The Monday Interview: Ingrid Pitt: The queen of horror, acting out a lifetime's dread

Childhood experiences in a concentration camp gave the German- born actress and vampire par excellence a very real insight into terror. Andrew G Marshall hears her extraordinary life story and about her continuing battle to conquer the demons of her past
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"My whole life is horror; I'm the Queen of Horror." Ingrid Pitt is not just describing her career as a vampire in many of the classic Hammer Horror movies; she is referring to a childhood too terrible to be shown on the screen. Her family came from Berlin and when Hitler came to power her father, a scientist, refused to turn his skills to destroying England - a country he had once lived in and loved. As enemies of the Reich, Ingrid's family were hunted, and imprisoned in a series of concentration camps until the end of the war.

"The Russian Army was coming, so our camp, Stutthoff in Poland, had to be moved, or liquidated, as they called it. We were marched into the gas chamber and I remember my mother holding me so tight. I don't know if it was luck or destiny, but we survived. I was eight.

"A Jehovah's Witness told me, `you will survive but tomorrow I will be dead,' and she was right. Why didn't the gas chamber work? We must have been in there for hours, because when we went in there it was dark and when we came out it was dark again - so a whole day must have passed. It was a miracle that they opened the door, because we could have just stayed there, and they could have all gone. Nobody could have opened it from the inside.

"The Russian fighter planes started firing at the rabble of prisoners rather than their guards. It was absurd; I've learnt to fly myself, and I know what you can see on the ground. It was completely horrifying, and everybody dived for the ditches. My mother lay on top of me and I honestly thought she had been shot dead, and started to worry about what I was going to do. Lo and behold, when everybody had gone and it was getting dark, she got up, pulled me up, and walked into the forest. Incredible. Maybe that's why I love forests so much.

"We came across a group of partisans, which was bad because they often killed people who came from the camps. It was always unmistakable that you came from the camps. Yet again my mother was brave, and persuaded them to help us. I remember this young boy so well; he had a gun and it was almost as big as he was, and along with him was this older man. They led us to their camp. We didn't know if we would survive or not because they all talked in all kinds of foreign languages, and my mother only understood bits here and there."

The partisans decided to let Ingrid and her mother stay. Looking back, her childhood seems to have begun in the forest. An older boy became her friend and protector, and they explored the forest together. Her mother taught her to read and write, using little pieces of chalk to write on a wooden table.

"One day, I remember, we found a British plane that had been shot down near our camp. Only one of the crew had survived. The partisans helped him back to the camp because he had broken his legs. He taught me to sing `Land of Hope and Glory', and that is when my passion for the round circle with the dot in the middle began. When I see the RAF emblem I feel safe. We also got this radio out of the plane and made it work, although only for a little while; suddenly a great voice talking in English about the Hun boomed out. My mother spoke very good English and told the partisans that the voice belonged to Churchill, that the front was moving in and that the Nazis were going to be annihilated. Next came this sound which has followed me around for ever, and has influenced my whole life completely, especially my career. It was bong, bong - it was Big Ben."

Nine months after the war finished, Ingrid and her mother were found by the Red Cross, and not a moment too soon. Her mother was dangerously ill with typhus and Ingrid had TB. After many months' treatment in hospital, they felt strong enough to begin their search for Ingrid's father. It took them a year of walking round all the displaced persons' camps before they finally located him in a cellar in Berlin.

"I knew such a strong, proud father. He was in the first Olympics in 1896; he rowed and was a fantastic athlete. But he'd been sent to special camp for all the intellectuals, so when we found him he looked like a little old man - all thin and bent. I did have a few years with him. I always sat on his lap on the balcony and looked at all the trees."

The family were able to reclaim their house in Berlin, which been confiscated during the war and was now on the east side of the city. Ingrid went to school for the first time, although she would much rather have stayed at home with her father. Her original ambition was to become a doctor. However, studying medicine was too painful; unable to dissect rats, or to cope with the misery of illness, she decided to become an actress: "I tried to get away from reality by imagining I was somebody else, somewhere else."

