The Man Who Fled the Nazis and Fought the Martians

2023 marks several important anniversaries for science fiction television. In North America, both Babylon 5 and The X-Files celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut episodes. Across the Atlantic, the British long-running time travel drama Dr. Who celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. More significant, though, is another British production, which debuted a decade before Dr. Who and now celebrates its 70th anniversary – The Quatermass Experiment, the first of four serials to present rocket scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass, who finds himself leading a struggle against a new form of alien threat in each new installment of the franchise. Dr. Who, Babylon 5 and The X-Files all owe a huge debt to the Quatermass stories, and staff members in all these show have acknowledged the influence that these stories had on them.

Tracing the roots of this influence, though, can be a tricky affair. The first three Quatermass serials, originally broadcasted in 1953, 1955 and 1958, were never widely available in North America, and fourth serial, broadcasted in 1979, was given a limited American release in edited form. Americans familiar with the Professor Quatermass’ adventures probably learned of the character from big screen adaptations of the first three serials produced by the Hammer film studio between the mid-1950s and the later 1960s. These films, done on bigger budgets than the original serials, featured more fancy sets and better special effects (for their time) than the original serials did. What all three films lack, though, is the unique touch given to the original television serial scripts by their director, Rudolph Cartier. And this touch is strongly related to the director’s Jewish heritage.

Born 1904 to a Jewish Austrian family (his original name was Rudolph Kacser), Cartier began his career writing for stage theatre in his country before moving to Germany in 1929 and starting a prolific screenwriting career in the thriving film industry of the Weimar Republic. He made his directorial debut in 1933 with the thriller film Invisible Opponent. Just as it seemed he was on the path to professional success, though, the Nazi party came to power in Germany, and Cartier decided to leave the country.

Almost two decades of unremarkable filmmaking followed for Cartier outside Germany. After a short, unsuccessful exile in Hollywood, he settled in the United Kingdom. Throughout the war (during which his relatives, who remained in Germany and Austria, perished in the holocaust) and most of the first post-war decade, he worked as a writer on minor film projects.

Then, in 1952, his luck changed when he was invited to work in the BBC’s television drama department. Cartier’s directing style immediately caught attention, as it was completely different from anything else on television. At a time when all television broadcasts, including drama and comedy, where done live on a studio stage with a static camera, Cartier brought a distinctively more cinematic approach to the productions he worked on, including dramatic camera angles, close-ups, and pre-filmed edited segments that were integrated into the live broadcasts.

With his stylish work in high demand, Cartier found himself helming a very eclectic variety of productions, including a 1952 adaptation of the famous S. Ansky Jewish play The Dybbuk (sadly, no surviving copies of the production exist, as far as I have been able to determine). In the same year, he collaborated with screenwriter Nigel Kneale on adaptation of the World War II play Arrow to the Heart, leading to their iconic collaboration the following year on The Quatermass Experiment.

The serial opens with the celebratory return of first manned mission to space. Celebrations are cut short, however, when it turns out that two of the three astronauts who participated in the mission are missing, and the third went insane. As Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, investigates into the matter, he discovers that the astronaut was infected with an alien parasite, and must convince his colleagues and the authorities to aid him in eliminating this threat to humanity’s existence.

Upon its debut, The Quatermass Experiment was ahead of anything genre television had to offer, in the United Kingdom or anywhere else. As noted by critic and author Kim Newman, at a time when American television output in the genre consisted of juvenile affairs as Captain Video and his Video Rangers, Kneale and Cartier gave their audience a decidedly adult drama. The serial made the horror invading the lives of the unsuspecting happy citizens of post-war Britain truly disturbing, and its protagonist’s struggle against this horror extremely realistic, as he must deal with skeptic representatives of the law and navigate through workplace politics within his own group.

