Nabokov, a three-time refugee from totalitarian governments, famously rejected literature bearing social messages. Yet at the end of his seventh decade, he vowed to his first biographer that he would one day tackle Nazi terror. “I will go to those German camps and look at those places and write a terrible indictment.”1 Decades later Kubrick made real progress toward his goal: he drafted a script, cast lead actors, and scouted a location in the Czech Republic for a film with the working title Aryan Papers. Yet neither man would complete his project.
Lolita, their only collaboration, somehow survived the censors, despite a plot centered on a professor’s cross-country travel and multi-year sexual abuse of his stepdaughter. While the subject of the movie stands at some distance from genocide, Nabokov’s 1955 novel and Kubrick’s 1962 film each play with coy and explicit Holocaust references, and hint at why neither man would ever produce a masterwork exploring the tragedy.
Kubrick and Nabokov each had a complex relationship with Judaism and Nazi Germany. Born wealthy in Russia and forced to flee after the Revolution, Nabokov moved to Berlin, where fellow émigrés mocked him as half-Jewish because of his philo-Semitism. He married Russian Jew Véra Slonim, who gave birth to a son in Germany a year after Hitler came to power. The couple escaped to France in 1937, and managed to get away yet again three years later, just before Paris fell to the Wehrmacht. The war scattered Nabokov’s siblings, and his brother Sergei ended up dying at a concentration camp outside Hamburg. At one point suggesting Germany should be chloroformed, Nabokov wrote a short story savaging Holocaust denial before the war had even ended. 2
This history was both more and less immediate for Kubrick, who was Jewish but had spent the war as a teenager in the relative safety of the Bronx. Raised outside any faith, he is reported to have told screenwriter Frederic Raphael that he was not so much Jewish as “he just happened to have two Jewish parents.”3 His first two wives were the daughters of Jewish immigrants. His third wife, Christiane, to whom he was married for more than 40 years, is a German actress who grew up in Nazi Germany. She is also the niece of filmmaker Veit Harlan, who produced the grotesque Nazi film Süss the Jew, a legacy her family wrestled with for decades.
Kubrick and his partner James Harris first invited Nabokov to write a Lolita screenplay in 1959. Out of fear of offending the censor, Nabokov was asked to include a hint “that Humbert and Lolita had been secretly married all along.”4 He turned down the invitation, unable to imagine how his story could work as a film. Later, he hit on a solution, and when Kubrick asked him again to take on the screenplay, he agreed. Nabokov spent half of 1960 in a rented villa on Mandeville Canyon Road in Los Angeles, meeting regularly with Kubrick.
In June, Nabokov turned in a script that Kubrick estimated would translate into a seven-hour movie. After Kubrick pleaded with him to cut and cut more, Nabokov turned in a revised version that September, which he felt was well received. A year and a half later, he saw the final version of the film in a small, private screening before its public premiere and realized that Kubrick had humored him, keeping “only ragged odds and ends” from his script.5
Nabokov and Kubrick were merciless visionaries transforming perversion and violence into baroque creations, but they had very different visions of Lolita. Nabokov lured the reader in and encouraged a kind of sympathy for and complicity with pedophile Humbert Humbert, all the while underlining the horror of what happens to Lolita. In the novel, Humbert overhears her crying every night. When Nabokov translated the book into Russian, he pushed the point further, clarifying that Humbert molests Lolita three times a day.
Kubrick, however, seems to have taken Nabokov’s narrative restraint as sympathy for Humbert. “Nabokov was brilliant in withholding any indication of the author's approval of the relationship” he told Terry Southern in 1962, noting that it isn’t until the end of the movie that “the really genuine and selfless love [Humbert] has for her is revealed.” Pointing out to Southern that Lolita seduces Humbert, he classifies Lolita as a “tragic romance” and “one of the great love stories.”6
Given their different readings, the gulf between book and film hardly comes as a surprise. But the changes Nabokov made as he transformed his novel into a script and the way Kubrick rewrote the script for his film provide a glimpse of how they wrestled with the idea of Jewish identity and the Holocaust.
