Kubrick’s Lost Holocaust Film
America’s greatest Jewish director was haunted by the Nazi horror—too much to address it directly in film
Kubrick instead turned his attention to making The Shining, a film that many argue is in fact a Holocaust film. (This is the subject of the new documentary Room 237, out this weekend.) Adapted from Stephen King’s novel, the movie follows Jack Torrance, the winter caretaker at the remote Overlook Hotel. As the film progresses, we learn that the hotel is haunted and that Jack, whose endless typing becomes the film’s manic soundtrack, is slowly succumbing to the hotel’s evil powers. Eventually, Jack takes an ax and tries to kill his wife and son. The two narrowly escape, while Jack is left to freeze to death in the hotel’s punishing surroundings. The movie ends with a close-up of a photo taken in the 1920s, showing Jack as the caretaker nearly six decades earlier. With horror we realize that Jack, and the evil he represents, has always been and will always be there, that history is destined to repeat itself.
“In The Shining Kubrick sublimates his interest in portraying the Holocaust and presents it in an extremely indirect manner that avoids dealing with putting some of those horrors on the screen,” Geoffrey Cocks told me in a phone interview. He notes that Kubrick changed a few key details of King’s book that support his case: situating the hotel on a Native American burial ground, subtly referencing the European decimation of a minority population; replacing the sound of the howling wind described in King’s novel with the incessant pinging of Jack’s German typewriter; and most notably a conspicuous use of the number 42, a reference to the year the Nazis enacted the Final Solution, killing 2.7 million Jews. Forty-two, which appears nowhere in King’s novel, is prominently displayed on Danny’s Bugs Bunny jersey and clearly in view during his first premonition of the hotel’s horrors; The Summer of ’42 plays ominously on the Torrances’ television; and the room where Danny is strangled and Jack is seduced and then repulsed is room 237—whose digits when multiplied lead us back to 42.
Harlan dismisses claims of The Shining being a Holocaust film, calling it a ghost story and “brilliant entertainment.” Yet while Kubrick refused to comment on the meaning, as he did with all his films, a study of his filmmaking process suggests that he did very little that was unintentional. Kubrick certainly had a fear of history repeating itself, as he told Michael Herr in response to Herr’s expression of disinterest in reading The Destruction of the European Jews: “No Michael, the book you don’t want to read is The Destruction of the European Jews Part II.” In all likelihood, Kubrick’s references to the Holocaust were intentional on his part, even if they were not meant to be legible to viewers.
Regardless of his intentions for The Shining, Kubrick’s interest in making a film that dealt directly with the Holocaust persisted. Finally, in 1991, he came across Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies, a fictionalized memoir that follows Maciek, a young Polish boy who is saved during the war by his beautiful Aunt Tania, who secures false Christian identities for them—Aryan papers. The two spend the war hiding in plain sight, traveling from city to city to avoid being caught, and eventually come to work as black marketeers in a remote peasant village. The story was a logical choice for Kubrick, as Cocks points out, “There is an arc that goes from Lolita to The Shining that has at its central trope a young person discovering for the first time an extremely dangerous and very malevolent world.” Like Danny, Lolita, Redmond Barry—and even Kubrick himself—Maciek is forced, as a young boy, to confront the terror of the adult world and is left at the end a man without a childhood, lacking the capacity for happiness.
Kubrick bought the rights to Begley’s book the same year he read it and immediately began working. Eager to fulfill his longtime vision, he wrote a screenplay and cast Dutch actress Johanna Ter Steege as the lead, happily noting that her accent made her sound as though she could have come from anywhere, and asking her not to improve her English. Harlan was charged with scouting locations and spent nearly a year procuring thousands of photographs of possible options. In 1993, Warner Bros. announced Aryan Papers as Kubrick’s next film.
As he did with all of his projects, Kubrick dived into research, devouring material about the subject, including catalogs of SS activity and countless photographs. But unlike during the preparation period for his other films, which Kubrick enjoyed, he became very depressed during the research process of this film and was sickened by the details, his widow Christiane Kubrick has said. His unhappiness proved to be the film’s undoing. “We were quite advanced with the permission from the city of Brno to close the city center for a weekend, put Nazi flags down the buildings and use the period trams from the local museum,” recalled Harlan, “when Stanley and Terry Semel, CEO of Warner Bros., decided not to proceed.”
The common explanation for Warner’s decision to pull the film is that Kubrick became aware of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and decided the market couldn’t handle two Holocaust films. But Kubrick was not a man who gave up easily—and was certainly not one to believe that someone else’s film would trump his. During work on his unfinished Napoleon film in 1968, he discovered Dino De Laurentiis was producing Waterloo. Undeterred, Kubrick was certain his would be better and continued on until 1971 when MGM cut the funding. Similarly, Full Metal Jacket followed Oliver Stone’s Platoon to the box office, and though its opening weekend gross was smaller, its critical reception was much warmer.
A closer analysis suggests that Kubrick, a man singularly fascinated by humankind’s incredible capacity of for evil, could simply not bring himself to depict the horrors of the Holocaust on film. “The reason Stanley gave up on it,” said Christiane Kubrick in an interview with the Guardian, “is because Steven’s film is about Jews who lived, and just a few. If you tell the whole truth in the film, which is the only way you could honor all these dead people, and be respectful enough, you would have to tell the whole truth.” And that, Christiane concludes, would be “absolutely unsurvivable.”
The exhibition at LACMA includes a short film by artists Jane and Louise Wilson titled Unfolding the Aryan Papers, which features Ter Steege talking about the process of auditioning for the film and reading from the script. Within the quiet walls of the Wilsons’ film, the emotion and care Kubrick dedicated to The Aryan Papers come alive in a way that conveys the struggle he must have undergone. As Ter Steege discusses the breadth of her audition, the attention he paid to her gestures, his note to always keep her mouth slightly open, the screen shows her wardrobe shoots and historical images of a pit of dead bodies, women huddled together in a crowded room, and Jews wandering aimlessly in the Warsaw ghetto. The idea of what it would mean to portray the Holocaust on film with an eye as discerning and unblinking as Kubrick’s suddenly seems impossible.
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Room 237 uses Talmudic exegesis to uncover whether Kubrick’s film is about Indians, the Holocaust, or bears