Unfortunately, today’s audience is largely deprived of this important piece of television history. Neither the big-screen adaptation, directed by Val Guest in 1955 (released in North America under the title “The Creeping Unknown”) and not written by Kneale, nor the BBC’s big-budget attempt at a live-broadcast remake of the original provide a satisfying viewing experience. Kneale’s original script was published in a book, but it is long out of print, and used copies are not cheap.

From the original serial directed by Cartier, however, only the first two episodes survived in low-quality recordings. It is clear that Cartier tried to get as creative as possible with his limited production sources – bland sets and few props – and he did so by keeping the frame always busy with as many characters present that the camera shows by either moving slowly or through soft cuts. This approach artfully captured the atmosphere of the different segments from Kneale’s script, from the tense waiting in the rocket group’s control room to the amusing public and media frenzy at the rocket’s crash site, yet one memorable short moment in the first episode, where no actors appear, is perhaps best evident of Cartier’s great talent. It shows the crashed rocket on a suburban house, with baby cry heard in the background. This nuanced scene, lasting only seconds, is a chilling sign of the coming catastrophe.

Another sign for this catastrophe, also masterfully handled by Cartier (and demonstrating his gift for guiding his cast) happens when Professor Quatermass and his young assistant help the surviving astronaut, Victor, out of his rocket and proceed to remove his helmet. Victor, played by Duncan Lamont, is not just horrified by whatever abomination that caught up with him during his journey through space; his expression is haunted, traumatized. Did Cartier – consciously or subconsciously – channeled the images of death-camp survivors, who also went through monstrous experiences, in this scene? I cannot tell for sure, but I do believe that this is exactly what went through his mind on his next collaboration with Kneale.

The Quatermass Experiment proved to be a huge success, and the BBC was quick to assign Kneale and Cartier to another science fiction production – an adaptation of George Orwell’s acclaimed dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Broadcasted in 1954 amidst strong controversy (many questioned whether public television should broadcast a production with such unprecedented level of brutality for its time), the 105-minute adaptation featured more impressive visuals than The Quatermass Experiment but still relied heavily on Cartier’s stylish approach to deliver its themes. Nineteen Eighty-Four strongly demonstrates its director’s German-expressionistic roots in its many games with lights and shadows. These provided the sense of its protagonist, Winston Smith (wonderfully portrayed by young Peter Cushing) being in constant fear of the oppressive regime in his country, never sure if his brief escapes from his daily routine at the service of the state are being monitored or not. Cartier, himself a former refugee from a totalitarian regime, clearly drew of not only his artistic, but also from his very personal experience.

Perhaps the most chilling sequence in the adaptation takes place toward its end, when Smith is tortured by government official O’Brien (Andre Morell). Cartier shot the sequence almost completely from Winston’s point of view – viewers see O’Brien’s face filling the screen as he calmly explains Smith how his fate is sealed, all while Smith’s cries of agony are heard in the background. At the end of the sequence, viewers finally get to see Smith himself, now a man broken both physically and mentally, not unlike the images of concentration camp prisoners that must have haunted Cartier, who knew that this was very much the fate waiting for him had he not fled Germany in time.

Quatermass II debuted in 1955, merely two years after the first installment, but watching the show makes it clear that things have changed significantly. The Quatermass Experiment was, underneath its horrific scenario of alien invasion, an optimistic affair – celebrating post-war prosperity and a collaboration between the United Kingdom and its former enemies from the war in the exploration of space. When Kneale and Cartier started working on Quatermass II, cold-war fears from communism have settled in.

The second serial’s plot finds Professor Quatermass, who prepares for the launch of his second rocket to space, facing a new threat of alien invasion – meteor debris landing in Britain serve as means for aliens to take over human bodies, with the aliens’ final goal to make Earth habitable for them (and deadly for humans). His investigation leads him to a strange facility, supposedly owned by the government, and he discovers that under the guise of a food factory, the place is actually a base for the aliens, used to provide atmospheric conditions under which alien bodies can grow.