Lolita, directed by Stanley
Kubrick (GB/United States; 1960-62).
Lolita (Sue Lyon) and Prof. Humbert Humbert (James Mason). © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Nabokov had injected an exquisite awareness of contemporary anti-Semitism into his 1955 novel. A wartime refugee from Europe, Humbert has nightmares of vivisection and “the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.”7 When Humbert relays that Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, fantasizes about getting “a trained servant maid like the German girl the Talbots spoke of,” it was Jewish refugees who filled those slots in that era.8 Nabokov’s own wife Véra had been told to get testimonials for skills as a maid, because being a domestic was one of the few paths by which Jewish women could get visas into the US.9
Taking Lolita to the hotel where he plans to drug her, Humbert is at first refused a room by the manager, who looked at his features and “wrestled with some dark doubts.” Humbert later notices the hotel has “NO DOGS” and “NEAR CHURCHES” stamped on its stationery.10 When the book was written, “No Dogs” was shorthand in America for “No Dogs, No Coloreds, No Jews.” “Near Churches” indicated specifically that Jews would not be welcome.11
Renting summer lodging on butterfly hunting trips across the US, Nabokov grew furious over these listings, and while traveling even had confrontations with one rental owner and a manager at a diner over their exclusion of Jews.12 After Humbert sees “NO DOGS” and “NEAR CHURCHES” on the hotel letterhead, he recalls seeing a guest with a dog, and wonders if perhaps it had been baptized.13
The list goes on. Lolita’s mother suspects that Humbert has “a certain strange strain” in his family and says she will commit suicide if she ever finds out he is not Christian. An acquaintance of Humbert’s complains about the number of Italian tradesmen in town and adds that at least “we are still spared—.” The man’s wife cuts him off mid-sentence, not wanting to offend Humbert. But in the Russian translation, Nabokov is more direct. The speaker clearly begins to say an anti-Semitic slur. When Humbert confronts Clare Quilty, the man with whom Lolita ran off, he is told to leave, because refugees like him are unwelcome in “a Gentile’s house.”14
Is Humbert actually Jewish, or does mid-century prejudice against foreigners just lead others to see him so? Is the madness of the war he fled part of the back story for his mental derangement—a derangement Nabokov makes explicit through repeated institutionalizations?
Many more winks and nods appear in the interplay between Humbert and American society in the book, but by the time Nabokov had finished his adaptation—after initially drafting a mammoth 400-page script—he had moved the story’s setting to 1960 and eliminated every oblique Semitic reference. Humbert was no longer a war refugee, and any hints about his identity had been scrapped.
Stanley Kubrick with his viewfinder during the production of Lolita |
(GB/United States; 1960-62). © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Transforming Nabokov’s script to the screen, Kubrick thoroughly mined the comic brilliance of the book—particularly Humbert’s frustrations as a parent once Lolita’s mother Charlotte dies in a freak accident. Daughter and stepfather argue over dates, parties, homework, and participation in the school play. Humbert has secured the object of his obsession, but to keep prying eyes away, he has to maintain a charade of family life, despite Lolita turning into a rebellious teenager.
When the film hit theaters, literary critics had not yet considered the question of Humbert’s identity or the depictions of American anti-Semitism in the novel.15 But Kubrick had sniffed out the odd vibe of exclusion and racial hierarchy creeping through Nabokov’s story, re-inserting elements from the book into the film where Nabokov’s script had excised them.
In what became the opening scene of the movie, Humbert (James Mason) wanders through bric-a-brac detritus in a mansion, calling for Quilty (Peter Sellers). Face to face, Humbert knows Quilty as his rival, but Quilty does not seem to recognize the armed intruder. Kubrick resurrects a moment from the book that Nabokov had left out of the final script, with Quilty saying, “You are either Australian [a play on Austrian] or a German refugee . . . This is a Gentile’s house. You better run along.” The question of who Humbert is and whether he has a right to be present constitute our introduction to him.
