Meeting with the Mogul

With Eric Pleskow, over coffee (but no cigarettes)

TVR Books | Guy Kiddey | December 2008 / January 2009

Eric Pleskow in the middle of a discussion about his new novel (Photo: Robert Newald)

He had been described to me as an old man – you know, someone weak of voice, hard of hearing, perhaps with a glimmer of youth still in his eye.

Then I met Eric Pleskow, whose walking stick is merely an accessory as he marches forth into the next encounter. His pace cannot have lost much energy since his heyday as one of the world’s most prominent and successful film-industry figures.

...but never mind that; that’s all old news. Any achievement excites him for about thirty seconds, and then it’s tedious. It’s all about what’s next.

We sat together in the lounge at a hotel which knows him so well, that the lounge might as well be his, in the city which finally, after years of dismissal, has won his partial approval once again.

"I don’t want any dealings with people my own age, though," he maintains. Although he has many qualms, he likes Vienna as a unique engine of culture, exploding with activity.  Explosions of a very different sort were imminent when he was forced to leave at the outbreak of the Second World War. As a Jew, the bombs were the least of it. With Nazis snapping at their heels, his family had fled West, ultimately settling in the United States, where he has been based ever since.

On the tenth anniversary of his appointment as President of the Viennale, Vienna’s renowned film festival, a professional biography Eric Pleskow, Ein Leben für den Film by Andrea Ernsts has been published in German by Picus; a compact reprise of Pleskow’s dealings to date. There is a notable demarcation line in the story, the landscape of a biography on one side, a resume on the other.

The intensity of anti-Semitism in Vienna, which gathered ferocity throughout the ‘30s, pours out in Pleskow’s own words. Here, an oral history of oppression exerts its full and horrific power, before his arrival in New York and immediate involvement in the industry that would bring him fame. Some of the most formative events in his earlier life are mentioned, but once can’t help wishing more had been made of them.

He spent time in South Africa in the ‘50s, where he met his wife. Apartheid was then rife, but no space is devoted to the impact that this must have had on a man who had already survived outright discriminatory violence. What was it like to experience it again?  He talked to me about affluence, the privileges of the whites, but nothing of the underlying terror.

And then the border is crossed, and the tale goes flat. The most important films that Eric presided over are cataloged in succession here, with a run-down of any hiccups on the way, and a few quotable anecdotes to bolster the narrative. This reversion to documentary was disappointing; Pleskow himself is pushed to the background, as the films take over. It’s an oddly skewed ‘passive’ approach; although probably unintentional, the strategy seems metaphorical: "Pleskow as done by these films," perhaps suggesting a distancing from his family in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when some of his most seminal productions were completed. It really was a life in film.

So I thought I would meet the man, to see what he wanted to explain and observe about his life. The sparseness of the biography would leave a lot of room for expansion. It was a meeting without a remit; I wanted a conversation with the man. As the late, great Studs Terkel said, "you got to let the man speak." As we spoke, I thought of Terkel, who died just days ago, and wondered if they had ever met...

Pleskow seemed pleased about the chance for a no-frills chat; he lounged back in his armchair and pondered. His self-effacement was conscious. Behind the eager veneer, he is an intrinsically humble, gentle man – a man who knows what he is, how he works and what he likes, and feels no apology.

That day, Eric Pleskow seemed despondent.

"I’m not interested in film now," he admitted. "It bores me. Sequels bore me.  The world has become sequel-oriented. It’s all familiar ground." He has the air of a grumpy old man, but, as he chuckles to himself, his outlook is far from old-hat. He is always up to speed, especially in the realm of politics and current affairs. He congratulated me, on behalf of Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of the UK, on winning the latest Scottish by-election in Glenrothers. I was very impressed.

He is also disgusted by the amount of money that is ploughed into mediocre contemporary film projects, and is frustrated with the poor quality of writing.  For him, the script is the most important part, but I was sure that there was more to it than this. Some of the material was especially timely – the Vietnam films Apocalypse Now and Platoon – his resume a selection of the most hard-hitting and revelatory works of the twentieth century.

He insisted that there was never a purpose, never a message, but it was hard to credit. Some of the rationale for project selection – purely from a business standpoint – must have been timeliness and worthiness. So I suppose it was disappointing to hear he had no great desire to use the cinematic medium for its potential to do good, for the power of art not only to mirror, but also inspire a deepening of social consciousness and propensity to reflect. But he completely dismissed this, with a wave of the hand and a grumble.

"There’s too much going on in the world to think about culture," he said.

But perhaps with Pleskow, you have to put on your Pinter-peaked cap, and hear ‘between the words’. Hear what is not said, but is implied.

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