Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ingrid Pitt

I was sad to read of the passing of Ingrid Pitt last week. Headline writers no doubt reached for the nearest cliché on the shelf and posthumously crowned her Hammer’s Scream Queen. In fact, she only appeared in two Hammer films, and didn’t scream, unless it was in horror at glimpsing a reflection of her own instantaneously aging visage in Countess Dracula. Her brief membership of the Hammer family came after its golden period, when it was beginning to enter its decadent phase (in both senses of the word). Neither of her films could be said to be amongst the studio’s finest, but they are far from being its worst. I’ve not seen The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, although I have had the misfortune of watching tis follow up, Lust For A Vampire. Pitt’s portrayal of the female vampire did much to earn the former film its generally accepted place in the canon of creditable later Hammer films, whereas her absence in the latter was just one of the elements which made it one of the studio’s biggest embarrassments.

Ingrid Imperious
Her Hammer roles cast her as the seductive monster, who somehow retained an element of audience sympathy despite the trail of pallid young innocents she left drained and lifeless in her wake. Her performance in Countess Dracula certainly turned what could have been an inadvertently absurd farce (complete with disguises which have to be rapidly changed behind the scenes) into a dark fairy tale which carries a powerful archetypal charge. The story was based on the figure of the Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Bathory, a bloodbathing aristocratic monster whose name became a blend of history and myth. For some reason, her name is here changed to Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy. The rejuvenating qualities of virginal blood which the Countess discovers create an ever accelerating rate of decrepitude once the effects wear off, resulting in a progressively grotesque appearance which maps the stages of the character’s moral disintegration in a manner akin to Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Her assumption of her daughter’s persona (her unfortunate offspring’s incarceration in a gurning peasant’s hut is a recurrent piece of narrative dead weight which the film could have done without) is a transposition into female form of the oedipal drama played out between kings and male heirs, the ruler’s fear of losing power and potency and being usurped by their progeny. It’s the kind of story which Angela Carter would have relished. Indeed, her radio play Vampira made reference to Elisabeth Bathory. Pitt was very enthusiastic about the part, and lobbied Hammer head James Carreras to get it, winning out over director Peter Sasdy’s first choice, Diana Rigg. She put particular effort into getting her accent right, drawing on her mother’s East European inflections. She was therefore absolutely furious (‘post-apocalyptic’, as she put it) when Sasdy (himself of Hungarian descent) replaced her dialogue with a dubbed recording by another actress (conveniently ‘losing’ her original voice track). He apparently had decided that the Countess, being royalty, should speak the queen’s English.

Pitt doesn’t say an awful lot about her Hammer films in her autobiography, even though its title, Life’s A Scream, plays on her reputation as one of the studio’s defining figures. It’s a tribute to her talents that she should have created such a lasting impact with just those two films. Her anecdote about repeatedly losing her loose-fitting fangs down Kate O’Mara’s capacious cleavage whilst filming an intimate moment in The Vampire Lovers, and having to cadge a stick of chewing gum from one of the studio crew in order to fix them in is very amusing, and indicative of her refusal to take herself too seriously. She was always very proud of her horror films, however, and was only too pleased to attend conventions and answer fans’ questions. You can see some great footage of her at one such event over at this Guardian collection of clips. Her website is entitled Pitt of Horror, which hardly suggests that she was chary of her reputation as a genre figure. It’s a good site, too, and contains some of her writing on horror, including a lengthy piece on Hammer.

Ingrid in The House That Dripped Blood
The picture of her which is used most frequently in articles comes not from either Hammer film, but from her Amicus outing, The House That Dripped Blood. It’s a publicity shot which shows her projecting a buxom, full-fanged vampire hiss at the camera. I watched the story from this portmanteau film in which she appears the other night. It’s a diverting and enjoyable comic squib, with Pitt having no trouble playing the cool actress opposite Jon Pertwee’s pompous and self-important horror star, whose insistence on authenticity might be a little dig at Christopher Lee’s repeated pleas to return to the source material of Bram Stoker’s novel for the next Dracula script. Pertwee’s character, in stating his preference for classic horror, mentions Dracula, but adds that he is referring, of course, to Lugosi, ‘not this new fellow’. The new fellow, Lee, appears in an earlier story in the film. Pertwee digs up a real vampire’s cloak in one of those ill-frequented antique shops, generally open only after dark and cluttered with grotesque and occult artefacts, which feature in Amicus films. He finds the authenticity he was seeking, but at a price. Pitt, who playfully dons the cloak at the end, turns out to have been indulging in an advanced form of method acting herself, having been a vampire all along. She clearly has a lot of fun, rising and flapping towards the petrified Pertwee, who mugs and gurns in comical terror for all he’s worth. Pitt looks fabulous throughout in a series of seventies outfits topped off with large floppy brimmed hats, taking languorous puffs on cigarettes attached to the end of a holder which rivals Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for absurd length.

