Book Archive


Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Kevin Macdonald

The films of The Archers (Pressburger and Powell) are amongst the most extraordinary ever made in Britain. Riddled with flaws and internal contradictions, and dismissed as unfashionable and tasteless by contemporary critics, they are nevertheless touched by a unique magic that no one has ever been able to equal.

The remnants of the auteur theory has given most attention to Michael Powell who as director is seen as responsible for everything good in the films. This biography by Pressburger's grandson attempts to redress the balance and emphasises the collaborative nature of their partnership. 

Pressburger was part of that Thirties' drift of Jews from Middle Europe to America that happened as anti-Semitism grew stronger on the continent. He never made it to the USA. Somehow he settled in London and the Hungarian exile became more English than the English.  

Although he'd written for the screen before, and had had a promising career at UFA before the anti-Jewish laws had forced him out, it wasn't until he met up with Michael Powell that his career took off. Powell had had a solid career in quota-quickies and was heading upwards. He'd had a big critical success with The Edge of the World and the two seemed to have hit it off immediately.

They each supplied what the other needed. Pressburger had a strong sense of story, the diplomacy needed to smooth over Powell's lack of manners, and the organisational skills to keep the show on the road; Powell had the energy, the visual eye and the ruthlessness. Together they became The Archers.       

"Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger". Martin Scorsese calls it "the finest end title in all movies", and who can blame him. "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", "The Red Shoes", "Black Narcissus", "A Matter of Life and Death": who wouldn't kill to have those films on their CV? And then there's the second rank of films "I Know Where I'm Going", "The Spy in Black", "A Canterbury Tale". It's a glorious collection.    

By the mid-fifties, the professional relationship had soured, and the film industry had begun to forget them, but they regained their friendship and their films were rediscovered and re-evaluated.

MacDonald's memories of his grandfather are the most poignant part of the book. He sounds like the relative we'd all like to have had. The book is also good at reminding us about the restrictions on enemy aliens during the war. The most fascinating part is, of course, the ins and outs of the Archers collaboration. We learn that The Red Shoes is the film they most felt was a joint work, while surprisingly A Canterbury Tale is the one that was mostly Pressburger, despite Powell's Kent upbringing.

All in all, a fascinating read. The one niggle I would have is with the filmography at the end. It doesn't have full credits for the Archers films! Apparently, they're available in another book, but who cares? I didn't buy the other book.

Emeric Pressburger

Pub: Faber & Faber

ISBN: 0-571-16853-1

Price: 20.00 (hardback) - but check out the remainder bookshops

Emeric Pressburger: available at Amazon