Kubrick and the Jewish identity

Such a G.

Considering he was responsible for many of the greatest films of all time, it seems perverse to make a point of discussing the films that Stanley Kubrick did not end up directing . Then again, due to the elliptical nature of some of his narratives, many have made the goal of their critiques of Kubrick’s films to try and look beneath their surfaces, in essence talking frequently about things above and beyond what the director actually put up on the screen. Similarly, some of Kubrick’s film projects that never even made it to fruition can be illuminating when one examines the fragments that survive; for what they can tell you about Kubrick as an artist, and about his official body of work, and themes that run through it. I include this caveat as my introduction because it was in the years towards the end of his life that Stanley Kubrick seemed to make a particular habit of commenting, explicitly or obliquely, on the Jewish cultural identity. Unfortunately, in  this period, following his 1987 Vietnam War drama Full Metal Jacket, the only film he directed was 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, and even that was released – in an unfinished form – after his death in March of that year. But whilst the public and the media may have been met with a long silence in those last twelve years, adhering to his own iconoclastic methods, Kubrick was working all the while.

Whilst his family were Jewish, albeit largely non-practising, he had never been a filmmaker as fixated with his own cultural background as the yet-more-irreligious Woody Allen (although a 2013 Sight & Sound article by Nick Wrigley reveals he was a huge fan of Allen’s), who has dealt with the Jewish identity in countless films in his voluminous filmography; nor even a director along the lines of Sidney Lumet, who managed to fit in a couple of mea culpas to his heritage amongst his vastly diverse body of work in the form of The Pawnbroker (1964), a harrowing film on the dehumanising effects of the Holocaust on its survivors, and Bye Bye, Braverman (1968), an irreverent comedy about New York Jewish intellectuals. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to name a single Jewish character in any of Kubrick’s films, although that is not to say that there are none – examples like Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1965)’s Lieutenant Goldberg stand out (for balance’s sake, the film features the titular Dr Strangelove, a “former” Nazi who cannot stop himself from seig-heiling), although they are fairly tokenistic, and perhaps merely representative of the patriotic habit prevalent in studios’ military films of that era of displaying somewhat diverse regiments as a celebration of the American melting pot. Geoffrey Cocks writes in The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust that “Kubrick even wrote Jews out of the screenplays for five of the novels he filmed – Lionel White’s Clean Break (1955 – adapted into 1956’s The Killing), Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory (1935), Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), William Thackeray’s The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844) and Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story – mostly (but not wholly) for reasons of narrative economy.” (Pp.29)

Dream Story.

The latter is a particularly prominent omission. Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, variously known in English as Dream Story or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, is a 1926 picaresque novel in which a man has a kind of sexual-existential crisis following a discussion with his wife in which she reveals she has sexual fantasies for another man and undertakes a kind of ambulant odyssey through the streets of Vienna, running into an opulent sex cult populated by elite along the way in a rumination on sexuality, power, class and, crucially, ethnicity; because the protagonist Fridolin, like Schnitzler himself, was Jewish. In Austrians and Jews in the Twentieth Century, Robert S. Wistrich describes the author as an “outstanding cultural figure” who, along with other Jewish innovators like Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig “played a central role in creating modern culture.” (Wistrich, 1992: Pp.5) When Kubrick eventually adapted it into Eyes Wide Shut, he eschewed his original choice of “Woody Allen for the lead role, playing a Manhattan Jewish doctor in a dramatic, not a comedic role” (Cocks, 2004: Pp.29) for the “Harrison Ford-ish goy” (Raphael, 1999) Tom Cruise as Dr Bill Harford (Har-ford…geddit?) with Cruise’s then-wife, the also-decidedly-not-Jewish Nicole Kidman as Harford’s wife Alice.

Harford is still the reasonably affluent but aspirational Manhattanite that Kubrick had envisioned Allen playing, but Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian has suggested that without “the implication that the hero and his wife are Jewish … we do not have the savour of their aspirational qualities; we lose the significance of the hero being jostled in the street, an event which Kubrick reproduces, assigning the role of the aggressors to boorish jocks. Most importantly, we lose some of the socio-sexual aspect of this civilised couple’s discontents: the sense of how close sexual rejection is to social exclusion, and the sense that high society is like a thrillingly decadent party to which one is not invited.” (1999) However, I would argue that the latter theme is very much present in the film; Bill finds himself lacking in power not due to his background – although the film implies that elites (as exemplified by the sex cult populated by a coterie of the most wealthy, powerful and influential in society) are extremely hard for outsiders to penetrate – but seemingly as a result of his personal shortcomings; particularly those of his flawed masculinity. Nonetheless, this is an entirely separate concern to social exclusion on the grounds of one’s ethnicity. Jonathan Romney wrote in the New Statesman that “the fact that Kubrick instructed (co-writer Frederic) Raphael to suppress any Jewish references in the script makes the theme all the more suggestive as a hidden subtext” (1999), citing Jonathan Rosenbaum’s remark that “critic David Ehrenstein recently told me he thought Barry Lyndon (1975) was Kubrick’s most Jewish movie in its depiction of social exclusion, but that was before he saw Eyes Wide Shut.” (1999) So, whilst Kubrick greatly downplayed Traumnovelle’s Jewishness when he came to adapt it – with Raphael alleging that he “was convinced Jewish characters do not have a wide box-office appeal” (Cocks, 2004: Pp.29) – it has clearly struck some on a subtextual level.

