The story of film in Melbourne could not be told without including Erwin Aladar Rado. His influence, spanning more than three decades, and reaching into numerous film organisations – including the Australian Film Institute and Film Victoria – has fundamentally shaped how we watch films in this city. And by far his biggest contribution has been the mark that he made as artistic director for 24 editions of the Melbourne Film Festival.
Erwin Rado was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1914 to a family of Jewish descent. While his family formally converted to Calvinism in 1920, with mounting anti-Semitism in Europe in the lead up to the Second World War, Rado emigrated to Australia with his first wife, arriving in 1939. Rado was an accomplished pianist and photographer and spoke several languages, including Hungarian, German, French and English. For many, it was his European sophistication and elegance that set Rado apart.
As a member of the Melbourne Film Society since 1950, Rado was associated with the festival right from the start. But his influence only became official when he stepped onto the organising committee following the well-received but financially disastrous Exhibition Building festival in 1953. Within a few short years, Rado had helped the festival move venues to the University of Melbourne campus, been elevated to the newly created role of festival director, helped to establish the Australian Film Institute (AFI), and, through the AFI, secured accreditation from FIAPF (Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films), the self-appointed international festival regulator.
Over the next two decades, Rado would indelibly shape the festival as it moved to the Palais and grew in both size and stature within the Melbourne cultural scene. Rado was a perfectionist to the core, and the festival came to reflect his passion for good cinema. Indeed, the stories are many of his commitment to not only programming what he saw as the best of the world’s cinema but his insistence that audiences show due appreciation to it.
There are the stories of audience members being sent back into the auditorium when they tried to leave part-way through a film. Or stories of Rado racing to the projectionist booth at the Palais when a film’s focus slipped. In his director’s report in 1969, Rado defended his decision not to select Jean-Luc Godard’s film Weekend, noting that “I always regarded the Film Festival as an occasion on which we show top-ranking good films… Despite what has been written about Weekend, I still don’t think that it is one of Godard’s good films”.
For Rado, the standard and expectation for the festival was high. And while this certainly caused frictions and consternation at times with those he worked with, or those who did not share his opinions on “good cinema”, there is no denying that Rado oversaw a golden age of the Melbourne Film Festival.
Rado held the role of director from 1956 until 1979, when he stood aside from the role. He would return for one more year, taking up the directorship again in 1983 alongside Mari Kuttna, before stepping aside once more for health reasons. While Rado passed away in January 1988, survived by his second wife Ann Elliot Taylor, he left a rich legacy through his contributions to Melbourne’s film culture – traces of which remain in the sign for the Erwin Rado Theatre, spied on Johnston Street Fitzroy, or in the annual celebration of the Film Victoria Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film. And, of course, in the continuation of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
“He [Rado] used to come in and do intros at the cinemas and things like that. I remember talking to him at one stage in the foyer in between films, as he was just walking around, and because he was as involved as anybody could be. He wanted to know what I thought about what was going on in the film. And he’s just this lovely, sort of tall, elegant European gentleman, who sort of held things together in a way that was just really wonderful, because that era was very definitely a sort of a transformational era – from the film clubs up in the hills and people like Melbourne Uni Film Society and things like that. And he just welded it all together and turned it into the fairly powerful thing it is now. And I think we’re all pretty grateful for that. And, you know, he was just a lovely man.”
Ric Begg, long-time festival attendee
“Erwin put great faith in FIAPF, in those days the governing body of international film festivals around the world. If you weren’t in FIAPF, you couldn’t call it an International Film Festival. So Erwin would do anything to stay in with them. And one of the dictates was that you had to have a press book with a review of every film. But of course, the press didn’t review a tenth of the films. So there was a little gang of us who used to sit there scribbling away; I used to just write notes in the dark. And then, because there were generous intervals between the films in those days, you’d dash off to the car and record the notes and start a review, then write it up and send it off to Erwin. Although, if he didn’t like what you’d written, it could be quite confronting!”
John Turner, former MIFF committee member and Federation of Victorian Film Societies representative
“There were the kind of abrasive things you hear about Erwin. [But for me] they’re largely positive memories. I was probably over-awed and kind of couldn’t believe what I was doing on the board of something like this. But he was always interesting to talk to. He was lovely to talk to about music. Always smart, always very well dressed. And very friendly.
We often had disagreements on films. Particularly at that stage, MUFS was really venturing out in its taste. We were really an outlier, I think, for bringing the auteur theory to prominence. And some of the directors we were championing were not directors that Erwin was championing. He was very much involved with European, particularly the Eastern European, cinema and at times we had the feeling that the films he was picking were films that were very good politically, or saying very important messages, but there were other films we liked better.”
Peter Hourigan, former president Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS) and festival board member