Erwin Hillier

Photographer of 'The Dam Busters'

The German-born cinematographer Erwin Hillier became one of Britain's finest cameramen, described by the film-maker Michael Powell as "almost insanely enthusiastic". Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger founded Archer Films, and Hillier is considered second only to Jack Cardiff as their most important cameraman. His films included two notable Archers productions,
A Canterbury Tale and
I Know Where I'm Going, as well as the celebrated war film
The Dam Busters and such atmospheric
films noirs as
The October Man and
Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Erwin Hillier, cinematographer: born Berlin 2 September 1911; married Helen Yates-Southgate (one daughter); died London 10 January 2005.

The German-born cinematographer Erwin Hillier became one of Britain's finest cameramen, described by the film-maker Michael Powell as "almost insanely enthusiastic". Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger founded Archer Films, and Hillier is considered second only to Jack Cardiff as their most important cameraman. His films included two notable Archers productions, A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I'm Going, as well as the celebrated war film The Dam Busters and such atmospheric films noirs as The October Man and Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Born in Berlin in 1911, to English and German parents, he studied briefly at art school in the city before joining the famed Ufa studios, where the director F.W. Murnau, who had been impressed by his paintings, asked him to be an assistant on Tabu (1931).

When Hillier's father forbade his working with Murnau after discovering that the director was a promiscuous homosexual, Murnau introduced Hillier to Fritz Lang, who used him as an assistant cameraman on the classic tale of a child murderer, M (1931). At Ufa, he developed an affinity for stark contrast and highly angled compositions, and, after moving to the UK, he quickly found work as a camera assistant at Gaumont, where he contributed to films by Alfred Hitchcock and Victor Saville.

He was camera operator on Walter Forde's Jack Ahoy! (1934), a musical-comedy vehicle for Jack Hulbert, and he worked in a similar capacity on Forde's Brown on Resolution (1935), starring John Mills, and the "quota quickie" The Girl in the Crowd (1935), which first brought him to the attention of the film's director, Michael Powell. "Ernest Palmer photographed the film," recalled Powell,

but operating the camera and influencing every angle and every lighting effect was an almost insanely enthusiastic young man called Erwin Hillier. He was always dreaming up new angles, new points of view for the camera to explore, new movements for the camera to make, which would intensify the atmosphere and the action. He approved of me, because I had seen all the continental films that he had grown up with.

Hillier was camera operator on Powell's popular and enjoyable espionage tale The Spy in Black (1939), then, with the outbreak of war, he was given the opportunity to be cinematographer on several documentaries for the Ministry of Information, which led to his first feature film as cinematographer, Leslie Hiscott's comedy thriller The Lady from Lisbon (1942).

He then photographed The Silver Fleet (1943), starring Ralph Richardson as a Dutch shipping engineer who feigns collaboration with the Nazis as a cover for his guerrilla activities. The film was produced by Richardson, with Powell and Pressburger, who produced Hillier's next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944) - an offbeat drama in which Eric Portman starred as a JP who at nightfall pours glue on to local girls' hair to stop them fraternising with soldiers.

"With this film," wrote Powell in his memoirs,

Hillier sprang to the front rank. He had a keen eye for effect and texture . . . Whether in the studio or on location, we decided to go for complete realism, and he never let me down. The only thing he was a bit loony about was clouds in the sky. He detested a clear sky, and it sometimes seemed to me that he forgot about the story and the actors in order to gratify his passion. "Meekee, Meekee, please wait another few minutes," he would plead. There is a little cloud over there and it is coming our way, I'm sure it is." This would go on all day. I admired his dedication.

The critic Richard Winnington, praising the film's "pastoral progression", wrote of "the first-rate and refreshing photographic compositions of the Kentish landscape". Pressburger's nephew Kevin Macdonald cites echoes of M in A Canterbury Tale, "in particular the willingness to use almost total darkness throughout the first five minutes of the film".

Hillier then photographed one of the most exquisite of Powell-Pressburger movies, I Know Where I'm Going (1945), starring Wendy Hiller as the imperious young woman en route to marry an elderly millionaire in the Hebrides when she meets a darkly romantic naval officer (Roger Livesey). Powell described the photography, which included close-up shots of a whirlpool taken at some risk to Hillier, as, "inventive, poetic and mysterious", but the association between Powell and Hillier ended when Powell decided to use Jack Cardiff on A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

According to Powell, Hillier refused the offer to work with Cardiff and share the credit, with Hillier's name coming first:

He was a proud man and had struggled a long time to reach the top. He couldn't see this suggestion in any other way but a put-down.

Instead, Hillier worked on another Technicolor project, London Town (1946), a notoriously unsuccessful attempt to rival Hollywood's lavish musicals, its pastel photography one of the few elements to win praise.

Hillier's most distinguished work, though, was in black and white. Roy Baker's The October Man (1946), a moody, psychological thriller starring John Mills, benefited greatly from Hillier's superlative use of light and shade, and a similar mastery of chiaroscuro was apparent in such noirish movies as The Mark of Cain (1947) and Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1948). In contrast, his colour photography for the musical Where's Charley? (1952) was appropriately bright and sunny for this light- hearted Oxford-set romp. (Alas, the film is little known today because of copyright restrictions.)

The lively farce Will Any Gentleman . . . ? (1953) began a long association between Hillier and the director Michael Anderson. Their films together included an excellent mystery with a neat twist ending, Chase a Crooked Shadow (1957), with Anne Baxter as the persecuted heroine, Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), a grim IRA thriller starring James Cagney, and The Naked Edge (1961), Gary Cooper's last film. The Quiller Memorandum (1966), with a script by Harold Pinter, starred George Segal as an agent tracking down a group of murderous neo-Nazis, and Operation Crossbow (1965) dealt with British efforts to find and destroy the Nazi bases for V-1 rockets during the Second World War.

The team's biggest success, though, was another war film, The Dam Busters (1954), an enormous hit starring Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis, who invented bouncing mines to destroy enemy dams, and Richard Todd as leader of the squadron that undertakes the ground-breaking mission that necessitates flying suicidally low. Todd said,

I think The Dam Busters is the best military war picture ever made. Mickey Anderson deliberately made it in black-and-white for two reasons: one was that we could use a lot of stock shots in black-and-white of the original bombs being tested. Also, he thought that colour would prettify it too much, and I think he was right. Erwin Hillier was the cameraman on it and it was very well photographed.

Hillier's last two films were made in the United States, Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

Tom Vallance

Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Sport
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull
football
Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
film
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
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?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
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