Film world mourns Karel Reisz, child refugee who became screen genius

By Terri Judd
Thursday 28 November 2002 01:00

Karel Reisz, the critically acclaimed director of some of Britain's best-loved post-war films, including The French Lieutenant's Woman and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, has died at 76.

Reisz arrived in Britain as refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia when he was 12. His mother and father, a free-thinking Jewish solicitor later died in Auschwitz. The boy who arrived in the UK without a word of English, went on to be hailed among the leaders of the New Wave in British film making, with epics which boosted the careers of such luminaries as Albert Finney, Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange.

Reisz's wife, the actress Betsy Blair, said he had been suffering from a blood disorder. "He died in London on Monday," she said. "He had been very ill for six months but had been fighting the good fight. I keep thinking of the 12-year-old boy who arrived here as a refugee and made a life for himself. He was a wonderful man."

Born in Ostrava, Reisz arrived in England in 1938 on board a Red Cross children's transport to follow his brother to a Quaker boarding school in Reading, spending his holidays with a Czech guardian in East Grinstead. His introduction to film making began at school, where he made 16mm movies.

At 18, Reisz took a short science course at Cambridge then became a pilot in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War Two. After the war, he discovered only one cousin had survived. In Britain he worked as a teacher and then took a job writing for the influential film magazines Sequence and Sight and Sound, producing a seminal book on film editing.

After meeting the late Lindsay Anderson on a bus bound for the British Film Institute archive in Buckinghamshire, they joined forces to work on "free cinema" documentaries, a loose affiliation of directors committed to social realism.

A modest man, who shunned publicity, Reisz was renowned and respected in the movie industry as a masterly director. He catapulted Albert Finney to stardom in the gritty Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. His 1960 feature film debut was a classic, hailed by critics as among the best "angry young man" dramas. In 1963, he produced This Sporting Life, another tough tale of working-class angst, with Richard Harris

Another great success was Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, a quirky look at mental illness, with David Warner. After his last British movie, Isadora, starring Vanessa Redgrave, he moved to Hollywood in the Seventies to mixed success.

His greatest triumph was The French Lieutenant's Woman, an adaptation of the John Fowles novel that won an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. His Patsy Cline biopic, Sweet Dreams, also earned a nomination for Jessica Lange. In the last decade of his life, he concentrated on theatre direction in London, Dublin and Paris.

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