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Erwin Hillier (1911 - 2005)
Dictionary of National Biography (OUP)
Hiller, Erwin [known as Erwin Hillier] (1911.2005), cinematographer, was born on 2 September 1911 in Berlin, of mixed Anglo-German parentage; his father was Robert Hiller, described by Erwin as 'of independent means'. He grew up in Germany and as a result his English retained a continental inflection for the rest of his life. After attending art school, he made his first contacts with the German film industry, working on a number of productions, including Fritz Lang's first sound film, the classic M (1931), where he assisted the principal cameraman, Fritz Arno Wagner. Although he often referred to having known and worked with various luminaries of Weimar cinema, the full extent of his cinematic apprenticeship in the German film industry is difficult to assess, as nearly all his contributions were uncredited. Nevertheless, his training in Germany had a marked effect on the style of his later work in Britain, especially in its emphasis on atmospheric lighting, visual fluidity, and unusual angles and movements.
Following Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Hiller relocated to London, briefly working as a press photographer, and joining Gaumont British's camera department. On 27 May 1933, at Kensington register office, he married Helen Yates, the twenty-year-old daughter of Joseph Southgate; they had one daughter, Shirley. Meanwhile, at Gaumont British's Shepherd's Bush studios Hiller became a camera operator on productions including Alfred Hitchcock's Waltzes from Vienna and The Man Who Knew Too Much (both 1934), assisting the established cinematographers Glen MacWilliams and Curt Courant respectively. He also worked on the Jessie Matthews musical Evergreen (1934), directed by Victor Saville and once again with MacWilliams as principal photographer, and on two Walter Forde films, Jack Ahoy! (1934) and Brown on Resolution (1935), in both cases working under Bernard Knowles. For most of these films Hiller received no screen credits. In the mid-1930s he moved on from Gaumont to work on such cheaply made 'quota quickies' as the Warner Brothers comedy The Girl in the Crowd (1935), shot at Teddington Studios, which marked his first film with the director Michael Powell. The two were reunited working for Joe Rock Studios at Elstree on the mystery drama The Man Behind the Mask (1936), and on Powell's first collaboration with the Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, the spy thriller The Spy in Black (1939).
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Hiller (by now known professionally as Erwin Hillier) became principal photographer on a number of propaganda shorts commissioned by the Ministry of Information; these included Men of Tomorrow (1942), produced by Sydney Box, which showcased the contributions from boy scouts to the war effort. The same year Hiller shot his first feature film as principal cinematographer, the comedy The Lady from Lisbon (1942), a British National production, followed by Rhythm Serenade (1943), a patriotic musical starring Vera Lynn. The Silver Fleet (1943), a drama about Dutch wartime resistance, marked the beginning of his association with Powell and Pressburger's production company The Archers. The richly allegorical A Canterbury Tale (1944) combined Hiller's predilection for chiaroscuro compositions with a perceptive way of photographing the English countryside.
In I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), for which he was credited by now unusually as Erwin Hiller, not Hillier, he devised a sublimely lyrical visual backdrop for the film's romantic drama set in Scotland's Western Isles. By now acclaimed primarily as an expert in black and white photography, he was replaced by Jack Cardiff in The Archers' subsequent colour films, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947), while his own debut on a colour production, the musical London Town (1946), proved a flop. Roy Ward Baker's atmospheric black and white film noir The October Man (1947), starring John Mills as an amnesiac accused of murder, played much more to Hiller's strengths, as did Brian Desmond Hurst's Gothic melodrama The Mark of Cain (1947), and Lawrence Huntington's Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1948), set in a gloomy boarding school.
The whimsical war comedy Private Angelo (1949), starring Peter Ustinov as a cowardly Italian soldier, marked the beginning of Hiller's long association with the director Michael Anderson. In the 1950s their collaborations encompassed comedies (Will Any Gentleman ...?, 1953), thrillers (The House of the Arrow, 1953; Chase a Crooked Shadow, 1958), and the acclaimed Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), set in Dublin in 1921, but their biggest success was the iconic war drama The Dam Busters (1955), about the legendary 'bouncing bomb' attacks on the Ruhr dams. The film was a success not least thanks to Hiller's breathtaking and authentic aerial photography, once again showcasing his mastery of black and white photography.
During the 1960s Anderson and Hiller collaborated on a series of increasingly international productions, including the thrillers The Naked Edge (1961), Operation Crossbow (1965), and The Quiller Memorandum (1966), the latter scripted by Harold Pinter. Their last collaboration was the papal drama The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). Hiller worked occasionally with other directors, and was nominated for a BAFTA award for Sammy Going South (1963), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. His last film was The Valley of Gwangwi (1969), directed by Jim O'Connolly, which mixed cowboys with dinosaurs. He died of ischaemic heart disease at his home, 7 Baronsmede, Ealing, London, on 10 January 2005, and was survived by his wife and daughter.
Sources M. Powell, A life in movies (1986); M. Powell, Million dollar movie (1992); K. Macdonald, Emeric Pressburger (1994); D. Petrie, The British cinematographer (1996); P. Cook, I know where I'm going (2002); B. McFarlane, ed., The encyclopedia of British film (2003); The Independent (3 Feb 2005); The Guardian (8 Feb 2005); The Times (18 March 2005); m. cert.; d. cert.