Andi Engel

Founder of Artificial Eye whose London empire included the Lumière, Renoir and Chelsea cinemas

Thursday 04 January 2007 01:00

Wolf André Oleg Engel, film distributor, writer and director: born Wolfsburg, Germany 11 November 1942; founder, Artificial Eye 1976; married 1969 Pamela Balfry (marriage dissolved 1999); died Lübeck, Germany 26 December 2006.

Andi Engel devoted his extraordinary energy for over 30 years to bringing the best of European and world cinema to London and thence to the network of art cinemas around the country. Any Londoner who loves film encountered his work whenever they visited the Camden Plaza or the Lumière, both now sadly missed, or when they visit the Renoir and the Chelsea which continue to project images and sounds of the very highest quality both technically and aesthetically.

Engel was born on Armistice Day 1942 in the town of Wolfsburg, famous for its Volkswagen factory, at the very moment of Europe's midnight. Germany and Russia were fighting the bloodiest battle that the world has ever known along that deadly faultline which for centuries has pitted Teuton against Slav in wars of unimaginable atrocity. It was on that faultline, and almost coincidentally with Andi's own birth, that the Germans were to commit the ultimate atrocity when the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka were constructed to exterminate an entire race.

Andi's father, a designer at Volkswagen, must have been a man of considerable courage, for he registered his son's birth not only with the German Wolf but also with the names of Oleg and André. A Russian name to indicate that his mother was the daughter of a Russian émigré, and a French name to show that not all of Germany had succumbed to the nationalist psychosis that gripped his country. To have admitted the Jewish element within the family tree would have meant immediate death.

None of his friends seem to know much of Andi Engel's early years, although he attended the Ratsgymnasium at Wolfsburg and ran a film club there. When he appeared in Berlin in 1963 at the age of 21, like Athena from Zeus's head, he appeared fully formed. He was already enormously fat, a Falstaffian figure of a man radiating appetite and energy. He was already an alcoholic. Friends remember him in the very hot summer of 1963 sitting naked to the waist in his tiny room consuming such quantities of beer that they all warned him that he would die young. From this point of view his survival to the age of 64 constitutes a medical miracle. To describe his consumption of alcohol as gargantuan is to understate.

More important than his size or his alcoholism, he appeared in Berlin as a lover of film. Some say he registered at the Free University of Berlin to study politics, others scoff at the idea. What is certain is that he had written to Ulrich and Erika Gregor from Wolfsburg asking if he could come and help them with their programmes of screenings that would eventually grow into the German cinémathèque.

He spent his time with the Gregors and a group of friends who would all become players in the European film industry. But, in Berlin in the Sixties, it was love not money that animated them, a love of that new democratic art which promised so much that it became across Europe a faith which united the desire for aesthetic perfection and social equality. If audiences could be educated to appreciate the full beauty of cinema, who could tell what might follow?

For this faith, writing criticism was an essential part of cinema, for it was the best criticism that would produce the audiences for the best films. So it is no surprise that Engel started a film magazine, Kino, and it tells much both about the times and the man that, when the first issue had been roneotyped and collated, he decided that one of the articles was not worthy of distribution and he used a pair of scissors to cut the offending piece out of each and every issue of the magazine.

In 1967 Engel attended a film festival at Knokke in Belgium which had been organised by Jacques Ledoux. There he met Pamela Balfry, who was then working for Richard Roud at the London Film Festival. Engel followed her to London in 1968 and married her the following year. Although they were to separate in 1977, Andi always referred to her as his wife and they continued to work together as the closest of collaborators until his retirement a mere six months ago. Pamela was both heartstoppingly beautiful and ferociously efficient and she would have been reason enough for Andi to change countries. But it is not fanciful to think that there was something predetermined about this exile.

Andi Engel continued to work in Germany as a film buyer for television for over a decade, and, after he separated from Pam, he enjoyed a long relationship with the Lübeck-based Gudrun Hartmann. Indeed, at Christmastime he could be seen setting off for the airport festooned with presents for her children, the very image of a German paterfamilias. But to separate himself from his native country was perhaps necessary for him to confront the deep shame and guilt that, as intensely as any German, he felt about his country's history.

Germany's loss was London's gain; Andi and Pam Engel became distributors when Andi's great friends Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet asked him to distribute their film Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968) because the original distributors were insisting on redoing the subtitles on which Straub and Huillet had worked with great care.

The distribution company he set up for this purpose was called Politkino and in 1973 it merged with the Other Cinema, but Andi's career as a distributor really took off when he, with Pam, founded Artificial Eye in 1976 and the next year acquired the Camden Plaza. The Plaza was followed by the Lumière in 1982, the Chelsea in 1983 and the Renoir in 1986. Many would have rested on their laurels but for all faithful cinephiles, while criticism and distribution are of the utmost importance, the true sacrament is directing.

In 1988 Andi Engel directed, from his own script, Melancholia, with backing from the British Film Institute Production Board and the Hamburg Film Fund. The film was selected for the Director's Fortnight at Cannes in 1989 and won the London Evening Standard's Most Promising Newcomer award. Best described as a thriller by Camus out of Deighton, the film focuses on a German exile in London, brilliantly acted by Jeroen Krabbé, who gets a call from his student past asking him to assassinate a Chilean torturer. As an examination of the ethics of terrorism it bears comparison with Camus's Les Justes but it is perhaps even more significant as an exile's portrait of London. Rarely has the city been more accurately or beautifully displayed.

It is difficult to know exactly why Engel did not follow up on this first film. Melancolia was not a commercial success, but his second script, Black Beer, was more commercial. However in 1990 Margaret Thatcher's Broadcasting Act had ripped the heart out of television. Artificial Eye's business had basically been underwritten by television sales and, as both the BBC and Channel 4 stopped showing subtitled movies, the business became ever more perilous. If his own company once again took most of his time, it was also the case that all over Europe film funding became linked to the discourses of inward investment and social engineering - questions of art and value were now of little account.

In 1996 the French government recognised Engel's achievement and made him a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres but, if Engel never lost his faith, it was increasingly a faith in the past. If one were to draw up a list of his favourite directors that would start with Robert Bresson and Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky, only Krzysztof Kieslowski was a discovery of the recent past. At festivals he would be found in the bar boasting that he had seen none of the films that his company had acquired - this was the job of Pam and Robert Beeson: he just negotiated the deals.

His conversation, however, remained as wonderful as ever. He was a worthy successor to Dr Johnson and one can only hope that some Boswell can bring us a flavour of his speech, dancing between German, French and English, weaving gossip and aesthetics, money and politics and always circling around the great themes of his life: the attempted genocide of the Jews and the horrors of the Eastern Front.

In 2003 his continuous abuse of his body caught up with him and he spent a great deal of the succeeding years in and out of hospital. Nevertheless, he concluded a successful sale of Artificial Eye to the Curzon group in the summer of 2006 and retired.

Colin MacCabe

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