Brigitte Mayr and Michael Omasta of Austrian film society Synema are presenting their new book on photographer and filmmaker Wolf Suschitzky Seven Decades of Photography at the ACF London on 20 November, 7pm. We met them to discuss Suschitzky’s work and influence.
Could you tell us a bit about what Synema is and does?
Synema was founded in Vienna in 1984. It is a non-profit society to advance the interest in film history, especially in Austrian film history and exile cinema. We have some 100 members — filmmakers, academics, film critics, archivists, students etc. We organise film seasons, symposia, lectures and publish books. Three recent books that might be of interest to you: “Work/s in Progress” on Digital Film Restoration in Archives, “Be Sand, Not Oil” on Amos Vogel, the Vienna-born founder of the legendary film club Cinema 16 in New York, and of course our newest book — “Wolf Suschitzky: Seven Decades of Photography”.
When did you meet Wolf Suschitzky and how did you first start to work with him?
We got to know Wolf back in 1993, organizing the two-month film series and symposium “Aufbruch ins Ungewisse” (in conjunction with Österreichisches Filmmuseum in Vienna and the Viennale Film Festival) on filmmakers from Austria who had to go into exile due to the rise of Fascism in 1933/38. Wolf was one of our illustrious guests then, as were actors Francis Lederer, Theodore Bikel, and Leon Askin, Film noir cinematographer John Alton, actress Vanessa Brown, the afore mentioned Amos Vogel and several others. Our friendship with Wolf deepened when we invited him to Diagonale Film Festival in Graz in 2003, to join our tribute to Carl Mayer, the screenwriter of “Dr. Caligari” as well as Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” and “Sunrise”, and who later came to London and worked with Elisabeth Bergner on almost all of her British films … Anyway, in 2006 we published “Wolf Suschitzky: Photos”, the first retrospective of his photographic work, and in 2010 “Wolf Suschitzky: Films”, which gives an illustrious survey of his 50+ years as cinematographer in Britain. It’s hard to believe, but he did work on about 200 documentaries, short, television, industrial and feature films — “Get Carter” with Michael Caine (1971) is certainly the most famous nowadays.
What does Suschitzky’s oeuvre mean for the history of film and photography?
That’s a tough one. We think Wolf is quite unique in being one of the true masters of classical black-and-white-photography and being a renowned and very busy cameraman at the same time. He has succeeded in both careers. Incidentally, Wolf got started in films in the late 1930s by showing his portfolio — a series of photographs from Charing Cross Road and Soho, which is quite well-known nowadays — to Paul Rotha, one of the leading theorists and producers of the British documentary movement. Wolf’s subsequent work as a cameraman on documentaries impressed several important film directors, and they hired him to work on their feature films — such as Ken Hughes (“The Small World of Sammy Lee”, 1962), the American Joseph Strick (“Ulysses”, 1966), Douglas Hickox (“Theatre of Blood”, 1972) and of course Mike Hodges, the director of “Get Carter”.
What is it like to work with him?
Wolf is very easy to work with. He seems to get along swell with almost everybody he meets. He has lost nothing of his Viennese charm and sense of humour. He helped us with everything we asked for — granting us free access to his private archive, pre-selecting photographs he felt worth being included, etc. Mike Hodges described him as “Honest. Straightforward. The antithesis of pushy. That’s Wolf.” We couldn’t say it any better … It’s our great pleasure to present the new volume “Wolf Suschitzky: Seven Decades of Photography” at the Austrian Cultural Forum tonight, and what’s most important: the artist, who is 102 years of age, will be present and has promised to sign a couple of books.