When you learn about screenwriting, as I did a few years back, you learn that most Hollywood films, and many others, follow a three act structure, with critical events diverting the story at the end of each act. As I read the biography of the great screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, written by his grandson Kevin MacDonald (who is also a documentary film-maker), it was striking the way in which his life also played itself out in three acts after he had arrived in pre-war Germany. MacDonald emphasises this by prefacing sections of the book with Pressburger’s changing versions of his name.
In Act One, in Berlin before Kristallnacht, he worked successfully for UFA, then a place of film-making legend whose denizens reinvented American cinema after the war. One film he worked on reads like a fantasy production crew: Robert Siodmak, director; Billy Wilder, co-writer; Eugene Schufftan, camera, Fred Zinnemann, assistant cameraman; co-director, Edgar Ulmer.
But as the Nazis increased their assault on the Jews, he fled to Paris on a tip-off from a Nazi colleague, taking with him only what he could carry. A second period of penury followed, similar to that which he had endured when he first arrived in Berlin, as he survived on casual work and hand-outs from Hungarian organisations.
Moving to England, as Emmerich became Emeric, he had more success, not least because Britain’s most successful film-maker before the war was another Hungarian Jew, the flamboyant Alexander Korda, who found him some work initially for his company, London Films. This led quite quickly to the partnership with Michael Powell and the formation of The Archers’ Company, which produced a procession of distinctive and distinguished films, from the acclaimed ones like Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes, along with others with their own particular value, such as 49th Parallel, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going, and The Tales of Hoffman. (And even with this list I’m missing some fine films.)
Although they hardly left Britain (the Indian Himalayas of Black Narcissus were filmed in a Sussex gardens) their work was influential in America and beyond. Indeed, beyond Preston Sturges, it’s hard to think of another film-maker who achieved such a sustained creative burst in such a short period. But the shortage of film production money in the ’50s led to the end of the partnership with Powell and the end of Pressburger’s second act.
It’s difficult to appreciate now the speed at which films could become unknown in the ’50s and ’60s, in the days before mass television and hard formats such as DVDs or video recorders. But the slide of Powell and Pressburger was rapid, perhaps also because their films were out of tune with the realism of the ’60s.
Pressburger’s third act is a descent into relative obscurity and relative hardship, certainly compared to the pomp of the Archers years. MacDonald suggests that his scriptwriting had lost some of its edge, too; his rewrite work, generally, wasn’t good. He moved to Austria but was driven back to England by anti-Semitism, just around the time that television showings of his work meant that his reputation was on the rise, if sometimes over-shadowed by Powell, ever the brash showman.
The name given to Pressburger in the last section of the book is Richard Imrie, the name under which he wrote the script of one of Powell’s final films, the Australian production They’re A Weird Mob. I’ve seen the film, an affectionate comedy of Italian immigrants finding their feet in ’60s Australia, but hadn’t realised that Pressburger wrote it (though Imre/Imrie ought to have been a clue). MacDonald observes that Australians might have found it odd that a film which was so evocative of the migrant’s experience in their country should have been written by someone who had never visited it. But it was a place that Imre Pressburger – to give him his Hungarian name – had been visiting all his life.
Most of the film links here go to the BFI’s Screen Online – a wonderful online film resource. The picture, of Pressburger in Paris just before the war, is from the Powell and Pressburger site, and is used with thanks.