Conversation with Ian Christie

Ian Christie, photo by David Kumermann

One of the most important aims of CAMERIMAGE, its biggest mission really, is to promote the art of cinematography in general – not only the way we perceive it now, but also through emphasizing the wonderful work of the late artists who changed the cinema with their innovativeness and visionary attitude. Among our numerous endeavors, this year we host a retrospective of 11 films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, two of the most brilliant British filmmakers whose pictures influenced Martin Scorsese and others to pursue their cinematic dreams.

Ian Christie is an acclaimed British scholar and an expert on the cinema of Powell and Pressburger. Before you delve during Camerimage into the worlds they created over half a century ago, we invite you to read the following conversation about the films of the British duo and such old-school values like believing that art can actually change the world. You can also read it for your own cinephile’s pleasure, though. Share your thoughts afterwards, and don’t hesitate to approach Ian Christie or the Festival organizers during the 22nd edition of CAMERIMAGE! 

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How did you fall in love with Powell and Pressburger films?

Well, I suppose like many people in my generation I first saw them on television. That was the only way you could see them in the 60s. And I was intrigued because they didn’t appear in any of the books about British cinema, of which there weren’t that many at the time (laughs). At the end of the 60s and in the early 70s I started looking for the films. I remember making visits to cinemas, some of them quite obscure, to try and catch one while it was being screened, which is what you had to do in those days with films that weren’t popular and widely released. And then, in the mid 70s, I asked the BFI to show me all the prints they had, which were very few, and all in poor shape. It was hard to form an impression of what those films could have been like when they were new. You had to use a lot of imagination for that. There were bits missing, films were in black-and-white when they should have been in color, all sorts of things like that. And then I said, “Well, let’s do a retrospective. Let’s show all of their films.” I remember people from the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) were very skeptical. They said, “Really? All of them? Maybe just select best six or eight?” But I said, “No, no, we must show them all.” That happened at the end of 70s’, and for me it was a true revelation, and a kind of a vindication of the journey I started on back in the 60s.

Now they are widely available in various formats, including amazing Blu-ray editions. Do you think these films can connect with modern audiences?

I often asked myself that question. You know, when I started looking at the films, I was quite young (laugh), but they were already old at that time. When I talk to young filmmakers in National Film School, or even just to young people, I find it that, mysteriously, the films do connect with them. It’s, like, now they seem to be very young again.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Estate of Michael Powell

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Estate of Michael Powell

In what way?

It’s hard to explain, it’s, like, they speak across the generations. I think Michael Powell may have provided a partial explanation at the very end of the second volume of his memoirs. You see, he imagines a conversation with Emeric Pressburger, who is dead by this time; he writes a script for him. And he writes that Emeric says to him, “You know, the secret to our partnership is that we are both amateurs. We did it for love.”

Beautiful…

It is. And you realize what he’s doing is, really, he’s explaining his attitude. They so obviously enjoyed making the films, they put their heart and soul into them. They didn’t go about it like cold-blooded professionals, it was just that quality of enjoyment, that kind of playfulness, which helped to shape their careers. Now that, I think, explains why the films have remained so popular.

Is there any particular way – and I think about Camerimage now, and the 11 films that we will screen – young people, or viewers that haven’t seen their films, or saw them a long time ago, should approach Powell and Pressburger films now?

Well, I think it helps if you try to think about the history, the situation in which they were made, you know? You’re showing “The Edge of the World”, am I correct?

Yes.

That’s a really interesting film. It was made by a young man, Michael Powell, who hasn’t yet met Emeric Pressburger, but he’s bursting with ambition, he wanted to make a film that would really impress people. And it’s really difficult to do in Britain in the 1930s. He’s read a story about an island where all the people had to leave, and he said to himself that one day he’s going to make a film about that. It had all sorts of difficulties, and to be honest the story is a bit cheesy in some ways, but what still shines through is his burning ambition to make a film that will really stop people in their tracks.

The Edge of the World still

“The Edge of the World” still

The Edge of the World still

“The Edge of the World” still

Do you think this passion is still visible after 77 years?

Yes. He’s so committed to making that film that it still communicates, almost like the film was made yesterday. It’s the kind of film that any young filmmaker would want to make – to shoot a really difficult film in a way that would really convey the atmosphere of this very remote island to an audience who never traveled to anywhere like that. I’ll give you another example. Britain is at war, the Second World War, and Powell and Pressburger are expected to make propaganda films to help the war effort. So what do they do? Do they make films that are all about people being noble and gallant and heroic? Not really. They make films that are anti-heroic, and it gets them in a lot of trouble. “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, which is maybe their greatest film, is a film that British political establishment just did not get (laughs). And they tried to stop it. The great story about the film is that Winston Churchill, who was leading the British war effort, hated the idea of the film so much that he tried everything possible to stop it being made. But, amazingly, they were able to make it, at the height of World War II, in 1943. I mean, it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

It is, and I have to admit, I didn’t perceive them as any kind of rebels.

