Imre Jozsef Emmerich Pressburger was born in Miskolc, northern Hungary on 5 December 1902, of Jewish parents. His father, Koloman Pressburger, was an estate manager and hismother Gizella Wichs was Kolomon's second wife. [Pressburger had one elder half-sister from his father's previous marriage]. Pressburger attended a boarding school in Temesavar where he excelled at mathematics, literature and music. He went on to study mathematics and engineering at the universities of Prague and Stuttgart. His father's death caused him to leave his studies unfinished.
Since his homeland had, after the First World War become part of Romania, he decided to stay in Germany. Settling in Berlin in 1926, he became a writer, selling short stories to newspapers and film treatments to the leading German Film company Ufa. In 1930 he became a contract worker at the Ufa studios and worked with up and coming young directors Robert Siodmak and Max Ophuls. After Hitler's rise to power, Pressburger fled first to Paris [where he again worked as a screenwriter] and then to London, where he arrived on a 'stateless passport' in 1935. In England he found a small community of fellow Hungarian exiles who had escaped from the Nazis. These included the writer Arthur Koestler, humorist George Mikes and the influential producer/director Alexander Korda, owner of London Films, who employed him as a screenwriter.
It was through Korda that Pressburger met Michael Powell. Pressburger and Powell first worked together on The SPY IN BLACK (GB, 1939), devised for the German actor Conrad Veidt, who also starred in the next Powell-Pressburger film CONTRABAND (GB, 1940). But it was their third collaboration The 49th PARALLEL (GB, 1941) – released in the Unites States as The INVADERS – which won them international acclaim and Pressburger an Academy Award for Best Original Motion Picture Story. The film was also nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture. The two men formed a production company 'The Archers', and used the credit 'written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger' for each of the fourteen films they collaborated on between 1941 and 1956. This indicated their total joint responsibility for their own work and that they were not beholden to any studio or any other producer. They were at their most collaborative when it came to the script, as Michael Powell claimed in a 1973 interview 'Emeric would write the script and then I would rewrite it completely in my version, sometimes with very little change and sometimes with a great deal of change...I was naturally interested in how to create the actual atmosphere and how to get over Emeric's story line in the most effective way'. They would then pass the script back and forth several times – they could never work on it together in the same room. They both acted as producers, perhaps Pressburger slightly more so, since he could smooth feathers ruffled by Powell's forthright manner. The direction was nearly all done by Powell. Once shooting was finished Powell would retreat, but Pressburger remained closely involved with the editing and had more of say in the way music was used. When the film was finally ready Powell would take over as front man in any promotional work, such as interviews for trade papers and fan magazines.
Notable examples of the Archers' output included The LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (GB, 1943) a whimsical tale of an old British officer [Roger Livesey] and his German counterpart [Anton Walbrook] told in flashback. The film ran into political controversy as Winston Churchill regarded the script as giving too defeatist a view of the British soldier. More controversy surrounded their next film, A CANTERBURY TALE (GB, 1944), which linked the experiences of land girls and American GIs posted to war-time Kent, with those of Chaucer's pilgrims, as they join in solving a local crime, the mysterious attacks on young women by 'the glue man'. The film attracted charges of 'bad taste'.
Another original Pressburger script was that for their next venture I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING (GB, 1945), written in four days and largely filmed on location in the Western Isles. A romantic tale of love triumphing over money, it starred Wendy Hiller as an ambitious social climber and Roger Livesey as a free-spirited and impoverished laird. Livesey never set foot in Scotland for the filming and had a stand-in for long shots and back-of-head shots, the result was so cleverly edited, it was said that Michael Powell himself could not tell which was the real actor and which his double. CANTERBURY TALE and I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING received mixed reviews but the Powell-Pressburger reputation was firmly restored by A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (GB, 1946), a romantic and magical tale of a young British airman who miraculously survives a plane crash and is collected by an angel and taken to a heavenly trial to decide if he should die or be allowed to live. A creative use of monochrome and colour was employed to differentiate between heaven and earth.
