Kubrick’s Lost Holocaust Film
America’s greatest Jewish director was haunted by the Nazi horror—too much to address it directly in film
The subject he most wanted to make a film about, Stanley Kubrick once said, was the Holocaust—“But good luck putting all of that into a 2-hour movie.” Kubrick, who directed 13 feature-length films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining, was fascinated by manifestations of power in his films but was deeply fearful of its existence in the real world. Born in 1928 on the cusp of World War II, Kubrick was raised in the Bronx by secular parents and demonstrated little to no interest in Judaism, or religion in general. Though the fact of Kubrick’s Jewishness is largely unknown among his fans and had little impact in his everyday existence—he never had a bar mitzvah and not one his three marriages was a Jewish ceremony—being a Jew in what he perceived as a largely unfriendly world had a marked effect on his life.
Six years old when World War II broke out and reports of Nazi genocide were first broadcast in the United States, Kubrick would remain forever captivated by the dangers of extreme power. His creative obsession with the Holocaust, kept hidden from most of his fans, is traced in the first U.S. retrospective of his work, which is up through June 13 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Among the works on view are photographs and ephemera from Kubrick’s little-known and unfinished Holocaust film, The Aryan Papers, a film for which he wrote a script, scouted locations, and cast the lead role, but which he ultimately left unfinished. Based on Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, The Aryan Papers was one of only a small handful of projects that Kubrick—a man arguably known best for his willfulness and extreme stubbornness—started and did not complete and the only one that he abandoned of his own volition.
Kubrick was raised in a well-to-do family in the Bronx, the son of Dr. Jacques and Gertrude Kubrick. He was uninterested in school and was absent often, devoting little intellectual energy to his studies. For Stanley’s 13th birthday, his father gave him a Graflex camera, and the boy took to photography, spending his Saturdays wandering through the Bronx documenting daily life. In April 1945, on the day Franklin Roosevelt died, Kubrick passed a news vendor framed by announcements of the president’s death. Kubrick coaxed the man into looking dejected, snapped a photo, and hurried home after school to develop it. Pleased with the results, he took the photo to Look magazine (Life’s competitor at the time), cajoled his way into a photo editor’s office, and made his first sale, for $25.
Though Kubrick scored high on intelligence tests, his grades were near failing, barring him from being accepted to college. At 16, when his other classmates were heading off to university, Kubrick accepted a full-time job at Look. It was there, documenting everything from boys watching a baseball game to Robert Taft’s senatorial campaign, that Kubrick began to develop the narrative eye that would later guide his filmmaking career.
Kubrick continued to grow ever more interested in film, attending movies at the art-house cinemas in Greenwich Village and the foreign films at the Museum of Modern Art. It was an assignment for Look, a photo essay about boxer Walter Cartier, that ultimately led him to filmmaking. Photographing Cartier from the minute he woke up until the culmination of his fight that evening, Kubrick captured what writer Pete Hamill called “violence transformed into art.” In 1949, fascinated by boxing and convinced he was ready for movie making, Kubrick collected his savings and made his first movie, a 12-minute documentary about Cartier called Day of the Fight, which he sold for $4,000. For the next eight years Kubrick would go on to borrow money from family, negotiate with studios, and sap the talent of everyone he knew (sometimes to the detriment of his relationships—he underwent two divorces during this time) to create the films that would establish him as a serious director: Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Paths of Glory (1957), which finally earned him recognition as a master.
Kubrick’s distinctive style—his long pan shots, often described as film “in the rhythm of life itself,” and vivid and repetitive imagery, like the elevator hemorrhaging blood in The Shining or HAL’s watchful red eye in 2001—allowed him to navigate deftly between genres, creating what are frequently viewed as the definitive science-fiction, war, and horror films. But though Kubrick moved between genres, his films maintain a consistent point of fascination: an exploration of power and its limits, and the danger it presents in the hands of inevitably flawed humans. “For Kubrick, those with power on the scale of Hitler or Stalin are the proper subjects for an understanding of the world,” writes Geoffrey Cocks in his 2004 book The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust. “Their place is before the camera because that is the place where they can not only be observed but can be controlled.”
As the expansive and invigorating exhibition at LACMA highlights, Kubrick, who defined himself as “a devout coward,” was nonetheless preoccupied with portraying on screen the things he most feared—the destruction of the world by nuclear weapons, governmental power spiraling wildly out of control, the ultimate domestic betrayal within the family. His interest in power gone mad, paired with the climate in which he was raised, presented the Holocaust as an obvious point of interest. “All his films deal with human vanity and failure,” said Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and longtime executive producer. “He was interested in the terrible things we do to each other, and there is hardly a better example [than the Holocaust] for failure on a gigantic scale.”
Nearly all of Kubrick’s films are told from the perpetrator’s point of view, and references to Nazi Germany populate his work, most often as signifiers for characters who are growing mad with power: Dr. Strangelove’s proposal for a “final solution” and his exclamation, “Mein Führer, I can walk!”; the Leni Riefenstahl imagery shown to Alex during his Ludovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange; Jack’s German Adler typewriter on which he chronicles his descent into insanity in The Shining.
Though Kubrick kept finding new projects to pursue, the Holocaust “was a topic that was always with him,” according to Harlan. Kubrick’s interest in the Holocaust was compounded by his personal life as well. He met the young German actress Christiane Harlan on the set of Paths of Glory and married her shortly thereafter. Christiane, who grew up under the Nazi regime, was the niece of filmmaker Veit Harlan, best known for his notoriously anti-Semitic film Jud Süss, made under Joseph Goebbels. Jan Harlan said that the family, whom Kubrick became close with, talked often about propaganda films made during the Third Reich, and Kubrick toyed with the idea of making a movie about Veit.
The 1970s saw an influx of film and literature about the Holocaust, and Kubrick, an avid reader, took notice. He read Raul Hilberg’s 800-page tome, The Destruction of the European Jews, and became fascinated by the cold, systematic approach that the Nazis took to the Final Solution. Ever more determined to make a Holocaust film, he began looking for a script. Harlan proposed asking Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer to write one and with Kubrick’s permission went to New York to visit Singer. As Harlan recalls, Singer, best known for his surrealist tales about Jews living under the czar’s reign, was flattered by the offer but refused, saying “he didn’t know the first thing” about the Holocaust. Harlan delivered the bad news to Kubrick, who was devastated. “He dropped the whole idea for two decades,” Harlan said.
Room 237 uses Talmudic exegesis to uncover whether Kubrick’s film is about Indians, the Holocaust, or bears