Maybe not rebels, but definitely brave and curious filmmakers. In 1943 it was their way of opposing doing the obvious thing. They made a film about a silly old duffer who turns out to be not that silly after all. For them it’s a way of not making the conventional propaganda film, but instead, of making something very subtle, very clever, and very emotional. It’s one of those films that still bring tears to my eyes, and I have a feeling that it could still have a very strong emotional impact for young people watching it today.

We are also showing “Peeping Tom”, that is Michael Powell’s solo film, and it’s quite, quite different, much more difficult, much darker.

You know, that’s the film that got many people from my generation hooked. And we only saw it in black-and-white. There were so many legends about it saying that it was nasty, dirty, sadistic film. Interestingly, Michael Powell actually thought of it as a kind of comedy. And he was absolutely astonished at the response to the film. He never really got over that. And, strangely, it has a lot of very good comedy in it. But it also deals with quite deep themes. There’s this great line in the film, “All this filming isn’t healthy”, which, I think, goes to the heart of what it is about. It’s a film about being too preoccupied with film, so I think it speaks to us all (laughs). It’s also a film about why we’re fascinated by the act of filming.

Peeping Tom still

“Peeping Tom” still

"Peeping Tom" still

“Peeping Tom” still

This theme of love of film, being obsessed with film, resonated throughout their other pictures. Art as a means of expressing yourself, but also as a means of suffering, and as a means of coping with the world.

That’s true, but there are lot of interesting themes that run through the films they’ve made together, from “The Spy in Black” onwards. I think one thing they’re about is overturning people’s expectations, about not doing the obvious thing, about people discovering things about themselves. All of their great characters rediscover themselves in the process of the story. And, of course, there’s this great line in “The Red Shoes”, where Lermontov asks Vicky, “Why do you want to dance?”, and she responds, “Why do you want to live?”. So it’s also about finding the thing that’s most important to you in life, and that’s something that speaks to people. You can have a quite profound experience while watching their films.

And, of course, the thing about “The Red Shoes” is that Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” pushed that theme even further in showing that art can be extremely destructive, but it also can be life’s passion.

That’s true. It was one of the many examples of how Powell and Pressburger’s films changed the cinematic landscape, and their ideas are still valid today.

You’ve already said that one of the things they did was pushing the envelope and making films with passion. Do you think those limitations other people put on them played a part in their success?

Oh, definitely. Before they made their first great films together during the war, they had to learn to make what they want in the guise of good propaganda films, and that limitation proved to be really helpful. I would actually risk a parallel with Polish cinema. If you look at Polish filmmakers working in the late 50s and the early 60s, there were so many limitations to what they could officially do, and it was fantastic, it really helped them! They had to be really clever to get around the censorship. Well, in a way that’s the story of Powell and Pressburger, too, especially in the case of their war-time films. However, in the post-war period they had real problems, because they were supposed to make films for people who just wanted to forget about the war. Michael Powell said then, “We have made films about dying for your country. Now we decided to make films about dying for art.” Which is what they’ve done in “The Red Shoes”, “The Tales of Hoffmann” and so forth. It’s a joke, but it’s also true in terms of finding new values.

The Red Shoes still

“The Red Shoes” still

The Red Shoes still

“The Red Shoes” still

You mean, they reinvented themselves.

Kind of. And that’s what makes their post-war films so interesting. They’re searching for a new meaning in life and part of it was actually saying that art really matters, that, perhaps, it’s worth sacrificing your life for it. But they were also playing variations on old themes. Again, it’s a lesson for modern filmmakers in how you can actually bring an old subject to life by sheer passion and eccentricity. We haven’t mention eccentricity. These are films that are full of really eccentric ideas, you know, bonkers, crazy! In “The Tales of Hoffmann”, for instance, it’s was like, “let’s go back to how they were doing things in the silent period.” Is that a proper way of doing a film in 1951? Why not? (laughs) So, that sort of sense of “let’s try it, let’s risk it, let’s do something that people haven’t seen before, let’s try revive a really old idea and see if it still works in the era of Technicolor” – that, I think, keeps their films alive as well. There’s a lot to learn from those films, and there’s a lot to enjoy from their experimentation.

