‘A Matter of Life and Death’, in celebration of the birth of Emeric Pressburger

If we ever required proof positive that immigrants and refugees bring creative and cultural diversity to our shores, we need look no further than Emeric Pressburger. Escaping the Nazis in the 1930s, he moved to Paris before settling in London. Here, fellow Hungarian and movie mogul, Alexander Korda, puts him to work with director Michael Powell, script editing ‘The Spy in Black’ (1939). Powell and Pressburger would go on to form their own production company, ‘The Archers’, and create some of the most critically acclaimed films in British Cinema. 

Their most famed works were endlessly inventive, followed precious few pre-existent paradigms and were playful with every aspect of the filmmaking process. As Martin Scorsese noted, “They were experimental filmmakers working in the midst of commercial cinema.” The 1940s saw the story generation and scriptwriting of Emeric Pressburger, coupled with the direction of Michael Powell, at its formidable peak. The bank of J. Arthur Rank gave ‘The Archers’ complete artistic freedom and for many of their most influential works the two decided to share a joint ‘Writer-Producer-Director’ credit.

At a time when film was not seen as a legitimate art form, their aim was resolutely high-brow. They were not afraid to borrow from the modernist art forms of the day, or base their films on subjects that were then, and are now, considered ‘high culture’. The very idea of bringing ballet and opera to the masses must have seemed a risk too far for many a budget holder. However, risk was a fundamental component of their opus.

Who else would dare to base a light touch fantasy film on the grim effects of a world war whilst the aftermath of that conflict was still so raw. ‘A Matter of life and Death’ (1946) starts with a bomber pilot surveying his options in a burning aircraft with a shredded parachute. Does he jump or burn. He does neither and instead wakes up on a beach, not knowing if he is in Heaven or Devon. Herein lies the central conceit of the plot. Heaven has made a mistake and now wants him back to balance their books. The problem is he has now fallen in love and is less than keen on buying any stairways to heaven. 

Perhaps only Powell and Pressburger might venture to create an after life bigger and better than most people’s imaginings. Five thousand extras and a set so immense they had to place the camera outside the studio and shoot back through its doors. 

Powell said subsequently, “I realised after this I could do anything, there is no realism in films, only Surrealism”. The comment is telling. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali had made their first avant-garde film together under the Surrealist banner in 1929. ‘Un Chien Andalou’ quickly became a cause célèbre and one of the most successful short films of all time. 

By the end of the 1940s many directors were building ‘Surreal’ elements into their mainstream films. Hitchcock went one stage further and employed Dali to art direct a two minute dream sequence in ‘Spellbound’ 1945. Powell and Pressburger’s approach during much of this period is quite different. Their dream like quality infuses entire films, to the point where the viewer might question whether they are watching a daydream rather than a reality. 

‘A Matter of life and death’ saw the cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, pushing film stock to the point where Technicolor technicians were predicting dire consequences if he travelled any further along this path. The subsequent colour saturation lends the film a hyper real quality that makes it clear you are no longer in Kansas. 

He was ably abetted by Alfred Junge, whom Powell described as, “probably the greatest art director that films have ever known”. The camera obscura scene, from which the ‘father figure’ of the plot looks down god like on his village, is a perfect exemplar of how to use a set to set a story.

But much of the films mesmeric vision is due to Pressburger’s compellingly off kilter storytelling arc. There is zero reliance on the typical tropes of scriptwriting. You never know where this story might take you next. He didn’t think outside the box, he pretty much threw the box away. ‘The Archers’ invent film language in front of your eyes and every consequent generation of filmmaker owes them some debt. Ken Russell, Wes Anderson, Derek Jarman, Ridley Scott, and Bernando Bertolucci all cite them as major influences. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese went much further and supported Powell in the twilight of his career. They also championed the films and ensured Powell and Pressburger took their rightful place as masters of cinema. 

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