Serge Silberman

Independent film producer of the old school
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The Independent Online

Serge Silberman, film producer: born Lódz, Poland 1 May 1917; died Paris 22 July 2003.

In a career stretching over 35 years, the film producer Serge Silberman worked with such maverick directors as Jean-Pierre Melville, Luis Buñuel, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Akira Kurosawa.

Operating both at the art-house and commercial ends of the French film industry throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Silberman achieved international success in 1980 with Diva, the début thriller directed by Beineix, the pioneer of "Cinéma du Look". Silberman subsequently put some of the profits from Diva towards the financing of Ran, the epic version of Shakespeare's King Lear by the Japanese veteran Akira Kurosawa in 1985. He also invested in the British director David Lean's projected adaptation of Nostromo, the Joseph Conrad novel, but Lean died in 1991 while the film was in pre-production.

Born in Lódz in Poland in 1917, Serge Silberman grew up in Poland, in Belgium and in Italy, completing his studies in Milan. His Jewish parents perished in Hitler's death camps and, when asked how he welcomed the Liberation, Silberman famously remarked: "I didn't weigh very much at the time."

Moving to Paris, he had a succession of odd jobs and eventually emerged as an independent producer with Bob le Flambeur, the casino-heist film noir directed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1955. Four years later, Silberman helped finance Jacques Becker's last film, Le Trou, about an attempted prison escape. Released one month after the director's sudden death, in March 1960, the film marked a move away from Becker's more commercial work of the Fifties but was not well received, even after Silberman had cut 20 minutes from the running time.

In late 1960, Gene Moskowitz, the Paris-based correspondent of Variety, and the Spanish actor Fernando Rey engineered a meeting in a Madrid hotel between Silberman and Luis Buñuel. The two got on famously and Silberman told Buñuel he had carte blanche to "make whatever film takes your fancy". Adapted from an Octave Mirbeau novel and first screened in 1964, Le Journal d'une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid) starred Jeanne Moreau in the title role of Célestine, attempting to solve the rape and murder of a young girl. Buñuel had intended to use a Mexican leading lady, but Silberman's suggestion of Moreau prevailed and proved a masterstroke, further establishing the actress as one of the sex symbols of the Sixties.

Silberman also recommended Jean-Claude Carrière as scriptwriter and this three-way partnership helped Buñuel to a successful run of films with the heretical La Voie lactée (1969), the surreal Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974) and the absurd comedy Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972), for which Silberman won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1973. Once again, for Cet obscur objet du désir (1977), producer and director didn't agree about the lead role and Buñuel came up with the Solomon-like decision to use both Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet to portray the main character in what was to be his last film.

By then, Silberman's production company, Greenwich Films, was well established in France, with quirky thrillers such as Adieu l'ami (Farewell, Friend, 1968, featuring Alain Delon and Charles Bronson), a début for the director Jean Herman and the crime novelist-turned-scriptwriter Sébastien Japrisot. Silberman had the vision to team Japrisot with the film-maker René Clément for the Le Passager de la pluie (Rider on the Rain, 1970), set in the South of France and starring Charles Bronson and Marlène Jobert and the film noir La Course du lièvre à travers les champs (And Hope to Die, 1972) with Jean-Louis Trintignant and the American actor Robert Ryan. In fact, Silberman nurtured Japrisot's talent and also produced his directorial and autobiographical début, Les Mal partis, in 1975.

An archetypal independent producer of the old school, Serge Silberman could certainly spot potential. In 1980, he convinced Beineix to make the transition from directing commercials to Diva, the cult film which defined Cinéma du Look. Well into his sixties, Silberman had no thought of retiring and came to the rescue of Akira Kurosawa when financing on Ran seemed about to collapse in 1985: the resulting epic wowed critics and audiences and earned the Japanese director his only Academy Award nomination. The following year, Silberman produced Max, mon amour, an unusual comedy directed by Nagisha Oshima and starring Charlotte Rampling as a woman obsessed with a gorilla. In 1988, he was awarded an honorary César award for his career and in 1997 he produced Les Paradoxes de Buñuel, a documentary tribute to the celebrated director.

An elegant and flamboyant man, Serge Silberman took great pride in his work. "You shouldn't rush things and produce too many movies," he told interviewers:

Otherwise, you become a slave to commercial projects in order to cover your overheads. Most of my work was through friendships. A film is not made in an office but in a meeting of the minds, an understanding with the director that goes on at all times, day and night, with real passion and that streak of craziness without which the cinema would never be able to exist.

Pierre Perrone