Such Great Heights
The agony and ecstasy of Powell and Pressburger pictures
"We thought the best way to save Europe was to make extravagant, romantic British films." – Michael Powell, Million Dollar Movie
An exalted ambition, to be sure, but then, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger did their best work on higher ground. As the chief architects of the Archers, a British independent filmmaking collaborative, they made an astonishing run of pictures during and after World War II. Many of those films were produced explicitly for propaganda purposes, to fulfill the Ministry of Information's dictum regarding wartime cinema. All films, the memo went, should be concerned with "what Britain is fighting for; how Britain fights; and the need for sacrifices if the fight is to be won." Sounds limiting, and yet, never have the tight confines of propaganda inspired such elevated artistry, which in turn inspired such admirers as George A. Romero, Bernardo Bertolucci, Wes Anderson, and especially Martin Scorsese, whose Film Foundation has spearheaded restoration efforts of the Archers' back catalog.
Their films shared a curious credit – "Written, Produced, and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger" – but Pressburger mostly did the writing, and Powell the direction. They made movies separately, prior to their first collaboration in 1939, and they made movies separately again when they broke, amicably, in 1957, their emphatically ornamented and sensuous films having fallen out of step with the rising rule of naturalism in British cinema.
Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who had a lucrative career at Ufa studios, ground zero of German cinema and, by extension, world cinema, until Hitler ran Ufa's leading talents out of town – Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, et al. Meanwhile, the quintessentially British Powell cut his teeth on quota quickies in the early Thirties before his breakthrough film, The Edge of the World, in 1937. (It screens this weekend as part of the Austin Film Society's Essential Cinema series featuring Milestone Films titles.) After an ungainly prologue (which co-stars Powell, not a natural in front of the camera, and his then wife), The Edge of the World settles into a remarkable amalgam of art and action, set on the unforgiving island of Foula, a magnificent, craggy rock plunked down on the coast of upper Scotland and accessible by boat only part of the year. The island's extreme remoteness engines the conflict, as all the young people are being leeched away by the industrialized mainland, with only the elders left to work the land. It's a portrait of a community in slow death – that's the art part – bracketed by thrilling cliff-side action. The landscape informs the story – a recurring characteristic of the Archers' oeuvre – with that landscape breathlessly evoked in waves crashing on rock, a violent whirring of wind, and vertiginous bobbles over cliff.
A couple of years later, überproducer Alexander Korda made the crucial introduction between Powell and Pressburger (who emigrated to London in 1935). Korda would reappear over the years, sometimes as bailout, sometimes as wrecking ball, but in 1939 his good deed would go down in cinema lore for kick-starting one of the most fruitful film partnerships ever. The timing could not have been more fortuitous.
Art made in the service of propaganda is by definition qualified. And propaganda films don't always age well: Battleship Potemkin bears the bark of the proletariat, Triumph of the Will is a shuddering artifact of Nazi zeal, and even Looney Tunes Allied cartoons can't be watched now without causing flinching from their stridency and racism.
But the propaganda films of Powell and Pressburger are something else altogether. They number a half-dozen or so pictures, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), the Scottish romancer – that wind again! those waves! – I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946 – post-war, yes, but its sidelong goal of refining Anglo-American relations was certainly war-related). They are, as Powell himself put it in his 1986 memoir Million Dollar Movie, extravagant, romantic films, at once consumed with the individual and the universal, the particular and the panoramic. When I sit down to watch these, I try every time to turn on a critical brain, but just minutes in, the pen and notepad are put down and the critical brain cedes control to a wash of senses. These are gorgeous, complex, timeless works, their propaganda bent less "queen and country" than, quite simply, in love with love: love of land, its people, and their essential promise.
The émigré Pressburger repeatedly caught flak for his characterizations of "good" Germans (Anton Walbrook notably played one in the magisterial Colonel Blimp) – but they're merely a symptom of the Archers' wartime affliction: an unwavering humanism. Quite tellingly, in A Matter of Life and Death – in which a RAF pilot (David Niven) accidentally escapes death and must plead his case in front of a heavenly tribunal – heaven is rendered in black and white. Earth, where mere mortals live and love, is an explosion of color.
Any conversation about the Archers' post-war films inevitably begins with Powell's astute estimation: "For 10 years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art."
