Powered By Square1.io
Stanley Kubrick hoarded boxes of research materials and screenplay drafts. A lot of boxes, accumulated over decades of work, as the Jon Ronson documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes showed. In a way, they are the raw material of his legacy; the preparation he put into his iconic films and his unrealised projects. His family were conscious of their historical significance and didn’t care to see the papers turning yellow as morbid reminders of his death in 1999. So they donated them to an archive established by the University of Arts in London. This facility on their campus in Elephant & Castle is open to the public by appointment (more details here). So I went there. I touched notebook paper Kubrick himself wrote on. Then I passed out from excitement. When I woke up, I had more to learn about the projects he never got to film.
Two in particular loom large as the closest to coming true and dealing with two historical periods that obsessed Kubrick. His planned biopic of Napoleon, and Aryan Papers, based on the semi-autobiographical Holocaust novel Wartime Lies by Louis Begley. These were the most fleshed-out of his unfilmed stories and I had an afternoon to speed-read both. Having watched his entire filmography (even that corporate video he made for a trade union when he was 24 ), it was on my bucket list to “see” these movies in my head by reading their scripts.
I will now review these in case you’re never motivated to go to London and read them for yourself. I am clearly a fan of Kubrick’s, but not an uncritical one. I don’t like Eyes Wide Shut however much I get what it’s going for. I think casting Ryan O’Neal as Barry Lyndon is inexcusable. One has to respect though that Kubrick is an icon. Before we continue, just look at how many “Oh yeah, THAT moment” shots are in this ‘Kubrick in Colour’ montage:
That was partly to have something nice before we talk about the Holocaust.
Stanley Kubrick was born in 1928 to a Jewish family in New York, a year before Anne Frank was born in Germany. Imagine being a Jewish teenager in 1940s New York, as fascists in Europe are rounding up Jews. Imagine how profoundly disturbing that must have felt. Given how Kubrick’s films return to the themes of violence and war over and over again, it’s hard not to see the impact it had on him. The non-stupid parts of Room 237 highlight possible genocide imagery throughout The Shining. The core premise in each of his thirteen features is a man navigating a world of violence or abuse. A story about evading capture during the Holocaust is ideal for this.
Wartime Lies was one of many novels sent to Kubrick in his search for new projects. It follows a Polish Jew, Tania, and her nephew Maciek securing forged identity papers during the Holocaust. These allow them to live among ‘Aryans’ in Poland undetected, though not without intense paranoia and hardship. Kubrick wrote a detailed outline for an adaptation called Aryan Papers. The structure of the film establishes life with Maciek’s family before the war. Kubrick’s notes list the nine most important characters as they appear in a “pampered comfortable childhood sequence”. In his notes, Kubrick’s ambition for the film was to “show the mild bureaucracy leading to murder”, presumably what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’.
The broad strokes of Kubrick’s scene-by-scene breakdown shows the build-up to the German invasion of Maciek’s town. Then Kubrick scribbled questions about whether it is better to have “immediate random cruelty and killings” or to build suspense with showing how “relatively peaceful” some places were in the first days of occupation. A Catholic doctor who is a friend of Maciek’s family begins saying coldly anti-Semitic things to them. Disturbingly, he maintains the same polite tone he’s always had as if it’s no big deal.
The Jews of the town are rounded up into a ghetto and speculate on their fate, similar enough to scenes in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Tania is able to evade capture with Maciek and as the war progresses, they live under assumed identities. Gestapo investigations force them from their hometown to Warsaw. In Warsaw, they have suspenseful moments of almost betraying themselves. A particularly tense scene builds to Tania emptying a magazine of bullets into a vengeful neighbour in order to save herself. Distant family members thought dead are fighting with the Jewish Resistance. Others work as part of the Judenrat, the Jewish community organisations established by the Nazis. It would have been especially interesting to see how a Kubrick film portrays that delicate subject.