She trained with the Berlin Ensemble, founded by Bertolt Brecht. After she had criticised the authorities in East Berlin, police were sent to the theatre to arrest her. They were persuaded to wait until the final curtain, which allowed her time to escape across the border to the West, and eventually to the United States.

In America, Ingrid studied with Lee Strasberg, who was very happy with her portrayal of horror: "When I was in his class he would say: `Look, she's doing it really.' I used to think he was a prat. He used to make us take off our clothes to lose our inhibitions, and we had a violent argument. He screamed at me, and I can't bear people shouting because it reminds me of the Nazis who ordered us around in the concentration camp."

She played minor parts on television, but her career was idling until a conversation that took place over a game of poker with John Wayne. He told her about a part that was going in a movie adaptation of a book by Alistair Maclean, Where Eagles Dare. It was winning the part of Heidi, a double agent, that brought Ingrid to Britain for the first time.

"After finishing that film, I sat in the London Hilton thinking about having to leave England. It was early morning, and I had to pack my suitcase to go to the airport. I looked down from my bay window at the red buses, the black cabs and the Horse Guards riding into Hyde Park, and I sat there weeping, tears falling down my face, and then came the bong, bong of Big Ben. I knew I could never leave England. I had an agent in America who had all sorts of jobs lined up for me but I didn't go. Could I get a job here? Could I get an agent? Awful, but I didn't care. I was happy here, and I was going to stay in the land of Spitfires and cricket. I'm a stupid and obstinate woman.

"It's amazing how even a small event from your past can influence your whole future. It was wonderful for my child to grow up here, and if I'd left I'd never have met my husband. I would have had almost an empty life, because a life without love is an empty life, career or no career."

There were only two choices for movies in the Seventies in England: pornography and horror. "I didn't want to take my clothes off, so I became a vampire. The scripts were very good, and they've now become cult pictures. It is divine, because people just love them; it reconfirms me and it keeps me alive for ever - like the vampires I play. When I meet people they do not recoil in horror about how I've aged; quite the opposite: they say wonderful things, and I let them lie to me as much as they like. They see a 30-year-old film and somehow they see me as I was then. So loving and kind. I've never met a weird horror movie fan."

When acting slowed up, Ingrid Pitt turned to writing, and has published several books, including Katarina, which is based on her childhood experiences. She is currently working on Ingrid Pitt's Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers, and a movie that she wrote has just gone into production.

The second chapter of her life has definitely been a triumph over the first, but could she be said ever to have recovered from such nightmares? The modern answer would be intensive counselling to confront the past, but after the Second World War people just tried to forget. Ingrid has never met another concentration camp victim, and she seldom talks about the past - this is the first time she has done so to a newspaper journalist - because remembering is just too painful.

Although she would never consider undergoing counselling, she has developed her own strategy that resembles the latest vogue, cognitive therapy, which teaches how to replace painful thoughts with positive ones.

"My little great-niece Lola, whom I look after three days a week, thinks that all planes are Spitfires because I told her about them. She can't tell yet that a 747 is not like a Spitfire. I take her into the forest and teach her about trees, sunshine and flowers. When I see Lola walking with my husband, his big fingers holding her little hands, it is so funny. For every one step he takes, she takes three. When she sits on his lap it's like a time-warp - it could be my father and me. Somebody at her school picnic wanted to tear flowers off the stalks. `No, you can't do that, they will die,' she cried. That's me, you know.

"My bedroom has a massive window with trees all around. When I put Lola down for her afternoon nap, she likes to lie on the bed and look at those trees. I always say: `Look at them waving; they are all whispering, so they don't keep you from sleeping. They're saying, `Hi Lola, we'll stand here, and when you wake up we'll tell you a story.' So I have to make up a story for the trees. There's a small birch wood in Richmond Park, close to where I live; it reminds me of that forest in Poland. I often go there and feel the peace."

Deborah Ross is on holiday