Pitt went on to work with Jon Pertwee in the Doctor Who episode The Time Monster, broadcast in 1972. She played the extravagantly coiffured queen of Atlantis, who is wooed, for his own nefarious ends, by the Master. This was Roger Delgado’s last appearance in the role before his untimely death in a car crash. She appeared in a later Who story from the Peter Davison era, Warriors of the Deep (broadcast in 1984), in which she, along with the rest of the supporting cast, adopt a post New Romantic look. Unfortunately, this is Doctor Who at its very worst, a woeful attempt to revive both the Silurians and the Sea Devils, who had been dormant since the early Pertwee period. Ingrid does get to show off her karate chops, however (she was a black belt). It’s as good a way as any to tackle a would-be sea leviathan, the Sea Devil’s purportedly deadly pet the Myrka. It’s a monster which would shame a parish hall pantomime (or an episode from the William Hartnell years), and makes the giant rat hand puppet in The Talons of Weng-Chiang look like a masterpiece of terrifyingly authentic design. She went on to write a Who script herself, in collaboration with her husband. It used the mystery surrounding the supposed ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ carried out by the US Navy as its background. It never made it into production at the time, but has now emerged as an audio adventure, The Macros, in the Lost Stories series. Having made her Hammer and Amicus films, and appeared in The Wicker Man, Pitt went off to Switzerland to make the children’s TV series Ski Boy, a complete contrast to her previous roles. She also wrote a children’s book herself, Bertie the Bus, which falls squarely into the anthropomorphised vehicle category.

I also listened to Pitt’s audiobook recording of her autobiography Life’s A Scream. It’s an extraordinary story and a hugely affecting reading, in which she relives painful and horrific events from her wartime childhood. It must have been hard enough to write about these things, let alone to speak them aloud. The turbulent currents of emotion stirred up by such recollections are quite audible in her voice. The book opens with a trip to LA for a publicity event to promote the opening of the film Where Eagles Dare, in which she played the subsidiary (and this being an Alistair Maclean adaptation, all women’s roles would be subsidiary) but significant part of Heidi. Her description of the tawdry daylit world of LA, disguised I the neon-lit glamour of its nightside, and her clear-eyed appraisal of the movie industry’s sexism, as embodied in the new MGM head Bo Poke’s view of women as objects paraded to sell product, indicate from the outset that she’s not out to write a starstruck showbiz memoir. When the stereotypically crass Poke comes out with a crack about the Nazis being the biggest source of entertainment since Nero burned down Rome, a comment which turns out to be the cue for a ‘comedy’ Nazi in SS uniform and Hitler moustache to burst in and march about the room, Pitt stands up and walks out. The story of her childhood which follows shows just why (aside from her temperamental inability to defer to the power of moronic moguls or boneheaded bullies of any description) she was not prepared to put up with such a dismally distasteful display.

She had been born Ingrid Petrov in 1937 on a train which had crossed over the German border into Germany. Her parents were trying to flee the Nazi regime and make their way to England, where her father had lived for many years. Her father was German, of Russian descent, and a scientist wanted by the government to assist with work on military projects. Her mother was Polish, of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and therefore in considerable danger. Ingrid’s arrival was ill-timed, and meant that they were unable to get out of the country. They stayed with her mother’s parents in Bialystock, but the Nazis caught up with them in the end. They were herded into the trucks of a train bound for the concentration camp at Stutthof, where Ingrid and her mother were parted from her father. They were to spend the next three years in the camp, until the war came to an end in Poland with the advance of the Russian army. Ingrid’s detailing of the constant immediacy of death and abuse which they witnessed and suffered makes for a harrowing documentation of the experience of the camps. It is both personal and particular, and stands in for the suffering of so many which went unrecorded. Her reading in the audiobook adds a reference (absent from the book) to Primo Levi’s quote about the good ones having died in the camps, with the survivors being left with their guilt. She makes it clear at the end of the book that her survival was a matter of sheer chance. ‘I survived the hell,’ she wrote, ‘but hardly any one else did. Surviving doesn’t make one special – but it does make one extraordinarily lucky’. Her account of life in the camp comes partly from her own childhood recollections, but also from the memories which came pouring from her mother’s mind as it became dislocated from the present at the end of her (thankfully long-lived) life. She had never liked to talk about her experiences beforehand.

