David Farrar in 'Black Narcissus', directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

We have forgotten the titans of British cinema

It has fallen to Scorsese to rescue the reputation of Powell and Pressburger

Artillery Row

As with so much in cinema, it has fallen to Martin Scorsese to make things right. When he isn’t pointing out that the Marvel comic-book films resemble nothing so much as the emperor’s new clothes in a tone more in sorrow than in anger, or getting Leonardo DiCaprio’s best work out of him, he has signed up to narrate and executive produce a new documentary about his personal love of the work of the British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, to be directed by David Hinton.

Startlingly few contemporary directors are indebted to them

Scorsese’s comment was, “I still find it extraordinary that I knew Michael Powell personally for 16 years — and, throughout that time, he was not only a support, but a guide, pushing me along, giving me confidence, keeping me bold in my own work. I’ve seen the films that he made with Emeric over and over again but the experience of excitement and mystery that I get from them doesn’t just remain, it deepens. I don’t know how it happens but for me, their body of work is a wondrous presence, a constant source of energy, and a reminder of what life and art are all about.”

Any film lover should be deeply thrilled by this news. Scorsese’s lifelong debt to Powell, in particular, can be seen throughout his oeuvre, from his use of colour and music to the extraordinary technical virtuosity that his pictures display. His description of their films as “grand, poetic, wise, adventurous, headstrong, enraptured by beauty, deeply romantic and completely uncompromising” is as accurate as most of his public statements have been. It promises to be a fascinating, vital documentary.

And yet there is also something slightly sad about the fact that, despite Scorsese’s consistent public support of their work, the films of Powell and Pressburger may be slowly declining in both visibility and reputation. Although their greatest work, between The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943 and The Red Shoes in 1948, constitutes perhaps the most extraordinary run of form in British cinema, there are startlingly few contemporary directors who are indebted to them.

At a time when British film is perhaps the least exciting and distinctive that it has ever been, young filmmakers should be all but desperate to study their pictures. Instead their strange, poetic brand of cinema has found little traction amongst the mixture of literalism and banality that largely makes up what is being produced today. They were the cordon bleu chefs of their time, serving up exquisite gourmet feasts. Now we are expected to be content with the cinematic equivalent of a reduced ready meal, doled out by a youth picking his nose.

To watch A Matter of Life and Death or A Canterbury Tale is not simply to immerse oneself in brilliantly written, acted and directed cinema, but to take a trip to a completely realised and wholly visionary world that defies conventional description. Virtually every rule and convention is broken. A Matter of Life and Death, a metaphysical romance, begins with what seems like its heartbreakingly affecting climax, and then refuses to become any more conventional as it continues, even down to having the scenes in heaven filmed in black and white and the scenes on earth shot in colour, which allows for the peerless joke of a snobbish angel declaring “ah, how one is starved for Technicolour up there”. A Canterbury Tale, meanwhile, combines a strange mystery tale — why is a man pouring glue into women’s hair? — with an evocation of the pastoral and the historical that would have done credit to Chaucer or Shakespeare, let alone any twentieth century writer or film director.

Powell and Pressburger remain a bafflingly unorthodox duo

On and on it goes. The Red Shoes is a brilliant examination of artistic obsession and mania that shows its imitator Black Swan up for the thin gruel it is. Black Narcissus was recently remade for television but even its higher budget and Nepal location filming could not begin to compete with the original’s extraordinary portrayal of sexual obsession amongst a group of British nuns in the Himalayas, with a performance by Kathleen Byron that practically sets fire to the screen. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was a wartime picture that dared to suggest that blinkered ideas of nationalism were fundamentally absurd. As Powell said, “[it is] a 100 per cent British film but it’s photographed by a Frenchman, it’s written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech; in other words, it was the kind of film that I’ve always worked on with a mixed crew of every nationality, no frontiers of any kind.” Unsurprisingly, Churchill was unimpressed by the film’s sympathetic portrayal of a German officer — who is presented as nobler than his British counterpart — and tried to frustrate it from being distributed overseas. It was yet another example of Powell and Pressburger’s films being greeted with incomprehension.

Today, the idea of Britishness (or its slightly disreputable cousin, Englishness) is treated with a suspicion that easily turns to scorn. We are encouraged to mock or even defile values that have defined our country for centuries, to tear down its statues and to look upon the flag with shame. But Powell and Pressburger were no conservative pair of little Englanders. The latter was a Hungarian emigré who fled the Nazis. He later said, “the worst things that happened to me were the political consequences of events beyond my control … the best things were exactly the same.” Both men’s attitudes towards their country were epitomised by their films’ quixotic and questioning spirit. For Powell and Pressburger, honour and patriotism were noble traditions, but never to be taken too seriously, just as striving after artistic success was a commendable ambition but never one to pursue at all costs. The Red Shoes, after all, is a cautionary tale, not The X Factor avant la lettre. 

The duo are not entirely forgotten today, thankfully. Despite Scorsese’s dismissal of Marvel and all of its works, there is an amusing serendipity in the way that the first Captain America film ends with an affectionate homage to the opening of A Matter of Life and Death. Hopefully, the very existence of the new documentary will hopefully remind some of their brilliance while introducing them to a new and grateful audience. But they remain a bafflingly unorthodox duo, living their lives and creating their art contra mundum and entirely on their own terms, and cheerily ignoring the brickbats and catcalls of the sublunary. Theirs was a greater calling, and we are continually fortunate to be reminded of it.

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