Friday 2nd October
In Berlin on the second leg of our honeymoon, first leg on the Greek island of Spetsos. We go out to dinner with our hosts Filipa and Bobby Roth. I spent a lot of time with Bobby in the late eighties and early nineties. He edited Andi Engel’s Melancholia and we tried to make a brilliant script that he had written called Allied Forces just after the fall of the Berlin wall. But I had lost touch with him and we have been reunited through Filipa who knows him via the art world in Berlin. Bobby was one of my few film friends that Flavia really liked and she too is delighted to re-meet him. We talk and talk and then end up in a bar where Filipa wants to smoke a cigarette. Perhaps it is the shock of being in a bar blue with tobacco haze but I have an uncanny sensation of being back in Paris in the summer of l967, the bar has that same feeling of enormous potential.
Filipa, Bobby and I agree that we really want to work on something which would be inspired by Andi and I say that I will send Bobby the script of Lisbon and then perhaps we will all meet for a week of food and writing next summer.
Note: Andi Engel. Andi Engel who was one of my closest friends in the world of cinema died on Boxing Day 2006. My obituary of him ran in the Independent of 4th January 2007. Below my introductory words to his memorial at the Renoir cinema in early March 2007.
I’m Colin MacCabe and I’m here to begin a day when we remember our friend Andi Engel. So I’ll begin with two of my memories,
The first time I met Andi properly was in 1979 when I was researching a book on
Godard then a mysterious figure whose activities of the previous decade were
the stuff of myth and legend. I was told that Andi had collected a massive
archive of rare interviews and articles devoted to this hidden Godard and I
turned up at the Camden Plaza to see if he would let me look at this treasure.
Andi’s office was then a huge extended space above the cinema with a huge desk at one end and a little kitchen at another. The year before it had been used to shoot scenes from Radio On and Keith Griffiths recalled the experience in a
letter to Pam as ‘an unforgettable memory’: ‘There was no escape from Andi who was determined to sit it all out at his desk, observe, drink continuously and
comment forcibly upon these crude attempts to fathom and frame a movie’. It was on either side of this desk that we talked all morning.
And when I say that we talked I mean that Andi talked for he was one of the greatest talkers I have ever met – his voice soaring and swooping like a musical instrument as he recounted anecdotes, remembered films, discussed politics and told jokes. It was one of the most enjoyable mornings of my life and I felt a member of a very exclusive club, a friend of Andi. Although it must be said that one of Andi’s seductive tricks was to let you think that you were a member of a very small club when actually you were a member of a very big one – you only have to look at the host of e-mails, letters and cards that Pam received to see how big. The one moment when I felt slightly ill at ease was when after half an hour – at ten o’clock in the morning – Andi walked the enormous length of this room and returned with a huge mug of black tea without offering me a cup. The reason for this became clear when half an hour later he again walked the length of the room and this time returned with a huge bottle of Spanish brandy with which he replenished what I had foolishly taken to be tea. At the end of the morning he told me that I could have all his invaluable archive. So that’s my first memory – talk, drink and generosity.
For my second memory we must fast forward ten years to the shoot of
Melamcholia in the autumn of l988. The young critic and programmer Jason Wood will talk about the film later but I simply want to recall my most terrifying
moment of the shoot. Many had called me foolish for thinking that we could
shoot a feature with a director who had never turned over a foot of film but I
had absolute confidence in Andi’s abilities for I knew how long and hard he had
though about film – the greatest passion of his life. I was however worried
about alchohol and I made Andi promise that he would be teetotal during pre-
production and shoot. All went well until half way through the shoot, the very
experienced lead actor Jeroen Krabbe asked if he could see a collection of the
rushes. Andi said yes but the thought of this experienced film-maker looking at
his work must have terrified him. He disappeared early from the set and I
couldn’t find him until I looked into the projection booth at Mr Young’s to
find Mr Young himself and Andi both with bottles of Scotch in their hands and both bottles all but empty. Andi appeared in the projection room with a huge glass into which the last of his bottle had been poured and on each occasion when Jeroen would appear on the screen, ( and Jeroen was in every scene) he would shout out Schiess and turn and bawl at the editor cowering at the back of the theatre – ‘ We’ll cut out all this rubbish in the editing room’ After about ten minutes of this – perhaps the most embarrassing moments of my life – Andi rose hurled his glass of scotch at the screen and disappeared into the night.
The next morning I cycled through the London dawn from Islington to
Kensington reflecting on how interesting was a life of film production compared
to,say, banking and banged on Andi’s door to inform him – dressed in his
underpants – that if he didn’t apologise then we would have no film. He
apologised. From that story I remember drink, rage, a happy ending and a
vulnerability that he sought to hide from the world.