Kubrick added his own touches of WASP anxiety, with Charlotte (Shelley Winters) reassuring Humbert at their first meeting that the town of Ramsdale is filled “with lots of good Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-Scotch stock.” But where Charlotte says in the novel she would commit suicide if she ever learned Humbert were not Christian, Kubrick changed it to if “you didn’t believe in God.” Kubrick kept the religious angle, but broadened it from Christian prejudice into a general oppressive religiosity.
In the film America is still suspicious of foreigners, but sexual hypocrisy dominates. Behind the public façade of propriety and religion squirms a bacchanal. Kubrick made it apparent that Charlotte slept with Quilty the last time he was in town. Quilty later quizzes Mr. Swine, a hotel desk clerk, on where to find local action. John Farlow, the man who nearly makes a slur in the novel, instead implies that he and his wife are swingers. In one scene, Charlotte says she has a surprise, and Humbert asks if the Farlows have been arrested.
With a comic veiling of pornographic excess, Kubrick has replaced the town’s parochial bigotry with a sexual free-for-all. (Absent this reinvention of Ramsdale, it becomes hard to imagine Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.) In Kubrick’s send-up of genteel America, a man’s obsession with his stepdaughter remains the last sexual taboo.
Cast as Quilty, Peter Sellers plays a dizzying number of characters. In addition to his actual roles as a television personality and playwright, he pretends to be a policeman, Lolita’s uncle, and “Doctor Zempf,” a school psychologist. As Zempf, Quilty interrogates Humbert about his relationship with Lolita, affecting a heavy German accent, chiding Humbert for refusing to cooperate, and explaining how “we Americans” do things. On one level, Zempf is using the threat of the nanny state to manipulate an unwitting Humbert into letting Lolita star in her school play. On another, Zempf’s riff suggests that Humbert is at risk not so much for his suspected sexual misbehavior as for his inability to pass as American.
Kubrick makes subtle and crude use of Holocaust imagery. He restores dialogue absent from Nabokov’s script in which Humbert begins to contemplate murdering Charlotte. After Charlotte tells him that she will send Lolita away to boarding school so that she will no longer live with them, Humbert loses his erection. When she notices, Humbert asks her to give him a moment, as he is following a train of thought. He rolls over on his side, at which point Charlotte’s revolver is visible in the foreground. Oblivious, she coyly asks if she was on that train, and he says, “Yes.”
But the film’s strangest Holocaust interpolation lacks any subtlety. After a lecture from Charlotte, an irritated Lolita listens to a list of instructions. Leaning on a stairway post, she raises her left arm to deliver a mocking Hitler salute and says, “Sieg Heil!” It’s a startling moment, but any shock comes from the rebellion of a put-upon Lolita, who half-heartedly makes the gesture with the wrong arm from her slumped position.
Talking with Michael Ciment two decades after Lolita’s release, Kubrick admitted a fascination with Nazi horror. He identified Doctor Zempf and Zempf’s filmic offspring Dr. Strangelove as “parodies of movie clichés about Nazis.”16 Unlike Nabokov’s novel, however, these winks and nods function less as historical cues than symbols that help viewers interpret the scene they’re watching. Kubrick framed his tendencies in terms of an interest in evil that he thought was typical: “More people read books about the Nazis than the UN.”17
Within Kubrick’s Lolita this interplay stays on the level of vamping and masks. None of it leads to the kind of specific history that peeks from the corners of Nabokov’s novel. Kubrick’s film spans a broader horizon, building toward the moment that comedy flips into tragedy as Humbert loses Lolita to Quilty and then hunts her down years later. Firmly convinced of his pure love for her, he sits awkwardly in her living room, breaking down as he realizes that she will not run away with him.
Humbert leaves alone after a very pregnant Lolita has delightedly accepted a large sum of money from him. But deviating from the novel, she does not die in childbirth after Humbert’s departure. In Kubrick’s film, Humbert owns all the tragedy.
