April 8—15, 2024


The Colour Whisperers

They joined forces in the late 1930s – just as WWII was gaining momentum, Alfred Hitchcock moved to California, and Laurence Olivier was preparing to film his Shakespeare adaptations. At the time, with fewer resources and less recognizable stars, British cinema was Hollywood’s poorer cousin, but over the next decade, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would elevate it to great heights by creating an astonishing series of timeless masterpieces.

They were a rather unlikely duo: the feisty Michael, raised in the English countryside, and Emeric, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, fleeing the Nazis from Berlin to Paris and England. One was a proud son of ‘the empire on which the sun never sets,’ the other a reflective nomad, an exile yearning to learn new languages. The amalgamation of their personalities resulted in dazzling visions of England and its fighting spirit, as well as unforgettable depictions of distant lands and long-gone places, on the border between fantasy, reality, and the hinterland where one longs for the world of the living.

Today, the romantic imagination of the Archers, as they named their production company, is decidedly antiquated, but its splendour still enthrals. The magic is still palpable – especially when we watch their films on the big screen, in the dark, taking in every moment together with our loved ones.

Visionaries of the Extreme

Both Powell and Pressburger had separate careers spanning a good few decades. We begin our retrospective with The Edge of The World (UK, 1937), directed by Powell. Conceived in the spirit of Robert J. Flaherty’s documentaries, it is a portrait of the isolated Scottish Island of Foula. We conclude with the infamous Peeping Tom (UK, 1960), also by Powell – a tale of a serial killer targeting women, a film so shockingly violent that it seriously damaged the filmmaker’s reputation, thus condemning Powell to years of work on second-rate projects.

With The Thief of Bagdad (UK, 1940), co-directed by Powell, added into the mix, we can explore the three different incarnations of the artist: the daredevil risk-taker making films in difficult conditions, the technically flawless iconoclast interested in transgression and sexuality, and the adventurous, eternal Peter Pan. The longstanding collaboration with Pressburger brought out the best in Powell, combining his directorial strengths with a spiritual depth, psychological nuance, and a perverse self-awareness.

In 1943, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943) burst onto cinema screens with the full force of Technicolour cinematography. In their first colour film, Powell & Pressburger took on the comic stereotype of the military man and approached it with finesse and empathy in an epic narrative spanning four decades of European history. Its protagonist, Colonel Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may be blind to the injustices of colonialism, but he’s a cheery, kind-hearted fellow, full of zest for life, marching through war after war with a sense of dignity and honouring all his gentlemanly agreements. In this propagandistic, yet complex and undeniably compelling portrait of an England that never was, the Archers accomplished the impossible. They helped boost the morale of their compatriots and simultaneously offered a melancholy, yet critical, tableau of the crumbling empire.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Colour Whisperers

Colour was something incredibly rare in the cinema of the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939) and Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939) became Technicolour hits, but at the time only Hollywood could really afford such visual glitz and glamour. As such, we can imagine what a shock it was for British audiences to encounter A Matter of Life and Death (UK 1946), Black Narcissus (UK 1947), The Red Shoes (UK, 1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (UK, 1951) – four dazzling cinema spectacles that were not only shot “in colour”, but also offered a brand-new approach to cinema just as it was shedding its black and white cocoon. The greens, reds, blues, and their infinite combinations, on the one hand, make up the carefully designed worlds and, on the other, constitute a visual end in themselves – by celebrating the multicoloured universe, they provide a footnote to the primordial magic of cinema. As part of the festival’s programme, we also present the documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff by Craig McCall (UK, 2010). Cardiff won an Oscar for Black Narcissus – a tale of nuns in the hothouse atmosphere of India, which to this day delights audiences with its carefully orchestrated artificiality and visual display.

A Matter of Life and Death takes a similar approach to colour as The Wizard of Oz, but somewhat in reverse. Here, the imagined afterlife is enveloped in a muted monochrome, while the earthly conflicts are depicted in colour. Somewhere at the intersection of these two universes, Powell & Pressburger weave the tale of a soul arrested before it can enter the afterlife. In terms of visuals, however, the Archers’ most radical ventures were The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. Both are governed by the spirits of ballet and opera, and feature objects taking control over people and dancing women who turn out to be automatons. In these sophisticated, polished visions, the idea of cinema as a staggering and at times downright dangerous synthesis of the arts is fully realized.

In all of Powell & Pressburger’s meticulously designed worlds, created in the spirit of collaboration and creative elation, colour organically blends in with the explored themes and motifs. The Archers constantly interspersed colour films with others, shot in elegant black and white. The latter include two gems: A Canterbury Tale (UK, 1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (UK, 1945), one of Tilda Swinton’s favourites and a true classic in the canon of female-focused films. Both move beyond an urban setting towards nature, self-discovery, and life-changing encounters.

The Red Shoes

Powell & Pressburger: Reactivation

The retrospective will present ten films without which the history of cinema would be incomplete, or at least less fascinating. Each of them invites us on a different journey, and each is a unique treasure that was brought out of obscurity, rediscovered, and restored to former glory. This is mainly thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who won Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed. The Film Foundation, led by Scorsese, has restored half of the films featured in The Colour Whisperers retrospective. Thanks to Scorsese and Schoonmaker, as well as endorsements from Greta Gerwig, Wes Anderson, Ari Aster, Francis Ford Coppola, Derek Jarman, Dario Argento, George A. Romero, and Bong Joon-ho, to name but a few high-profile figures, the work of the Archers continues to be screened and seen by audiences. In the humble conditions of wartime and post-war Britain, Powell and Pressburger managed to fulfil their dreams of cinema, which they understood as a machine for total creation that can turn fantasies into tangible reality. It is high time that images from their films started to appear in our dreams, too.

Sebastian Smoliński
translated by: Joanna Figiel