Designer. Nationality: German. Born: Giessen, 1897. Education: Studied art at Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf, and Paris. Career: 1917—designed sets and costumes for the theatre and ballet; 1933—left Germany; prisoner in Australian Internment Camp during the Second World War. Award: Academy Award for The Red Shoes, 1948. Died: In 1970.
Films as Production Designer:
Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal)
Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger) (+ costume design)
The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger); The Small Back Room (Powell and Pressburger)
The Elusive Pimpernel (The Fighting Pimpernel) (Powell and Pressburger); Gone to Earth (Powell and Pressburger)
The Tales of Hoffman (Powell and Pressburger)
The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (Gilbert and Sullivan; The Great Gilbert and Sullivan) (Gilliat) (+ costume design)
Ludwig II—Glanz und Eland eines Königs (Kautner)
The Sorceror's Apprentice (Powell); Oh . . . Rosalinda! (Powell and Pressburger)
Robinson soll nicht sterben (von Baky)
Herzog Blaubart's Burg (Bluebeard's Castle) (Powell)
Torn Curtain (Hitchcock)
A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (Powell and Pressburger) (costume design)
The Battle of the River Plate (Pursuit of the Graf Spee) (Powell and Pressburger) (artistic adviser)
On HECKROTH: book—
Gibbon, Monk, Heckroth and His Brush, 1951.
On HECKROTH: articles—
Bianco e Nero (Rome), vol. 13, no. 2, December 1952.
Obituary, in Film and TV Technician, vol. 36, no. 304, September 1970.
Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1982.
EPD Film (Frankfurt), July 1991.
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Hein Heckroth belongs with the designers of Caligari, with Walt Disney, and William Cameron Menzies, as an auteur in production design whose creativity was in his day rarely appreciated. Moreover, his genius for fantasy, or at least fantastication, emerged when film theorists were preoccupied with literary qualities and realism.
He became known in German theatre in the 1920s for his startlingly modern theatre and opera designs at Essen (including three productions of Tales of Hoffman). In 1924 he cofounded Kurt Jooss's first ballet company, later designing Jooss's biggest success, The Green Table (1932), a highly stylised piece about disarmament conferences. Its bold, simple design, with lightweight masks and stylised splashes of paint, provoked the exchange: "How could you get the chairs away so quickly from the table?"—"There were no chairs"; "How could you change the diagonal road so quickly?"—"There was no road." The "sense of presence" came not through illusionism (the idiom was satirical-expressionist), but through the integration of Jooss's nonclassical choreography with Heckroth's characteristic style—colour-schemes intricate yet strong, forms suggestive of several things, sumptuous textures and cursive lines—a sort of theatrical fauvism. Nazism and the war dislocated Heckroth's career, but after the war Powell's usual art designer, Alfred Junge, set him designing the costumes for A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. At this time Powell's interests were evolving away from Junge's large, solid, heavy sets, and he recognised Heckroth as the ideal collaborator for the The Red Shoes ballet, with its "dreamkaleidoscope" of settings, styles, and soul states. As for Tales of Hoffman, its air of extravagant opulence came not from enormous expense but from swift assemblages of painted flats, drapes, objects as vivid as unsubstantial, and strong yet intricate clashing of hues and styles. The effect is of a fluid, chamelonic romanticism, a joy in eclectic clash-and-splash, in spasm, sensuality, and parade; exploring extreme soul states, bu with joyously sceptical excess. Just as the film half-fuses, half-juxtaposes, opera and ballet, filmed theatre and pure cinema, so the design concept conglomerates innumerable styles and motifs—the third tale alone calls on the Swiss Romantic painter Arnold Boecklin, Méliès, Caligari, and Nosferatu, to cite only the central references. Overall, the film's salmagundi of Expressionism, Bavarian barococo, Festival of Britain cheeriness, early Romanticism, Gothickry, Baudelairean decadence, and even Bauhaus streamline, is as joyously artificial as Disney's Fantasia.
Two more conventional films, The Small Back Room and Gone to Earth, owed less to some obviously "delirious" motifs—a gigantic whisky bottle, hobgoblinish rocks—than to Heckroth's feverish heightening of everyday atmospheres. Heckroth, rather than Powell, was initiator and auteur of two short essays, for German TV, in "fantasticated theatre," The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Bluebeard's Castle, the latter achieving a crystalline simplicity.
Though a man of the theatre, at home in 3-D design for human movement, Heckroth deeply delighted in film design as "paintings in motion." He was one of the very few designers capable of following Powell's interest in films as "visual music," programmed, like cartoons, to preexisting musical scores. It's arguable that from The Red Shoes until the failure of Oh, Rosalinda!, Heckroth succeeded Pressburger as Powell's creative soulmate. The Red Shoes Ballet Sketches, which assembles Heckroth's storyboard, under the music, into a film, was Powell's tribute to his designer; as a film without motion, but richly suggestive of it, it precedes by 15 years Marker's better-known La Jetée.