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The Elusive Jewishness of “Eyes Wide Shut” — Stanley Kubrick’s Final Film

The inherent Jewishness of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” — the source text for “Eyes Wide Shut” — presented early problems. Stanley Kubrick’s films rarely contained Jewish characters —Lt. Goldberg in “Dr. Strangelove” and David the Jew in “Spartacus” are rare exceptions. Typically, though, he removed Jewish characters from the source texts he adapted, including “The Killing,” “Lolita,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon” and “Full Metal Jacket.”

So, what was to be done with “Traumnovelle?” Schnitzler’s story is echt Jewish. His central characters are Jewish; they lead lives of turn-of-the-century Viennese Jews in a city rife with artistic and cultural turmoil. “But while not addressing it directly,” observes Ilan Stavans in his book, “The Inveterate Dreamer,” “its pages are indeed seeded with Jewish metaphors,” such as his unmasking or his desire to transgress the confines of marriage, which can be interpreted as a wish to transcend the boundaries of Jewish identity of the time. With one exception, Schnitzler’s characters don’t directly identify themselves as Jewish. The exception is pianist Nachtigall, who plays an important role in the life of the novel’s Fridolin and the film’s Bill Harford (he is responsible for taking both characters to the orgy). Nachtigall is a Polish Jew, the son of a Jewish bar owner, who speaks German with “a slightly Jewish twang.” There has been an anti-Semitic event in his life when, ironically, he was assaulted by a Jewish bank manager. Nachtigall is a bit of a brawler. In the film, Nachtigall becomes Nick Nightingale, played by Todd Field.

Despite Kubrick’s desire to stick close to Schnitzler (“Track Arthur. He knows how to tell a story”), he wanted any reference to Jewishness scrubbed from the script. Frederic Raphael, the screenwriter Kubrick hired to adapt the novella, and Kubrick persistently argued over the extent to which the characters should be identified as Jewish. No wonder Raphael was frustrated. Raphael recalls how during one of their “long, long talks,” he pointed out “how thoroughly Schnitzler’s story was impregnated with Jewishness.” In a passage from his memoir of his time working on the film, Eyes Wide Open, worth quoting at length, Raphael told Kubrick:

“The students who bump into Fridolin as he walks the streets insult and alarm him (and are, in fact, based on anti-Semitic fraternities of the period). He both despises them and fears that he has flunked their insolent challenge. Nachtigall is a ‘typical’ Jew, a wanderer available for hire, outrageous but willing to be blindfolded and made a servant. The episode at the orgy in which Fridolin is literally unmasked, and called on to say who he is, seems to emphasize his alienation from the ‘gentlemen’ who mishandle him. Fridolin is an outsider, like every middle-European Jew, and his medical dignity, whatever untouchable status it may seem to bestow, somehow compromises his virility. Transferring the story to New York seemed to me to offer an opportunity for keeping the Jewish aspect of the story, however it might be modernized.

Consequently, Raphael’s first draft inserted many more Jewish characters than would be found in the film. For example, Bill — the character played by Tom Cruise — is Jew baited in the street first by a junkie, who calls him “a cheap Jew sonofabitch” when Bill refuse to give him money. Bill denies he is a Jew. The same thing happens with a bunch of anti-Semitic “Yalies.” Ultimately, there was no junkie in the film and the “Yalies” become a gang of frat boys (wearing Yale insignia), reminiscent of Alex and his droogs from “A Clockwork Orange,” who gay-bait Bill and knock him into a car. There is no obvious sign of Jewishness in “Eyes Wide Shut.”

This is particularly true of the film’s protagonist. Raphael says that they “had not discussed what kind of man our New York doctor would be, except that he should not be Jewish. I gave him the name Scheuer” (after an old friend) “in order to convince myself of this reality.” Kubrick was not happy “One thing, I really don’t want Bill to be called Scheuer, OK? Give him some name that doesn’t … identify him, OK? It could be Robinson, but … we don’t want him to be Jewish.” Kubrick “was firmly opposed” to Bill being identified as Jew: he wanted him “to be a Harrison Fordish goy and forbade any references to Jews.”

Like the Jewish movie moguls of old Hollywood, did Kubrick still believe that audiences would not be interested in, would perhaps even be turned off by, a narrative about Jews? Was he looking for a universality of characters, which might mean bland WASPish types, of the kind Tom Cruise could so easily fit? Or maybe he wanted two characters that could be able to walk into any room and be welcomed. Even though the movie is set in 1999, memories of anti-Semitism — as Christiane, Kubrick’s widow, recalled in an interview in a German newspaper — remained fresh in Kubrick’s mind. Raphael certainly felt it “would keep the theme buried (and hence more subtle), but his main motive, I am sure, was the wish not to annoy the audience. He wanted to escape into myth and inhabit an alien character who, nevertheless, would be close to him.” This was certainly on Kubrick’s mind when he changed the main characters’ last name to “Harford,” suggesting either the British county of Hertfordshire where Kubrick lived, or perhaps the name of Gustav Hasford, who had written The Short-Timers, the source text of “Full Metal Jacket,” or Harrison Ford, the movie actor (Har-Ford). Ironically, though, Ford is Jewish and Hertfordshire is a county with a relatively large Jewish population.