In The New Jew in Film, however, Nathan Abrams writes that he has interpreted the character of Sydney Pollack’s Victor Ziegler as Jewish, labelling his introductory scene, in which Cruise must medically attend to an overdosing prostitute whom Ziegler has been having sex with in his lavish bathroom, “laden with antisemitic tropes.” (2012: Pp.203) Although he has only a couple of scenes, Ziegler is the primary antagonist of Eyes Wide Shut – hosting the party at the film’s start and putting an unmasked face to its elite sexual conspiracy – and possesses “Zeus-like access and power.” His biggest confrontation with Cruise is a tense 13-minute conversation “in a billiards room that seems to belong on Mount Olympus, like the chateau in Paths of Glory … and explains nothing conclusive apart from Harford’s ultimate remoteness from those reaches; Ziegler holds all the cards and he holds none.” (Rosenbaum, 1999) Abrams claims that the earlier bathroom scene reveals “the real nature and Jewishness of the outwardly respectable Victor Ziegler … (his) Jewishness is cemented in the bathroom, for it is there that his real but concealed nature is revealed;” his “pristine façade is a sham which, just like the bathroom, is hiding a proverbial underworld of sewage, shit and human waste.” Thus, Abrams concludes that “in this bathroom, so many traits stereotypically attached to the Jew are depicted that it is difficult not to read Ziegler as Jewish.” (Abrams, 2012:202-3) If this is the case, however, what Abrams thinks Kubrick’s motivations for such a portrayal might be are left a mystery. And there are certain flaws to Abrams’ hypothesis; the tight curls in Pollack’s hair are only signifiers of Jewishness innate to the character if you forget that slicked-back Italian-American Harvey Keitel previously occupied the role, unless you wish to believe Kubrick reconceived the role mid-production as grotesque anti-Semitic stereotype. A sentence in Cocks’ book, attributed to “a cousin of Kubrick’s wife” alleges that Kubrick was aware that his work might be interpreted this way and “was afraid of provoking antisemitism through Jewish characters in his films.” (Cocks, 2004:Pp.29) Remarking that everybody in the film appears to celebrate Christmas, James Naremore writes that he is “not sure what to make of the irony that the character who is coded as Jewish – Victor Ziegler, Bill’s super-wealthy patient – is also the most morally corrupt character.” (Naremore, 2007)

“A charming monster – a statement about class and power, and a composite of every Hollywood executive Kubrick ever had to contend with.” – Jonathan Rosenbaum

Some other theories around the themes of Jewishness in Kubrick’s work seem similarly questionable, based on speculation and conjecture. In Rodney Ascher’s conspiratorial documentary Room 237 (2012) – a film that gives voice to various, often fairly outlandish, perspectives on The Shining (1980) – Geoffrey Cocks explains in a lengthy disquisition that there is a “deeply laid” subtext to that film that concerns the Holocaust, and it is represented primarily by two motifs. “I began to see the number 42 appear in the film,” Cocks explains, “and for a German historian, if you put the number 42 and a German typewriter together you get the Holocaust, because it was in 1942 that the Nazis made the decision to go ahead and exterminate all the Jews.” The typewriter, which is called Adler (“Eagle” in German; a Nazi symbol) says of the Final Solution “that they could, and they did so in a highly mechanical, industrial, and bureaucratic way.” The image of the blood pouring through the corridor is cited as an allusion to the genocide or, also in Room 237, to the genocide perpetrated by the frontiersmen of North America against the Native Americans.