Ingrid spent a good deal of time in the kinderschuppen, or children’s hut. SS officers would come in from time to time and round up potential candidates for being raised in good Nazi households. She would appear to have been an ideal choice, being a pretty blonde-haired girl. But there had been an infestation of lice in the dormitory hut where she and her mother slept, and she had scratched her head until it was a tectonic landscape of scabs. The SS inspectors, noting such imperfection on closer inspection, turned to someone else instead. Ingrid came very close to death having caught an infection which caused a swelling on the side of her neck. Of course, no medical treatment was on offer in the camp. She was saved by a man named Peter Steiner, who had been a shoemaker before the war. He kept a knife hidden about his person, and used it to lance her wound. He later carved her a wooden Cossack doll with the knife. He was one of those unsung heroes of the war, who did their best to preserve life where they could. Such acts of selfless kindness would unquestionably have led to his death had they been discovered by the camp authorities. Later in the war, as reports of the Red Army’s advance began to filter through, the SS began to systematically round up the prisoners, hut by hut, to take to the gas chambers. Steiner once again rescued Ingrid, smuggling her out of the children’s hut when he received information that it was going to be the next to be ‘cleared’. Of course, very few had such brave and resourceful guardians to watch over them.

Eventually, the SS came to the hut where Ingrid and her mother awaited their fate. But instead of pushing them towards the gas chamber they marched them out of the camp and along the road outside. Those exhausted souls who were unable to keep up and fell by the wayside were shot where they lay. After a while, a plane flew low overhead and strafed this straggling line of guards and prisoners. Ingrid’s mother fell into a ditch by the side of the road, dragging her daughter down with her and lying atop her. She played dead, convincingly enough to persuade the SS guard who nudged her with the side of his boot that she had fallen victim to the plane’s bullets. They lay there for some time before escaping into the forest. Here, they came upon a couple of foraging partisans who agreed, reluctantly at first, to allow them to join their encampment, which was hidden in the heart of the woods. Ingrid recalls this period with a great deal of fondness as a time of romantic adventure, the woodland setting allowing her imagination to roam free. She became inseparable from a boy called Yuri, who joined her in her games and came to play a willing part in her imaginary world. ‘Forests for me will always mean Yuri and the partisans’, she later recalled. ‘Surely it was the best part of my childhood. The only time I remember without pain’. She had recently been working on an animated impression of her life in the forest with Bill Plympton, which hopefully should see the light next year, as you can see above.

After the war ended, Ingrid and her mother trudged across Europe on foot, from one displaced persons camp to another, trying to find any news of her father’s fate. They discovered that her grandparents, with whom they had found shelter in Bialystock, had perished in the camp at Treblinka. Finally, after much tribulation and near fatal illness, they made it to Berlin and the remains of their old house. They did have an emotional reunion with Ingrid’s father, whom they tracked down to an old college friend’s place. He too had spent the war in a camp, having refused to assist in developing new weapon systems. He had made his way back to Berlin at the end of the war, but had collapsed and found himself unable to remember his address. Worn out and physically diminished, he lived on for a further five years before passing away. During this precious remaining time, he took the young Ingrid to the cinema on many occasions, and she got it into her head that she wanted to be an actress.

Having been rejected at every turn and corner in her initial attempts to reach the stage, she decided to try the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, which had been set up after the war by Bertolt Brecht, and was now run by his widow, Helene Weigel. To her surprise, she was accepted. Weigel was perhaps won over by her brazen chutzpah, or maybe by her personal interpretation of Chekhov (she had grown up reading the Russian classics). Never one to keep her opinions to herself, Ingrid found herself in trouble with the volkspolizei, the East German police force which doubled as an ideological enforcement army. Having narrowly escaped their clutches once, thanks to Weigel’s timely intervention and plea of mental instability on her behalf, she was informed that they were after her once more. She was waiting to go on stage for her first major role with the Ensemble at the time, playing Kattrin in Brecht’s Mother Courage. The police were sitting in the front row to enjoy her performance before arresting her. Casting aside her big moment, she fled in full-skirted theatrical costume. She was soon cornered by the police in the streets outside, and made a desperate dive through an adjacent hedge. This turned out to be bordering a steep slope which sent her tumbling down into the icy waters of the River Spree. She was swept along by the currents and struggled to stay afloat, managing to summon a last surge of energy and kick her way to the concrete shore. She lacked the strength to pull herself out of the river, but an American GI happened upon her and reached down to pull her out. He and a friend took her to recuperate in a local brothel, where the prostitutes treated her with great solicitude. A few days later, her rescuer came to visit her at her mother’s flat, and not long thereafter, they were married. He was lieutenant Pitt, and so she became Ingrid Pitt.

There is much further incident in the book, all of it involving and well-observed. Pitt writes well, and did indeed publish a number of novels in her lifetime. She also wrote scripts, articles and magazine columns. Her East European Jewish roots show through in her fondness for the Yiddish word ‘schlep’ (as in ‘I schlepped my suitcase up the stairs’). Her familiarity with English idioms (she lived in England for the greater part of her adult life) comes through in her use of such phrases as ‘shanks’ pony’. The earlier half of the book is undoubtedly the most powerful, however. As, given the events it relates, it could hardly fail to be.

Ingrid and the boys (and Mary Ure)
There are small passages of film star anecdotage scattered throughout. Richard Burton comes on to her, arousing the catty ire of Elizabeth Taylor. John Wayne irritates her by calling her ‘little lady’, making her mad enough to join the poker game in which he is engaged with some buddies. This is a particularly ill-informed decision since she has very little money and even less expertise in a game whose rules she has only been shown a few weeks before. Orson Welles proves to be a huge disappointment, treating her with contemptuous rudeness after she has expressed her genuine admiration for his work, and making a slobbering, drunken advance. She learns karate with the teacher who is instructing Elvis, and has a few practice bouts with the King. Peter Cushing provides the most touching story, dating from the time when he was starring alongside her in The Vampire Lovers. He had discovered that it would have been her father’s 100th birthday (she had brought champagne onto the set to toast him). He and his wife Helen invited her out for an evening meal. After they had finished, a cake was brought out with the words ‘For Ingrid’s Papa’ written on top. Such a lovely gesture of simple kindness. Ingrid found out that Helen knew Russian, and they used to write short letters to each other in the language. Alas, their friendship was cut short by Helen’s premature death, which so utterly devastated poor Peter.

Ingrid also fell into an ill-starred relationship with George Pinches, a very powerful man in the British film industry. He was the booker for the Rank cinema chain, which was then dominant in the country. Finding herself in trouble over obtaining a work permit, and facing possible deportation in the near future, she accepted his apparently sincere offer of a marriage of convenience. This would allow her to stay in the country, and him to have a companion to accompany him to film premieres and other gala events which a man in his position was expected to attend. Outside of these obligations, they would lead entirely separate lives. He proved to be considerably less amenable once the certificates were signed, and became extremely possessive. He seems to have been one of those people who embodied the overlapping of the networks of the post war British film industry and the criminal underworld. They were close in more terms than just their physical proximity along the narrow alleyways of Soho. He appears to have been a genuinely unpleasant man (although admittedly Pitt may not be the most objective of judges here), who nobody liked but all feared. He made good on his promise to wreck her career should she stand up to him. She lost many film roles as a result.

But the book is not about showbiz stories, and indeed, most of these are comfortably excised from the audiobook abridgement. At its heart are her enduring love for her mother (and father, in the brief time she was able to spend with him), her daughter Steffanie (or Steffka), and later, her husband Anthony Rudkin (whom she insists on Latinizing as Tonio). The rest is just set dressing. It is through them, and through her own fortitude, that she is able to partially overcome the mental scars of a childhood in which she was classed as one of the untermenschen, or non-people. The book ends, after she has come through a second bout of cancer (her attitude to which was ‘the Nazi’s didn’t get me and a bunch of fucking cancer cells wouldn’t either’), with an uplifting affirmation of life as constant blessing. ‘I love every day’, she wrote. ‘But then I always have done. The sun or the rain, cold or stifling heat. I love the moon and the stars, the dark nights with wind blowing around the house, telling tales of goblins and gnomes and demons and elves rushing through the park – just like that Polish forest, lifetimes ago’. I hope that she sustained such a feeling of joy until the end.

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