Book review – The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust

Geoffrey Cocks. The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2004

The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust is the ambitious attempt by author Geoffrey Cocks, a Professor of History, to view the films of Stanley Kubrick as a personal discourse on the horrors of the Holocaust. Having written previously about both the Holocaust and Kubrick, Cocks has combined his two interests in The Wolf at the Door to conclude that The Shining (1980) is Kubrick’s “artistic and philosophical response to the horrors of the Second World War. (2)”

Cocks’ rarely analyses the literal meaning of Kubrick’s films, instead approaching them from a psychoanalytic and post-modern perspective to gain alternate meanings. This approach is appropriate, as the complex visuals in Kubrick’s films demand a close attention to film style. Cocks demonstrates how Kubrick roused audiences beyond that of passive spectators through the use of open narratives, rich imagery and evocative music. Kubrick’s own interest in Freud further supports Cocks’ case for a close exploration of symbolism within his films.

The Wolf at the Door contains a strong autobiographical emphasis, as Cocks’ argument is completely dependent on a close scrutiny of Kubrick’s personality and background. The films are rarely considered in their own merits, which is reasonable as Kubrick was absolutely meticulous in all aspects of filmmaking resulting in his films articulating his personal vision.

Unfortunately Cocks’ conclusions about Kubrick’s drives and anxieties do not convince. Cocks is able to identify dominant themes in Kubrick’s work, such as the failure of humanity to stop repeating the mistakes of the past and the dehumanising effect of contemporary institutions, but he never satisfactorily demonstrates that these themes are a result of a deep resonance Kubrick has with the victims of the Holocaust.

Early in The Wolf at the Door Cocks attempts to emphasise the importance of Kubrick’s Jewish background, even though Kubrick was not religious and rarely showed much interest in his ethnic heritage. Cocks argues that Kubrick nevertheless did have a Jewish identity, due to his eastern-European ancestry and being born during a time of anti-Semitism. Cocks claims that this Jewish identity explains Kubrick’s filmic representations of violence, racial prejudice and misuse of power as his lifelong obsession with the Holocaust. It is a troubling argument because it puts so much weight on ethnicity as way of explaining why Kubrick was appalled by acts of gross inhumanity.

Cocks relies on an unconvincing absence-as-evidence argument, stating that the lack of Jewish characters in Kubrick’s films demonstrates Kubrick’s sensitivity towards Jewish people.  Cocks’ observation that the subjects of Kubrick’s films are perpetrators and not victims, hence the lack of Jewish characters, is also unconvincing as Kubrick often blurred the line between perpetrators and victims, encouraging audiences to constantly shift their sympathies. Obvious examples of perpetrator/victims include Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962), HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alex de Large in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon in Barry Lyndon (1975), the marines in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Most unsatisfying is Cocks’ argument that Kubrick was unable to confront the Holocaust directly and therefore the more obscure the apparent Holocaust reference, the more Cocks presents it as evidence of his thesis. Cocks argues that Kubrick felt he could not directly explore the Holocaust because its horrors were so overwhelming that it was impossible to ethically and artistically do justice to such a mass crime against humanity. The fact that Kubrick was developing “Aryan Papers”, a Holocaust film, which he abandoned partly because Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) came out first, does not convince Cocks. The obvious commercial decision to abandon the project and Kubrick’s admiration for Spielberg (Kubrick offered Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) to Spielberg to direct) is not an acceptable explanation for Cocks. Instead Cocks uses such incidents as proof that Kubrick could never bring himself to make a film about the Holocaust directly.

Cocks often refutes logical and practical explanations for Kubrick’s motivations and instead uses psychoanalysis to explain his decisions. For example, when examining the undeniable presence of Germans in both Kubrick’s films and personal life, Cocks does not accept the obvious argument that Kubrick went to Germany for economic reasons to film Paths of Glory (1957), met and married German actress Christiane Harlan, and therefore had connections to German people for the rest of his life. Instead Cocks argues that Kubrick’s relationship with German people “were nevertheless to aggravate and stimulate, respectively, the psychological and artistic confrontation between his Jewish identity and Germany’s immediate past. (68)” Too many of Cocks’ arguments place such tenuous emphasis on Kubrick’s ethnicity and the ethnicity of the family he married in to.

Also, too many arguments are difficult to take seriously, such as Cocks’ inclusion of Georg Seesslen’s claim that the name of the computer HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is “midway between the words ‘hell’ and ‘hail’ (as in ‘Heil Hitler!’) and is thereby a ‘fascist machine’ that kills out of cold reason. (121)” Another glaringly weak moment is when Cocks suggests that the line from A Clockwork Orange by the actor demonstrating Alex’s new aversion to violence, “You see that shoe?” sounds like “You see that, Jew?” Bizarrely Cocks even acknowledges that Annie Hall (Woody Allen 1977) contains a joke about the selective (and paranoid?) hearing of the word “Jew”. The inclusion of such ‘evidence’ only damages the credibility of Cocks’ arguments.

Some of Kubrick’s films do contain direct references to Nazism and the Holocaust, suggesting that Kubrick was aware of the power of such references for social critique. For example, the maniacal character Dr. Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), is an ironic comment about the top German scientists who ended up working for the American and Russian governments after World War II. Kubrick locates the insane destructive drive of Strangelove, an obvious parody of Nazism, within American defence policy.

