Obituary: Marc Karlin

MARC KARLIN was the most significant unknown film-maker working in Britain during the past three decades. He was a central figure in the radical avant-garde of the 1970s and made a major contribution to the shaping of Channel 4.

As a director he crafted innovative and passionate films for both Channel 4 and BBC2. He was tireless in the thankless tasks of funding, producing and distributing Vertigo, an influential magazine for film and television criticism, and always generous towards other film-makers - with ideas, support and access to equipment. Yet his modesty and rigour, his intellectualism and intolerance of anything he considered lazy or in bad faith, conspired with the trends towards corporatism in television to render him and his work all but invisible.

Among his many passions, in addition to Arsenal, were English churches and that great radical English poet, John Milton. Yet Karlin, who read Liberation and loved the songs of Jacques Brel, always seemed truly European. As a child, just after the Second World War, he lived in Paris, and it was that city and its culture of cinema which formed his understanding of film.

In the mid-1960s he studied theatre direction in London but he was soon caught up in film-making and in the Paris events of May 1968. Dispatched to a railway depot, he was expected to produce what, with a wry smile, he recalled as "newsreels for the revolution". Instead, and in part under the influence of the great film essayist Chris Marker, he made Dead Man's Wheel, a film about a train driver which combines a deep respect for one human being with an analysis of one political, social and cultural moment.

Karlin was a political film-maker: his socialist and libertarian beliefs frame every sequence he constructed. Yet his concern with the truths that an image can reveal ensured that his films avoid agit-prop and instead celebrate complexity, ambiguity and understanding. In the 1970s in London he was a member of two important film-making collectives, first Cinema Action and then the Berwick Street Collective. Night Cleaners, made by the Berwick Street Collective about the work and activism of the women who clean London's offices, is a defining film of this time, combining formalist experiment and political will with an unsentimental humanity.

As a fourth television channel took shape, Karlin lobbied with conviction for diversity to be at the heart of its operations; independent production, he argued, should not be just an economic idea but a cultural one too. He sought to support the different, the innovative, and he understood much about the imperatives of finding new forms to express new ideas, and about why the old ways - of speaking, of thinking, of using images - are frequently inadequate.

My own first memory of Marc Karlin is from this time. I encountered him peering intently at a sequence of frame grabs from the American drama Holocaust pinned to a cork board in his chaotic office. Preparing his two-hour documentary For Memory for the BBC and the British Film Institute, he was seeking to get the frames to reveal their betrayal of barbaric acts. The film, which took more than three years to complete, was a challenging, rich, slow-paced and uncompromising engagement with history and the fragility of memory. Puzzled by a project which refused to conform to the expected etiquette of programmes, the BBC consigned its screening to an anonymous afternoon slot.

Two series for Channel 4, one on the aftermath of the revolution in Nicaragua and one on Utopias and the dreams of different socialisms, occupied much of the 1980s for Karlin. Both were made with extraordinary love and commitment, and he stretched the budgets to give himself the time he required for the process. He took little reward, however, and by working too hard and too long he exploited himself but, as is rare in television, never others.

After Between Times in 1993, which explored the internal uncertainties of the British Left, Karlin made two delightful and often funny documentaries, one on the paintings of Cy Twombly and one, The Serpent, about a man who meets in a dream the Satan of Paradise Lost, personified as Rupert Murdoch. Both films, like all his work, were only lightly disguised autobiography and both reflected an optimistic and unswerving belief in people's individual ability to resist the brutalising forces of contemporary society.

Much of the last year, in addition to bringing out Vertigo and organising a conference about the future of independent film, was spent on a script about Milton and on The Haircut, a 10-minute film with Heathcote Williams. It was entirely typical of Karlin that I was summoned, as its commissioner, more than a dozen times to review small but, for him, fundamental changes.

Around the viewings, there were always long, searching and supportive conversations: about football, about Channel 4, about the hypocrisy of New Labour, about his anger at the constraints which prevented people from living full and free lives, and about his precious family. He would also read aloud passages of Paradise Lost, and there seemed nothing incongruous about this radical, committed, modern man speaking the words of a 17th- century poet.

The Milton script locates Paradise Lost amongst a group of eccentric intellectuals in a London of the near future. Karlin made a film test in which, because he could not afford an actor, he played the character of "The Master". He claimed to be uneasy with the role, a dominant recluse-like figure concerned above all to pass on the lessons of history and the revolutionary strengths of Milton's verse to later generations. But he had, of course, written it in his own image.

John Wyver

Marc Irving Karlin, film-maker: born Aarau, Switzerland 7 March 1943; married 1982 Hermione Harris (one son, one daughter); died London 19 January 1999.

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal