Dr. Strangelove’s Jewish Set Designer Dies at 95
Ken Adam, the German Jewish motion picture production designer who won immortality for conceiving the sets for James Bond films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as the Pentagon War Room in Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), proved that fantasy can heal historical wounds. Born Klaus Hugo Adam, he died on March 10 at age 95, one of the last surviving World War II Royal Air Force fighter pilots, and one of the few Germans permitted to perform this dangerous activity. Repeated terrifying bomber runs during low-level strikes across northern France made a permanent impression on Adam, so when it came time to design James Bond’s Aston Martin car, Adam equipped it with machine guns, a bullet-proof shield, and an ejector seat. The last-mentioned was notably lacking in fighter planes which he flew. Even had parachuting been easier, since he was well-known as a German Jewish pilot, surviving a crash and being captured by Nazis would have been disastrous, as Helen Fry’s “Churchill’s German Army” details.
Fortunately he survived, albeit with a nervous temperament, what he would refer to as a “sensitive” artistic side. He could exult in gleeful airborne imagery, such as the auto he imagined for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968). Yet as he told an interviewer for the online “Web of Stories” around 2010, a survivor’s anguish remained. Asked after the war if he regretted killing German civilians, he replied: “Well, I didn’t have any sentimentality on that level, because I lost a lot of my family in concentration camps, and so on, so that…did not affect me.” Assigned with giving Nazi Luftwaffe prisoners of war a postwar tour of the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he recalled:
“The horror of this place, and… I must say these German officers which were with me were absolutely speechless. They knew that concentration camps existed, and they knew that some not very nice things happened there, but they’d never thought to come face-to-face with what they found there, you know. So that was quite an experience.”
Such sights invested later creations, including the Dr. Strangelove war room. Adam would recount how Steven Spielberg once informed him that the war room was the “best set that you have ever designed, and not only that, I think it’s the best set that ever has been designed.” Convincingly terrifying, the room contained a circle of conferring military brass lit from above, as if inhabiting a solar system within an ominously looming universe. The menace rings true. According to Mary Acton’s “Learning to Look at Modern Art” when Hollywood’s own Ronald Reagan was elected president, he asked to be shown the War Room under the Pentagon, only to be told by officials that it did not exist in reality. Adam noted that his best work was such deeply imagined imagery, not in films mostly using already existing locations. Yet his two Oscars, “Barry Lyndon” (1975) and “The Madness of King George,” (1995), rewarded examples of the latter.
“Barry Lyndon” provided further grief in the form of the oppressively detail-obsessed Kubrick. Adam told “The Telegraph” in 2008 that Kubrick “questioned every line I drew, and I found that nerve-destroying, to intellectually justify my lines. It became like a session in psychoanalysis.” Indeed, Adam suffered a nervous collapse from all the tension, which may also have been a delayed aftershock from his combat experience. Recreating an immense supervillain’s lair in a volcano for the Bond film “You Only Live Twice” (1967) gave him eczema and a Valium dependency, showing that mighty design ambitions took their toll.
Such stress symptoms were uncommon during a privileged Berlin childhood. His family had socialized with the Austrian Jewish theatre director Max Reinhardt (born Maximilian Goldmann) and the German Jewish Bauhaus architect Erich Mendelsohn. Years later in London, where his family had fled in the 1930s, it was the Hungarian Jewish art director Vincent Korda (born Kellner), who showed him a possible career path. Freely imagining visuals became one way for Adam to conquer psychic woes. After his Kubrick-related nervous collapse required repeated hospitalizations, Adam worked for the less-than-refined Italian director Tinto Brass who would later helm the notoriously crass “Caligula” (1979). The curative project for Adam was “Salon Kitty” (1976), about prostitutes in a Nazi German brothel spying on clients. Despite Brass’s overtly trashy idiom, Adam appreciated his directorial talent and doubtless the liberty granted to his sensuously alluring designs, compared to the micromanaging of Kubrick.
Among later creative colleagues, Adam was also delighted by Barbra Streisand, with whom he worked with on “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1970). Playing a prostitute, Streisand enjoyed Adam so much that she insisted he make his acting debut in a cameo role as one of her mature clients. The admiration was mutual. Adam confessed to “Web of Stories” that Streisand reminded him of Kubrick, insofar as both were “from a Jewish family living in the Bronx or somewhere, and… very bright, obviously, and highly intelligent.” Both also asked endless series of questions with apparent “naivety.”
In a long life that sometimes featured too much experience, this brand of relentless innocence had inspirational charm for Ken Adam.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.