Wolf Suschitzky: A Craftsman Celebrates His Centennial

Austrian-born documentary film pioneer Wolf Suschitzky as special guest at the Viennale

Top Stories | Matthias Wurz | December 2012 / January 2013

Wolf Suschitzky, aged 100 (Photo: Matthias Wurz)

"When my mother returned home with me after giving birth, my four-year-old sister’s only comment was: ‘What did we need him for?’" the gentle smile of Austrian-born photographer and filmmaker Wolf Suschitzky was captivating. "Of course, I couldn’t respond to that right away."

Born in Vienna in August 1912, Wolf Suschitzky has been living in London for the past 77 years, where he built a successful career as a renowned photographer and documentary cinematographer.

It was 30 Oct., and we were sitting in the upper level of the Vienna Hilton Hotel’s busy lobby. The occasion was Suschitzky’s 100th birthday and the tribute of the Viennale film festival of his life’s work. The rattling coffee cups of the nearby Café distracted him for a moment before he added:

"And I still have no answer, even today."


The Suschitzky Gala

In 1934, with anti-Semitism looming following the Dollfuß regime’s assumption of dictatorial power in Austria, the aspiring photographer of Jewish decent left his native city to seek fortune elsewhere. He headed to London, where his sister Edith Tudor Hart had already settled following her marriage. The city would also become Suschitzky’s home for the rest of his life.

Wolf Suschitzky was in Vienna to attend the Viennale events in his honour, in particular the Gala on 3 Nov. co-organised by Synema. The highlight would be a screening of Get Carter (1971) directed by Michael Hodges, possibly Suschitzky’s best-known film starring Michael Caine as the villain Jack Carter, who avenges the mysterious death of his brother in the Northern industrial city of Newcastle upon Tyne.

By 21:00, the magnificent 1949 Künstlerhauskino in Vienna’s city centre was packed, the 285-seat cinema hall dwarfed under the faded grandeur of Rudolf Eisenmenger’s huge allegorical murals. It had been a statement, in its time, that added to the traditional arts of Painting, Music, Poetry and Theatre, this newer art of Film had been given its rightful place.

Viennale Director Hans Hurch came forward to welcome the 100-year old filmmaker, "who in his modesty would not recognise [his 100th birthday] as a great achievement – while we all certainly do." Then, for the next two hours, the curtain would rise on the art of Wolf Suschitzky.

It is especially his unobtrusive camera work that made the gruesome thriller Get Carter, based on Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home, so vivid on screen. All filmed on location in Newcastle upon Tyne, where the story is set, the lighting is particularly noteworthy – or rather the lack thereof.

"I had the reputation that I was able to light St. Paul’s Cathedral with just two bulbs," Suschitzky joked to Falter film critic Michael Omasta after the screening. Working with available light was a challenge for any cameraman when filming on location, and something Suschitzky prides himself on.


Photography and filmmaking

"I always saw myself as an observer, I never arranged anything," the frail but remarkably robust filmmaker told me in the interview a few days earlier. Even to the untrained eye one recognises the desire to document in Suschitzky’s work, with its reluctance of intervening.

"There were filmmakers in England that wanted to have that kind of documentary style on cinema screens." Among them the pioneering documentary filmmaker Paul Rotha who would eventually hire the young Austrian as his cinematographer. One of the first projects Suschitzky had worked on was a series of zoo films in London, where he assisted cameraman director Paul Burnford.

"Already at school, I was interested in zoology," Suschitzky explained his fascination for animals. "The director of London Zoo was Julian Huxley, the brother of the legendary writer Aldous Huxley. When filming, we were allowed to get close to the cages." The films are not known today, but Suschitzky’s own photographs are: "I think, I was one of the first ones who did animal portraits," he added with pride, "not the traditional illustrations of four legs and tails."

But what he enjoyed perhaps most was the teamwork: "What I liked was that it was a cooperative effort, working with other people," he said, with the social aspect as important to Suschitzky as the work itself – very different from still photography.

"As a photographer I was always on my own – I never had an assistant," he continued. But even then, making friends came naturally to Suschitzky. Portraits are among his favourite subjects, like the one of Michael Caine, taken during the shooting of Get Carter in 1970.

Portraits are largely self-explanatory, and Suschitzky seemed surprised that their importance would be called into question. For him, the relationship between subject and photographer was intimate, and could become the basis for a lasting bond. "It entirely depends on the person," he agreed. "For example, I was filming an interview with the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey in 1958, and I also took many pictures. We became life-long friends thereafter."

Towards the end of an extensive conversation, we returned to the question of the nature of art, and the artist.

"Photography can be art. In the hands of an artist, any instrument becomes art," he said, adding thoughtfully: "I never felt that I am an artist. I am happy, if I am considered a craftsman."

See also:

Wolf Suschitzky: Films

German / English

Synema Publications, 2010

pp. 224

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