If it feels somewhat like the weight of the Holocaust has been retrospectively foisted upon The Shining, in some of Kubrick’s projects it has been there from the very germ of the idea, as in the case of the long-gestating A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, finally released in 2001, written and directed by Steven Spielberg from various treatments by Kubrick and Ian Watson. Original co-writer Brian Aldiss, on whose short story ‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’ A.I. was based, said that of the many approaches taken in his nascent drafts one element he favoured was “the Jewish side. Kubrick wanted the little boy, David, to be rejected and to be kicked out into what was referred to as Tin City; it was a sort of Skid Row for old robots and androids. They were going to be used until they were dead, in a sort of concentration camp way.” Indeed, Spielberg resurrected this theme of ghettoisation in the A.I. scene that introduces us to a sort of sentient scrapyard full of dilapidated artificial intelligence. However, little in Aldiss’ quote suggests that Kubrick was particularly keen on this direction for the story, and Spielberg has claimed that such dark flights of fancy came predominantly from his own mind, with the uncharacteristic, rather Spielbergian sentimentality from Kubrick’s (Leydon, 2002).

But Kubrick had endeavoured to convey the Jewish narrative on film before – emphatically, too, minus the allegory of A.I. or, allegedly, The Shining – with a minimal level of success. The first of these stories – which Kubrick conceived following the success of The Killing – would, like, Eyes Wide Shut, concern itself predominantly with sexuality, and would take him back to his family’s native Austria. Cocks writes that there was a legacy of ethnic turbulence in the area from which the Kubricks originated; that “the Kubrick homeland of Galicia had long been a place of national conflict and contention, with the Jews there regularly victimised by Austrians, Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians.” (2004:Pp.19) The film was to be an adaptation of the short story ‘Brennendes Geheimnis’ (Burning Secret) by the influential Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, a peer of Schnitzler, Freud and so forth. In the story, “a young baron who spots an attractive Jewish woman at a mountain spa, and idly decides to seduce her” (Baxter,1997: pp.86-7) and the woman’s young son must ultimately keep her affair from his father in the name of continued harmony. As well as his Jewish identity, the Burning Secret project was redolent of what John Baxter calls Kubrick’s “European cultural perspective,” particularly “the Austro-Hungarian Empire from which his family derived and in particular fin de siècle Vienna and Berlin,” and exemplified by “his admiration for Ophuls and Strauss (Johann and Richard); his plans to film Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Stefan Zweig’s Burning Secret, Polish-born novelist Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies…” (1997:Pp.13) The project was abandoned after protracted contractual wrangling with MGM. (Pp.89) Also planned in this late-1950s period was The German Lieutenant, described by Cocks as “typical of films of the era about the Second World War” in that it “does not address Nazi racism or the Holocaust, confining itself to the Gestapo’s pursuit of ‘good’ Germans who have displayed doubts about whether the war is good for Germany,” (2004:Pp.154) suggesting an empathetic account of the wartime lives of “good Germans” who may not have been Nazis, perhaps akin to Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 film Cross of Iron (although probably less violent) or, y’know, George Clooney’s The Good German (2006).

Kubrick's Unfinished "Aryan Papers" - Research Photographs
A fraction of Kubrick’s extensive research on the Warsaw ghetto, undertaken for Wartime Lies.

Of Kubrick’s obsessively detailed, research-heavy filmmaking methods, Jon Ronson has said “I suppose the downside of immersing yourself in the details comes when your thought process takes you somewhere where the detail is impossible to take.” He mentions “boxes and boxes from the ‘80s filled with immense research for an eventually abandoned Holocaust film called Wartime Lies,” (Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, 2008) a name taken from a book by Louis Begley, although an earlier article by Ronson in The Guardian shows that Kubrick continued researching the project – which he had renamed the Aryan Papers after “the term for the documents needed in occupied Europe to avoid deportation” (Baxter, 1997:Pp.361) – at least into 1996 (Ronson, 2004). It was “the story of Maciek, the young son of a wealthy Jewish family forced to flee when the Germans invade Poland. He becomes the responsibility of his beautiful aunt Tania, who resourcefully finds ways of hiding in occupied Warsaw. She takes a collaborationist lover and, when his protection fails, flees with Maciek into the countryside, where she supports them by dealing in black-market vodka. The relationship between them becomes so intimate that it colours the rest of Maciek’s life.” (Baxter, 1997:Pp.360) But in Ronson’s documentary, Kubrick’s widow Christiane Harlan explains that the project took a mental toll on him; “he’d sit crumpled in the corner and start to cry. So that’s why he gave that up.” No wonder, when Kubrick had afforded the script, which he was atypically writing alone, a typically labourious attention to detail; “Kubrick asked … if (Begley) had the music for a song mentioned in the story. When Begley said he didn’t, Kubrick asked him if he could sing it. Begley sang it down the line and Kubrick recorded it.” (Pp.361)

