Serge Silberman (May 1, 1917 – July 22, 2003) was a French film producer.
Silberman was born in Łódź, then a part of the Russian Empire. During World War II Silberman, a Jew, survived Nazi concentration camps and eventually settled in Paris. One of his first works as a film producer was Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1955 film Bob the Gambler, a precursor to the French New Wave movement.
Silberman’s most notable collaborations were with the surrealist film director Luis Buñuel. The pair, along with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who Silberman introduced to Buñuel, worked together on a number of films, starting with the 1964 film Diary of a Chambermaid. Silberman produced all of Buñuel’s late films, including the Academy Award winner The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1972 and the director’s very last film That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977.
Silberman had founded his own production company, Greenwich Film Productions, in 1966. The company was responsible for the production of over 15 films. In 1981, Silberman produced his most financially successful film, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva. The film wasn’t very well-received in the country of its origin, France, but became a box-office hit abroad. The money gained from the movie enabled Silberman to provide funding for Akira Kurosawa’s ambitious 1985 film Ran, which at the time of its making was the most expensive Japanese film ever.
Serge Silberman (1917 – 2003)
By Ronald Bergan
There is a photograph taken in Los Angeles in 1972 of the film producer Serge Silberman surrounded by directors William Wyler, George Cukor, Robert Wise, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel. It is no exaggeration to say that Silberman, who has died aged 86, belonged in this august company. Without him, Buñuel’s glorious late French period might not have been, nor Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent Ran.
Los Angeles, 1972. From left to right, standing: Robert Mulligan, William Wyler, George Cukor, Robert Wise, Jean-Claude Carrière, Serge Silberman; seated: Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Rouben Mamoulian.
The long working relationship with Buñuel began in 1963 when one of Buñuel’s favourite actors, Fernando Rey, arranged the meeting in a Madrid hotel. The disparate pair, Silberman, the 46-year-old Polish-born Jew and Buñuel, the 63-year-old Spanish-born atheist, hit it off immediately.
Silberman wanted Buñuel to direct Diary of a Chambermaid, the novel by Octave Mirbeau, already filmed some years before in Hollywood by Jean Renoir. Although Buñuel wanted a Mexican actress for the title role, Silberman persuaded him to cast Jeanne Moreau. At the same time, Buñuel was looking for a French scriptwriter, so Silberman suggested 32-year-old Jean-Claude Carrière, who had only previously scripted a few films for the comic star/director Pierre Etaix. When Carrière told Buñuel that he came from a family of wine-growers, he was hired right away. And so the trio of Silberman, Carrière and Buñuel embarked on the first of six films they made from 1963 to 1977, which included masterpieces such as Belle de Jour (1966) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
By the time of his last two films, The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Buñuel was almost completely deaf and going blind. Silberman had to nurse the films carefully without seeming to be impinging on the director’s independence, although Carrière had to reshoot some sequences.
Serge Silberman was born in Lodz, arriving in Paris having escaped the genocide. One of his first productions was Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1955), the freewheeling camera style and location shooting of which predates the French New Wave. Silberman then produced Jacques Becker’s last film, Le Trou (1959), the prison escape drama in which Becker, had he not died prematurely aged 54, seemed to be taking a new direction by using non-professional actors and a more austere camera style.
Silberman, who founded the Greenwich Film Company in 1966, was a flamboyant and sometimes quixotic character, risking his money on unlikely ventures. When Carrière and Buñuel had the idea of making The Milky Way (1967), an episodic and often obscure film on Catholic heresies, they soon dismissed it thinking it too fanciful. Nevertheless Silberman said he would produce it. »Luis and I thought he had gone mad,« recalled Carrière. »We even said laughing, ‘Come, Serge, we know of a calm place in the country where you can be looked after by some friends of ours.’ We thought he would change his mind in a few days. It’s this madness that a lot of producers lack today.«
Characteristically, Silberman took a chance by producing 35-year-old Jean-Jacques Beineix’s first feature, the ultra-chic Diva (1981). It turned out to be Silberman’s biggest box-office success, allowing him to use most of his own money to help Kurosawa realise his dream of making Ran, his stunning transposition of King Lear to 16th century Japan, the most expensive Japanese film to that date (1985).
In 1990, Silberman agreed to finance Nostromo, David Lean’s ambitious project to film Joseph Conrad’s novel. But Lean found himself trapped in an acrimonious partnership with the charming but authoritarian Silberman from which he couldn’t escape. As Lean told Kevin Brownlow, »Rather frightening. Because he’s very polite… and comes along with champagne and flowers… So when you really meet the fangs at the end, it’s terribly upsetting.«
In his last interview, Buñuel said of his producer, »He gave me a good life but he shortened it at the same time.« Perhaps, Lean could have said the same thing. Silberman, who was taking a gamble with the ailing 82-year-old Lean, wanted the director to sign a letter that if he died before or during the shooting, he could still call Nostromo »A David Lean Film.« Lean refused. Lean died during preproduction and, although much had been spent already and there were other directors standing by, it was to Silberman’s credit that he pulled the plug on the production.
Silberman was awarded a honorary César Award in 1988. He died in Paris in 2003 at the age of 86.