When I lunched with him last summer as he prepared to pack his bags and
leave the city to which he had come 40 years earlier he was in a reflective
mood. His proudest boast was that Artificial Eye had run for 30 years and every
Friday all its employees had been paid. Anybody who has run a small business
particularly a small business in independent cinema knows what an achievement
that was. But great businessman that he was Andi’s drive was never for money.
It is almost impossible to believe in this money-grubbing age but Andi was
little interested in riches, He travelled on buses rather than taxis, he knew the best restuarants and hotels but he despised wasteful and excessive expenditure. If he had a hit then the money was ploughed into another great film which was guaranteed to lose money,
But for thirty years he brought the best of European and world cinema to
London and he ran some of the greatest screens, the greatest of all being the
much missed Lumiere, Terence Davies, one of the supreme English directors
is going to read a poem for Andi and I know that one reason Terence held Andi
in such affection was that for more than a decade when it was every director’s dream to premiere their film at the Lumiere, Andi had made clear that the great screen would always be at Terence’s disposal.
It is also fitting that we have that doyen of film critics, Derek Malcolm,
to speak about Andi’s achievements as a distributor and exhibitor. I know at
first hand that Derek was always the one critic that Andi and Pam wished to
privilege with a new movie or director because while he never surrendered his own independent judgment he was the mainstream critic who most appreciated what they were striving to achieve.
Ben Gibson Head of the London Film School and veteran of the Other Cinema) will speak as a pupil of Andi’s. I can’t resist in this context repeating Godard’s comment to me about the other cinema. No royalties had arrived and the lugubrious Swiss director sighed “ I wouldn’t mind if they called themselves The Same Cinema but why do they have to call themselves The Other Cinema”. Ben will speak as someone who learned in the eighties in that brief moment when British film and television danced to the same tune, what it was to be an independent from one of the most independent of men. That independence was partly a matter of character but it was also a product of ideology and history – of Berlin in the sixties when cinema and politics were conjugated together and it is extremely fortunate that we have one of Andi’s friends from that period Georg Alexander to talk to us today,
Andi was of the generation of 68 and he never for one moment wished to deny
that affiliation but he realised sooner than most that the legacy of 68 was
failure – In Cannes in 1989 he had to write a short statement about his film –
it ended with these words “ So in my film I am not talking about how to win the
battle. The battle has been lost. What I am talking about is whether to have an
orderly or disorderly retreat. I advocate an orderly retreat.” When last summer
I saw him leave his own farewell party, I thought to run after him and call him
back to a party he had enjoyed and which was full of people who loved him. I am
glad that I did not for I saw that he had made his orderly retreat.
In another of the many letters to Pam Mike Leigh recalled his fond
memories of Andi’s “impish behaviour and his unbending commitments” It is well
today that we recall not only the unbending commitments but also the impish
behaviour. In his files on Melancholia he had preserved in pride of place the
transcript of a comment recorded in a video comment box at Channel 4 after a
screening of Melancholia which coincided with Thatcher’s fall from power. A Mr
Jack Reynolds gave this opinion “ I have had just about enough of Thatcher.
Now, I have tried to watch this film, and after 30 minutes I cannot continue.
It is so boring. My god, after all we’ve had today and under the circumstances
you could have at least had a good film on”.
So much for the imp but there was also the impulsive romantic who 40 years
ago followed Pam Belfry to London and who could , as his fictional self does in
Melancholia, fall in love in the course of a thirty second conversation.
Another letter came from Andi’s great friend in Portugal Maria Seixas who wrote
“ I miss Andi every day and it is very rewarding to have so many beautiful
memories of his wild and tender companionship.” Difficult to do better than
that: he was a wild and tender companion.
But perhaps above all he was a man of the cinema, it had provided him with
his education and it continued to provide him with a passionate belief right to
the end of his life. Pam and Robert who have picked the long clips for this occasion with great care decided to end with a clip of Tarkowsky’s The Sacrifice which had a real claim to be Andi’s favourite film and it will be introduced by Layla Alexander who worked as Tarkowsky’s interpreter on that film. But to start they decided on the opening scene from Bela Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies. Bela Tarr because he had been Andi’s last great enthusiasm in the company, the opening scene of Werkmeister Harmonies because in its slow movement through a drunken bar full of hopeless and melancholic men and then in its evocation of imagination and intelligence, hope and grace it evokes all that Andi loved in the cinema.