How Michael Powell and Anton Walbrook's films shaped 1940s cinema

Dan Norman October 25, 2020
How Michael Powell and Anton Walbrook's films shaped 1940s cinema
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

In this series we look at the past 100 years of cinema as seen through ten of the industry’s most fruitful actor/director partnerships. Today, let’s take a look at how Michael Powell and Anton Walbrook’s films influenced 1940s cinema.

A film set is a busy place and every movie relies on the efforts of many different people. On top of that, every time you begin work on a film you’re entering a new workplace. In those conditions, a familiar face can be a welcome sight.

Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons film-makers might reunite. There could be a mutual recognition they bring the best out of one another. It might make sense for the biggest action director to keep working with the biggest action star. It may be an order from the studio, believing the pairing is what the public wants to see.

Film history is littered with director-actor pairings that were more than the sum of their parts. It’s impossible to decide on the best but, in this series, we’ve decided to pick a pair for each of the past ten decades.

Each duo made at least three films together in that time, although some collaborations lasted longer. Put together, they tell a story of cinema during the past 100 years.

Today, we move into the 1940s and the role of war refugees in producing some of the greatest British films ever made. Here’s how Michael Powell and Anton Walbrook’s films influenced and shaped 1940s cinema.

Michael Powell and Anton Walbrook’s best movies of the 1940s

Films made: 49th Parallel (1941), The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Red Shoes (1948)

Not many directors have had a better run of films than Michael Powell did in the 1940s. Anton Walbrook was a crucial part of that. The missing name here, however, is Emeric Pressburger.

Although Powell largely took on directing duties, he and Pressburger were a partnership through that astonishing run and beyond – both receiving joint writer, director and producer credits.

Powell was born in Britain but Pressburger and Walbrook came from mainland Europe in the 1930s – as the Nazis rose to power. Pressburger (a Hungarian) and Walbrook (an Austrian) shared Jewish heritage, moving to Britain not only for their career but their own safety.

Powell and Pressburger spent the first half of the decade making films that were unashamedly propaganda. While ‘propaganda’ is a word rarely associated with high art, Powell and Pressburger elevated the form. These films still resonate strongly today thanks to their honesty and humanity.

Walbrook’s first P&P film was 49th Parallel, designed to persuade the US to join the war effort. When Walbrook’s character explains why he no longer recognises Germany as his home, the words pack more of a punch knowing they come from the pen of Pressburger and the mouth of Walbrook.

Walbrook gets an expanded part in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. He plays a German, Theo, whose friendship with the English protagonist evolves over the course of three wars.

Once more playing someone compelled to flee his country, this time there’s even greater tragedy to Walbrook’s character. He has had to leave his sons behind because they turned to Nazism. Again, he represents all that Walbrook and Pressburger are mourning in their homelands, the past that has been alienated by a terrifying present.

The Red Shoes is an abrupt change of direction. The war was over and no doubt the team was more than glad to switch focus. In the story of the romance between an aspiring ballerina and a young composer, Walbrook plays the company impresario standing in their way.

Although he’s now the film’s antagonist, Powell, Pressburger and Walbrook apply the same generosity shown in their war films. Once more Walbrook gives us a tragic figure, broken and brilliant, by turns decent and demanding.

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A screenwriter and sometimes a writer of other things, living in York.