Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was one of the most important filmmakers of the twentieth century. His work was widely admired both by critics and mass audiences. Dr. Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are frequently listed among the best films ever made, most notably in the Sight & Sound international critics’ and filmmakers’ polls which are conducted every ten years. At the same time, Kubrick was one of the most commercially successful filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, and his films remain audience favourites, as evidenced, for example, by their consistently high ratings in the Internet Movie Database’s Users’ Chart.
Stripped of overt, explicit Jewish reference, Kubrick’s films appear severed from his ethnic and cultural roots, ostensibly the least Jewish of the twentieth century’s Jewish filmmakers. But Kubrick’s films engage with Jewish texts and his secular identity is much more complex than the labels of atheism and agnosticism suggest. His films were clearly engaged in the search for meaning, much of which can be attributed to a Jewish upbringing that influenced him, consciously or otherwise. There are indications in his films, and the little we know about his off-screen life, which is surprisingly vague given how much has been written about him, and how fanatically curious his ardent followers can be about him – suggesting that Kubrick had never fully abandoned the faith of his forebears.
Kubrick fused identity with Jewish cultural experience and moral imperative in films seemingly devoid of ethnic reference and where the deliberate suppression of the explicit reference to Jewish culture and historical experience appears evident. Kubrick’s first principles were informed by Jewish cultural and historical experience. Kubrick demonstrated a commitment to the dynamics of ethics and ethnicity that also informed his craft. Although not immediately noticeable or obvious in his films, Kubrick’s Jewishness was indelibly inscribed, forming the bedrock of his filmmaking, what George Steiner referred to as ‘the pride and the burden of the Jewish tradition’ (1961: 4). As historian Paula Hyman has observed, ‘Even secularized Jews were likely to retain a strong ethnic Jewish identification, generally internally and reinforced from without’ (1997: 91). For example, Kubrick displayed a pattern of casting such identifiably Jewish actors as Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Peter Sellers, Miriam Karlin and Sydney Pollack in key roles.
The link between the moral and intellectual vision that distinguishes his films and its foundation in Jewish thought, values and cultural experience, which have been insufficiently acknowledged or understood hitherto, is subtle. Kubrick’s characters who by conduct or particularized portrayals invite identification as Jews. Close scrutiny of Kubrick’s canon reveals that Jewish thought and values are not a digression but an intrinsic, integral element of his work fundamental to his artistic vision. Frustratingly, however, unlike his contemporaries (Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, David Mamet, Arthur Miller), Kubrick refused to affirm his Jewish identity and offers us no easy way into ethnic identification in his work (but then Kubrick offers us no easy way into anything!). As a New York Jew, with a central European background, Kubrick shared with his coreligionist émigré filmmakers – Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Josef von Sternberg – a reluctance ever to explain his intentions (Ciment 2003: 59).
Much of his work is strewn with allusions and themes drawn from normative Judaism. A rewarding way to approaching Kubrick’s work, therefore, is to read it as the work of a mind immersed in Jewish (among other) texts and engaged in the age-old process of Midrash: a kind of formal or informal commentary on scripture in order to elucidate or elaborate upon their hidden meanings.
A complete understanding of Kubrick’s work is impossible without recognition of the debt it owes to Judaism and the way in which it engages Jewish themes and thought. It is not my intention, however, to reduce Kubrick to a single message or to suggest that he made ‘Jewish films’ (whatever that may mean) with purely literal and exhaustive meaning. Indeed, Kubrick’s work can be enjoyed without recourse to its Jewish aesthetic or vision. Yet to do so, is to fail to read it backward, to understand the impact and sweep of history that inform his canon. ■
Nathan Abrams is the author of The New Jew in Film and is Director of Graduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Bangor University. You can follow him on Twitter @ndabrams
I have been working on a documentary about Paths of Glory and in my research have found reference to the French authorities banning Paths from French screens in part because the court martial scene echoes the Dreyfus trial. In the novel that the film is based on, an officer is concerned that one of the condemned men might be Jewish and repeating the earlier infamy.
At the risk of being a shameless self promoter, please visit my project’s website: http://www.anatomyfilm.com
Nathan, have you read Geoffrey Cocks’ book “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust”? It is worth a read, as it deals with similar themes as what you discuss here, and in your forthcoming book. I hope to read your book sometime.