s a production designer, Sir Ken Adam consistently pushed his imagination to the limits, creating movie sets, each different, as thrilling to look at as the action unfolding up on the screen. His work on seven James Bond films—including the first of the series, Dr. No—set the tone for what became the Bond franchise. His vision behind the war-room in Dr. Strangelove, the interior of Fort Knox in Goldfinger, the flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Blofeld's lair in a volcano’s crater in You Only Live Twice, are just a few examples of the heightened sense of reality Adam so deftly created in his 50-year-career, making him the film industry’s first production designer to reflect the rapidly advancing electronic age of the 60s and beyond.
His was the kind of artistic moxie that set Adam apart from many of his contemporaries in the film world, which eventually earned him two Oscars and numerous BAFTA awards. But it was also Adam’s conceptual risk-taking that could only have been born of another kind of fearlessness exhibited in his eventful early life when the stakes were much higher and his film career lay many years ahead.
His was the kind of artistic moxie that set Adam apart from many of his contemporaries in the film world.
He was born Klaus Hugo Adam in Berlin, Germany in 1922 into an upper-middle-class Jewish household. Young Adam displayed an artistic flair from an early age and as a pupil at Berlin’s elite Französische Gymnasium his emerging talents as an illustrator were first recognized. Through his older brother Adam met the son of [actor and film director] Max Reinhardt and Bauhaus school architects like Erich Mendelsohn who all made an impression on him.
Adam’s father, Fritz Adam co-owned a well-known high-fashion clothing and sporting goods store with his three brothers called S Adam, and the family lived an almost idyllic, privileged existence until Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
“The Nazis had arrested my father. He was only kept for three days because a former employee, who had since become a senior leader in the SS, got him out,” said Sir Ken Adam, now 91, who spoke with us from his home in Knightsbridge, London.
“That was the red flag and after that there was no sense of staying. But for my father, who was very German—he had served as an officer in the Prussian cavalry in WWI, and was the owner of a famous store, it was difficult for him to accept that we had to leave. My older brother who was studying law in Clermont-Ferrand, France heard what was happening to Jews in Germany and told my parents to go as soon as possible."
Adam’s family left for England in 1934 and they eventually settled in the Hampstead section of London. Still, the pressure of starting over in a new country took its toll on Adam’s father.
“My mother was the main money earner in England, which my father wasn’t used to at all,” Adam said.
“She opened a boarding house in Hampstead and did very well and my father went out with a little suitcase to sell gloves. It really destroyed him, there was no question about that. By then my father was very proud of my mother because he never allowed her to do anything in Germany and here she became the stronger person. It was just so unfortunate that his health didn’t hold up and he died in 1936.”
Adam became increasingly interested in cinema at his mother's boarding-house in Hampstead after coming into contact with a number of artists among the Jewish refugees who were boarders. Around the family’s enormous dining room table he listened nightly to harrowing stories of misery and escapes from Nazi Europe and was introduced to artists like Vincent Korda, a Hungarian art director in films (brother of screenwriter and film producer Alexander Korda) who not only nurtured Adam’s passion for films but encouraged the young man to study architecture.
Adam was in architecture school when the war started and was apprenticing at a firm that specialized in making bomb shelters. He soon enlisted in the Pioneer Corps, an unarmed labor unit reserved for German nationals, mostly deemed untrustworthy by the British government who classified all the refugees as Enemy Aliens. Then eight months into his stint in the Pioneer Corps, Adam applied for a transfer into the Royal Air Force (RAF) and was accepted.
“Sir Ken was the only known German fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force during WW2,” said Helen Fry, author of the book, Churchill’s German Army.
“He first served in the only unit of the British army open to him but this was his war and he wanted to fight properly. He sent off application after application to the RAF but was turned down. Then during training in the Pioneer Corps he was seen courting the Commanding Officer's daughter on the promenade of a Victorian seaside town when he should have been doing drill practice. He was hauled before the Commanding Officer and asked to send off an application to the RAF again. Two weeks later he was sent several hundred miles away to Scotland to train as a pilot. He succeeded where other refugee-soldiers failed to fulfill their dreams of being a pilot.”
After training on Tiger Moth (‘30s-era biplanes) in Scotland, Adam, like many British pilots was sent to Canada and the United States for additional special fighter pilot training before joining the 609 Squadron a year later. Adam flew a Hawker Typhoon, one of the war’s fastest and most powerful fighter planes. Heavily armed with air-to-ground rockets and 20 mm cannons, Adam’s squadron provided close support for the advancing British army.
“After my squadron attacked the Falaise Gap in Normandy, my commanding officer said to me, ‘Ken, if you want to see the damage that has been done, I’ll let you go on the ground in a truck.’ And I went. It was something I’ve never forgotten. The smell of dead animals was terrible--there were dead horses (I had no idea the Germans were using so many horses) and cows. As a single fighter pilot, you never really got in much contact with what was going on the ground. For the first time being on a battlefield like Falaise, for the first time was a shock to the system. And to be in close touch for the first time with the bodies of dead SS soldiers, and so on was an experience I’ve never forgotten. You just couldn’t get rid of the smell.”
Adam demobilized from military service in 1947 and got a job, first as a draughtsman at Twickenham Film Studios. He worked in the art department on the films, Captain Horatio Hornblower, The Crimson Pirate, The Master of Ballantrae, and Helen of Troy, all boat movies. So, in an effort to avoid being pigeonholed as a naval designer, Adam caught the attention of industry executives with his design work on Ben Hur and Around the World in 80 Days.
In 1962 he was hired as production designer on the first James Bond film, Dr. No. While on location and building the film’s sets in Jamaica, Adam was allowed to return to his art department on the production at Pinewood studios in London, where for the first time he felt free to create anything he wanted.
“Remember the early ‘60s in London was something, which must have been like Berlin in the '30s when the arts flourished. You didn’t have the differences in class and so on. I also wanted to show our present age of engineering and electronics, which up to then had not really been shown. And hopefully it was reflected in some of my designs too.”
But whatever challenges he experienced with producers and directors on his first films, nothing could have prepared him for the tornado that was Stanley Kubrick who hired Adam to work on comedy about nuclear war and the end of the world entitled, Dr. Strangelove.
“We had an incredible relationship because were both pretty young. I used to drive him to Shepperton studios in my E-Type Jaguar; he didn’t allow me to drive faster than 30mph and when you drive anybody every day for 5 or 6 months you get to know that person very well. He especially liked hearing about my experiences flying Typhoon fighters during the war.”
But friendship and mutual admiration aside, Kubrick’s hands-on style of directing was infamous for its nerve-wracking impact on anyone working directly under him.
“Kubrick stood behind me all the time, “Adam said. “He tried to get involved in every aspect of filmmaking. I had initially done a different design of the war room on two levels and when I showed it to him during our first meeting he love it. Then after two or three weeks during our daily drive to work he said to me, ‘Ken I don’t know what to do with all of the people on the second level. You have to re-design it.’ And that shook me after three weeks of already working on the design. So I went through the gardens at Shepperton studios to calm down, took a valium and started redesigning and when he saw the triangle design I came up with said, ‘The triangle was the strongest geometric form.’ And by that time I was willing to admit anything he said. He also told me that he was going to light the entire set with the light over the table that I designed. And while it was a close relationship, at the same time I felt that it was fatal for me to be that close to someone like Kubrick because he became totally possessive. He was the most possessive director I’d ever worked with and at the time I swore it was the last picture I’d work with him.”
Adam’s ability to create sets that didn’t reflect reality at all carried over into his work on the next Bond picture, Goldfinger, when he endeavored to give the otherwise lackluster interior of Fort Knox (based on designs given to him) a considerable makeover.
“I had seen the exterior of Fort Knox which was rather dull, art deco. Because you weren’t allowed near the interior, I came up with a design where I stacked gold up 40 feet high and behind a grill and all over the floor, a cathedral of gold, up to 40 feet in height. When I showed this sketch to the producers Cubby [Broccoli] and Harry [Saltzman] and they said ‘it looks like a prison’ but I insisted and said, ‘it’s what I want.’ And when the film’s director Guy Hamilton backed me up I didn’t have many other problems with them on the future Bonds. Now I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder and that gave me a chance to express myself.”
Adam continued to put his inimitable stamp on the Bond films Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker—his last in the series.
“During the war Sir Ken faced the real threat when he flew dangerous sorties over enemy territory, from which many of his fellow pilots never came back,” Helen Fry said. “This was a struggle between good and evil—fighting back against the evil regime which he as a German-Jew had had to flee. The Bond scenes which Sir Ken designed betray an insight into this personal struggle and capture again a world-defining struggle between good and evil, albeit in the make-believe world of James Bond."
Adam won his first Oscar in 1975 for his work on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and continued working on major motion pictures like Agnes of God, The Freshman, and Addams Family Values, to name just a few. He won his second Oscar for The Madness of King George in 1994 and maintained a busy work schedule up until 2001.
Adam also reestablished a relationship with the Berlin of his birth after working on the thriller Funeral in Berlin in 1966. He was asked to design the city’s Millennium Exhibition in 1998, and the last film he designed, Taking Sides, was shot in the old UFA studios just outside Berlin. For his work establishing stronger Anglo-German relations Adam was knighted in 2003.
“It was very exciting to me because I saw the old stages where they made movies so many years ago when I was a boy," Adam said. "Obviously before I did films in Germany I was pretty bitter, but I came across so many nice and intelligent Germans who weren’t even born in that time of Hitler.
"I began to like how they treated me."
Helen Fry's latest WW2 book on refugees in the British forces is entitiled, The M Room.