July 15, 2019

Stanley Kubrick: Subliminal Jew

Photo from Flickr.

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” stated German philosopher Theodor Adorno.

Jews did, of course, create all types of art after World War II, even works of great beauty. But what about the young Jewish artists who came of age right after the Holocaust?

Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx in 1928. His maternal grandmother spoke Yiddish, but his home was not religious. (He once said he was “not really a Jew, but just happened to have two Jewish parents.”) 

Yet Kubrick certainly felt the awkwardness of being an outsider, a theme that turned up frequently in his films. He confronted blatant anti-Semitism — he was barred from restaurants and hotels in the South and was denied a table in Vermont. Even Hollywood was far from receptive early on. “Get that little Jewboy from the Bronx off my crane,” famed cinematographer Russell Metty once grumbled.

Kubrick’s observant sense of the outsider no doubt fueled the innovative brilliance of his early photographs. A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs,” focuses exclusively on Kubrick’s early work as a photographer for Look magazine. In 1945, at just 17, he sold his first photo to the magazine — an image of a dejected newsstand vendor the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

In the exhibition’s 130 images, you can see Kubrick’s uncanny artistic sensibility, finding inspiration in New York’s characters and settings. An acute observer of human interaction, Kubrick was brilliant at capturing the grit and dark glamour of the city — nightclubs, street scenes, sporting events — and trained his eye to capture poignant moments. He spent five years at the magazine, until he began work on his first independently produced documentary, “Day of the Fight.”

The exhibition’s curators claim  Kubrick’s photography laid the technical and aesthetic foundations for his iconic films. In terms of framing, lighting and composition, that would appear to be the case. There is even a poetry to some of them, however dark.

In a new book, “Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual,” author Nathan Abrams asserts that if you look closely enough, the tension between being a cultural and religious Jew turns up frequently in Kubrick’s work. 

Kubrick consistently worked with Jewish writers and actors. In general, Kubrick obfuscated the Jewishness of some of his characters, but expanded the roles that were “coded” for Jews. “2001: A Space Odyssey” plays with the Bible, Jewish liturgy and kabbalah. And Abrams argues “Eyes Wide Shut” is Kubrick’s most Jewish film, adapted from a Jewish author and heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud. 

But what’s most apparent in Kubrick’s films is the extraordinary effect the Holocaust had on him. According to Abrams, Kubrick read every word he could find on the subject. He became obsessed with darkness, perversity and evil, and with what it took for a soul to go from light to dark, for humanity to die on the inside.

Nazi or Holocaust references turn up frequently in his films. Out of nowhere in “Lolita” the title character shouts “Sieg Hiel!” at her mother with a Nazi salute. “Dr. Strangelove” is about the mundane processes of mass murder. “Full Metal Jacket” sports Naziesque generals. Kubrick’s films are filled with explosives, gunfire, firing squads and bombs.

Did the Holocaust destroy Kubrick’s own soul? There is little beauty — poetry — in Kubrick’s films. He ended up fulfilling Adorno’s most famous quote.

For the last 20 years of his life (he died in 1999, at 71), Kubrick worked on “Aryan Papers,” based on Louis Begley’s “Wartime Lies,” about a Jewish boy pretending to be Catholic to survive the war. But he was never able to finish it and was known to be very depressed when working on it. 

This may have been for the best. A Kubrick Holocaust movie would probably have been unbearable to watch.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic. 

Stanley Kubrick’s Unrealized Vision

When Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999 during the post-production of his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” he left behind several pet projects he had been working on for decades. These included a science-fiction riff on “Pinocchio” (later finished by Steven Spielberg as “A.I.”), a historical biopic of the life of Napoleon and a Holocaust project with the working title “Aryan Papers.”

The recently released “Stanley Kubrick Archives,” an unwieldy coffee-table tome published by Taschen, sheds new light on the famously secretive director’s failed project. An essay by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producer, details Kubrick’s longtime pursuit of the Holocaust as a subject for a film. Harlan writes of traveling to New York in 1976 to try and interest Isaac Bashevis Singer in contributing an original screenplay. What Kubrick sought from Singer was a “dramatic structure that compressed the complex and vast information into the story of an individual who represented the essence of this manmade hell.”

Singer, who—unlike many of his friends—was not a Holocaust survivor, gratefully declined, saying, “I don’t know the first thing” about the Holocaust.”

