We’re still finding Jewish clues in Kubrick’s work 20 years after his last film

Twenty years ago next week, legendary film director Stanley Kubrick released his final film Eyes Wide Shut and passed away just a week later, aged 70.

As we approach this anniversary, it is worth remembering that the director of such films as The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Lolita was rarely thought of as a Jewish director.

He never denied his ethnicity but neither did he follow any religion. His Jewish parents did not practice much Judaism at home, Kubrick did not have a bar mitzvah, and he said very little about the subject in his lifetime, although the traditional mourner’s Kaddish was performed at his funeral.

Despite the vast interest in Kubrick, there has been little exploration of his Jewish identity. Kubrick, though, did not just spring from nowhere. His origins and ethnicity played a part in shaping his view of the world. Jewishness had a significant effect upon him, expressed, in part, by his desire to make a film about the Holocaust.

Kubrick may not have been practicing, but the religious framework of Jewishness and Judaism that surrounded him, however diluted, influenced his films. Its impact is apparent in his films obliquely, rarely explicitly, typically via analogies and metaphors that incorporated extensive biblical and other Jewish and Hebrew imagery.

Yet, Kubrick’s signature technique of misdirection, which he learned from his passion for chess (a very Jewish pastime!) simultaneously expressed his Jewishness while distracting many from recognising it.

Although he made thirteen films (a bar mitzvah of films no less), Kubrick described Eyes Wide Shut as his best. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s work, the one project he had wanted to make since becoming a filmmaker in the early 50s. It was his most personal, autobiographical and complex movie, particularly in terms of its and his Jewishness.

Eyes Wide Shut was based upon Jewish author Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle (Rhapsody: A Dream Novel). Set in fin-de-siècle Vienna that was awash with Jews and Jewishness, it was described by the Nazis as “Jewish filth.”

Yet, in adapting it, Kubrick seems to have purged the story of its European and Jewish elements, possibly to give his film a broader and more universal appeal. He refused to give the main characters – Bill and Alice Harford (memorably played by real life married couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) – a recognisably Jewish name. As he told Jewish screenwriter Frederic Raphael, he wanted Bill to be a “Harrison Ford-ish goy”.

But, the source text was suffused with Jews and Jewishness to its very core, and Kubrick’s superficial whitewashing could not remove its Jewish traces. At the same time, he inserted a wholly-invented Jewish character, not found in the novella, called Victor Ziegler, played by recognisably Jewish actor/director Sydney Pollack. This character was a collection of classic anti-Jewish stereotypes: rich, corrupt, and sexually perverse.

Kubrick further inserted a series of Jewish clues but only for those able to decode them, wanting his audience to work hard. These are outlined in both of my books, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual (2018) and Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film (2019).

One clear example is the knishery that he had built on the set at Pinewood, modelled on the real-life Yonah Schimmel’s in the Lower East Side. Perhaps only a Jewish (or New York) audience would get its significance. Everyone else would just think it was a bakery.

Eyes Wide Shut, then, provides the key to unlocking Kubrick’s Jewish identity. It is also the summation of Kubrick’s career as a New York Jewish intellectual, reflecting on what it was to be a man, mensch, father, lover, husband, and Jew in the post-Holocaust world, but transposed to a deeply personal, microcosmic American setting. It therefore stands as a fitting coda to the Kubrick oeuvre.

It was his Shema, the Jewish prayer uttered with one’s eyes covered, and when facing imminent death. Whether he had this in mind when he came up with the title, we shall never know.

We do know that it was a deeply personal project for Kubrick, perhaps more than any other. That he chose this project over the other unfinished ones – Napoleon, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Aryan Papers (his film about the Holocaust) – is a testament to its importance and hence is the key to understanding Kubrick and his ethnicity. It reached back to his origins as a photographer and filmmaker and was an odyssey into his own personal heart of darkness: his Jewishness.

As his most personal film, it was his most Jewish film, albeit by deliberate misdirection.

About the Author
Nathan Abrams is Professor in Film at Bangor University in Wales.
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