MIL-OSI Global: Kafka 100: Stanley Kubrick’s films are littered with references to the writer’s work

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Source: The Conversation – UK – By Nathan Abrams, Professor of Film Studies, Bangor University

I began teaching Stanley Kubrick in 2007 shortly after I moved to Bangor University. In 2012, I embarked on a research project exploring what I called Kubrick’s ethics, ethnicity and archives. It was during that research, which was published as Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual in 2018, that I began to notice how the work of Franz Kafka echoed down the corridors of Kubrick’s work.

Kubrick was born in 1928 and in the decade that followed, Kafka’s work began to appear in English. Kubrick became an avid reader of Kafka’s fiction and later named him “the greatest writer of the century, and the most misread”. “People who used the word ‘Kafkaesque’ had probably never read Kafka”, he told his friend the journalist Michael Herr.

Later, when publicising his film A Clockwork Orange in 1972, Kubrick compared himself to the author: “I have a wife, three children, three dogs, seven cats. I’m not a Franz Kafka, sitting alone and suffering.” It was an interesting comparison, one that suggested more parallels than it dispelled.

As we mark 100 years since the death of the writer, it is fascinating to speculate what drew Kubrick to Kafka.

It may well have been because of their shared central European and Jewish heritage. Kubrick’s ancestors, like Kafka, hailed from parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

In addition to their shared Mitteleuropean roots and ethnicity, Kubrick loved how Kafka wrote. He described it as “a simple, not-baroque style, so that the fantastic is treated in a very everyday, ordinary way”. On another occasion, he said: “His stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic.”

As noted in my latest book about Kubrick, a Kafkaesque sense of dread is more or less evident in each of Kubrick’s films, sometimes explicit but mostly lurking in the shadows of their frames. Like Kafka’s stories, Kubrick’s films combined irony, the absurd, eeriness, elements of surrealism and black humour that undercut his simultaneous insistence on realism.

Much like the writing of his beloved Kafka, Kubrick aimed “to photograph things realistically.” He told film critic Gene Siskel that he lit things “as they would be lit [in] urban daylight” because “I’m after a realistic, documentary-type look”. This is evident in the photorealistic battle sequences in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). It is also particularly manifest in his 1980 horror masterpiece, The Shining.

This article is part of our series marking 100 years since the death of writer Franz Kafka. These articles explore his legacy and influence on everything from cinema to law. To read more click here.

In the early 1960s, as he was working on the screenplay for what became Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick described it as a “Kafkaesque satirical comedy about nuclear war. This seems to me the only honest way to deal with the thing.”

During the filming of Eyes Wide Shut, actor Alan Cumming recalled how the cast and Kubrick chatted about Kafka on set. Bill (Tom Cruise) is trailed by a mysterious, unnamed man who could have stepped out of a Kafka story. There is a knishery (usually a potato and dough snack) and bagel shop Kubrick had built on the studio backlot called Josef Kreibich’s, resonating with Kafka’s Josef K from The Trial. The mysterious Hungarian partygoer, Sandor Szavost, quotes Ovid’s Metamorphoses, obliquely invoking Kafka’s most famous work. The scenes in the costume shop might well have come straight out of The Trial.

Metamorphoses are evident throughout Kubrick’s work. Just as Gregor Samsa is transformed into a giant beetle, Jack in The Shining also changes during the film.

David Bowman at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey transforms into the Star Child. One scholar noted how its ending “resembles Kafka and is obviously meant to do so.” On this note, it is telling that in his copy of Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes (1961), Kubrick wrote, “The tower of Babel was the start of the space age.”

Kafka’s 1917 short story, A Report to an Academy, satirises the Jewish assimilatory experience in western civil society by comparing it to that of a captive, mimicking ape.

In Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s similarity to a simian from 2001 also hints at this. Alex’s movement is apelike, such as when he wanders around his flat, scratching his posterior. As our “humble narrator”, he’s aware of the bars of his cage, becoming a version of Kafka’s ape Red Peter in A Report to an Academy.

Following the administration of the Ludovico Technique, which itself recalls the slow inscription of the punishment on the victim’s body in Kafka’s 1919 story In the Penal Colony, Alex is incapacitated by nausea and lies flat on his back, helpless, like Gregor Samsa.

The spectre of Franz Kafka hangs over much of Kubrick’s work if you know where to look for it. Like Kafka, Kubrick earned the suffix “esque” as he carved out a distinctive oeuvre of his own. But the parallels between them go beyond their shared greatness, and Kubrick’s films are a fitting tribute and gateway to Kafka, a centenary after the author’s death.

Nathan Abrams has received and continues to receive funding from various charities and research funding bodies.

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