'Dr. Strangelove’ and the Jewish Question

George C. Scott’s character was originally called 'Buck’ Schmuck, and Stanley Kubrick referenced the Holocaust in his screenplay notes. And then there’s Peter Sellers.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s anti-Cold War satire “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released just over a year after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, “Dr. Strangelove” drew upon the very real fears of the time. It envisaged nuclear apocalypse as a result of human incompetence. A black comedy, its mordant humor was turned upon the Soviets and the Americans alike. Politicians, military brass and even the common soldier were all in its sights; almost no one was safe.

Few have thought to explore the movie’s Jewishness, a major oversight since Kubrick was Jewish and the influence on it of his background and ethnicity are obvious. One of the most interesting expressions of this, as revealed by his archives in London, can be seen in various Jewish characters he created during the production process. Although not all of them made it to the screen, their traces can be felt on the finished film.

Kubrick based his screenplay on the 1958 novel “Red Alert” by Peter George, published earlier that year in Britain as “Two Hours to Doom,” under the pseudonym Peter Bryant. In the book, the drama was deadly serious and clearly anti-Communist.

Kubrick injected satire, taking George’s all-American names (Clint Brown, Andrew Mackenzie, Franklin, Quinten, etc.) and turning them into parodic – and sometimes Jewish – figures.

Early drafts featured a character called Von Klutz, and there was also Sen. John Applekuegel, described by Kubrick as a “rightwinger – half Jewish” (“I am half Jewish,” he says). The name is a variant spelling of a dessert the director probably grew up eating.

Kubrick also sketched a Lt. Irving “Doc” Schwartz, describing him as a “Radio-Radio Officer” on the B-52 bomber on which a significant portion of the action takes place. Kubrick elaborated: “An argumentative and opinionated fellow; his story is that he could have been a top-rated surgeon if the quota-system had not kept him out of medical school. He has very steady hands and, as a hobby, takes watches apart and reassembles them.” Although Kubrick never explicitly stated that Schwartz was Jewish, all the signs are there in his first and last names as well as the reference to the numerus clausus that strictly limited Jewish admission to certain top U.S. universities.

Schwartz didn’t make it into the final screenplay, but radio operator Lt. B. Goldberg (Paul Tamarin) did, echoing the World War II platoon movies that featured a spectrum of “ethnic” soldiers. In one draft version, Goldberg reads Commentary Magazine on the plane. In another, Kubrick suggests the publication should be either Commentary or Playboy, anticipating a sight gag in Woody Allen’s 1971 “Bananas,” when Allen’s character hides a pornographic magazine inside a copy of Commentary while on the subway.

One of the most memorable characters was Gen. “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott), originally to be called Gen. “Buck” Schmuck. A note next to the character’s name in the screenplay states, “The name Schmuck appears on page 1491 of the 1961-62 Manhattan telephone directory.” The name change didn’t stop the character from being a schmuck, clowning even when in the face of a potential nuclear holocaust.

But perhaps the movie’s most Jewish character is Strangelove himself, who absorbed elements of the redacted Von Klutz and was played by the Jewish actor Peter Sellers (who also played President Merkin Muffley and Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake). The black-gloved, wheelchair-bound scientist bears more than a passing resemblance to the title character of “Dr. No,” played by Joseph Wiseman – also Jewish. It was the German-Jewish émigré Ken Adam’s work on that James Bond flick that convinced Kubrick to hire Adam as production designer for “Dr. Strangelove.” It has been suggested that the character of Strangelove was a combination of nuclear strategist Herman Kahn, nuclear physicist Edward Teller and Henry Kissinger, plus the heavy accent of the photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig), all of them Jewish.

But Strangelove was also an ex-Nazi whose bionic arm involuntarily does a Hitler salute and who addresses the president as “Mein Fuhrer. Kubrick said he intended the character to be “just parodies of movie clichés about Nazis.” He might also have been based on Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi rocket scientist who, after the war, oversaw the development of America’s space program. Kubrick later told Arthur C. Clarke, who collaborated with Kubrick on the adaptation of Clarke’s own science fiction novel for the director’s next film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Please tell Wernher I wasn’t getting at him!”

The equation of the Holocaust of the Jews with nuclear holocaust certainly underpinned Kubrick’s film. A series of note cards that he wrote when preparing the script clearly indicate that he was grappling with the issue of mass death in the post-Holocaust era: “6,000,000 JEWS TO GAS./6 millions Jews cooperated in their destruction/400-600 millions – USA Europe Russia – do the same thing,” he wrote. Kubrick admitted that he shared “the fairly widespread fascination with the horror of the Nazi period.”

Even if certain characters and ideas did not make it all the way to the screen, they left in “Dr. Strangelove” a Jewishness and post-Holocaust awareness that definitely did. There is significance in the fact that Kubrick inserted into his work explicitly Jewish characters that were not in “Red Alert,” an addition that also made the movie one of only a few of his films in which an overtly Jewish character appears.

The War Room in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film 'Dr. Strangelove.'Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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