As the war nears its end, an unhinged SS officer captures Maciek in the forest and bargains for his life. He will let Maciek live if he can tell which of his eyes is not a glass eye. Maciek picks one and when asked why he responds, “Because… it’s the one… that has something human in it”. Maciek escapes and he and Tania are rescued by Jewish partisans. Kubrick wrote that after the war, “Their ordeal finally ended in 1948 when they reached the new state of Israel. . . They were then free to pick up the pieces of their lives. The End.”
This would have been a hell of a film to see with some particularly tense scenes. Remembering how dark A Clockwork Orange was, you would have to wonder how Kubrick would portray the inhumane violence of this era. Kubrick’s notes ponder which exact historical dates to use and whether it should be the adult aunt or young child’s perspective in the narration. His opinion of the source material was that the book was “mulled and undramatic”. A curious thing for the adaptor to say but Kubrick did get far into planning it.
He listed locations needed and shots planned. He had location scouts photographing Eastern Europe and, for a possible return to where he shot Barry Lyndon, Ireland. Maciek was going to be played by Joseph Mazello a.k.a. the boy from Jurassic Park. Actresses considered for Tania included Kim Basinger, Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, Michelle Pfeiffer, Isabella Rosselini, Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. Then the Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege (Immortal Beloved, Vincent & Theo) was cast as Tania.
This film was going to be shot in the early 1990s. While Kubrick was preparing Aryan Papers, his friend Steven Spielberg had managed to prepare, shoot, edit and release Schindler’s List. Spielberg’s ’93 might be the best year of any director’s career, when you remember this was also the year he made Jurassic Park. Kubrick thought very highly of Schindler’s List and decided to move on to other projects. His widow, the painter Christiane Kubrick, later revealed that a central reason for abandoning the project was a terrible depression he developed during research. She said one night she found him in his library, looking at a Holocaust book and balling his eyes out. The subject matter deeply disturbed him and he concluded he couldn’t recreate it.
An historical period Kubrick was quite keen to recreate was the life of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was a world-changing figure with an obsessive personality and a lifetime immersed in matters military. It makes a lot of sense Kubrick would be drawn to his story. This was going to be filmed shortly after 2001: A Space Odyssey with Jack Nicholson considered for the leading role. When the project was postponed, Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange and then Barry Lyndon, a film set slightly before Napoleon’s lifetime covering the Seven Years’ War. Kubrick never seized another opportunity to make this one film he really wanted to make but never did. Given this reputation as one of cinema’s great might-have-beens, I read through a 1968 draft of Kubrick’s screenplay for Napoleon and I was surprised. A lot of it was boring.
Napoleon was to chart Napoleon’s entire life story from his birth in Corsica to his death in St. Helena. It was to do this in the space of three hours and only pulls it off with an omniscient narrator handling most of the exposition. Sometimes narration is appropriate and the omniscient narrator worked quite well in Barry Lyndon. This screenplay also has narration spoken by Napoleon which may have muddled things.
The opening scene, for lack of better words, is Napoleon’s birth in Corsica. A cut from baby Napoleon sucking his thumb to the title card and we’ve jumped ahead to his teenage years. Now separated from his mother at a harsh military school, Napoleon is tormented by bullies until he fights back against a boy four years older than him. We then jump years forward again in time, with an economical pace, to see Napoleon as a graduate and soldier. He has an awkward encounter with a prostitute that may have ended up inspiring a similar scene in Eyes Wide Shut.
Then we cut to the chaos of the French Revolution, where Napoleon is expected to arrest revolutionary figures. We see him observing a crowd enthralled by a revolutionary speaker named Varlac. Varlac mocks Napoleon and his demands for surrender. Napoleon maintains his composure and says that he will count down from three and shoot Varlac if he still resists arrest. He counts, “Three… Two… One…” and shoots him dead in front of the crowd who are shocked into dispersing.
We then see the death of Louis XVI and jump ahead to 1796 where Napoleon is a general in the post-revolutionary government. Having impressed his superiors and worked his way up the ranks quickly, he is now suppressing royalist uprisings. He is also socialising with the new elites who hold lavish orgies (which may have been another precursor to Eyes Wide Shut).
