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1988: The Hungarian Jew Behind the Most British of Films Dies

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Emeric Pressburger, wearing a hat, December 5, 1902
Emeric PressburgerCredit: Wikimedia Commons

On February 5, 1988, Emeric Pressburger, the Hungarian-born filmmaker who with Michael Powell made up the duo that created some of the most acclaimed – and quintessentially British – films of all time, died. Though Pressburger generally did the writing, and Powell (1905-1990) the directing, the films they produced -- which included such classics as “The Red Shoes,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and “Black Narcissus” -- really were greater than the sum of their parts.

Imre Jozsef Pressburger was born in Miskolc, Hungary, on December 2, 1902. His father, Kalman Pressburger, managed the estate of a local baron, and Emeric’s mother, the former Katherina Wichs, was his second wife.

Imre, who was gifted both on the violin and in mathematics as a boy, attended boarding school in Temesvar (today Timisoara), and went on to study math and engineering at the universities of Prague and Stuttgart. He returned home before graduating, when his father died. 

All the Jews are fired

In 1925, Imre moved to Berlin, where he became "Emerich," and began working as a journalist and then a screenwriter. By 1928, he had been hired by the script department of Universum Film AG, a large studio, where he worked on a number of films.

Eight years later, in 1933, UFA's owner fired all the studio’s Jews, even before the country's film industry came under the Nazi regime's direct control. Told that his contract wasn't being renewed, Pressburger departed Berlin. He left the key to his apartment in the keyhole, he later recalled, “so that the storm troopers wouldn't have to break the door down." His first stop was Paris; when that became unsafe for a Jew, he moved on to London.

Sometime later, Pressburger mused how, throughout his life, "[the] worst things that happened to me were the political consequences of events beyond my control ... the best things were exactly the same."

Now calling himself “Emeric,” Pressburger was taken on by another Hungarian expatriate, Alexander Korda, the owner of London Films. In 1939, he was asked to rewrite the screenplay of a property called “The Spy in Black.” The director, Michael Powell, was impressed, both with the rewrite and with Pressburger himself, whom he remembered as “a short compact man, with beautiful observant eyes, and a broad intellectual forehead, formally and neatly dressed. Although small in stature, he looked well made and strong, both in person and in his convictions." And he obviously feared nobody, not even Alexander Korda.  

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 1943Credit: YouTube

Showing Goebbels a thing or two

By the time the two men set up their own production company, Archers Film, Pressburger had written a number of screenplays for British producers, and had also written to the government asking to help in the war he knew was imminent.

Pressburger later explained how, “Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two." And indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that his movies helped the British get through World War II with their upper lips still stiff. They held up a mirror to the country, revealing its people as resolute, decent and tolerant.

None of that stopped Prime Minister Winston Churchill from trying unsuccessfully to ban their 1941 movie “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” because it portrayed a British officer in a negative light, and a German refugee with sympathy. But being “the film Churchill tried to ban” became a badge of honor for "Colonel Blimp."

At war’s end, Pressburger learned that his mother had died in Auschwitz, like much of Miskolc’s Jewish population. He tried living in Austria, but didn’t stay long, finding the country still seething with anti-Semitism. He and Powell parted ways, amicably, in 1956, after 14 films, and although Pressburger continued writing, and even tried directing, he never attained the same level of success again.

By the late 1970s, both he and Powell were living in poverty. That's when Martin Scorsese (and others) rediscovered their work, and brought it to the attention of a new generation of film enthusiasts.

Emeric Pressburger died in Suffolk, at age 85. His gravestone is the only one in the cemetery of Our Lady of Grace Church, in Aspall, marked with a Star of David.

An English Heritage blue plaque, Dorset House, Gloucester Place, on behalf of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who did so much to lift English morale during World War II.Credit: Wikimedia Commons