Nabokov, on the other hand, saw Humbert as a monster—but he could not resist layering complexities into his character, making any single analysis of the novel almost impossible. He loathed sentimentality and wanted to write novels guarded enough not just to withstand, but to require rereading. Ultimately, even where he seems to render his productions fantastic and abstract, Nabokov tends to stake the poles of his circus tent to precise places and times, and points to events from the world of the reader. Though he had been writing fiction about young girls sexually abused by older men for decades, he mentioned the 1948 real-world kidnapping of a 13-year-old New Jersey girl named Sally Horner in the pages of Lolita itself.18 Nabokov binds his characters to such specificity that they resist symbolic interpretation.
Kubrick, however, tends to turn his protagonists into archetypes. Alex’s free-range ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange is horrifying, not heroic, but the film’s larger narrative plays out as a direct clash between free will and an oppressive state. Small wonder that Nabokov’s signature image became the tiniest detail marrying horror and beauty, while Kubrick’s became the panoramic shot that accomplishes the same effect.
Nabokov and the Holocaust
Given their fascination with the Holocaust, what kept both men from memorializing it directly? Though Nabokov’s vow to write about what Germany had done was made with more emotion than his biographer had ever seen him express, he fell into a life of relative isolation from the world late in life. His novels became more and more involute in his waning years.
Nabokov also felt that there was a correlation between distance from history and the greatness of the art that addressed it. He wrote a note in his 1942 diary calling War and Peace “the greatest novel about any war” but underlined that Tolstoy had written his epic half a century after Napoleon had been defeated. 19
In the end, the enormity of the Holocaust defied the oblique approach and aesthetics that Nabokov excelled at—the poetry which philosopher Theodor Adorno said would be barbaric to write after Auschwitz. Aspects of the Holocaust could be addressed indirectly, as Nabokov did in Lolita—and afterward more explicitly in Pnin, where the death of a childhood love at Buchenwald nestles at the heart of the story of hapless Professor Pnin’s misadventures. Such surprises in stories about other people and places render the vast ocean of deaths specific and human again.
All magic and misdirection, Nabokov’s writing encompassed multiple readings other authors dreamed of. But he could only succeed at historical tragedy when he addressed it elliptically. With parody, linguistic games, and ambiguity as his most effective tools, Nabokov was ill-equipped to play Tolstoy and create a War and Peace-style epic about the death of millions. He could make questions about Humbert’s refugee past haunt the pages of Lolita, but the Holocaust in its entirety could not be written as subtext.
Kubrick and the Holocaust
Though Kubrick’s transformation of Lolita made only generic gestures toward Jewish identity and the Holocaust, Kubrick had opportunities before and afterward to address both more directly—several of which he side-stepped. In the early 1960s, he turned down an offer to direct The Pawnbroker, the story of a Holocaust survivor targeted in a robbery in East Harlem.20 Historian Geoffrey Cocks notes that in five of Kubrick’s films, Jewish characters disappear in the translation from text to screen, usually due a need to streamline the narrative. But there is more to it than that. “Jews are absent from Kubrick films,” Cocks writes, “because the main subjects of Kubrick’s films are perpetrators and not victims.”21
Which is not to say that Kubrick was uninterested in reflecting Jewish experiences. He asked his brother-in-law in the mid-1970s to find out if Isaac Bashevis Singer might be willing to write a Holocaust screenplay. Singer declined with barbed modesty, saying, “I don’t know the first thing about it.”22
Years later, Kubrick mentioned to collaborator Michael Herr that he wanted to make a Holocaust film. He eventually began developing a scenario from Louis Begley’s 1991 novel Wartime Lies, which follows a young boy named Maciek and his aunt as they try to stay ahead of Nazi invasion and arrest in Poland. He developed the idea under the title Aryan Papers, and began drafting a script himself. Christiane Kubrick recalls that he was depressed from the beginning to the end of his work on it.24 The arrival of Schindler’s List may also have played a role in his abandoning the project, but he was reported to have said that Spielberg had not captured the Holocaust. Kubrick said he wanted to somehow represent the six million dead, not those who survived.25
He ultimately gave up, but the debate over the degree to which he wrestled with the Holocaust in his films continues today. His 1980 movie The Shining ostensibly traces the mental disintegration of a writer who drags his family off to a haunted mountain resort during a claustrophobic winter. Yet its imagery would spawn an entire book devoted to interpreting it as a Holocaust film. Most striking were what one critic called “hemorrhagic elevators” spewing an ocean of blood, and the slaughtered Grady sisters, who recall both Diane Arbus’ “Identical Twins” photo and Josef Mengele’s barbaric experiments at Auschwitz. But as Holocaust symbols, even these visuals make for abstract ghosts, horror pulled in to electrify the existing story rather than to tap into historical allegory.
