Curated by Ehsan Khoshbakht

Litvak’s production base changed, along with the spelling of his name, as he moved from Moscow to Berlin, Paris, London, and Hollywood but the quintessence of his cinema remained intact: life as a metaphor for passing through night, looking for daylight. A reserved and unsentimental filmmaker, his films exuded a nocturnal air as reflected in some of their titles – Blues in the Night, The Long Night, Decision Before Dawn.
Anatole Litvak, born 1902 in Kyiv to a Russian Jewish family, witnessed revolution and war, glamour and rag. Across six decades of work, his films dealt with flawed, unstable men and women whose identity crises reflected the upheaval of the world between the Russian Revolution and the aftermath of the Second World War.
Known to his friends as Tola, he co-wrote and produced most of his work. Given his background in silent cinema as assistant director and editor to figures like Abel Gance and G.W. Pabst, it’s possible to claim he had tried every component of making a film other than shooting it. He also carried out pioneering work in films that are not included in this programme due to shortage of space: the first openly anti-Nazi Hollywood film, The Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the compilation ‘essay film’, The Battle of Russia, and the live television American remake of his most famous European film, Mayerling.
Despite a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Leningrad, as a filmmaker he was more instinctive than judicious. For him, space was more important than the story, and, to the frustration of some of his actors, he used to start the day by sitting on the dolly and working out the scene in camera movements. “Camera was his god,” one Bette Davis bemoaned. But his sweeping long takes were there to create harmony but also to seek out contradiction. The camera was both a musical instrument and a microscope.
After the war, his camera settled down and the films reflect a sombre and pensive man dealing with readjustment and the psychological debris of war, even if their stories were set in the distant past. Eight films in this programme are about a woman establishing her identity, mostly from a male point of view. While women reclaim their lost identity, men have difficulty holding onto theirs. Five more films deal with the shifting values of the masculine world in which the line between heroism and betrayal, artistic integrity and selling out, or even good and bad, is blurred. Litvak was also the master of endings – surprising, subtle, modern. Even in his more average films, an outstanding final act shakes the film up and redefines it. If “all’s well that ends well,” Litvak’s cinema always delivers that ending.

Ehsan Khoshbakht