is a fantastic, delirious fairy-tale in which Powell and Pressburger, inspired by the eponymous story by Hans Christian Anderson, skillfully interweave reality with the world of fantasy. The young ballerina Vicki (Moira Shearer) is torn between her love of dance and the demands of her profession – embodied by the tyrannical impresario Boris Lermontov – and her love of a composer. She sees the only solution in escape. THE RED SHOESculminates in a breathtaking dance scene that lasts almost 20 minutes and is one of the most beautiful and magic cinema moments ever.

Based on a novel by Mary Webbs, GONE TO EARTH(GB 1950, 10. & 15.4.) is a rural melodrama that is rich in atmosphere and visually captivating and where the powers of nature play a magical role. Hazel is a poor country girl caught between two men, between passion and duty. A catastrophe is sparked by a fox she has rescued from the hunt and tamed, and whose red hair is reflected in hers. "Beauty, truth and the heart of England, I believe in those three things. They are in these two books, they are part of them. And they are in the two films which we made. A great deal of love was poured into them." (Michael Powell)

THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL(GB 1950, 11. & 18.4.) is a remake of Alexander Korda's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and was originally planned as a musical. In this costume drama set towards the end of the 18th century, an astute English aristocrat (David Niven) pretends to be a bored dandy, but disguised as the Scarlet Pimpernel he rescues his fellow aristocrats from the guillotine and brings them to England. A French agent soon suspects the foppish Sir Percy and tries to get his wife to confess – she, however, cannot possibly imagine that her husband is the heroic Scarlet Pimpernel.

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN(GB 1951, 5. & 23.4.) This famous film fantasy based on Jacques Offenbach's opera (which itself was based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's tales), was Powell and Pressburger's attempt, after the international success of THE RED SHOES, to transpose the opera to the screen as they had done with the ballet. THE TALES OF HOFFMANN was the climax of the duo's opulence, atmospherically filmed in Technicolor and with the use of split screens to represent the main protagonist Moira Shearer in different colors.

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