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ERIC PLESKOW – A LIFE FOR CINEMA

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On April 24, 2024, at the Metro Kinokulturhaus and in cooperation with the Filmarchiv Austria and the Viennale, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eric Pleskow, the legendary Austrian producer naturalised in the USA and winner (also) of numerous Academy Awards, was celebrated.

From Austria to USA

On the evening of April 24, 2024, in the beautiful setting of the Metro Kinokulturhaus, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eric Pleskow, born in Vienna exactly a century ago, was celebrated. Legendary president of United Artists – and the second European after Charlie Chaplin – he contributed to the greatness of Hollywood productions in the 1970s, not only leading the American company, founded by Chaplin himself together with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, but even founding his own, Orion Pictures, with colleagues Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin. And indeed, as the curtain opened, there followed a series of short interviews in which Kevin Costner, Woody Allen, Miloš Forman and Anthony Hopkins spoke about their connection with Pleskow and the producer’s fundamental contribution, without which some of the finest films of the ‘New Hollywood’ would never have been released.

Amadeus, Dances with Wolves, Platoon, The Silence of the Lambs, Last Tango in Paris. These masterpieces are only a few of the long list of successes produced by Eric Pleskow: let us say that this article would not be enough to celebrate the career of the man who was forced to leave his hometown, as a Jew, in the 1930s. Young Eric, then 14 years old, was forced to leave his Viennese home in Porzellangasse (in the ninth district) and reach the United States, via France. Here, in sparkling New York, he found work as an assistant to a director who taught him film editing, in a workshop as true craftsmen have always done.

At the same time, Pleskow started attending university in the evenings. And as if his own life was the result of a Hollywood screenplay, enlistment in the US Army led him to be stationed in Europe and, in 1948, to see his hometown again, which he had left in a hurry due to the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws. But that’s not all. Given his familiarity with the camera, he was asked to film an execution in the prison of Landsberg am Lech – in Bavaria – famous for being the place where Adolf Hitler had written the controversial Mein Kampf a few years earlier. I hope that Pleskow’s sharp and somewhat cynical humour, evident in some of his interviews, also served him well in surviving this situation.

Cinema omnia vincit we might say, quoting a famous Latin saying. Eric Pleskow’s loyalty to cinema is admirable, as are the skills and knowledge he has acquired over the years. Just as the world of that time, engaged in the rapid post-war reconstruction that would favour the economic boom of the 1960s, Eric Pleskow’s career also proceeded quickly. After moving to the Bavaria Film Studios, in 1951 he became responsible for the distribution of American films in Europe and South Africa at United Artists: he thus began to produce his first films. Not even twenty years later, in 1973, he became president of the same company and his debut as boss was one of the most dazzling, with three consecutive Best Picture Oscars, won in ’75 with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in ’76 with Rocky and in ’77 with Annie Hall.

But that’s not all. Having left the UA for some internal disagreements and founded the aforementioned Orion, Eric Pleskow will continue to collect statuettes. One of these, that for Best Film for Amadeus, Miloš Forman’s brilliant portrait of the great Mozart, was with us at the Metro Kinokulturhaus. From the hands of Viennale director Eva Sangiorgi, the Oscar passed into those of Ernst Kieninger, CEO of Metro Kinokulturhaus, ready for its new and final placement in front of the hall on the second floor, the Eric-Pleskow-Saal.

The evening went by like this, with memories, amusing anecdotes recounted by Gabriele Flossmann and Veronica Kaup-Hasler, and the resulting enthusiastic reactions of the audience in the auditorium, for a fellow citizen who was only able to receive honorary citizenship and an Austrian passport, long unwanted, at a late age. This anecdote was told to journalist Ari Rath in the documentary Die Porzellangassen-Buben (2012). We will talk about it soon, in a dedicated article.

Eric Pleskow died in 2019 in Westport, Connecticut, having become president of the Viennale in 1998 (a position he held until the end) and having only rarely returned to Vienna, considering the relationship with his homeland closed in 1948. A separation, if one can call it that, which was partially made up in 2007 with honorary citizenship and the great decoration of honour in 2009.

‘Cinema was my life’. Nothing could be truer. Happy birthday Eric.

Info: the page of Eric Pleskow on iMDb; the event for Eric Pleskow on the website of the Filmarchiv Austria