In one of the most memorable sequences of the serial, the professor, along with several armed construction workers that he managed to convince of the threat of alien menace, make their stand within the factory where they have managed to cause significant damage to the aliens’ breeding program. The factory’s “management” (humans under alien control) tries to convince the workers to lay down their weapons, come out and see for themselves that the factory is just an innocent facility. Despite Quatermass’ pleas, some of the workers are tempted, step out, and meet their dreadful fate a few minutes later.

Again, Cartier’s handling of the sequence is incredible. It starts with the positioning of the different parties in the argument of whether or not to accepts the proposal of the “management: Quatermass and his supporters are standing on a higher section of the machine room in the factory, while those tempted to accept the offer are standing on the lower section, representing their coming descent to their doom. On their way to meet the “management”, these workers are seen surrounded by a limelight before stepping into the darkness from which they’ll never return.

The sequence concludes with a horrifying scene in which Quatermass and the workers who remained in the room inspect an oxygen pipe and discover the not only did the aliens kill the workers who were foolish enough to believe them but they also filled the pipe with their bodies to prevent the oxygen from flowing. While BBC guidelines at the time probably wouldn’t have allowed something as graphic as showing the characters pull body parts out of the pipe, Cartier handles the scene in a more nuanced but nonetheless effective way – one of the workers reaches with his hand into the pipe, pulls his hand out to discover there’s blood on it, and his expression changes in horror as he realizes what happened.

Much like Cartier’s previous work on Nineteen Eighty-Four, the sequence on Quatermass II bears strong parallels to the very real horrors of the holocaust. The workers discover that they have, in fact, been working in a death-factory for their own kind; their uprising, led by Quatermass, brings to mind the few hopeless uprisings in ghettos in death camps; and the aliens’ attempt to convince the workers to lay down their weapons echo Nazi propaganda that was meant to keep Jews ignorant about their coming fate.

Cartier’s final collaboration with Kneale on Quatermass and the Pit in 1958 also reflects the great shifts in political reality in the three years that passed since the broadcast of its predecessor. In the third Quatermass serial, Britain no longer sends rockets to space, and the plot carries a strong post-imperial, and even anti-imperial subtext, with its negative portrayal of the notion of conquests in general and the British military in particular. The people of Britain have modest ambitions for their future in the third serial – to simply live their everyday lives of post-war prosperity. It is just then that their past comes to haunt them.

The series begins with the discovery of a strange object during construction works in London. The army concludes, and keeps insisting that the object is the remains of a German rocket that fell in London during the war; Quatermass and his team suspect that something far more ancient and sinister is at work. As they investigate, they discover that the object is actually a spaceship from Mars, sent by an alien race that took an active part in human evolution, trying to make the human race more aggressive and warlike, while attempting to diminish human elements that did not fit their standards.

Although considered by many fans to be the finest Quatermass serial (with its big-screen adaptation, directed by Roy Ward Baker nine years later, respectively considered to be the best of the Quatermass films), watching Quatermass and the Pit today can be a trying experience for the modern audience’s patience. The serial is a slow-moving affair, even in comparison to its two predecessors, and relies heavily on explanatory dialogue. Horrors really break out toward the end of the serial, when the alien spaceship’s mechanism is activated. It send high-pitched sounds that “turn on” latent abilities in many of London’s residents, empowering them with telekinesis, but also sending them on a violent frenzy, making them look for and kill other residents – those whose genes do not fit with the aliens’ evolutionary plan.

Kneale’s inspiration for this sequence of events was the race riots of 1958, when Caribbean immigrants in London found themselves under violent attacks from white mobs. Cartier clearly found some inspiration for directing the sequence in his own biography – a man who saw how his trusted friends and respectable colleagues in Germany suddenly reject him, believing the he was not a part of, and in fact an enemy of their own “Master Race”. In one of the serials most memorable scenes, Professor Quatermass (now played by Andre Morell, previously the torturer in Nineteen Eighty-Four) comes under the influence of alien’s ship and fights to gain control of himself to avoid killing his friend and colleague Dr. Matthew Roney (played by Jewish actor Cec Linder) who does not fit the aliens’ genetic criteria. It is a terrific scene, a real acting showpiece for both actors and another evidence of Cartier’s talent in guiding his cast.

