The Human Angle: Wolf Suschitzky

Film still from the production of Entertaining Mr Sloane - photo by Wolf Suschitzky

Format: Exhibition

Title: A Man Named Su – Wolf Suschitzky Photographer and Cameraman

Date: 19 Jan – 28 Feb 2010

Venue: Austrian Cultural Forum, London

More details on the Austrian Cultural Forum website

Eleanor McKeown talks to the veteran cinematographer who shot Get Carter.

Seated in his living room, overlooking a dark and frosty Regent’s canal, Wolf Suschitzky is sifting through pages of typewritten notes: ‘Oh, I missed out Ulysses!’ Running through a fascinating record of cast and crew lists, his lilting Viennese voice pauses only briefly for offers of tea and sherry or the occasional chime of the grandfather clock. There is a lot to talk about. Joseph Strick’s 1967 adaptation of James Joyce’s novel is one of some 200 films shot through the eye of Suschitzky’s camera. Suschitzky is 97 years old (he eloquently expresses it: ‘I’m two and a half years away from my first hundred’) and his work spans a broad sweep of the history of film. He talks about the introduction of CinemaScope and digital film with an immeasurable, truly unique, perspective.

Suschitzky’s career as a cinematographer started in the 1930s with an introduction to filmmaker Paul Rotha, the leading figure in the British Documentary Movement. Up to this point, Suschitzky had focused on still photography under the influence of his sister, Edith Tudor-Hart, a student of the Bauhaus who became a well-known social documentary photographer. Cameras seem to run in the Suschitzky genes: Peter, one of Suschitzky’s offspring (‘I can’t call them children – my eldest is a grandfather four times over!’), works as David Cronenberg’s cinematographer and his own son has also become a cameraman. Initially, Suschitzky studied photography in Vienna for three years (‘I could have learnt the same in three months… the aesthetics of photography were never discussed, only the mechanics and chemistry’) before leaving the country with his Dutch girlfriend in 1934, outraged by the growth of Austro-fascism: ‘We had a civil war, which is swept under the carpet nowadays; two thousand dead and no one talks about it.’

The following years present a fascinating example of how shifting political situations and personal destinies intertwined in 1930s Europe. Having been turned away from London, Suschitzky ended up in Amsterdam and married his Dutch girlfriend; ‘we tried to earn a living but it didn’t work out and luckily she left me after a year because had I stayed on, I wouldn’t be here’. He returned to England and was able to stay with his sister and her English husband. There, Rotha invited him to work on his film, Zoo Babies (1938), shot on location at London Zoo and Whipsnade. It was the beginning of a long, fruitful partnership and Suschitzky’s growing reputation as a documentary cameraman, with a speciality in location work. He was initially considered an ‘alien enemy’ and unable to take on any paid work in England, but the Second World War provided a new opportunity, as cameramen were drafted into army film units to produce propaganda films: ‘As I refused to take on a German passport from my Austrian one, I only had a piece of paper saying I was stateless, but suddenly I had no problem travelling all over Britain making films for the government.’

Given this new right to work and commended by Rotha, Suschitzky became a leading cinematographer in a fascinatingly creative period of British cinema. There was no film school (‘we were really all amateurs in documentary films’) and no budget (‘films were sent out for tender to various documentary companies and I suppose the cheapest one got the job!’) and despite (or maybe because) of this, filmmakers gave a fantastically creative treatment to their subjects. Although some works may seem jarringly moralistic or paternalistic to contemporary audiences, no one could fail to be delighted by the originality and vivacity of the visual composition and editing. The documentary films that Suschitzky worked on – such as World of Plenty (1943) or Cotton Come Home (1946) – remain beautiful examples of experimental, rhythmic filmmaking. It is no surprise when Suschitzky tells me the editors from this period were reading Eisenstein and Pudovkin to learn the structure of film. This delightful rhythm and energy is also evident in a later project that Suschitzky worked on: Snow (1963), ‘a very nice little film’ commissioned by the British Transport board. Filmmaker Geoffrey Jones slices and arranges Suschitzky’s beautiful shots of workers clearing the snow off the railway line into a wonderful crescendo of building music and speeding trains. Suschitzky seems to have enjoyed working on these rhythmic pieces of cinema and has a keen respect for the editing process: ‘I always regretted that I never worked in the cutting room… The cutting room is the place where you should start to learn the grammar of film.’