Indeed, it is arguable that Kubrick’s rigorous attitude to research slowed the Aryan Papers down considerably. In April 1993 “the trade press announced that Phil Hobbs was in Denmark on Kubrick’s behalf, scouting forests for Aryan Papers. Two thousand photographs were sent back to Childwickbury for assessment and filing.” (Pp.260) But in the time Kubrick took to do his research, Steven Spielberg managed to get from pre to post-production on his own Holocaust drama, Schindler’s List (1993) and, accordingly, “Kubrick’s interest in Aryan Papers waned.” (Pp.361) The success of Schindler’s List seemed to take the wind out of Kubrick’s sails, and it is suggested in Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes that he felt audiences would not be ready to so willingly accept another hard-hitting Holocaust drama so soon; although I would argue that it is a subject with enough breadth and weight to benefit from multiple perspectives, particularly Kubrick’s due to the depth and nuance of his filmmaking. Whilst a great friend and collaborator of Spielberg’s (Naremore, 2007:258), Kubrick had some disparaging words for Schindler’s List, claiming that “the Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred who don’t.” (Cocks, 2004: Pp.157) Nevertheless, whilst Ronson’s documentary and article show that he had clearly not entirely ceased work on the Aryan Papers, “utterly unexpectedly, in December 1995, Warner Brothers issued a press release that Kubrick would make Eyes Wide Shut, from a screenplay by British novelist Frederic Raphael,” whose 1971 novel Who Were You With Last Night? was, like Eyes Wide Shut, a modernised update of Traumnovelle.

And so Kubrick left his most explicitly Jewish project for one that pointedly deemphasised its Jewishness, yet let it linger in the form of more than one powerful subtext. It is trajectories like this that make it hard to draw a cohesive picture of the Jewish identity as represented by Stanley Kubrick’s work; all these failed projects, omissions and elliptical allusions that touch only vaguely on the subject at hand, and may or may not even be there (to this, I give you the typewriter). But, to return to my introductory idea of fragments, there are many that are perceptible throughout his filmography – submerged deep in other films, or lost in the depths of “development hell” – that do point towards a unique Kubrickian take on Jewishness; they are merely interspersed tightly with ideas pertaining to a number of separate concerns by a director with as little interest in being bound by cultural identity as he was by themes or genres.

On the outside looking in.


Abrams, N. (2012). The New Jew in Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Baxter, J. (1997). Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Begley, L. (1991). Wartime Lies. New York: Knopf.

Bradshaw, P. (1999). Eyes Wide Shut. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/1999/sep/10/3 [Accessed 7 May 2015].

Cocks, G. (2004). The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust. New York: P. Lang.

Hilberg, R. (1961). The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Hirsch, J. (2004). Afterimage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Krämer, P. (2011). A Clockwork Orange. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Leydon, J. (2002). The Moving Picture by Joe Leydon. [online] Movingpictureshow.com. Available at: http://www.movingpictureshow.com/dialogues/mpsSpielbergCruise.html [Accessed 7 May 2015].

McBride, J. (1997). Steven Spielberg. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Naremore, J. (2007). On Kubrick. London: British Film Institute.

Raphael, F. (1971). Who Were You With Last Night?. London: Cape.

Raphael, F. (1999). A Kubrick Odyssey – The New Yorker. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1999/06/14/a-kubrick-odyssey [Accessed 7 May 2015].

Romney, J. (1999). Exclusion zone. [online] Newstatesman.com. Available at: http://www.newstatesman.com/node/135620 [Accessed 7 May 2015].

Ronson, J. (2004). Citizen Kubrick. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2004/mar/27/features.weekend [Accessed 7 May 2015].

Rosenbaum, J. (1999). In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. [online] Chicago Reader. Available at: http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/in-dreams-begin-responsibilities/Content?oid=899756 [Accessed 7 May 2015].

Schnitzler, A. (1926). Traumnovelle. Berlin: S. Fischer.

Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes. (2008). [film] UK: Jon Ronson.

Wistrich, R. (1992). Austrians and Jews in the Twentieth Century. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press.

Wrigley, N. (2013). Stanley Kubrick, cinephile. [online] British Film Institute. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/polls-surveys/stanley-kubrick-cinephile [Accessed 7 May 2015].

Zweig, S. and Bell, A. (2008). Burning Secret. London: Pushkin Press.


One thought on “Kubrick and the Jewish identity

  1. I’ll say more in this in my forthcoming book Stanlry Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual (Rutgers UP) but for now Keitel is Jewish not Italian; it’s precisely because he’s Italian that I think Kubrick ditched him…


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