The struggle over the Jewishness that would or would not be present in the film went on for some time. While Kubrick taunted him with Jewish jokes, Raphael rinsed as much from the script as he could. Ultimately, if Kubrick wanted to tone down the Jewishness in order to avoid alienating his audiences, he created a problem. It makes, says Stavans, his decision to adapt Schnitzler even more puzzling. “One might argue that throughout his career he never openly reflected on his own Jewish roots. But this last effort is different, for in it he is not adapting Vladimir Nabokov or Anthony Burgess, but a man whose ambivalence toward his own Jewishness is arguably the source of his inspiration.” Perhaps that is also what Kubrick saw in Schnitzler—hence, the perfect vehicle for his final film.

The discussions of Jewishness provided Kubrick with some leeway to engage in his typical practice of psychological manipulation. Kubrick was a mischievous fellow, not above tweaking someone. It is possible, probable even, that Kubrick toyed with Raphael by engaging in what Raphael describes as Jew-baiting, comments that might be considered anti-Semitic if a non-Jew uttered them. He goaded him about the Holocaust. In Raphael’s account, Kubrick is alleged to have said, “A[dolf] H[itler] had been ‘right about almost everything’.” Kubrick also asked whether a movie can be made about the Holocaust. When Raphael mentioned Schindler’s List, Kubrick replied, “Think that was about the Holocaust? […] That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t. Anything else?” Raphael writes, “My glib suspicion is that the only serious scandal for him is the Holocaust, which is why he will not, or cannot, deal with it.” In fact, he did not deal with it, giving up his planned Holocaust film, “Aryan Papers.” In the end, Kubrick’s goading had a purpose, pushing Raphael in a direction that would create a script that Kubrick sought.

Yet, as Raphael points out, despite this erasure of the source text’s Jewishness, Raphael and Kubrick inserted the only obviously Jewish character to appear in the film. The character of Victor Ziegler did not appear in the novella and, initially, was not intended to be Jewish. But as played, first by Harvey Keitel and then by Jewish actor/director Sydney Pollack, Ziegler is Jewish in demeanor and inflection, becoming the film’s villain and arguably a matrix of anti-Semitic tropes: superrich, sexually depraved, debauched, corrupt. This reading of Ziegler as Jewish is confirmed in a fax, written by Leon Vitali in April 1999, where he describes Ziegler as “Rich, Jewish businessman about 50.”

Raphael claims responsibility for naming, creating, and developing Ziegler. He named him “in unaffectionate memory” after “Ziggy,” “a garrulous agent” who once represented him in California. Evarts Ziegler was indeed an agent with whom Kubrick once corresponded about the “Dr. Strangelove”-like novel “Fail-Safe.” Perhaps an echo of this memory remained in Kubrick’s mind, lending an appeal to the character’s surname. But there is possibly another source: in the wake of the release of “A Clockwork Orange,” in 1972, following the receipt of some anti-Semitic hate mail ranting about “filthy Jews,” Kubrick had photocopied page 244 from William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (1960). It referred to Adolf Ziegler, a mediocre painter who was the president of the Reich Chamber of Fine Art, charged with the responsibility of purging Germany of any “degenerate” and “decadent” art.

To compensate for the fact that Schnitzler’s novella left things unsaid, and that his characters were not terribly well developed, Raphael felt that “we had to supply flesh and blood.” That was Ziegler — “the boss, the owner of the house, and, in a way, Bill’s protector. We need him, and he has to be witty, interesting, slightly ambiguous.” In Raphael’s first draft, Ziegler’s great-grandfather is described as “The Robber Baron.” Raphael writes in the script how “Old New York and new New York are meeting in the mansion which great-grandfather ZIEGLER, the Robber Baron built.” In more detail, Raphael describes how “ZIEGLER is old money and beginning to be something of an old man, but he still has the buccaneering confidence of a man who was once described as ‘the rich man’s Averell Harriman’. He has been the confidant (and maker) of presidents, the lover of stars, the husband of wealthy beauty, of whom EDIE is the fourth example; he now has the innocent blue eyes of someone who has seen everything. ‘ZIG’ is a man whom little can surprise and whose price no one can ever meet. Even his compliments, however trite, are gilt edged and carry the promise of not being offered lightly.” At this point, his first name is Frank or Francis, but it later changes to Paul. Only in the 1996 draft does he become Victor, an investment banker, and his wife is named Ilona. He has a henchman, a “one eyed pimp” and “legman” named Harris (like Kubrick’s producer partner in the 1950s). In the film, “Harris” is reduced to an anonymous figure, who, at Ziegler’s party early in the film, summons Bill to come upstairs where the prostitute Ziegler has been fucking lies semiconscious from a drug overdose.

Like Quilty in “Lolita,” Ziegler becomes central to the whole enterprise, whether on or off screen. He is the movie’s heart of darkness and its Virgil, interposed to explain key events to Bill, to guide his subconscious. He is, in many ways, the director himself, instructing his young protégé. This was the only significant Raphael innovation to survive from his work on the screenplay. After a brief initial appearance, when he welcomes Bill and Alice to his Christmas party, Ziegler appears in three key sequences. All of them with are with Bill: the bathroom at his New York townhouse during the party; masked at the orgy at Somerton (we presume it is him and if we are to believe Ziegler’s account that he organized the proceedings); and the billiards room. The climactic billiards room sequence, with its oedipal overtones of a father chastising his son, was rewritten by Raphael four or five times. He indeed envisaged Ziegler as “the demanding, protective, castrating father.”

This article has been excerpted from “Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film,” by Robert Kolker and Nathan Abrams (Oxford University Press).

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