After Paul Rotha Productions disbanded, many members of the company, complaining that they wanted more freedom, decided to create the first co-operative film unit in Britain. The collective proved successful and was chosen by the national coal board to make monthly newsreels about miners, their social lives and developments in mining equipment. Having to work with heavy, enclosed 500-watt lamps in hot, dark conditions was a technical challenge but Suschitzky speaks very fondly of the miners and their work: ‘As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t pay the miners enough – they were working under a three-foot ceiling, unable to stand up for most of the day. They were great chaps and we got on well with all of them.’ Indeed, the social-political aspect of the British Documentary Movement seemed to appeal to Suschitzky, who was born above his parents’ socialist bookshop and whose sister, Edith, played a key role in recruiting members of the Cambridge Spy ring and NKVD (Soviet political police).

The collaborative aspect of film also appears to have been an important element for Suschitzky. Throughout our conversation, he is constantly generous about cast and crew members. With one exception (an English actor who vainly complained that Suschitzky ‘did not know how to light a star’), the actors he worked with are invariably ‘lovely’ and ‘wonderful’. One gets the sense that collaboration and interaction were vital to his enjoyment of camerawork. His conversation is peppered with personal stories, from the focus-puller snipping off the burning end of Vincent Price’s cigarette on the set of Theatre of Blood (1973) to Alfie Bass, fooling passers-by dressed up as an old man during the shooting of The Bespoke Overcoat (1955). His still portraiture photography, in particular, shows a keen interest in the human subject. Even animals at the zoo take on anthropomorphic expressions and soulful depth under his lens. And although it is clear that Suschitzky deeply respected Rotha’s work, he has one complaint: ‘He was a bit intellectual for my taste… The human angle didn’t come into his documentaries like it did with Harry Watt or others.’

The Austrian Cultural Forum’s photo exhibition presents rare, behind-the-scenes shots from Wolf Suschitzky’s films, as well as unpublished portraits of directors, actors and actresses with whom he has worked. More details on their website.

But Rotha, as well as initiating Suschitzky’s documentary career, was also instrumental in his move into features. Given his adept work on location, Suschitzky was the perfect choice as cinematographer for Rotha’s fictional film, No Resting Place (1950), a tale about Irish tinkers, shot on location in Ireland. Despite some problems with the weather (‘We spent most of the time sitting in the bus waiting for the rain to stop’), the film was very innovative as most British films were shot in the studio at this time, and it garnered a lot of interest: ‘Someone from the government film bank even visited the set to see how a location film was made, and all I remember he said to me was, “Don’t talk to me about 3D films, I’ve only got one eye!”’ It was the start of Suschitzky’s varied and very successful career in feature films, from Jack Clayton’s Oscar-winning short, The Bespoke Overcoat (1955), to Mike Hodges’s cult classic, Get Carter (1971) (‘my most famous film… which everyone in Britain has seen!’). Despite such high-profile and respected projects, Suschitzky is very humble about his work in film. He finds the title Director of Photography too pompous and tells me: ‘I always tried to put on the screen what the director wanted. I wasn’t an ambitious artist as some cameramen were. Of course, one discussed shots with the director and the operator… it was a matter of discussing between the three of us usually.’ This humility is a hallmark of Suschitzky’s conversation but it is clear that he has made a great contribution to British film. Cinematographers are too often the unsung heroes of cinema. Thankfully, the Society for Film and Media at Vienna has gathered together rare, behind-the-scenes photographs from Suschitzky’s films, as well as many of his unpublished portraits of directors, actors and actresses. This beautiful record of his cinematic work not only tells the tale of his own work, but incidentally traces the history of 20th-century British cinema.

Eleanor McKeown