Kubrick shelved the project until 1991, when he read Louis Begley’s short novel, “Wartime Lies,” about a Jewish boy and his aunt who survive the war by snaking their way through Poland, pretending to be Catholics. Begley’s autobiographical tale so intrigued Kubrick that he was willing to shoot the project abroad—a dramatic decision for the director, who hadn’t left England for more than three decades. Kubrick got the go-ahead from Warner Bros.—which publicly announced the project as “Aryan Papers” (a reference to the documents required to escape deportation) in 1993—and he got fairly far along in the pre-production, hiring set and costume designers and casting several of the main roles. For the role of the boy’s aunt, Tanya, Kubrick considered Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman. However, preparations ceased when it became known that Spielberg had started working on “Schindler’s List.” Fearing competition, Kubrick shelved the project for a second and final time, and devoted his energies to “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Kubrick’s lifelong fascination with the Holocaust coexisted with extreme doubt as to whether any film could do justice to the subject. In 1980, he told the author Michael Herr that what he wanted most was to make a film about the Holocaust, “but good luck in putting all that into a two-hour movie.” Frederic Raphael, who co-authored the screenplay for “Eyes Wide Shut,” recalls Kubrick questioning whether a film truly can represent the Holocaust in its entirety. After Raphael suggested “Schindler’s List,” Kubrick replied, “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?”

The scholar Geoffrey Cocks has written extensively about Kubrick’s fascination with the Nazi era. In numerous essays and a book, “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” he argues that the Holocaust serves as the “veiled benchmark of evil” in many of Kubrick’s films, specifically “The Shining.” According to Cocks, the failure to bring “Aryan Papers” to fruition had to do with a profound awareness of “the problem of how to do ethical and artistic justice to the depiction of the horror of mass extermination,” a problem that has—in one form or another—plagued all postwar artists. Unlike Harlan, who recalls Kubrick’s great enthusiasm for the project, Cocks quotes Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, as telling him that Kubrick was horribly depressed throughout his work on “Aryan Papers.”

The Holocaust was such a sensitive issue that Kubrick’s reaction took the form of approach and avoidance, Cocks argues. Though Kubrick never confronted the subject head-on—and the scant appearance of Nazis in his films take the form of parody (as in “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lolita”)—Cocks writes that “[a]s a Jew in a gentile world, Kubrick would use his position as an outsider with a deep sensitivity to social injustice to expose the dark underside of society.”

A quote from Kubrick on the connection between rape and Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange” illustrates Cocks’s assertion: “[It] suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men, but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.”

Kubrick was a master at exploring the darker side of human nature, whether it was sexual obsession (“Lolita”) or the will to power (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) or human cruelty (“A Clockwork Orange”). It’s fascinating and terrifying to imagine what Kubrick’s Holocaust might have looked like.

Reprinted with permission from The Forward.
A.J. Goldmann is a writer living in New York.

Hebrew Secret

The discussion was con-fidential when Roger Richman, attorney for Hebrew University of Jerusalem, met with Bonnie Curtis, Steven Spielberg’s producer on "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence." Spielberg needed the university’s help on his top-secret film, about a robot child who longs to become a real boy.

Spielberg had written the screenplay based on a detailed treatment and storyboards commissioned by his friend, the late Stanley Kubrick. One of those sketches depicted Dr. Know, a hologram in an arcade game who provides key information to the hero. "It was very important to us to maintain Stanley’s original vision of an Albert Einstein-like character [for Dr. Know]," Curtis told The Journal.

Enter Hebrew University, which has owned Einstein’s image since 1955, when the scientist bequeathed his archive and likeness to the school.

Because the university is protective of Einstein, licensing expert Richman carefully studied pages of the script pertaining to Dr. Know (voiced in the movie by Robin Williams) and met with Curtis to scrutinize the character’s design. During their closed-door session, Curtis opened her portfolio to reveal the whimsical Einstein caricature, complete with bristly mustache and fluffy white hair. Richman instantly approved.

Though studios usually pay hefty fees to use Einstein’s image, Warner Bros. got it free for a 12-minute scene in "A.I."

That’s because Spielberg’s ties to the school date back to 1987, when he received the university’s Scopus Award and endowed its Jewish film archive with contributions that have reached $1 million.

After meeting with university President Menachem Magidor to discuss "A.I." and other issues in December, Spielberg made another major gift to the archive, which bears his name. Spielberg will also receive a 2002 honorary doctorate from Hebrew U. "A.I." has brought him even closer to the university, an observer said.