In the post-war years, Powell and Pressburger made two masterpieces, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). (Despite Michael Atkinson's memorable claim in The Village Voice that their composed film The Tales of Hoffman "could seduce a eunuch," I find it overcomposed to the point of fussiness.) Both films screen in Austin this summer, and the Criterion Collection will reissue the films on July 20, newly restored to shockingly good looks. (The Paramount Theatre will screen the restored print of The Red Shoes Aug. 14-15.)
The wartime films – too challenging to be called comfortable – were nonetheless deeply comforting works. In contrast, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes are confounding, agitated, even aggressive. They reside on a fracture line, at that uneasy place where ecstasy tips into madness, something the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell's second wife) gestures toward in an interview included in Criterion's new The Red Shoes release: "It feels like an artistic fever is infecting everybody in the film."
Moira Shearer, the British prima ballerina-turned-reluctant screen star, plays Vicky Page, torn between dance and romance. The conflict is personified by two men – Boris Lermontov, the Svengali director of her troupe played by Walbrook (in the maniacal antithesis of his gentle-souled Blimp character), and Julian Craster, Vicky's sweet but single-minded boyfriend played by Marius Goring (who previously appeared as a poncy archangel in A Matter of Life and Death). Early on, Lermontov demands to know of Vicky: "Why do you want to dance?" Her razor-sharp riposte: "Why do you want to live?" One of the many wonders of the film is in how elegantly it dramatizes extremism. Another wonder: Imagine today a mass-appeal movie that brake-stops for an 18-minute wordless ballet. And this: how such a guttingly bleak movie – the only Archers' picture to make any money – lives on in our cultural imagination as the picture that inspired little girls everywhere to ask Santa for pointe shoes, even as the credits practically roll over the bloodied body of its heroine dancer.
Vicky dramatically jumps to her death from a two-story balcony, but Black Narcissus has that beat: The film opens with a breath-catching shot of the Himalayas. Is it spoilsportish to point out that Black Narcissus was filmed at Pinewood Studios, just outside London, and that the film's dizzying 8,000-foot altitude is entirely a trick of the camera and Alfred Junge's glorious matte paintings? No matter: Any foreknowledge of the illusion quickly falls away. The height is gasping, and it announces itself with all the foreboding of a proverbial gun unmasked in the first act. One doesn't introduce such great heights without someone, inevitably, taking a third-act cliff dive.
The Harry Ransom Center includes holdings of Junge's papers in its collection; some of his designs for Black Narcissus are on display now as part of the "Making Movies" exhibit, and a film series spinning off from the exhibit begins June 10. Featured in the HRC's Junge display are his notes about achieving the just-right shade of white for the nuns' habits in Black Narcissus – an indicator of the obsessive quality that informs every aspect of the film.
Black Narcissus thrums with, as Scorsese describes it, "a psychosexual energy." Deborah Kerr, who got her start in Colonel Blimp (three starts, really – as three different love interests, all lovely, red-haired, and tart-tongued), plays Sister Clodagh, who leads a sect of Anglican nuns up the mountain to start a school in an abandoned palace. The palace, one should point out, used to house an Indian general's kept women, and that is one of many delicious sacrileges in this brutally sensual film. (The color palette – engineered by cinematographer and Technicolor wiz Jack Cardiff, who died in April 2009 at the age of 94 – is a beautiful battering ram to the senses.) The altitude makes everyone go a little off their rocker, most especially Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who imagines a love connection with David Farrar's wolfish land agent Mr. Dean. That obsession culminates in the film's bravura climax, a stark and silhouetted sequence (in fits it recalls The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and is set on the thin ledge of a cliff in the clouds. What more natural place to put a Powell and Pressburger film?
In a small but significant subplot, the heady atmosphere affects another of the sect's sisters: Charged with tending the vegetable garden, Sister Philippa plants tulips instead of onions. The metaphor is irresistible.
In his biography Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, Kevin Macdonald, grandson to Pressburger and a filmmaker himself (The Last King of Scotland), quotes Billy Wilder on the subject of the Archers' films: "Their films had color even when they were in black and white." These are full-bodied, ecstatic works of art. In the rarefied air of a Powell and Pressburger film, artistry overwhelms propaganda, just as unrepentant sentiment wins over restraint, and tulips, always, over onions.
Black Narcissus screens Thursday, June 17, 7pm, at the Charles Nelson Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center.
The Edge of the World screens Saturday, June 19, noon, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz.
The Red Shoes screens Saturday, Aug. 14, 5:20pm, and Sunday, Aug. 15, 1:30 and 7:40pm at the Paramount Theatre.
The Criterion Collection will release restored versions of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes on DVD and Blu-ray on July 20.