During a card game at a salon Napoleon meets Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first woman Napoleon married and an important part of his life story to depict well. Yet on the page, we don’t get much development of their chemistry before they’re having sex. They go from meeting each other to marriage in three pages. We don’t really have anything to latch onto as we see their marriage descend into an infamously abusive relationship. Come to think of it, this is quite similar to Barry Lyndon.
I don’t agree with the misogyny accusations Kubrick has faced. Still, the whole Napoleon/Joséphine relationship reads as if there’s an oddly resentful undertone to it, perhaps aiming to reflect Napoleon’s obsessiveness. It gets stranger with homo-erotic dialogue between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander, the 24-year-old ruler of Russia. While they share a sauna together. But that’s jumping ahead.
The film shows his string of successful military campaigns in Austria, Italy and Egypt. Battle scenes incorporate slow motion, intense violence and thousands of extras. Time is spent showing Napoleon’s paperwork and his study of maps. He turns against the Jacobin republicans he had once fought for and seizes power as Emperor. The narrator talks about Napoleon’s five years of “administrative success”. Even during periods of success, Napoleon has dark private moments which seem to depict him suffering from depression. Strangely, Trafalgar is skimmed over. Then the bromance with the Russian Tsar ensues.
Relations with Russia soon disintegrate over trade disputes. Napoleon has divorced Joséphine, remarried and as conqueror of most of Western Europe, he thinks he can take Russia. His ill-fated campaign against Russia features some exciting ambush scenes and an unsettling arrival in Moscow to an eerily quiet city. Napoleon paces around a Kremlin bedroom as most of Moscow is in flames. Russia’s ruthless scorched earth policy has devastated Napoleon’s army and makes their occupation unsustainable.
This screenplay is a real mixed bag of scenes. Throughout, the characters speak like historians, spelling out plot information in a stilted, tedious way. The scenes that depict the visceral horrors of war are far more compelling. Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, over scorched earth in harsh winter, features some of the bleakest, most harrowing scenes Kubrick ever wrote. There is a tearful goodbye to a horse as it is fed a sugar-cube then shot in the head. Similar deaths faced around 30,000 horses. The loss of human life among Napoleon’s troops was also depicted in a microcosm of a scene. French soldiers find a cabin to stay warm in. It starts to overcrowd with men fleeing the freezing cold so the doors are boarded up. When the cabin catches fire, the men inside are burned alive while the men outside gather around for warmth.
Napoleon’s disastrous retreat devastates his credibility. Tsar Alexander rejects a peace deal. When France is invaded, there is a scene with no dialogue of Napoleon seeing his family for the last time. He flees Paris before it is surrendered and gets exiled to the island of Elba. We see his last-ditch attempt to regain power at Waterloo. He observes his defeat from an armchair on straw ground. He is then exiled to an even more remote island; St Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. He spends the rest of his life there. We see just before his death he has memories of Joséphine and of the first scene with his mother and a childhood teddy bear.
On the whole, Napoleon is an uneven screenplay with some great scenes but lots of dull ones. The expository dialogue must be really interesting to a history nerd like Kubrick but it doesn’t ring true. Then of course, we don’t know how Napoleon or Aryan Papers would have turned out as neither of them were filmed. We can therefore only get a sense of fragments of them.
What enhances the experience of reading these scripts is seeing notes written by Kubrick’s own hand. He questions his own decisions. He highlights aspects that aren’t working. He warns himself to do a better job of fleshing out certain characters. It’s very encouraging that someone of his calibre also had doubts about his work. One can recognise that a story of theirs needs more development without losing faith in one’s ability to tell stories. Kubrick worked hard and kept working hard. His films have left such a lasting impact that even his unrealised films have books devoted to them. Now you can visit an archive devoted to his work and see his approach to writing and rewriting and so much more. What a time to be alive.