Nowadays, with digital revolution, with the Internet, with thousands of filmmakers having the possibility to shoot on a simple camera, my impression is the value of art has got a bit diminished. Do you think those classic films, with their eccentric jokes, black humor, numerous nuances, can speak not only to filmmakers but also to viewers in terms of showing them that art actually is important and it can really change the world?

Yes, I think you’re making good point. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people do value their films. Michael Powell wrote about his ideas about art, and he quoted Rudyard Kipling. In Britain he was considered an old-fashioned figure, you know, part of the Old Empire, but actually Kipling was a very radical artist and writer who wrote extraordinary stories with lots of clever points of view. And Michael Powell loved to quote his, “All art is one.” This was the idea that all art is united by a single theme, a single preoccupation that can transform our understanding of the world. Michael deeply felt that film could definitely be such art, that it could actually help all the other arts to reach new audiences. That’s why he made films like “The Red Shoes”. He was really proud of the fact that some of the greatest artists in the world contributed to that film, like Léonide Massine and former associates of Sergei Diaghilev (Russian art critic, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes). Actually he had a vision of that cinema should be the meeting point for all of the old arts, that they should all come together and make cinema a kind of super-art. Does that sound a little bit old-fashioned to you?

Not for me, no.

I agree! And I think that this concept speaks to the people today, because, as you say, we live in times in which art is extremely democratic and people don’t talk about art with the capital “A”, but I think Powell and Pressburger films have this kind of power of making people believe that art can change your life. Which, actually, is old-fashioned, but also, you know, very topical.

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger; Estate of Michael Powell

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Estate of Michael Powell

Let’s talk about their partnership. They are both credited as writers, directors and producers of their films, but what did their relationship look like? What was the division of responsibilities? What were their individual strengths that made them such a great duet?

Strangely, there’s a lot we don’t know about that. I could have asked that question, I knew them both, but I was a little bit overwhelmed by their presence (laughs). As far as I could work out, they talked about general ideas, and often a starting point for a film came from Emeric. It was always something simple, like an image or a dream. There is a note that suggests that one of their great films, “’I Know Where I’m Going!’”, started from Emeric wanting to tell a story about a woman who wants to go to an island and can’t get there. Just that. Then Emeric would elaborate it into a full story, and Michael would work on the script. They developed it together by sending it back and forth to each other. Michael was alone on the floor, directing. He was a very commanding director who did not suffer fools gladly. There are stories about actors being in tears, he wasn’t a forgiving man (laughs). But he was also very encouraging. When he got the right actors in front of him, he got fantastic performances from them. I believe Emeric got back into the picture in the editing room. I don’t think Michael ever sat there. I think Emeric made decisions about the shape and the structure of the film. And they produced them together. They made casting decisions together. It was a very equal partnership, but at the same time there’s a lot we don’t really know about what passed between them. It’s a unique partnership in cinema, there’s nothing quite like it that I can think of.

How was it in terms of cinematography? Their films show true mastery of visual language. There’s trick photography, there are special effects, various interesting techniques.

Well, being young themselves, they took a chance on young people. And Emeric came from working in UFA in Germany, which was actually the center of quite experimental filmmaking. It was the most advanced film studio in Europe. Michael came out of British cinema, which was really backward at that time (laughs). But he had worked with Alexander Korda, the great Hungarian producer who was determined to move British cinema forward. And so they believed in giving young people a chance.

A Matter of Life and Death still

“A Matter of Life and Death” still

A Matter of Life and Death still

“A Matter of Life and Death” still

One of them was the great Jack Cardiff, who shot for them “A Matter of Life and Death”, “Black Narcissus”, and “The Red Shoes”, three gorgeous pictures using all the power of Technicolor.

Jack Cardiff, who was trained in Technicolor, was working in the second unit work on “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”. And, as the story goes, one day Michael said to him, “You will shoot our next film.” And he did, that was about it. He was very young, untried cinematographer, and Michael just threw him in deep end. Jack was eternally grateful to Michael for giving him a chance. And in those three films they did things with Technicolor that have never been done before. They just pushed the process to deliver what nobody have ever tried to do with it. You know, the idea that you can suddenly go to black-and-white as in “The Matter of Life and Death”. What a brilliant idea! You could do that with Technicolor really well. It works perfectly in draining color out of an image. They also took tremendous risks with the contrast of the image. And, incidentally, the great thing about the restorations that we’re seeing today, is that we’re discovering, for the first time, just how beautifully photographed those films are. Things we never saw before. I remember I was sitting next to Scorsese at the Cannes’ screening of “The Red Shoes”, and we both saw something on this giant screen that we didn’t see before, it just emerged out of the gloom of the old prints. That’s why restoration is important.

