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  • Writer's pictureMatt Levin

The Life & Films of Powell & Pressburger

With the release of the new Disney, Pixar film, SOUL, which tells the story of a man bargaining for his life because he didn't think it was his time yet, and turning back while going up the "Stairway To Heaven", it's impossible not to think of the brilliant, visionary 1946 classic British film, "A Matter of Life and Death" starring the always wonderful David Niven, and directed by "The Archers" what Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger dubbed themselves and their production company.

Powell and Pressburger were an unlikely pair who came from very different backgrounds. Michael Powell was already an experienced director, having worked his way up on silent films in England, even working with Alfred Hitchcock as a still photographer, and who he remained lifelong friends with, to the First World War drama The Spy in Black (1939), his first film for Hungarian émigré producer Alexander Korda, where he first met Pressburger.

Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian-Jewish journalist who became a screenwriter working for the famed German film company, UFA, in Berlin, before the Nazi's came into power. UFA's head of production fired the company's remaining Jewish employees with Pressburger being told his contract would not be renewed. He famously left his Berlin apartment, "leaving the key in the door so that the Stormtroopers wouldn't have to break the door down" and left for Paris. Late in 1935, Pressburger decided that he would do better in England.

Powell and Pressburger quickly realized that despite the fact that their backgrounds were very different, they both shared a passion for film, and a similar aesthetic, sensibility in story-telling, and approach to art. The pair adopted a joint writer-producer-director credit for one of their first films, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942) and made reference to "The Archers" in the credits. In 1943 they incorporated their own production company, Archers Film Productions, and adopted a distinctive archery target logo which began each film. The joint credit "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger" indicates their joint responsibility for their own work and that they weren't beholden to any studio or other producers.

In a letter to Wendy Hiller in 1942, asking her to appear in Colonel Blimp, Pressburger explicitly set out 'The Archers' Manifesto'. Its five points express the pair's intentions:

  1. We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.

  2. Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.

  3. When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

  4. No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.

  5. At any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.

Powell and Pressburger would go on to collaborate on 19 films together. Every one of them was incredibly rich in color, detail, humor, pathos, depth, and vision. Their films were often strange and fantastical yet oddly relatable in that the characters they created were fully realized in terms of their struggles and eventual emotional catharsis. Along with their brilliant cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, they made a string of masterpieces in the 40's and early 50s that remains one of the greatest achievements in film history starting with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

Later after the pair finally broke up, Michael Powell, made another masterpiece of a film on his own, 1960's Peeping Tom, a controversial psychological thriller about a disturbed young cinematographer turned serial killer who has a voyeuristic way of disposing of his victims. The film was shunned by mainstream British critics, who were offended by its sexual and violent images; Powell was ostracized by the film industry and found it almost impossible to get work afterwards.

But the legacy of Powell & Pressburger will live on through their unique and brilliant film partnership. If you haven't seen any of the Archers films, do yourself a favor and dive into the technicolor magic and weirdness of their cinematic world.

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