Examining a life’s work

Nathan Abrams takes a look at Stanley Kubrick’s films through the lens of his Jewish identity.

kubrick (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Judaism was central to master director Stanley Kubrick’s work, according to Nathan Abrams’s book Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, a thorough examination of the expression of Jewish feeling and ideas in the director’s work.
Abrams has written a book that will appeal to literary intellectuals and film geeks alike, although some of his analyses lean more toward academic film theory.
While the director of such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, The Shining, Dr.Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, among many others, was undeniably Jewish, casual viewers of his films may miss the Jewish aspect of his work.
But if you take a deeper look, Abrams asserts in this volume, Kubrick’s films show his profound connection to his Jewish identity. And Abrams should know. He is a Kubrick scholar who teaches at Bangor University in Wales, and in July he pulled off the coup of discovering an unproduced screenplay by the filmmaker, who died in 1999. The son of one of Kubrick’s collaborators, who insisted on remaining anonymous, gave Abrams a copy of Kubrick’s 1956 adaption of the novel Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig. Co-written by Calder Willingham (who also co-wrote The Graduate), it is a kind of Lolita story in reverse, in which a mystery man befriends a young boy in an attempt to seduce his mother.
The full story of this screenplay will likely be the subject of Abrams’s next book, and the fact that it was he who unearthed it underscores his close connection to Kubrick’s life and work, a commitment that is illuminated in every line of this book.
Kubrick had a secular Jewish upbringing in the Bronx. As a Jewish filmmaker starting out in Hollywood, where Jews were key players at every level of the film industry, Kubrick worked often with Jewish actors, among them Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters and, perhaps most notably, Kirk Douglas, whom Kubrick cast in Paths of Glory and in the iconic title role in Spartacus, in which, as Abrams notes, “Spartacus very much mimics a charismatic, Moses-style liberator.”
Born in 1928, Kubrick grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, which influenced his work greatly, although not in straightforward ways. Although he planned to make a movie that dealt explicitly with the Holocaust and never did, Abrams finds connections to the Nazi era in many of his films, notably The Shining.
“By reading Jack [the protagonist] allegorically as the Abrahamic father figure obediently willing to murder his son at the bidding of a higher power, we can also see that same obedience in those who perpetrated the Holocaust,” writes Abrams. “It’s therefore also a meditation on the banality of evil in a post-Holocaust world, even though the Shoah is never mentioned.”
Two sections of the book will be particularly fascinating for Kubrick admirers. Abrams gives a complex, difficult-to-summarize “Kabbalistic reading” of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which may surprise even Kubrick fanatics who feel they have analyzed and understood every frame of the film.
The discussion of Dr. Strangelove is similarly riveting, as Abrams argues that Kubrick’s irreverent humor was a decision on the director’s part to break with New York Jewish intellectuals, who regarded world events with utter seriousness.
At times, though, the inferences about Jewish connections in Kubrick’s work seem a bit of a stretch. Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final film, was co-written by Frederick Raphael, a British screenwriter and novelist who often puts Jewish concerns front and center in his work, and was very loosely based on the Austrian-Jewish writer Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, about tensions in the marriage of a Jewish couple.
Kubrick chose to rework and set it in contemporary New York, but he went even further than simply updating and Americanizing it. Raphael wrote in his memoir, Eyes Wide Open, about his collaboration with Kubrick: “[Kubrick] wanted Fridolin [the Jewish hero of the novel] to be a Harrison Fordish goy and forbade any reference to Jews.” Abrams acknowledges this curious choice, writing, “Eyes Wide Shut is the culmination of a lifelong directorial style in which Jews in Kubrick’s source texts were erased but replaced with an underpinning Jewish sensibility coupled with allegorical Jewish characters.”
While the casting of the clearly gentile Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in the lead roles, playing characters with the non-Jewish names Bill and Alice Harford, would seem to make it clear that Kubrick wanted to universalize these characters, Abrams writes that “Alice’s revelation of her thoughts of infidelity...and his [Bill’s] failure to consummate his sexual encounters feminize him and emasculate him in the same way as antisemitism feminized and emasculated Jewish men.”
If that seems like a stretch – there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly Jewish about Bill’s reaction to the fantasies or his inability to cheat on his wife – Abrams focuses in another direction, writing that “Kubrick’s signature style of using color to convey meaning also suggests Bill’s Jewishness. As we know, yellow has historically connoted Jewishness, and yellow shop fronts and cabs are visible in Bill’s sequences.”
As we used to say in English class in college, “If you see it, it’s there,” and Abrams clearly sees it – in every frame.
But such counterintuitive insights don’t detract from the power of the book as a whole, which will be riveting reading for anyone who loves Kubrick’s films.