Douglas Slocombe: The cameraman who escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service

image copyrightAP

For more than 40 years Douglas Slocombe, who turns 101 this week, was one of British cinema's most acclaimed cinematographers. But in 1939 his efforts to film the German invasion of Poland forced him to make a dramatic escape.

Recently a widower, Douglas Slocombe now lives by the Thames in London with his daughter. His near-blindness means he no longer sees a river which long ago featured in black-and-white classics he shot, such as Hue and Cry and The Man in the White Suit.

The list of films he worked on after the Ealing years is remarkable - from The Italian Job to Rollerball, to Raiders of the Lost Ark and its two sequels in the 1980s.

But at the age of 27, Slocombe was in Poland with a movie camera when the Germans arrived.

"I had fallen in love with photography and was making a living doing photographic features for publications such as Picture Post, Paris Match and Life magazine," he says. "But in 1939 I saw a huge headline which I think was in the Sunday Express. It said: 'Danzig - Danger Point of Europe.' I packed up my Leica, got on a train and went."

image copyrightRex Features
image captionDouglas Slocombe on set with Elizabeth Taylor, 1953

A major port on the Baltic, the population of Danzig (now Gdansk) was mostly German with a Polish minority. After World War One the League of Nations declared it a self-governing "free city". But Danzig in the late 1930s was dominated by the local Nazis.

"I found myself right in the middle of an absolute hotbed of Nazi intrigue," Slocombe remembers. "All the Jewish shops had 'Jude' daubed over the windows and the Jews themselves were attacked. The Nazi Brownshirts marched up and down the streets in formation - as did the Hitler Youth, with little daggers in their socks.

"I remember taking photographs as the local Gauleiter, Albert Forster, harangued huge crowds of Germans in the evenings with a big swastika flag in the background.

"And I photographed a synagogue which the Nazis had hung a huge banner on. It said 'Komm lieber Mai und mache von Juden uns jetzt frei' - [Come, sweet May and free us of the Jews]."

image copyrightAP
image captionSynagogue in Danzig (Gdansk), May 1939

After three weeks Slocombe noticed he was being followed everywhere and decided to take his material back to London.

Within days he was called by American film-maker Herbert Kline who was making a documentary about the run-up to war called Lights Out in Europe. "He'd brought his own cameraman for Britain, but he had nothing on film from Poland. He wanted me to go back to Danzig and as he was going to supply my first professional film camera, my heart leapt."

Kline gave Slocombe a 35mm Bell and Howell Eyemo, then the first choice for newsreel and combat use.

"The Eyemo was heavy and could be noisy. Once I was in an auditorium filming a speech made by Goebbels when suddenly it decided to emit a huge snarling sound. Goebbels froze and hundreds of uniformed Brownshirts turned and glared at me in anger. It was not a comfortable moment."

One evening soon afterwards, Slocombe noticed the sky over Danzig had turned red. It was a synagogue on fire.

"While filming I was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into a cell but the next morning they let me go. After that the city's Polish authorities, who had been helping get my film out, thought it would be a good idea for me to leave."

He reached Warsaw, about 200 miles away, by the middle of August 1939. There he contacted Kline in London and told him of the events that were unfolding. Kline decided to travel out himself.

"But I still remember the shock when at about 05:00 on 1 September we awoke to find the attack had begun," says Slocombe. "There were bombers overhead and the whistle of falling bombs.

"I had no understanding of the concept of blitzkrieg. I had been expecting trouble but I thought it would be in trenches, like WW1. The Germans were coming over the border at a great pace."

Slocombe and Kline travelled to Torun to film with the Polish army.

image copyrightDouglas Slocombe
image captionPolish gunners in September 1939

"I'd already filmed with the cavalry and knew they were magnificent horsemen. But now we were at a machine-gun post with a WW1 gun screwed to a tree stump guarding a bridge. There were German planes overhead and German artillery heading across Poland. It was obvious the Poles were about to be outgunned.

"Herbert Kline thought we should get back to Warsaw. We went to the British embassy but everyone had gone or was packing up."

After hearing a false rumour that the Polish government would be heading south from the main railway station, the pair went the same way.

"We were trundling through the countryside at night. We kept stopping for no apparent reason, but we came to a screeching halt because a German plane was bombing us.

"After its first pass we climbed out the window and crawled under the carriage. The plane came back and started machine-gunning. A young girl died in front of us. We were shaken by that."

As the plane pulled away, it was clear the train was too damaged to go further. Slocombe and Kline were in the middle of the Polish countryside with equipment and cans of film, but no idea what to do next.

image copyrightDouglas Slocombe
image captionMaking escape on horse and cart

"But Herbert had done something earlier which perhaps saved us. He'd said in a crisis people don't trust paper money - they want silver coinage.

"And so we came to a farm which appeared deserted. The men all had gone to war and the horses had gone for the Polish cavalry.

"All that was left was a mare and her young foal and a cart. The cart was perfect for our film-cans and other equipment. The farmer's wife was unwilling to sell until she saw the coins. If we'd only had paper currency, I don't know if we'd have made it out.

"So for two or three days we walked and walked north with the cart - me, Herbert Kline, the horse and the foal. By now I was an enemy alien so if we'd encountered any Germans that would have been it."

Eventually the men found their way to a small railway station and boarded a train which took them north to Riga in Latvia.

image copyrightDouglas Slocombe
image captionThe train which took Slocombe to safety in Latvia

"Once there, they went straight to the British consulate. We had a letter of introduction from Robert Vansittart [the British government's diplomatic adviser] so we assumed they'd happily get our film to London by diplomatic bag. But they said, 'Oh no Old Boy - it's just not done.' So we got the French to do it."

The two film-makers finally escaped by way of Stockholm. The documentary Lights Out in Europe came out in 1940. Today it's thought only a single copy remains of the full version, held at Moma in New York. The delicate state of the print means it's difficult to project.

In May 1940, Slocombe and his Eyemo made another trip, this time to Amsterdam. Once again he escaped the advancing Germans.

image copyrightPA
image captionDouglas Slocombe in 2011

Forty years later, he was Steven Spielberg's director of photography on three Indiana Jones movies, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark. In that film's fantasies of marauding Nazis, Douglas Slocombe may have found a strange echo of his own life.

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