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Kubrick’s Holocaust Film

The subtext of ‘The Shining’

Marc Tracy
January 30, 2012
Jack Nicholson in The Shining.(IMDB)
Jack Nicholson in The Shining.(IMDB)

Every year, several movies are “the talk of Sundance,” and this year one is Room 237, a documentary that explicates several rigorous analyses of one of the most mysterious, indelible films ever made: The Shining. Though based on a Stephen King novel, it is completely the work of the auteur behind it, the great Stanley Kubrick (in fact, King hated Kubrick’s 1980 film; a television miniseries in the 1990s was much more faithful to the novel). As the New York Times reported over the weekend, serious historians and journalists have brought their expertise to bear on the film to mount exegeses that uncover hidden, subliminal, or subconscious meanings. And among the most prominent is that of Professor Geoffrey Cocks, of Albion College, author of The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust. For Cocks, whom I chatted with this morning, The Shining is the Holocaust film that Kubrick, who grew up in a Jewish Bronx household in the 1930s (his father was born Jacob but Anglicized it to Jack—the name of Jack Nicholson’s deranged protagonist), always wanted to make but felt that, for aesthetic reasons, he could never make except in the most oblique possible manner.

The Times highlights the prevalence of the number 42 in the film—Danny, Jack and Wendy’s son, wears a t-shirt with the number on it; Wendy takes 42 swings of her baseball bat at Jack—and notes that since the early ‘70s, that number was seen as an ominous metonym for the Final Solution, which was launched in 1942. (The number was prominent in the ‘70s also as the answer to Douglas Adams’ question.) But there’s more.

For example: Jack’s typewriter. Cocks explained to me that it’s an Adler Eagle typewriter—“a German machine, pictured almost to make it a character, a clear representation of the bureaucratic killing machine.” (It’s also the model typewriter Kubrick himself used.) When Jack awakes from a dream in which he has killed his wife and his son, he is slumped over his desk, next to his typewriter, which has changed color. It is now light blue: a color that, according to Cocks, invariably signifies “a system of cold, mighty hierarchical power” in Kubrick’s films. And of course he is in the Overlook Hotel’s magnificent, gargantuan main room: and, as Cocks put it, “Big institutions in big rooms in big buildings in Kubrick movies almost always means malevolent power.”

Then there is the music. Two pieces recur repeatedly: Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Penderecki’s The Awakening of Jacob. The fiercely anti-Nazi Hungarian Bartók’s piece was written in 1936, and Kubrick specifically uses the section of it known as “The Night Music.” “That music suggests trepidation about Nazism,” Cocks said. “[Kubrick] chose it because it’s creepy, but it can’t escape its own associations.” Penderecki was a Pole who lived through the Shoah and said all of his music was freighted with its horror; The Awakening of Jacob, which plays while blood rushes from the elevators—“as good a visual metonym for the horror of the 20th century that has ever been filmed,” as Cocks put it in the Times—is also known as the “Auschwitz Oratorio” for the time when it was played at the former camp at a ceremony in the 1960s.

Finally, one must consider the dream-like status of the entire film and Freudian notions of repression, which, particularly via Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, made a huge impression on Kubrick. Citing the evidence that the film also, perhaps even more directly, addresses the genocide of Native Americans (the Overlook is built on a Native American burial ground), and noting that the film’s one true victim is African-American, Cocks notes the theme of “white males doing violence to people who aren’t white males.” Dig down further, beyond the horrors done to African-Americans and Native Americans, and you find the most repressed (and therefore, under Bettelheim, most dangerous) urge: “the most appalling genocide in human history, that Kubrick witnessed, at some remove, as a child.”

If Kubrick has a singular obsession in his films, Cocks said, it is the breakdown of rational systems (think of the neat symmetry of Mutually Assured Destruction, so mercilessly and bleakly parodied in Dr. Strangelove; or think, even, of the mutually enforced yet fragile structure of marriage as dissected in Eyes Wide Shut). Kubrick was fascinated by Raul Hilberg’s 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews, and once said that the subject he most wanted to make a movie about was the Holocaust, but feared, “that he couldn’t approach that subject directly,” in Cocks’ words. “I think he saw the Final Solution in the context of rational systems breaking down,” Cocks argued. “Here’s a rational system that worked exactly how it was supposed to.”

“Of course I could be completely wrong about this,” Cocks adds. “But I don’t think so.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.