The Kubrick Legacy

The news of director Stanley Kubrick’s death in England is a premature finis to an unprecedented career in film.

To legions of fans and wannabe filmmakers, the 70-year-old filmmaker was a master. More than Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Lean or Kurosawa, all of who received the Director’s Guild Lifetime Achievement nod, he was in sole control of his world both on and offscreen — unheard of then and definitely unheard of now.

For an actor, a summons to work with Kubrick was the imprimatur on a career.

Tom Cruise, at the height of his Hollywood bankability, and his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, were supposedly ecstatic to give almost two years and a relocation to London for the making “Eyes Wide Shut.” A reputed slave driver on the set, Kubrick’s death from a heart attack instantly gives “Eyes” event film status.

If the film, shot with Kubrick’s customary obsessiveness, rises to the level of “Spartacus,” “2001, a Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange,” his reputation will be safe.

Kubrick would never have been accused of being a warm person. He viewed the world with a sardonic, even cruel detachment.

The son of a Jewish doctor, the Bronx-raised Kubrick moved in what was virtually an all-Jewish circle. Many Jewish kids during that time wanted nothing more than to belong to the mainstream, to become a “real American.” Kubrick wasn’t interested. He didn’t join any school clubs, or show up for football games. He wasn’t even academically driven.

On the occasion of his being honored by the Director’s Guild with its D.W. Griffiths Lifetime Achievement Award, Kubrick, the man Oscar-nominated a dozen times, joked, “Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film knows that, although it can be like trying to write ‘War and Peace’ in a bumper car in an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.”

After working as a photographer for Look Magazine in the late 1940s, Kubrick made his film directorial debut with a 16-minute boxing documentary “Day of the Fight.”

His first feature film, “Fear and Desire,” was made in 1953 for a meager $100,000. He followed up his debut with noir classics like “The Killer’s Kiss” and “The Killing.”

In 1960, Kubrick made “Spartacus,” starring Kirk Douglas. Originally intended for director Anthony Mann, the Hollywood epic wasn’t really Kubrick’s style, and he complained about its “pretty dumb script.” But under his direction, “Spartacus” proved that a historical epic could involve real emotions and believable human beings.

In 1961, Kubrick went to England to make “Lolita,” and decided to stay. Fear of flying restricted Kubrick’s movements and, by the late 1960s, kept him isolated in a walled mansion outside of London, where he found sanctuary and anonymity. But his anxieties didn’t limit his artistic courage. From that time on, he made his films according to his own set of rules: No studio interference.

From his empire outside London, Kubrick crafted some of his most important films, including “Dr. Strangelove,” and “A Clockwork Orange,” in which he anticipated an urban future of violent youth.

Whether dubbed a success or failure, every Kubrick film was different. From 1980’s “The Shining,” with its dark claustrophobic hotel and Jack Nicholson’s disturbing star turn, to 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket,” a Vietnam horror story, Kubrick illustrated a leap inconceivable to any other director.

Kubrick’s relationship to World War II and the Holocaust was complicated. After marrying two Jewish women — the first his high school sweetheart, the second an Austrian refugee ballerina — he wed German actress Christiane Harlan, whom he met when he cast her as a young German girl in “Paths of Glory.” The daughter of two opera singers and third generation of a family of musicians and artists, Harlan had also been a member of Hitler Youth, and her uncle made the infamous Nazi propaganda film “Jew Suss.”

Nevertheless, Kubrick was proceeding with his film project on the Nazi conquest of Europe. He acquired a suitable property — Louis Begley’s 1991 novel “Wartime Lies,” set in Poland. He was to have begun shooting in Denmark in 1994 when Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” pre-empted him — just as Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” had stolen “Full Metal Jacket’s” thunder.

The project was dropped and Kubrick moved on to “Eyes Wide Shut.” According to Warner Bros. executives who viewed the final cut just a few weeks ago, Kubrick deemed the film complete. Early obituaries have quoted Kubrick as being ecstatic over the film, considering it his best. Nothing better characterized Kubrick than the hoary old Hollywood joke that gets updated for each generation of young filmmakers:

“Steven Spielberg dies and goes to heaven. Greeted by St. Peter, he spots a man with a thick beard, thinning hair and glasses pedaling a bicycle.

Spielberg: Isn’t that Stanley Kubrick?

St. Peter: No that’s God. He only thinks he’s Stanley Kubrick.”

Ivor Davis, who writes a weekly column distributed worldwide by The New York Times Syndicate, has covered the entertainment industry for more than 25 years.