Interview'He hides from his Jewishness but alludes to it, too'

Scholar reveals morbid roots of lost Stanley Kubrick script

Film expert Nathan Abrams shocks fans by unveiling nearly finished manuscript by Jewish director, based on book by author, Holocaust survivor, and suicide victim Stefan Zweig

  • Film director Stanley Kubrick, in an undated picture during production of "The Shining." (AP Photo)
    Film director Stanley Kubrick, in an undated picture during production of "The Shining." (AP Photo)
  • Stanley Kubrick films Jack Nicholson for 'The Shining.' (Flickr/Ben Snooks)
    Stanley Kubrick films Jack Nicholson for 'The Shining.' (Flickr/Ben Snooks)
  • An employee photo of Stanley Kubrick when he worked for Look magazine. (Public domain)
    An employee photo of Stanley Kubrick when he worked for Look magazine. (Public domain)
  • Film director Stanley Kubrick is seen on the set in the 1975 during production of the film 'Barry Lyndon.' (AP Photo)
    Film director Stanley Kubrick is seen on the set in the 1975 during production of the film 'Barry Lyndon.' (AP Photo)

On July 15, Nathan Abrams stunned Stanley Kubrick fans around the globe when he unveiled to the Guardian that he is in possession of a “lost script” by the late American Jewish film director.

“A son of a former Kubrick collaborator — who wishes to remain anonymous — asked me would I like to see a copy of this script,” Abrams tells The Times of Israel from his home in the United Kingdom. “It was obviously a very exciting prospect, because this is a script by Kubrick that nobody has ever seen before.”

The film script, “Burning Secret,” is an adaptation of a 1913 novella of the same title by the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig.

The screenplay, which never made it to the production stage, is set in a spa resort. It explores a tale of adultery and passion where a coldly calculating man befriends a 10-year-old boy in an attempt to seduce the child’s married mother.

Kubrick moved the setting of his screenplay to 1950s America.

“This really ties in with the central argument of my book,” says Abrams, a professor of film studies at Bangor University in Wales. “Kubrick [often] took these Jewish texts, scrubbed them clean of their Jewishness, and [made them his own].”

Abrams’s new book on the American director is entitled “Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual.” It dissects a number of Kubrick’s films in detail, including: “Spartacus,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” “Barry Lyndon” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”

'Room 237,' a documentary playing the Toronto International Film Festival, attempts to decrypt the adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel, 'The Shining,' providing no definitive answers yet offering a fascinating glimpse into the enigma of Kubrick himself. (photo credit: AP Photo/ Warner Bros., file )
Stanley Kubrick at Toronto International Film Festival. (photo credit: AP/ Warner Bros)

All the movies share one thing in common, Abrams believes: They are heavily influenced by Kubrick’s Jewish cultural roots and his endless fascination and enthusiasm for Jewish mysticism and history.

In fact, Abrams says he wasn’t surprised to learn that Kubrick’s “lost screenplay” came from a Jewish writer whose life came to a tragic end in 1942.

Zweig committed suicide in Brazil, after fleeing Nazi Europe a few years before. Prior to leaving Europe, Zweig was part of a flourishing Jewish cultural elite at the turn of the 20th century in Vienna.

“The lost script also shows the huge interest and fascination Kubrick had throughout his life with the Jewish culture that emerged from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 20th century,” says Abrams.

“What’s fascinating about this recent find, too, is it really makes us look at this whole Central European Jewish culture that got wiped out,” he says.

“It hasn’t impacted on our [collective] memory in the same way as other Jewish writers from, say, the postwar period did. So I think Kubrick really had an interest in resurrecting that really important Jewish heritage that had somehow been buried for a long time.

“Kubrick wanted to adapt other Stefan Zweig novels to the screen, but just never got around to doing it,” he says.

A New York Jewish intellectual

Abrams is an expert on all things Jewish in movies. The founding co-editor of the journal “Jewish Film and New Media,” Abrams is also the author of “The New Jew in Film,” which points to the profound influence Jewish culture has had across much of 20th century Western cinema.

It’s probably not all that surprising that scholars and critics hitherto have failed to take Kubrick’s Jewish background into account when studying his movies.

“Kubrick cut his teeth in the 1940s and ’50s with the studio moguls,” Abrams says. “Hiding Jewishness [within] Hollywood during this time was quite common.”

“It was an instinctive tendency born out of the studio system, which said that overt Jewishness was not commercially viable on the screen,” he adds.

Film director Stanley Kubrick is seen on the set in the 1975 during production of the film ‘Barry Lyndon.’ (AP Photo)

Moreover, Kubrick came from a generation of postwar Jewish writers such as Arthur Miller, J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, who wanted to be considered American rather than Jewish first and foremost.

But this tradition of Jewish writers assimilating into mainstream culture goes back long before New York in the 1970s.

As Abrams’s book recalls — and indeed as this latest lost script clearly demonstrates — Kubrick was also heavily indebted to a host of Jewish writers that emerged from Central Europe in the early 20th century. These included Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud.

Abrams says that those authors wrote about the Jewish condition in a way that was never overtly Jewish, either.

Hidden and revealed

Abrams’s rigorous academic analysis can come off as a bit much, at times, and occasionally it feels as if the film critic is searching for metaphors and motifs down intellectual black holes where there simply are none.

Still, the ideas are intriguing from a philosophical and artistic perspective nevertheless.

Abrams claims, for example, that Kubrick’s deliberate location of “The Shining” in the bourgeois spaces of a swanky hotel in Mount Hood, Oregon, represents the interwar setting of Central Europe where Jewish writers living in an increasingly uncertain world produced great works of art, literature, philosophy and psychology.

Stanley Kubrick films Jack Nicholson for ‘The Shining.’ (Flickr/Ben Snooks)

“Kubrick singled out these [Central European Jewish writers] such as Kafka, Zweig and Freud as a huge influence on his work,” says Abrams. “What he liked about them was that they wrote about things in a complex way. And if they were writing about Jewishness, they didn’t rub your face in it.”

“Are there any Jews in Kafka’s work?” Abrams goes on. “Not explicitly. But you can read everything that is in his stories in a way that explains the Jewish condition within Western civilization.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Celebrations of the film five decades on saw fans and critics alike revisiting a seemingly infinite search for the true meaning behind Kubrick’s first film in color, with its agnostic spirit and fascination with dark matter, artificial intelligence, and the inexplicable nature of the universe.

Kubrick famously referred to the futurist space age narrative as “the first $6 million religious movie.” But in his own lifetime he never disclosed if the film contained any conventional theological message or symbols as such.

Abrams says that religious interpretations of the text over the last half century have usually analyzed it from a Christian perspective. But he is now seeking to challenge that conventional critical analysis.

“Kubrick is a Jewish film maker, so I think it’s time we began reading ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Jewishly for a change,” Abrams says.

Author, scholar, and film critic Nathan Abrams. (Courtesy)

“‘2001’ has a distinctly Jewish understanding of the universe, especially in the use of imagery drawn from Hebrew scripture, Jewish liturgy, and Kabbalah,” Abrams says.

Abrams claims the film is filled with symbolic imagery that can be decoded in terms of “Jewish ideas and iconography,” with the last two sections of the film especially “laced with Hebrew symbolism.”

Part three of the film is entitled “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later.”

“Eighteen is a symbolic number [in Hebrew], referring to double the human period of gestation and birth,” Abrams explains. Jews find the number 18 to be significant because it is the sum numerical value of the letters in the word “chai,” or life.

The film’s fourth and final segment, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” invokes the Kabbalistic concept of ein-sof — the Hebrew phrase for “without end,” or “God prior to His self-manifestation.” Abrams believes the film’s closing words — “total mystery” — display a doctrine of faith or religious truth typically revealed by Kabbalah.

And, “The scene towards the end of the film with the glass smashing on the ground has definitely got to be related to the tradition of smashing glass at a Jewish wedding,” says Abrams.

Kubrick’s films are critically renowned for a mysterious quality that always seems to see good and evil and collide, and touch on the unknowable complexities between the sacred and the sublime.

Confusion and anxiety always play a prominent role in Kubrick’s narratives, as well. Indeed, as Abrams points out, the filmmaker had an almost obsessive interest in traps, puzzles, enigmas, and allegories in his work. Often, what isn’t said in Kubrick’s movies is more important than what is.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the Jewish themes that are hidden beneath the surface of the director’s films which Abrams claim “provide the key to understanding Kubrick’s ambivalent, ambiguous, and seemingly paradoxical attitude towards Judaism.”

Nearly all of Kubrick’s movies manifest a tension between “representation and concealment,” Abrams explains. “Kubrick’s great example was the Mona Lisa. He said if you knew what she was thinking, would it be such a great painting?”

“With Kubrick you think you are watching one thing, but actually you are watching another,” Abrams adds.

Haunted by the past

Abrams’s book begins by exploring the film director’s coming of age.

Kubrick grew up in an assimilated American Jewish family in the West Bronx, a borough of New York city then populated by 250,000 Jewish immigrants. The family practiced no Jewish rituals, either at home or at school. Kubrick once even commented that he was not a Jew, “but just happen[ed] to have two Jewish parents.”

Between 1945 and 1956, Kubrick began his career as a photographer for the magazine Look. During the first five years Kubrick took over 26,000 photos. It’s during this period we see Kubrick’s first interest in religion emerge. In March 1947, for example, Kubrick photographed an ultra-Orthodox Jew with the caption, “Talmudic scholar reads his Yiddish newspaper aloud to an intent friend.”

‘Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual,’ by Nathan Abrams. (Courtesy)

Kubrick was thus a Jew by “culture and feeling, rather than a religious Jew,” says Abrams.

