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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Original at Glasgow University

Hein Heckroth

Born in Hesse in 1901, Heckroth soon left his native town for nearby Frankfurt to become an art student. By the early nineteen-twenties he was designing sets and costumes for the German stage. He then began an association with the Kurt Jooss dance company for whom he would design a number of ballets over the next two decades, including the award-winning The Green Table . This experience was a key factor in his promotion at the Archers, his first film as production designer with them being the ballet movie The Red Shoes. In the nineteen thirties Heckroth refused a desirable teaching position in Dresden because the authorities imposed the condition that he would have to leave his Jewish wife, the artist Ada Maier, if he wanted the job. Blacklisted by the Nazis he and Ada fled to Holland and then France and finally to England in 1935.

In Britain he designed sets and costumes for the opera, including A Kingdom for a Cow for Kurt Weill. He also took a job teaching art at Dartington Hall in Devon. At the outbreak of World War Two Heckroth was interned in Australia before being permitted to return to London, where he exhibited a collection of surrealist paintings in 1943. Heckroth designed a production of War and Peace which was seen by Alexander Korda's art director brother Vincent. Vincent Korda then hired him to design costumes at Denham Film Studios. His first job on Gabriel Pascal's Caesar and Cleopatra was an unsatisfactory one providing him with little personal or artistic success, and he was pleased to be hired by Alfred Junge for the Archers at Rank's Pinewood Studios.

Kanchi's costume
Jean Simmons in Black Narcissus
Heckroth was to work under Junge for just two films, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. Heckroth's designs for both productions were typically flamboyant. He delivered designs in a wealth of different styles for the enormous crowd scenes in heaven in A Matter of life and Death, while he successfully off-set the Anglican nuns near-white habits in Black Narcissus with richly coloured and patterned 'native' attire, illustrating how ill suited they were to fitting in. Indeed they most striking transformation in the film, both pictorial and psychological, comes when the Kathlenn Byron character Sister Ruth exchanges her habit for a burgundy wine coloured dress. The colour is not one of the bright tones that the locals where rather it is darker, more threatening, reflecting her psychotic condition and unrequited desire.

Alfred Junge began sketching designs for The Red Shoes, the Archers next film but couldn't bring himself to agree with Powell and Pressburger on a look for the film. They parted company and Powell promoted Heckroth to full production designer. Powell said "It was, I think the first time that a painter had been given the chance to design a film, including the titles, and it was a triumph of work and organisation. For the ballet alone he made 600 sketches. Catherine Suroweic, in her book on European art directors wrote: "For their new film [The Red Shoes], Powell and Pressburger were keen to devise a new type of film decor, one less heavy and restricted, and allowed Heckroth's imagination free reign to create a world beyond the limitations of the stage. This man of the theatre was the ideal designer for them, a surrealist romantic who was not afraid to experiment, and knew how to suggest an atmosphere with economy and an expressionist use of colour. His abstract, painted sketches were full of mood, movement and theatrical flair. For the famous ballet he disigned impressionistic sets, using materials such as chiffon, gauze, papier mache and cellophane." Sketch from TRS
Red Shoes production sketch

Heckroth won an oscar for his work on The Red Shoes, but his theatrical flair, which of all his Archers work was best served by The Red Shoes , was misplaced on their next, black and white production, the down beat The Small Back Room. Heckroth was allowed to show his true surrealist colours in a fantasy sequence where the alcoholic protagonist imagines being squashed by a giant bottle, but Powell abanoned the studio, where their last three films had almost entirely been made, for the denouement of this film. Electing for a lenghty exterior sequence on a long spit of shingle off the southwest coast. Heckroth was once again nominated for an Oscar for his work on the Archers' subsequent experimental opera movie Tales of Hoffmann. Suroweic insists that "This time, Heckroth's designs, though striking, tended to overpower the material. One feels suffocated by the sheer amount of decor, trapped in an artificial world. The film had its moments, but overall it lacks the warmth and dynamism of The Red Shoes".

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