Obituary: Julia Wolf

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The Independent Online
Julia Wolf

Devotees of the "art film" in Britain owe a special debt to . For many foreign films would never have been given a release in this country had it not been for her. British distributors regarded French and German films as being too long and too inaccessible for their audiences. had the task of cutting them down and providing the subtitles and her work often made the difference between acceptance and rejection.

The daughter of an Austrian immigrant, she was born in England but she spent her early years in Dresden. She was there when war was declared in 1914:

"I was very anti-German and I was very bitter at being carted over there, but there was no problem about it because the people of Dresden are Saxons and the Saxons are a very lethargic people, Dresden was a very sleepy, old-fashioned town, very beautiful. They weren't interested in the war. I just remember that food was very short."

Her first experience of the film industry came in 1924 when she became assistant and interpreter to the owner of a trade paper called the Daily Film Renter. He decided to investigate conditions in Germany. remembered:

"We were received with great acclaim, and were taken over to the UFA studios where they were making Die Nibelungen and they showed us round. Finally, they took us to the great dragon, of which they were terrifically proud and justifiably so, because nothing had been created like it for films before. It was enormous and it had blinking eyes, and although we didn't have colour in those days it was painted gold and fiery red and it really looked fierce.

"That was a Fritz Lang film, He was a very arrogant man. He was good- looking and he had terrific charm and he wore a black patch over one eye. His wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote all his scripts and they worked most harmoniously. He was very interested in films. He used to entertain a lot and was very hospitable. I used to have big parties at Fritz Lang's lovely flat in the Kurfurstendam."

Lang's film was acquired for Britain and given a gala showing at the Albert Hall. But first, 's boss gave a lunch at a London club to introduce another Lang film, Dr Mabuse, and the papers described it as "a Hun Lunch".

"They were very anti-German, but it was a big success, and it was a very, very good film. And from there we went on bringing in all sorts of German films."

But these films were regarded as too slow.

"German films were much too long, and they were all cut, later on by me mostly. You had to bring them down. They were too ponderous for an English audience. It is a different psychology entirely. Germans are pedantic so their films were pedantic."

When sound came in, had to master the new medium with its terrifying complexity. Important pictures were made in several languages, but cheaper films had to be dubbed. She recalled how hard it was to produce those first dubbed versions - only to discover that some British distributors disliked dubbing and preferred subtitled versions.

She became an expert subtitler. The credit "English adaptation . . . " became familiar to those who went to the Curzon, in Curzon Street, Mayfair, for whom she subtitled every film from its opening attraction, Mayerling, in 1934, through Pep le Moko (1936) and La Kermesse hroique (1935), until the cinema was blitzed. She not only prepared English versions, but travelled to Europe to select them in the first place. She picked the films for Studio One, ran the publicity and played hostess at first nights.

Since foreign films were more sophisticated than their British counterparts, ran into frequent censorship problems. Her favourite example was Paul Czinner's Ariane (1931), with Elisabeth Bergner, about the love of a boy and girl from childhood to maturity. The distributor could not get it past the censor, so offered to do it for them.

"They just laughed at me. But I understood the German and the English mentality and I knew what was wrong. It only took me an hour. I took out just one scene. The girl had this terrific love affair, but the film showed her at the beginning of it as a schoolgirl of 15. I took this scene out and the censor passed it."

On other occasions, had to combat their prejudices by painting out sentences on the track or substituting words the players never said. It was no good protesting that the lines were in French. "Il veut coucher avec moi" ("He wants to sleep with me") was a line crucial to the plot of Boule de Suif (1945). The censor refused to allow it. substituted the word "souper" - so the line became "He wants to dine with me" - and the picture was passed.

She doubled as a film doctor, rescuing films regarded as too inept to be released. Once she was asked if she could take the lisp out of an actress's voice. An expert at reading sound tracks, she could detect the minute ripple, and managed to paint it out with blooping ink. But having proved it could be done, she then had to do it every time the actress spoke - which proved incredibly painstaking and time-consuming. Perhaps her proudest achievement was the editing of the Pavlova memorial film The Immortal Swan, when she worked for weeks to ensure that Pavlova in the silent footage appeared to be dancing to newly recorded music. Her work was described as "a technical triumph".

longed to direct, and achieved her ambition to a modest degree during the Second World War when she worked at the Ministry of Information, directing, editing and writing the commentary for propaganda films. After the war, besides running Rank's Foreign Film Department, she did all she could to popularise continental films. She loved the cinema, and her work, and was still happy to reminisce - despite almost total deafness - at her Chelsea flat, until the end of her life.

She was always informed about new releases one wanted to see, and today's camera work and film stock quality continued to delight her, but with her deafness some cinema audiences would hear her loud comments of "disgusting" on scenes she would have clipped.

Joan Hills

, film editor: born London 3 December 1901; died London 23 March 1995.