Kubrick, Napoleon and the Best Movie Never Made

On the 15th anniversary of the death of Stanley Kubrick, an exhibition about his films is being held in Kraków. It also covers two of his unproduced projects – one about the Holocaust, another about the Napoleonic wars.

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Stanley Kubrick on set in the 1980s. The Krakow exhibition also shines a light on two of his unmade projects.
Stanley Kubrick on set in the 1980s. The Krakow exhibition also shines a light on two of his unmade projects.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

KRAKOW – Filmmaker Roman Polanski is likely to return to Kraków, with local newspapers excitedly reporting last month that the director plans to film his next film, about the Alfred Dreyfus Affair, in the Polish city. However, the film’s producer announced that the $48 million project – based on Robert Harris’ novel “An Officer and a Spy” – will only shoot there if the Polish government promises not to extradite the director to the United States, where he is wanted after being convicted, in 1977, of a sex crime involving a minor.

Meanwhile, residents of Kraków were happy to learn that Polanski has already rented an apartment in the city where he grew up, managed to escape from the ghetto and survived the Holocaust by hiding and pretending to be a Catholic. A representative of the director said he dreams of bringing his children to Kraków, in order to show them where he grew up.

Until it becomes clear whether Polanski will return to Poland – where he began his cinematic career and filmed part of “The Pianist” in 2001 – Kraków is presently offering a tribute to the work of another great Jewish director, Stanley Kubrick, with a comprehensive exhibition devoted to his work on show in the city’s National Museum.

Although Kubrick, an American who moved to England in the 1960s, has no direct biographical connection to Poland, he has a film connection: The exhibition sheds light not only on the films he made, but also on two he dreamed of making but never did. One of them, “The Aryan Papers,” is about the Holocaust. Like with the story of Polanski’s childhood escape, the hero of Kubrick’s movie is a Polish-Jewish child who was rescued because he assumed a Catholic identity.

In the 1970s, Kubrick asked author Isaac Bashevis Singer to write a script for him about the Holocaust, but Singer turned him down. In the early 1990s, the director returned to the idea and wanted to adapt Louis Begley’s novel “Wartime Lies” for the cinema. The story takes place in the Warsaw Ghetto and is about the rescue of a Jewish woman and her nephew.

Kubrick purchased the rights to the book, wrote a script and made a deal with Warner Bros. to produce the film. Julia Roberts expressed an interest in playing the heroine, but Kubrick preferred Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, gave her a screen test and worked with her on the protagonist. At the exhibition, there are photos from the Czech city of Brno, where the director planned to build the sets that would recreate wartime Warsaw. Among the documents he used in his lengthy historical research, a prominent place is given to Raul Hilberg’s classic book “The Destruction of the European Jews,” about the Nazi extermination machine. It is placed in a glass case, alongside a notebook filled with comments in Kubrick’s handwriting.

In the end, Kubrick decided to abandon “Aryan Papers” for two reasons: First, in 1993 Steven Spielberg released his hugely successful, Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List,” and Kubrick believed there wasn’t room for another monumental Holocaust film at that time. Second, he became depressed when he learned about the details during the course of his research.

In a 2005 interview with Haaretz reporter Dalia Karpel, Christiane Kubrick said her late husband had realized it was an impossible movie to make. She said Kubrick, who died in 1999, thought it was impossible to portray the Holocaust except in a documentary, and that he couldn’t give instructions to the actors as to how to kill another person and couldn’t explain the motives for the killing. He said he would die from that and so would the actors, not to mention the audience.

Kubrick also believed that “Schindler’s List” wasn’t about the Holocaust, either. It didn’t focus on the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, but rather on a very partial story about a few hundred Jews who were rescued. On the other hand, in his planned film he wanted to honor all those who died, in the most comprehensive manner possible, and burrowed deep into history, according to his widow, something that proved too disturbing for him.

Spielberg’s name is connected not only to “Aryan Papers” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” – the 2001 science-fiction film that Kubrick didn’t complete and for which he chose Spielberg, with whom he was friendly, as director. Another film Kubrick was unable to produce, and that became a kind of cinematic ghost, was his historical epic about the wars of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Kubrick wrote a script in 1967 and planned to direct the epic after “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). But the film studios were concerned about the high cost and the movie was shelved. Last year, it was reported that Spielberg will turn Kubrick’s planned film into a television miniseries, in cooperation with the late director’s heirs. (Australian Baz Luhrmann was reportedly being courted last year to direct the series.)

The Kraków exhibition demonstrates the tremendous amount of work Kubrick invested in preparation for the film, even years after it was rejected by the studios. He examined over 18,000 documents and books related to Napoleon, collected thousands of photos of possible filming locations, prepared index cards on which he collected the details of the production, cast Jack Nicholson as the lead and even reached an agreement with the Romanian army to use 50,000 of its soldiers for the battle scenes.

At the exhibition, which will close on September 14, there are sketches of the costumes that were supposed to be used in the film, as well as letters sent by Kubrick during preparations for filming. These include a 1971 letter in which he explained his ambition to a potential producer: “I can’t tell you want I’m going to do, but only that I hope to create the best film ever made.”

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