January 2, 2017

The Rest Is Just Propaganda: The Influence of Karel Reisz on the British New Wave

Karel Reisz left a lasting legacy for British cinema through his work with the Free Cinema movement and his contribution to the British New Wave. And with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning he gave us the original working class angry young man.

Karel Reisz arrived in England aged just 11 in 1938, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. He first made an impact on the British film scene as a film critic in the late 1940s, contributing to Sequence and Sight & Sound, before going on to become the first programmer at the National Film Theatre in 1952. He was also a film technician, writing a leading text on the subject, The Technique of Film Editing in 1953. But it was as part of the Free Cinema Movement that Reisz first helped to influence a new direction in British filmmaking.

Post-war British film was dominated by traditional, literary adaptations and irreverent studio comedies where working class characters were often inconsequential stereotypes, handy for the odd plot diversion but never the central focus of a film. The Free Cinema movement came together as a reaction against the conservatism of British cinema, by producing shorter, low budget documentaries that highlighted the reality of contemporary British society. Viewed as part of 6 showcases over 3 years, the films highlighted a hereto under represented section of British life – the working classes – as real people going about their ordinary business.

The movement was founded in the mid 1950s by Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Lorenza Mazzatti. Reisz co-directed Momma Don’t Allow (1953) with Richardson, and went on to direct We Are The Lambeth Boys (1958) shown as part of the final Free Cinema event. Reisz’s films, along with those of all the filmmakers involved, broke free from the constraints of traditional studio output and placed the films at the heart of a natural setting, and this translated through into the New Wave feature films of the early 1960s. Hand held camera work and location shooting changed the face of British films. Acknowledging the pioneering work of documentary realists such as Grierson and Jennings, the Free Cinema movement brought much needed free expression.

This free expression is reflected on screen in both of Reisz’s contributions, both of which show British youth in a relaxed setting. From the teen fuelled atmosphere of the jazz scene in Momma Don’t Allow, with its atmospheric jazz score, to the natural posturing of the youths featured in We Are the Lambeth Boys. Both films were not afraid to show young working class people as they really were, in a contemporary context. Whilst We Are the Lambeth Boys has its moments of stilted predictability, it still dared to expose working class young people enjoying themselves. This theme is again explored later on by Reisz in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as Arthur Seaton is seen having a good time with other young people, living for his Friday night down the pub.

We Are the Lambeth Boys Whilst they were pioneering, the films were seen mainly by select industry insiders and not in mainstream cinemas by the very people the films were reflecting. But it was the influence of these films on the realist movement that was to follow that had a lasting impact on British filmmaking, and it was Reisz that brought us the real breakthrough film in New Wave cinema. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), adapted by Alan Sillitoe from his own novel and directed by Reisz, captured the imagination of the British public and was undoubtedly one of the most influential films of the British New Wave. It heralded a new distinctive movement with its dramatic and unprecedented scenes of working class life and the presence of Arthur Seaton, the British New Wave’s very own working class anti-hero. Through telling Arthur’s story so distinctively, Reisz captured a moment in time of post-war working class Britain.

Even from the first scene Reisz’s film was remarkable, with the real sounds and sights of the factory. No opening titles, no rousing classical music score, this film was about real life and real people. Arthur Seaton is not introduced to us as a classic hero, our protagonist is shown in his true light as he bitterly casts his thoughts on work, his colleagues and his ambitions. The opening shots of the workers leaving the factory and making their way home through the Nottingham streets captures the image and atmosphere of the real industrial environment. A scene that would have been familiar to those watching, the link between audience and film was captured so clearly for them to identify with. The location is perhaps as much a star of the film as Arthur Seaton.

The film never compromises its raw energy, as Reisz draws you into Arthur’s world and we follow his exploits from an uncomfortably close proximity. Arthur is a complex character, battling with his own anger and frustrations, but never managing to break free from the constraints he is rebelling against, and Reisz produced such an inspired performance from Albert Finney in the lead role. The unflinching honesty is also illustrated in Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) which Reisz produced, reuniting two Free Cinema pioneers to create what can perhaps be seen as the darkest film of the New Wave movement. Again, the emotional awkwardness and aggression of a young working class man wrestling with life on the boundaries of a community dominates the film.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning pioneered the style and passion of the British New Wave and the films that followed. But it is Reisz’s film that captivates the audience, capturing the energy of the time. He took the influences of neo-realism and documentary, and the innovation of Free Cinema, and developed them into a unique film that captured the thoughts and feelings of disillusioned working class youth and placed them at the forefront of contemporary culture.

Despite a long and distinguished film career spent largely in the US, that included acclaimed films such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Reisz’s legacy for British Cinema was his involvement with the cutting edge of 1960s cinema, and his ability to capture life as it was. His unique eye brought energy and vitality to the British film scene, introducing those on the margins into the mainstream.

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Anna Duggan has written 3 post in this blog.