Cartier and Kneale went their separate ways following the production of Quatermass and the Pit. Cartier’s post-Quatermass career remained highly eclectic, consisting of stage play adaptations and opera productions for television, as well as historical dramas, some dealing with World War II and the Holocaust. He also helmed several more science fiction productions, notably an adaptation of former Israeli writer Mordecai Roshwald’s dystopian novel Level 7, broadcasted as part of the anthology series Out of the Unknown headed by Jewish producer Irene Shubik.

Kneale continued to focus most of his creative output on science fiction and horror after Quatermass, writing acclaimed genre productions as the futuristic satire The Year of the Sex Olympics and the technological horror story The Stone Tape. In 1979, he returned to his most iconic and beloved protagonist, Professor Bernard Quatermass, in a new serial produced for the ITV commercial network, simply titled Quatermass (or Quatermass Conclusion in its heavily edited North American release).

Shot in color and in outdoor locations, and made on a bigger budget than any of the previous Quatermass serials, the serial marked a big change from the old days of live broadcasts from the BBC studios. The post-war prosperity celebrated in the previous serials was gone as well: the new serial presented its viewers with a grim vision of Britain’s near future – signs of collapsing economy and violent chaos are everywhere. As with previous serials, this echoed the very real crisis that Britain went through during the 1970s, when it was came to be known as “The Sick Man of Europe”. Against this backdrop, the aging Professor Quatermass (John Mills) is looking for his missing granddaughter, a quest that confronts him with “The Planet People”, a large cult of young people who gather in stone circles and other sites with supernatural reputation, where they believe they will be taken by benevolent aliens to better life on a distant planet. There is definitely an alien presence involved in these gatherings, but it is anything but benevolent – the gatherings turn out to be extermination sites for the ignorant young people who come to them.

Cartier retired by the time that Quatermass was produced, and directing duties went to Piers Haggard, famous for his helming of the cult horror film Blood on Santa’s Claw and the Dennis Potter musical drama Pennies from Heaven. Interestingly, though, it was in Cartier’s absence that Kneale referred to Jewish existence in a manner that is more elaborate than in any previous Quatermass production. In his search for his granddaughter, Professor Quatermass enlists the help of Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), a young Astronomer who is the complete antithesis to everything the violent, rag-wearing science-hating Planet People represent: a well-educated, rational person who still dreams of scientific exploration of the secrets of the universe. Even more importantly, Kapp is family man, and with his family, he performs the Jewish ceremonies that maintained its identity through generations. Against the serial’s grim backdrop, Kneale chose to present adhering to Jewish tradition as an extension of rational scientific thought, and as a contrast to what he perceived as dangerous New Age rejection of science and logic by the British youth of the 1970s (of which Kneale clearly did not have a high opinion). Was it a tribute to his old colleague Cartier (whose work was fondly described by Kneale as “a combination of natural ebullience and Viennese charm”)? Perhaps. However, it could have also been a tribute to Kneale’s own wife, author Judith Kerr, who also came from a family of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and described her childhood ordeals in a series of acclaimed young-adult novels.

Either way, this was not the last time that Kneale’s work touched upon Jewish themes. Despite the fourth serial’s lukewarm reception, he had plans that never materialized for another Quatermass story, a prequel in which the Professor saves Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany. His final writing credit, a 1997 episode for the legal drama Kavanagh QC dealing with the prosecution of a Nazi war criminal in Britain, decades after the end of World War II. Kneale passed away nine years later, in 2006; Cartier passed away in 1994.

The Quatermass Experiment‘s 70th anniversary is a good time to remember the great contribution that the serial and its sequels had to the science fiction genre on television – and that this contribution has its Jewish side as well.