While we’re at it, can you compare watching the restored films on your home cinema, even on Blu-ray, with wonderful quality of audio and video, and on a big movie screen?

Well, I’m a little bit of a heretic in that case. You see, I think watching films one home screens is actually fine (laughs). I believe you can have a very intimate experience of a film on a small screen, headphones on and so forth. What’s interesting is that I spoke to many filmmakers after many restoration screenings, and it turned out many of them have never seen the films on the big screen. And for them it was quite a revelation. The important thing is that the films survived being seen on different formats and screen sizes, but when you see the quality of the prints in DCP that we have today, as you will see on the festival, you admire the craftsmanship. I think people at Camerimage will enter into those special worlds that Powell and Pressburger created, whether it’s the Himalayan convent in “Black Narcissus” or that weird alternation between England and heaven in “A Matter of Life and Death”. Or just the vision of the French Riviera in 1948 in “The Red Shoes”. You see, no one could visit it in those days, because you couldn’t travel anywhere in 1948. It was like taunting people in Britain (laughs). They were showing these luscious images to give people a sense of another world. They’re very, very good at other worlds and that is what you get from watching their films on the big screen. I think it’s really important experience.

Black Narcissus” is a fine example, for there’s this subtle erotic streak in it. What Powell and Pressburger were really great at was going into detail about human condition, and it made their characters such wonderful, deep protagonists. And that eroticism still strikes a chord. How was that received back then?

Well, that goes back to the question of is it good to have some limits that you’re pushing against. For instance, Rumer Godden, who wrote the original novel “Black Narcissus”, simply hated the film because she thought it was too much like Hollywood pictures. And that’s really interesting because Michael and Emeric didn’t do anything that wasn’t in the novel, but they made it their own, and they raised it to a new level. In one of my articles I wondered how extraordinary it was that those films should be so erotic during the years when people got so repressed in Britain. There was plenty of passion at that time, especially during the war period which was a time of extraordinary sexual freedom – people were separated, people were in unusual situations, there was an immense amount of, shall we say, illicit, erotic activity (laughs). But why wouldn’t it be like that? It’s the same in all wars, in all situations like that. I’m not saying that’s what inspired Powell and Pressburger, but they understood that beneath the surface there was a current of eroticism. And Michael, who was a very sensual man, understood how to do eroticism in a way which was not vulgar but deeply erotic. Even in their very chaste films there are moments in which nothing really seems to happen explicitly on screen, but you just get this sense of excitement. There aren’t that many films that can communicate it as beautifully as “Black Narcissus” did. When Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, suddenly cuts loose, it’s a unique moment in cinema, isn’t it? It’s sheer, naked passion.

Black Narcissus still

“Black Narcissus” still

Black Narcissus still

“Black Narcissus” still

And it is accentuated by the nuns’ chastity, they had to live in the surroundings that they couldn’t understand; the wind is blowing constantly and they don’t know what to make of themselves, what to feel.

Exactly. And it’s the wind as erotic force, which was done, by the way, by a giant aeroplane engine (laughs). It must have been difficult to act with that going on all the time, so noisy. But they did it somehow. Wind’s stirring everybody’s emotions, stirring the atmosphere. They really understood sensuality, and made it visible on film through color, image, design and movement. They understood the most important lesson in all of filmmaking: less is more. And when Kathleen Byron does that extraordinary scene in which she wants to push Deborah Kerr off the edge of the mountain – I mean, that is still one of the great moments of melodrama in cinema. Very difficult to do convincingly, a real feat of old-fashioned special effects, but actually more convincing than many special effects that we have today. And that, kind of, takes us back to why these films still interest people. Because what they did using glass shots and really old-school techniques, going back to the 1920s and even earlier, somehow made it more convincing than CGI we can have today.

There’s this great image connected to what you’ve just said – few second before Kathleen Byron decides go give it a try at pushing Deborah Kerr, there is a shot of her face, ghostly pale and plain mad. An amazing shot, with the color, the light and everything.

