When Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999 during the post-production of his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” he left behind several pet projects he had been working on for decades. These included a science-fiction riff on “Pinocchio” (later finished by Steven Spielberg as “A.I.”), a historical biopic of the life of Napoleon and a Holocaust project with the working title “Aryan Papers.”
The recently released “Stanley Kubrick Archives,” an unwieldy coffee-table tome published by Taschen, sheds new light on the famously secretive director’s failed project. An essay by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producer, details Kubrick’s longtime pursuit of the Holocaust as a subject for a film. Harlan writes of traveling to New York in 1976 to try and interest Isaac Bashevis Singer in contributing an original screenplay. What Kubrick sought from Singer was a “dramatic structure that compressed the complex and vast information into the story of an individual who represented the essence of this manmade hell.” Singer, who — unlike many of his friends — was not a Holocaust survivor, gratefully declined, saying, “I don’t know the first thing” about the Holocaust.
Kubrick shelved the project until 1991, when he read Louis Begley’s short novel “Wartime Lies,” about a Jewish boy and his aunt who survive the war by snaking their way through Poland pretending to be Catholics. Begley’s autobiographical tale so intrigued Kubrick that he was willing to shoot the project abroad — a dramatic decision for the director, who hadn’t left England for more than three decades. Kubrick got the go-ahead from Warner Brothers — which publicly announced the project as “Aryan Papers” (a reference to the documents required to escape deportation) in 1993 — and he got fairly far along in the pre-production, hiring set and costume designers and casting several of the main roles. For the role of the boy’s aunt, Tanya, Kubrick considered Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman. However, preparations ceased when it became known that Spielberg had started working on “Schindler’s List.” Fearing competition, Kubrick shelved the project for a second and final time, and devoted his energies to “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Kubrick’s lifelong fascination with the Holocaust coexisted with extreme doubt as to whether any film could do justice to the subject. In 1980, he told the author Michael Herr that what he wanted most was to make a film about the Holocaust, “but good luck in putting all that into a two-hour movie.” Frederic Raphael, who co-authored the screenplay for “Eyes Wide Shut,” recalls Kubrick questioning whether a film truly can represent the Holocaust in its entirety. After Raphael suggested “Schindler’s List,” Kubrick replied, “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?”
The scholar Geoffrey Cocks has written extensively about Kubrick’s fascination with the Nazi era. In numerous essays and a book, “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” he argues that the Holocaust serves as the “veiled benchmark of evil” in many of Kubrick’s films, specifically “The Shining.” According to Cocks, the failure to bring “Aryan Papers” to fruition had to do with a profound awareness of “the problem of how to do ethical and artistic justice to the depiction of the horror of mass extermination,” a problem that has — in one form or another — plagued all postwar artists. Unlike Harlan, who recalls Kubrick’s great enthusiasm for the project, Cocks quotes Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, as telling him that Kubrick was horribly depressed throughout his work on “Aryan Papers.”
The Holocaust was such a sensitive issue that Kubrick’s reaction took the form of approach and avoidance, argues Cocks. Though Kubrick never confronted the subject head-on — and the scant appearance of Nazis in his films take the form of parody (as in “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lolita”) — Cocks writes that “[a]s a Jew in a Gentile world, Kubrick would use his position as an outsider with a deep sensitivity to social injustice to expose the dark underside of society.” A quote from Kubrick on the connection between rape and Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange” illustrates Cocks’s assertion: “[It] suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.”
Kubrick was a master at exploring the darker side of human nature, whether it was sexual obsession (“Lolita”) or the will to power (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) or human cruelty (“A Clockwork Orange”). It’s fascinating and terrifying to imagine what Kubrick’s Holocaust might have looked like.
A.J. Goldmann is a writer living in New York.