Other books Kubrick made into movies contain no shortage of ideas he could have embraced. The first page of the novel The Short-Timers, on which Full Metal Jacket is based, describes Parris Island as a “suburban death camp.” Later, the Marine protagonist dreams of Hermann Göring as his mother, breast-feeding him while driving Germany into war. These references disappear in Kubrick’s film, the metaphor of America’s military as Nazis replaced by subtler visuals: a sea of sheared hair from the recruits on the floor at boot camp and swastika designs in the metal framework of an interior rail during a firefight in Vietnam.
Across his career, Kubrick broadly reconstituted symbols of Jewish suffering and Nazi mythology as a vocabulary of evil in movies about other subjects. But as for portraying Jews or the Holocaust, Kubrick could not pull back far enough to build a cinematic frame around either one. No higher-order visual vocabulary exists as a set of symbols to interpret the horror of the Holocaust itself. So we are instead left with fragments scattered throughout Kubrick’s work. From the very absence of the Jewish characters he consistently obscured to the Leni Riefenstahl footage playing in A Clockwork Orange and Lolita shouting “Sieg Heil!,” Kubrick’s legacy suggests that making art out of the Holocaust is both impossible and inevitable.
About the Author
Andrea Pitzer is the author of The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov. Her work has appeared in Lapham's Quarterly, McSweeney's, and Slate, among other publications. In 2009 she founded Nieman Storyboard, the narrative journalism site of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. She is currently writing a global history of concentration camps from the 1890s to the present.
1. Andrew Field. Nabokov: His Life in Part (New York: Penguin, 1977), 201.
2. The short story, “Double Talk,” was later renamed “Conversation Piece, 1945.” The letter was written to the Chair of the New York Browning Society, and appears in Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940-1977 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1991), 47-8.
3. Frederic Raphael. Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 108.
4. Nabokov, Lolita: A Screenplay (New York: Vintage, 1997), vii.
5. Ibid., xii.
6. Terry Southern, “An Interview with Stanley Kubrick,” New York City, 1962.
7. Nabokov, Lolita, 254.
8. Ibid., 82.
9. Stacy Schiff. Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 103.
10. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita (New York: Knopf, 2010), 261.
11. Alfred Appel. The Annotated Lolita (New York: Random House, 1991), 435-6.
12. Ibid., 436.
13. Nabokov, Lolita, 261.
14. Nabokov, Lolita: “a certain strange strain,” 75; “we are still spared,” 79; “a Gentile’s house,” 297.
15. Alfred Appel would lead the way in making note of many of Lolita’s references to American anti-Semitism in The Annotated Lolita, which first appeared in 1970.
16. Michael Ciment. Kubrick (Glasgow: Collins, 1983), 156-7.
18. Nabokov, Lolita, 289.
19. Nabokov diary entry, January 24, 1942.
20. Geoffrey Cocks, The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), 158.
21. Cocks, 30.
22. Joan Dupont. “Kubrick Speaks, Through Family’s Documentary,” The New York Times, September 15, 2001.
23. Michael Herr. “Kubrick,” Vanity Fair, April 2000.
24. Cocks, 15.
25. Raphael, 107.