Pressburger's next Archers script was an adaptation of Rumer Godden's BLACK NARCISSUS (GB, 1947), a melodramatic tale of nuns and repressed sexuality. Deborah Kerr starred as one of five Anglican sisters opening a school and hospital in a remote region of the Himalayas. It was thought that post-war Britain needed the colour of an exotic location but there was never any intention to film in India. Powell & Pressburger wanted to control the environment from the beginning rather than marrying second unit location shots with studio sets at Pinewood. The Himalayas in the film were a result of the technical skill and visual imagination of art director Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
The RED SHOES (GB, 1948) provided Powell and Pressburger with their most commercial success and has become one of the Archers most well-known films. It is a dark tale of a beautiful and ambitious young dancer [Moira Shearer] who achieves fame in a ballet of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Red Shoes' but who is torn between love for a composer [Marius Goring] and artistic devotion to her ballet master [Anton Walbrook]. Finally she is driven – apparently by the red shoes – to suicide.
After the success of THE RED SHOES the Archers made two further forays into musical fantasy with The TALES of HOFFMANN (GB, 1951) and OH…ROSALINDA!! (GB, 1955) but although both contained sequences of beauty and imagination they failed to capture audiences in the same way. Although several of the Archers' films were big money-spinners the experimental quality of their work was not designed to appeal to London's post-war critical establishment. As Elliot Stein wrote in the Village Voice on 21 March 1995 'The Archers films were spun out of artifice and illusion – their lineage descended from Méliès and German expressionism, not Lumière and Flaherty. These were more than imaginative movies – the imagination itself was often their subject'.
Pressburger and Powell dissolved their partnership in the mid to late 1950s. Before this, Pressburger wrote and directed TWICE UPON A TIME (GB, 1953) a light comedy about twin sisters who exchange identity to help reconcile their divorced parents. Later, in 1957, MIRACLE IN SOHO (GB, 1957) produced by Pressburger and based on his own screenplay, failed to set the critics alight.
The two men collaborated once more on The BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW (GB, 1972), made for the Children's Film Foundation, with a screenplay by Pressburger based on his original story. Pressburger was constantly writing, the collection is filled with notebooks crammed with ideas for films, plays, novels and short stories. His novel, Killing A Mouse On Sunday, published in 1961, was set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, attracting interest from Fred Zinnemann who commissioned Pressburger to adapt it as a screenplay. Zinemmann was not happy with the result however, and J.P. Miller was brought in to rework it as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (US, 1964).
Pressburger published a second novel The Glass Pearls in 1966, a dark tale of a Nazi war criminal in hiding, drawn from his own experiences [his mother had died in Auschwitz]. From 1968 to the end of his life Pressburger grappled almost obsessively with countless drafts and re-writes of his unpublished novel The Unholy Passion. The plot revolved around an Oberammergau-like passion play in a village clearly based on his Austrian home Thiersee.
Pressburger was married twice. To Agi Donath [1938 – 1941] and then to Wendy Orme [1946-1971]. Wendy gave birth to a daughter, Angela, and another daughter, Sally-Sue [who died in infancy in 1948]. Angela is the mother of Pressburger's grandsons, the filmmakers Andrew Macdonald and Kevin Macdonald. On returning to Britain after years of living in Austria, Pressburger purchased his own English country idyll, the historic Shoemaker's Cottage in rural Suffolk. When he wasn't writing he enjoyed creating fine meals and gardening and entertaining friends. He was a lifelong supporter of Arsenal Football Club. When too ill and frail to live alone he moved into a nursing home in Saxstead, Suffolk, where he died aged 85.
Pressburger and Powell were both awarded with Fellowships of the British Film Institute in 1983 and a special award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986. Filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have championed the work of Powell & Pressburger, helping to bring it to new audiences during a period when it was largely unrecognised and neglected.