The use of Nazi images from Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl 1935) and German newsreels to ‘cure’ Alex in A Clockwork Orange provide further examples of Kubrick’s irony. Part of a zero tolerance approach to crime, a new conservative government brainwashes Alex into becoming a model citizen, by associating images of Nazism with nausea. The presence of Nazi images reminds the viewer that the Nazi party achieved much of their dominance through brainwashing the German people with fear and propaganda, effectively giving power to the true criminals.

A more subtle use of Nazi imagery, discussed by Cocks, is the ornamental swastikas in the scene from Full Metal Jacket where the Vietnamese sniper is shot. In this example Kubrick uses Nazi symbolism to critique the American presence in the Vietnam War. The American soldiers are the aggressors here while the sniper, a young girl, is the victim. The brutality of the Nazi party is aligned with the actions of the American army, much like they are in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) when the Americans play Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” during the helicopter attack.

Full Metal Jacket also suggests that Kubrick’s criticism of state sanctioned violence went beyond the Holocaust, as the treatment of Native American Indians is often evoked through the casual racism in the film and Western references. A character is named Cowboy, Joker frequently does John Wayne impersonations and while being filmed by a television crew the soldiers joke about the Western hero they will play in the “Vietnam movie”. The scene concludes with Animal Mother telling the television crew, “the gooks can play the Indians.” The American soldiers are therefore aligned with colonialist aggressors (cowboys) while the Vietnamese are the victims (Native American Indians).

Likewise in The Shining, as Cocks discusses, the evil that ‘haunts’ the Overlook Hotel are not the Native American Indians whose graves the Hotel is built on, but its European developers. Cocks is aware of Kubrick’s other historical references and even discuss how The Shining references the cultural genocide of the Native Americans under European imperialism. However, although Cocks explores other historical references he still views them as indirect reflections of the Holocaust since for Cocks the Holocaust is the ultimate case of calculated and rationalised genocide.

Due to general awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust, it is possible that Kubrick used Holocaust references to comment on other abuses of power that are closer to home – such as the treatment of Native American Indians and America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. When analysing Kubrick’s approach to horror Cocks identifies that Kubrick has little interest in supernatural horror narratives as for Kubrick the true source of horror comes from history and human behaviour. Hence, Kubrick uses Holocaust and Nazi imagery to represent evil and horror at its most extreme and frightening.

Much of The Wolf at the Door is background material for Cocks’ ultimate argument that The Shining is Kubrick’s Holocaust film.

Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a film about the Holocaust. Stanley Kubrick never made a film about the Holocaust. Until he did. It was not the film he said he would make. But it is the one he made. (172)

After so much build up the final chapters do provide a rigorous and fascinating reading of The Shining as a text on the Holocaust. Cocks explores the cultural significance of the hotel as setting and the symbolism of the typewriter as “the primary weapon of the SS bureaucrats of the Final Solution who have rightly been designated ‘desk murderers'”. (188) Cocks discusses the inter-textual references The Shining contains from literature such as Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness and the novels of Franz Kafka. Some of the many films that Cocks contrasts The Shining with include The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang 1960), The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel 1962), The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani 1974) and even Barton Fink (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen 1991), which Cocks convincingly argues is a homage to The Shining. Cocks examines the nursery rhymes that are evoked, the psychoanalytical meaning of the maze in regard to the female body and the role of the child in Kubrick’s films. Cocks’ eye for detail is extraordinary and after finishing The Wolf at the Door it is difficult not to think of the blood pouring out the elevator as the blood of the millions murdered in the Holocaust. Likewise, it becomes clear why audiences have previously associated the Grady twins with the ‘medical research’ done by Dr. Joseph Mengele on twin children at Auschwitz.

The Wolf at the Door is successful in justifying the appropriateness of reading The Shining as a Holocaust text. The difficult part is accepting Cocks belief that “The Shining was also the result of Kubrick’s own personal and artistic struggle concerning his century’s most awful atrocity. (220)” What should have been a first rate against-the-grain extended essay on The Shining is instead a book padded out with all encompassing arguments that distance the reader. Cocks’ search among Kubrick’s other films for anything that may suggest the Holocaust unfortunately often ruins otherwise fascinating arguments and analysis. This is unfortunate as his examination of each film contains excellent insights into Kubrick’s critiques of the power wielded by elites and violence created by the state, including war.

There is no doubting Cocks knowledge of both the Holocaust and Kubrick’s films. While Cocks’ definite approach to Kubrick’s films is a major detractor there is still much to admire in The Wolf at the Door. Cocks provides excellent material on Holocaust history, autobiographic details on Kubrick and background material on 1970s horror films. Cocks has done some extraordinary work on Kubrick’s strategic use of music, colour and numbers. Cocks also voices strong arguments in defence of Kubrick’s controversial portrayal of ethnicity, women and homosexuality. Ultimately The Wolf at the Door reinforces the extent to which Kubrick’s films demand multiple readings. Despite many stylistic and thematic similarities within his films, there is no all-encompassing interpretation of any one Kubrick film let alone his entire body of work. Cocks’ attempt to do so is unsuccessful but it does make for compelling and challenging reading. 

Originally appeared here on Screening the Past Issue 19, 2006

© Thomas Caldwell, 2006