Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger still

Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the Berlinale doc on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, presented by Martin Scorsese.

Every documentary with the help of cinephile maverick Martin Scorsese is a welcome one; let alone one that he not only presents/narrates, but guides the viewer into his reception of the magnificently non-realistic world of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films.

Every documentary on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a welcome one, especially after their long lapse from the spotlight after the 1960s 'Peeping Tom' furor (and their creative split which had occurred before that). Director David Hinton is conservative in his material handling; he lets his presenter (and executive producer) director of 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' take the mike and inform on every single film that P&P crafted in their 18-year career.

This is a cinephile's dream, as Scorsese reminisces upon his early years as a New York City boy with asthma, having to watch black and white movies on TV -with Powell & Pressburger offerings being the most prevalent among the lot of Carol Reed, David Lean et al. films. He pinpoints vividly his fascination with 'The Archers' production logo, trying to unveil the division of labor in this duo (an Englishman from Kent and a Hungarian in the UK), who single-handedly wrote, directed, and produced their films.

Again, artistic independence looms large in his account and wonder -and that perhaps justifies the 'Made in England' title part; for an American getting used to the big Hollywood machine, the English cinematic independence version (with all its shortcomings, carefully analyzed in the documentary) must have been a big achievement of sorts. Even though the film will not completely define the particular 'Englishness' of Powell and Pressburger films, Scorsese can correctly (and adamantly) note the heightened intensity and artifice that all their oeuvre share. From war classics, like the '49th Parallel' (1941) to end-of-war metaphysical fantasies ('A Matter of Life and Death', 1946) to full-blown Gesamtkunstwerke like 'The Red Shoes' (1948) and 'The Tales of Hoffman' (1951), Scorsese has a personal affinity and a story to tell -relatedly mingling their artistry with his subsequent work (the much-cited 'Raging Bull' boxing scenes as a ripoff from ballet scenes in 'The Tales of Hoffman' and 'The Red Shoes').

The film follows a linear, chronological order of P&P films (as viewed by Scorsese), with a few archival footage of Powell and Pressburger in the 1980s, reflecting on their work. A paean to what cinema can do beyond mere realism, the Powell & Pressburger films have found their most ardent supporter to defend music, color, lighting, and movement that is never executed as a mundane matter of fact. The story of US interference (in P&P's attempts to produce films with the Hollywood big heads of the era, like David Selznick) and lack of continuous box office appeal is meant to have led to their creative fall -even though the film is silent about P&P's late efforts like the films 'They're a Weird Mob' (1966) and 'The Boy Who Turned Yellow' (1972).

Particular praise is understandably reserved for Michael Powell's single directorial effort 'Peeping Tom' (1960), the film that sealed his fate in the UK directorial arena -even though Scorsese is quick to admit that the New Wave directors (Carel Reisz, Tony Richardson among them) with their realistic inclinations had their share of this neglect.

Abundant in minute film details (and a breathtaking running time of 130 minutes), with film clips that elucidate Scorsese's constant talk, this is an old-school cinephile lesson. It is meant to be cherished as such, without opening its ante or examining the unique place Powell & Pressburger occupy in the UK cinema (compared to other mavericks Scorsese mentions in passing). But when Marty speaks, you need to listen anyway.

Vassilis Kroustallis

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger was presented at the 74th Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special).