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Oct 2011 Journal

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Behind the scenes – Jewish immigrant film-makers in Britain from the 1930s to the 1960s

When I was asked by the Jewish Museum to give a talk on Jewish film-makers in Britain as part of the current exhibition on ‘Entertaining the Nation’, I had no idea how many remarkable figures would turn up – including a large number of immigrants and refugees from Germany. Fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s were both experienced film-makers and a few talented youngsters who would join the film industry as adults years later.

The first group included German cameraman Otto Heller and Mutz Greenbaum, who later changed his name to Max Greene, as well as production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth along with many brilliant Hungarians who had been employed within the giant German film industry: scriptwriter Emeric Pressberger, director Paul Czinner, animation expert John Halas, and the Austrian-born composer Josef Zmigrod, who later adopted the name Allan Gray. The teenage refugees included Ruth Prawer, Klaus (later Ken) Adam and Karel Reisz. Then too, there was the Austrian-born Wolfgang Suschitzky, who arrived in England in 1935 and immediately embarked on a double career as a photographer and documentary cameraman before moving into feature films in the 1950s, while his son Peter (born 1940) also became a leading British cameraman.

In fact, the two leading Jewish production companies in England in the 1930s employed many of the new Jewish arrivals. Producer Michael Balcon and director Victor Saville - born Victor Salberg to a Polish immigrant father and the leading Jewish director in the country in the 1930s – hired Mutz Greenbaum on camera and Alfred Junge as art director on a number of their films. Similarly, producer Alexander Korda employed fellow Hungarian director Paul Czinner and his actress wife Elizabeth Bergner to film Catherine the Great shortly after they arrived in 1933. He also hired scriptwriter Emeric Pressberger and composer Miklos Rozsa to join his (Hungarian-Jewish) production team, which already included his two talented brothers, director Zoltan and designer Vincent. And one can see this pattern, of a regular collaboration between Jewish film-makers, as a feature of British film-making throughout the years that followed. Fully assimilated and, in most cases, not especially religious, they could often be found behind the scenes on archetypal British features from The Four Feathers and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to The Ladykillers, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the Carry On films, and the James Bond cycle.

For example, The Four Feathers (1939) drew on the talents of the Kordas and Miklos Rozsa. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) was scripted by Emeric Pressberger, designed by Junge, music by Allan Gray, and co-starred Anton Walbrook. (Designers Junge and Hein Heckroth both won Oscars in the 1940s, reflecting the remarkable quality of their work with Powell and Pressberger.)

Skipping on a few years, both Ken Adam and Karel Reisz emerged as major talents in the 1960s. Reisz firsr collaborated with scriptwriter Alan Sillitoe, who adapted his own novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, while Adam made his name as production designer on the James Bond films and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, with its impressive-looking war room. In fact, this decade saw a veritable explosion of Jewish talent, including British-born directors led by John Schlesinger and Clive Donner, writers Harold Pinter and Frederic Raphael, and new director arrivals from abroad such as Kubrick, Richard Lester and Roman Polanski.

Peter Suschitzky made his feature debut behind the camera on It Happened Here, a powerful attempt to imagine what England would have been like if defeated and occupied by the Nazis, partly filmed along the street from the Belsize Square Synagogue. Otto Heller and Ken Adam even returned briefly to a very different Germany from the country they had left 30 years before, employed by producer Harry Saltzman on The Ipcress File followed by Funeral in Berlin, based on the Cold War spy thrillers by Len Deighton.

The 1960s also marked the beginning of novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s new career as a scriptwriter, adapting one of her own books, The Householder, for the production team of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. She continued to work with the same pair for the next 40 years, even winning Oscars for A Room with a View (1986) and Howard’s End (1992). (Walter Lassally, a regular cameraman on their films, was himself a (not Jewish) refugee from Germany. As a teenager in Berlin, he later recalled how he had witnessed some of the horrific Nazi attacks of Kristallnacht on the street where he lived.)

As for the others: Karel Reisz directed many interesting features, including Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), starring David Warner, Isadora (1968), and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), scripted by Harold Pinter and starring Meryl Streep. Wolfgang Suschitzky continued actively as a photographer and cameraman from The Bespoke Overcoat (1954), written by Wolf Mankowitz, starring David Kossoff and Alfie Bass, to Get Carter (1971) and the Jack Rosenthal comedy The Chain (1984), directed by Jack Gold. Finally, Ken Adam left James Bond behind to win Oscars for his designing of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in 1975 and The Madness of King George in 1994.
And this is only a small part of the story of Jewish film-makers in Britain ….

Joel Finler

previous article:The Ghetto Fund: A new directive
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