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Kubrick’s Lost Holocaust Film

America’s greatest Jewish director was haunted by the Nazi horror—too much to address it directly in film

Abby Margulies
March 28, 2013
Warner Bros. Entertainment, courtesy LACMA
Stanley Kubrick on set during the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey.Warner Bros. Entertainment, courtesy LACMA
Warner Bros. Entertainment, courtesy LACMA
Stanley Kubrick on set during the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey.Warner Bros. Entertainment, courtesy LACMA

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 orHAL’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 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.

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

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.

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.