Yes, the color design is amazing. You know, there’s more to that sequence, too. Michael and Emeric had this idea of integrating music into the film, even before they made “The Red Shoes”. And they had a new composer for “Black Narcissus” (Brian Easdale) who had lived and worked in India. They felt he would understand how to create the atmosphere of Himalayas because he’d worked on documentaries. They pre-recorded the music which was very unusual at that time, for the music was always added later. And they actually shot and edited that sequence to the music. And, you know, one of the influences for Michael was Walt Disney. He was an enormous admirer of Disney. He had met Disney and thought that he was the greatest of all filmmakers. This is not the corporate Disney of today, but the great one from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Dumbo”, “Pinocchio”, the early films. And there’s a lot of Disney in “Black Narcissus”, more than people think.

That’s extraordinary! I have never thought about that film in this way.

Yes, that’s true. Disney influenced Michael Powell and Sergei Eisenstein. And they both talked endlessly what Disney meant to them, that sense of bringing it all together in the design of the film and the integration of the film with music. They’ve got it from Disney!

The Red Shoes still

“The Red Shoes” still

Black Narcissus still

“Black Narcissus” still

What kind of visual references did they use in their projects, then?

Both of them were interested in visual arts. Emeric was much more a music person. He had encyclopaedic knowledge of music. When he was young he played violin, and he had this huge music collection. Michael was more of a visual person, he had paintings’ collection, and he knew many painters and artists. So, they were visually very sophisticated, but they also worked with two wonderful art directors: Alfred Junge who came from Germany and really created the professional art direction in Britain, and Hein Heckroth who was an expressionist painter and a refugee. They gave him full command over “The Red Shoes”, and he worked on “Black Narcissus” in the costume department. He brought many influences from surrealism and expressionism to their films.

What about their unfinished projects? Every great filmmaker has some of those.

Oh, yes, there were dozens of those. One of their late projects was the idea to make another music-based film, this time about the composer Richard Strauss. It was called “The Golden Years”, and it was designed to be made from a first person point of view, so the camera would be the point of view of Strauss. A very radical idea. And the great project on which Michael Powell spent the last ten or fifteen years of his professional life was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”. For him that would be the ultimate film. It’s a shame it never got made. He wrote a wonderful script by himself, with even some extra bits of Shakespeare (laughs). And here’s a Polish connection, because Jan Kott, the great Polish scholar of Shakespeare, became at that time very influential in Britain, and Powell was clearly influenced by his ideas. It would have been a very interesting interpretation of “The Tempest”, but he could never get the backing, even if all the actors were already there.

So, to sum it up, what’s the greatest lesson to be learned from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger?

Scorsese put it very well when he said that for him they were the perfect model of independent filmmakers. They really were independent, they came together in a moment when the man who owned British cinema, Arthur Rank, gave filmmakers a chance to be their own masters. And they took full advantage of that. They were successful experimental filmmakers because they managed to make really experimental films for a mass audience. But I think the real lesson to be learned is that they could adapt to changed circumstances, they could go with a popular story and give it a personal twist. For Michael it was quite simple: if the money is there – make a big film, if it isn’t – make a small film. Michael always used to say that cinema needs to draw on the rest of culture, that it’s something which actually can bring together literature, painting, music. And, you know, he was somebody who had taught himself all of these things. He never went to university, but he was a person of immense culture and wonderful enthusiasm, and he poured it all into his films. I always say to young filmmakers that it’s not just knowing a lot about film, it’s about knowing about other aspects of culture, and bringing that into cinema. Michael used to say the cinema is the folk art of the 20th century, but it’s not just the folk art, it’s the ultimate art of the 20th century. And I think his and Emeric’s films are a proof of that.

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Follow Ian Christie on his website:

http://www.ianchristie.org/

Go through Camerimage program in terms of dates and venues of the screenings of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films, when it’s available on our website and in print.

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The Tales of Hoffman still

“The Tales of Hoffmann” still

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp still

“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” still

Black Narcissus still

“Black Narcissus” still

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp still

“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” still

The Tales of Hoffman still

“The Tales of Hoffmann” still

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If you have any questions concerning the above conversation with Ian Christie, or Camerimage Blog in general, write to: darek.kuzma@camerimage.pl

2 thoughts on “Conversation with Ian Christie

  1. 239321 947892Nice post. I be taught one thing more challenging on totally different blogs everyday. It will all the time be stimulating to learn content from other writers and apply slightly one thing from their store. I

  2. I hold Ian Christie in high regard. He is clearly knowledgeable and respectful of the great Powell and Pressburger cinematic team and their contribution to film. My favorite “I Know Where I’m Going” was not mentioned here, but I do have a concern regarding this film. I was perplexed by Christie’s comments on the DVD. I have always wondered if these remarks are strictly personal or are they made based on information provided by those actually involved in making the film?

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