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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > February 2014
back Edwin Drood's Column
11 February 2014
Grim anniversaries at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
Grim anniversaries
In which Edwin celebrates his parents meeting, the dubious beginnings of the VW Beetle
and the career of one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers.

I should be thankful to Hitler; after all, he almost literally introduced my parents to one another by inviting them to a party. The word “invited” is slightly misplaced here. My father, an accredited journalist for a now defunct sporting paper (think Hugh Grant representing Horse & Hound magazine in Notting Hill and you’ve probably got the picture) was indeed invited. But my mother, a car-crazed socialite, gate-crashed what we would now call a press shindig organized to celebrate the official opening in 1938 of the VW factory at Fallersleben (modern day Wolfsburg) in Lower Saxony. Hitler was even there in person, if briefly, though neither of them met him as they were suddenly far too busy meeting each other.

The Reichskanzler took a personal interest in the factory. After all, it was he who had originally named the proposed vehicle “Volks Wagen” (people’s car) and even set out the design brief for Ferdinand Porsche over coffee at the chancellery in 1934: The car should cruise at 100 kmh without using more than 7 litres of fuel per hundred kilometres. It should seat two adults and three children. It should look distinctive, with clean, modern styling. It should be affordable and offer a payments plan. It should be air-cooled, because not everyone had a garage and anti-freeze was yet unknown. All its parts should be easily replaceable and available from stock for immediate delivery. Just re-reading these few lines, how I wish Adolf had gone into the motor trade instead of getting into politics.

By the time Hitler’s vision was ready to become reality, the clouds were clearly gathering and the car he now wanted to call the “Kraft durch Freude Wagen” (“strength through joy car”, doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?) was destined not to see serious production until revived under the ambivalent and cautious gaze of the allied powers by a post-war provisional government in Bonn in 1949. By then It had once again become the Volkswagen and was marketed popularly as the Käfer or Beetle.

All this meant little to my father in the late thirties as war became imminent. He only really understood cricket and track events and was out of his depth in Hitler’s new Germany with its hatred of fair play and its penchant for cutting edge technology and fast motors. The VW idea bemused him. Why would the people need a car? Couldn’t they go by train? The stunning Mercedes Benz team of Silver Arrows left him cold.

But he had continued to hang around in Berlin, pretending to write columns for motor sport magazines, long after his raison d’être, the 1936 Olympics, had ended. And even after meeting the love of his life, he stuck to his post rather than try to get them both back to a safe haven. This was mainly because my Uncle Haviland had told him he might be “useful”. By the mid thirties, Haviland was already a dark horse moved by mysterious masters. My father was in awe of him all his life. So if Haviland said stay put, put he would stay, however much my mother threatened to run back home and marry someone else. This was no idle threat.  She knew all the English racing drivers. She had also met Fangio and Nuvolari, had even raced a bit herself. In fact she’d encountered my Great Aunt at Goodwood while driving for a women’s team that Jocasta was supporting financially to spite the very establishment she was so obviously a member of.

This was something Mum surprised my Dad with a year or two later when she was officially being “presented” to the family as marriageable material. Jocasta approved, of course, so Dad’s big brother Haviland (who was in many ways his aunt’s clone, rather than nephew. They were only two years apart in age and a mere wafer in ideology) approved too, and so the thing was done.

Mother did not lack courage, but the Nazis made her uneasy. She generally smelt rats earlier than most people would. And despite being a genuine motor enthusiast who loved to linger near racing stables and inhale the hot oil, she disliked the Germans’ uncomfortably systematic approach to winning. Ironically enough, she drove a Beetle in the fifties and loved it to death.

But the vehicle that did successfully reach production in the war years, based on Ferdinand Porsche’s interpretation of the Führer’s brief, was the Kübelwagen: a sort of angular field grey version of the Beetle to come, with a shape and sound which would become ubiquitous on battle fields all across Europe. You’ve seen it whenever there are Nazis in films. The important ones drive Mercedes SSKs, Horsch and the like, while the cinematically expendable (those due to crash off a cliff in the next few frames), are packed into Kübelwagen ready to scream “Aaaaarrrgh”. Indy sends a couple of them on their way in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which brings me to my real subject: Douglas Slocombe.

The famous cinematographer, who is 101 today with all his marbles but sadly minus his sight, notably shot Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones trilogy, as well as several Ealing Studios comedies of the fifties (The Lavender Hill Mob), popular British films of the sixties (remember The Young Ones? No? Doesn’t matter), big screen Hollywood ventures such as The Blue Max and Rollerball as well as one of my all-time favourite comedies The Italian Job. But he also shot a film almost every cinema buff has vaguely heard of, but almost no one has seen. No, I’m not talking about Metropolis, Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, I’m referring to Lights Out in Europe, a 1940 documentary by Herbert Kline, a man who saw the war coming and tried to stop it with celluloid.

When keen young press photographer Douglas decided to get out of Danzig – at that time a nominally Polish city he had chosen to visit precisely because everyone, except the Germans, who were moving up from minority to majority, was leaving – it was because he was beginning to upset his hosts and noticed he was being followed everywhere. Arriving in London he met Mr Kline, fresh over from the States with his project. Kline had his own cameraman for the British leg of his film (the evacuation of children from London and its preparations for aerial war) but needed someone mad enough to go into the eastern fire. Slocombe was finally persuaded when he was told he could keep the Bell & Howell film camera Kline provided for him. With this relatively compact (for the time) piece of machinery Slocombe shot the persecution of Jews in Danzig, the arson attack on its synagogue (which earned him a night in Gestapo custody) and, after moving to Warsaw where he thought he’d be safer, the sudden and terrifying blitzkrieg bombing of that city. Together with Kline, who had rejoined him by then, he filmed the arrival of German ground troops, Polish cavalry charging German tanks only to be cut down like corn, and fleeing civilians dying under fire in a bombed out train.

After many hair-raising adventures and after witnessing, at the risk of their lives, the sheer force and very real horrors of Nazi aggression, the two men got out of Poland and into Latvia, from whence they finally escaped, via Stockholm, back to London. But despite the considerable importance of Kline’s film as a historic record, its programmatic nature as an essentially anti-war documentary undercut its market value in a world that was vigorously gearing up to fight. It was screened as a newsreel and quickly forgotten amidst the rising tide of jingoism. Today only one copy is left in a Washington archive. Neither Slocombe’s IMDB bio, nor his Wikipedia entry even mention Lights out in Europe.

In the year that sees us commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, we should not forget that it is also the 75th anniversary of the start of World War Two. In the space of a century we have experienced four distinctly different Germanies: an Imperial Reich, a National Socialist Reich, a Communist workers’ paradise (well, not quite) founded on the trauma of mass rape and pillage by its own Russian “benefactors”, and a Federal Republic that is once again proud, and quite rightly so (for most of the right reasons), to claim its place as Europe’s foremost democratic power. Douglas Slocombe, like my uncle Haviland who left us such a short while ago, has seen and known all of these versions intimately. It must be strange to him now to be forever identified with sending Hollywood Nazis speeding off cliffs in their Kübelwagen, rather than recognized for his own, far more dangerous adventures, dancing with death in Danzig and Warsaw.

© Edwin Drood, February 2014

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