It was his relocating from the Bronx to Greenwich Village in the early 1950s, however, where Kubrick’s cultural Jewish roots really began to influence his work.

He set up home in the heart of what was then the center of New York’s bohemian community of artists, writers, performers and intellectuals, meeting leading figures from the Beat movement. These included the writer and poet Carl Solomon, to whom Allen Ginsburg would later dedicate his 1956 poem “Howl.”

Kubrick subsequently began mixing in a circle of individuals who began to identify themselves collectively as “New York Intellectuals,” a term coined by literary critic Irving Howe, who defined these wordsmiths and thinkers as “having a strong social emphasis [and who] revel in polemic, and by birth or osmosis are Jews.”

This motley crew of Jewish writers and thinkers included people like Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, and Lionel Trilling.

Abrams claims Kubrick’s lifelong artistic and intellectual commitments mirrored the work of these writers from the New York intelligentsia, which always reflected concerns of “Jewish intellectuals in the post-Holocaust world.”

“But Kubrick was never an official intellectual like, say, Hannah Arendt or Lionel Trilling,” Abrams points out, “particularly as these people were political. In fact, trying to figure out what Kubrick thought about any political issue wasn’t easy.”

Stanley Kubrick photographing showgirl Rosemary Williams in 1949. (Public domain)

This was mainly, Abrams believes, because Kubrick often came out publicly with rather strange and zany statements relating to history or politics — notably, when it came to the subject of the Holocaust.

The American screenwriter Frederic Raphael, who worked with Kubrick on the writing of “Eyes Wide Shut,” for instance once claimed that Kubrick told him that “Hitler had been right about almost everything.”

“Some people have suggested that Kubrick was a self-hating Jew,” says Abrams. “But I don’t agree with that. He sort of hides from his Jewishness, but alludes to it [in his movies], too.”

“Kubrick was also a wind up merchant with a very wicked sense of humor. He often said things just to provoke a reaction in people,” Abrams adds.

Indeed, Abrams maintains that Kubrick’s Jewish identity and political ideals were much more complex than any of these smarmy jokes or odd public comments he made on the subject suggest.

Although Kubrick said very little about the Holocaust directly in his films, Abrams claims that he struggled with its impact and with his own understanding of himself as a potential Jewish victim who could have faced Nazi genocide had circumstances turned out differently.

Abrams believes “the Holocaust haunts [Kubrick’s] work like a ghostly specter.”

His book points to several examples, claiming that the iconography in “Spartacus” invoked “both fascist and Nazi motifs,” while “The Shining” was Kubrick’s “Holocaust movie” — albeit allegorically.

In December 1971 “A Clockwork Orange” premiered in New York City. The film is adapted from Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same title.

Abrams points to how Kubrick deliberately omitted explicit references to Nazi genocide that were a central part of the book. In the novel, the main character Alex explains how he was shown a “bad film of a concentration camp.” Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, shows sequences of Alex watching clips of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler commemorating the German dead of World War I.

An employee photo of Stanley Kubrick when he worked for Look magazine. (Public domain)

“If you read the original novel, and also the memoirs of Malcolm McDowell [who played Alex], you see that Kubrick toned down the Nazi content in the movie,” says Abrams.

“Kubrick refers to the Nazis, but he doesn’t show any footage of death camps as such. Which is interesting because it makes you wonder how he would have portrayed Nazi concentration camps if he actually made a film on the Holocaust,” he says.

After watching Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” back in 1993, Kubrick claimed the film wasn’t about the Holocaust, but rather about “success [and] the survival of 600 Jews, not the death of 6 million.”

Abrams says that the question remains why Kubrick himself was never able to tackle the Holocaust directly in a film.

“The main reason was authenticity,” answers Abrams. “In the age of Holocaust denial, getting anything wrong about the Holocaust just lends credence to deniers.”

“Also, how do you make recreate a set of the Holocaust when you are Stanley Kubrick?” Abrams goes on. “We’ve seen the [epic] sets he created on films like ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘Spartacus.’ If you set a movie about the Holocaust in a death camp, it’s not everybody’s experience. Just as many Jews were murdered in fields in Eastern Europe as they were in death camps.”

But getting technical matters correct many not have been the only reason Kubrick stayed clear of the subject.

Film director Stanley Kubrick, in an undated picture during production of ‘The Shining.’ (AP Photo)

Abrams posits that it is possible Kubrick didn’t make a film about the Holocaust because it would have necessitated direct reference to Jews, something Kubrick consciously avoided throughout his filmmaking career.

However, this silence or absence — in typically subdued Kubrick fashion — still signifies a response from the director on the subject of the Shoah.

“If you go to [Kubrick’s] archives, all his books on the Holocaust are arranged quite carefully,” says Abrams. “He was one of the first postwar intellectuals reading about this subject in significant detail.”

“So,” Abrams concludes, “the Holocaust does haunt all of Kubrick’s work in one way or another.”

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