It’s not just Kubrick and Sellers who made Lolita a Jewish film

The story ’s theme of an outsider battling against the social order is — despite the troubling subject matter — typically Jewish

September 02, 2022 12:49

How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” was the question posed by the posters advertising the film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s notoriously scandalous novel, released in the UK on 6 September, 1962. The “they” in question were two Jewish boys from New York: the famous director Stanley Kubrick and his then producing partner James B Harris.

Fresh from the big-budget success of Spartacus in 1960, Kubrick and Harris wanted to carve out their niche in the film industry, and what better way to do this, they thought, in the newly liberalising 1960s than to adapt a novel about rival paedophiles vying for the affections of a teenage girl?

Their adaptation became filled with Jewishness. Nabokov himself had put Jews in his novel possibly through the influence of his Jewish wife, Vera, who we now know played an instrumental role in his career in general and this novel in particular, even saving it from being burned by its author.

Lolita’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is composed of “a salad of racial genes”, as Nabokov wrote, and is constantly mistaken for being Jewish because of his foreign and hence exotic-sounding name, dark looks, European extraction, and manners. He is therefore a victim of the type of genteel antisemitism and various racial slurs prevalent in postwar America.

And in the film, as played by James Mason, he becomes the classic schlemiel, the butt of the jokes. He is a model of ineptitude. His old-world European savoir-faire is continually undone, providing much of the comedy where he is concerned. The result was “black slapstick” comedy, as Jewish critic Pauline Kael wrote in her review.

But there is more to it than that. Feeling that “the story offers a marvellous opportunity for humour”, Kubrick made sure Lolita retained as much of Nabokov’s smutty puns, innuendo, and double entendres as he could in an era when the production code still governed what could and could not appear in a movie.

And he cast the greatest British Jewish comic actor of his era, Peter Sellers. Jewish by birth through his “archetypal Jewish mother,” Sellers did not practice any religion. Nor was he bar mitzvahed. But he was circumcised and, as the only Jewish boy at a North London Catholic school, he was certainly aware of his ethnic and religious Otherness. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle in 1959, he explained how he felt Jewish emotionally, sentimentally and gastronomically, sharing the Jewish “clannish feeling” devotion to family and children, and sense of humour. He idolised his maternal great-grandfather, Daniel Mendoza, the greatest boxer of the 18th century. He had also previously played onscreen and on-air roles as Jewish characters in Sellers’ Market, The Goon Show and Finkel’s Café.

Egged on by Kubrick, who loved his shtick, Sellers brought a stand-up sensibility to the film. It permeated the film as Kubrick gave Sellers freedom to improvise in front of the camera that Kubrick gave few other performers, before or after. And, as the two grew closer, it became clear that they shared the same mordant and morbid sense of humour. Sellers’ spritzing lent the film the feel of a “riff” or “spiel” as some critics noted. The result resembled the comedy of Mad magazine and the other Jewish comedians of the era, like Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Mike Nichols, Lenny Bruce, and Elaine May.

The other key piece of casting was Shelley Winters as the unsympathetic and pseudo-intellectual suburban hausfrau Charlotte Haze. Winters was born Jewish, as Shirley Schrift, but took her mother’s family name. She had already played Natalia Landauer, a German-Jewish girl, in I Am A Camera, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories about the doomed intelligentsia in pre-war Berlin. After specialising as a lower-class blonde murdered halfway through a film, Winters progressed to more motherly parts culminating in an Oscar for her portrayal of the Jewish refugee Mrs Petronella Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959.

Given the prominence and success of this role, only three years before Lolita, it seems impossible to ignore that this was a consideration in her casting. Winters’ ethnicity and previous roles were surely part of Kubrick’s thinking. He may have been influenced by Nabokov who inserted references to the Holocaust. Many of his metaphors and descriptions evoke the trains, camps and other details of the Holocaust, both directly and implicitly. Nabokov refers to “the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed” and “the ashes of our predecessors”.

The Holocaust was also much in the news and popular culture at the same time as Lolita was in pre-production. In 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina, kidnapped and transported to Israel where he was imprisoned while awaiting trial. Incidentally, at some point during his incarceration, one of Eichmann’s guards gave him a copy of the recently published German translation of Lolita, as German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation”. After two days Eichmann returned it, indignantly telling his guard it was “quite an unwholesome book”. Is it possible that Eichmann rejected Lolita not only because of its sexual content but also because he detected it as being somehow “Jewish”?

In the way that Kubrick had Winters play Haze, she becomes the embodiment of the stereotype of the Jewish American Mother that began to emerge in post-war American Jewish literature at precisely the moment that Lolita was published. Her taste in clothing and interior decoration is vulgar; her house is littered with tchotchkes; she lacks civility, decorum, and reserve, encroaching upon the personal space of others, unaware of their discomfort; she displays poor table manners, and she talks far too much. She is, writes one Kubrick biographer, “juicelessly zaftig”. It is surely no coincidence that, thereafter, Winters was typecast as a succession of matronly Jewish mothers.

Charlotte’s daughter, the eponymous Dolores “Lolita” Haze, can also be read as Jewish. Her characterisation in the novel deliberately played on the Hebrew legend of Lilith. Before composing Lolita, Nabokov had authored a poem, Lilith, published in 1928. And while he claimed there was no link with his later fiction, Lolita does contain the line, “he “was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for”. In this vein, then, it is not a stretch to compare Charlotte to Eve and Lolita to Lilith, whose names are remarkably homophonous.

Lilith typically appears as a demon that preys on women in childbirth and young children in Midrashic stories. In the Medieval period, she was popularised as Adam’s first companion who refused to submit to him and so was replaced by Eve. As Humbert reimagines Dolores as Lolita, she begins to transform into possessing demonic attributes. This connection is continued in the various screenplay drafts. One early version of the screenplay makes this comparison almost explicit, “Their true nature is not human, but nymphic — that is, demoniac. One learns to recognise the little deadly demon among the wholesome children.”

Although this version, written by novelist Calder Willingham, was not ultimately used, it still appears to have informed Kubrick’s characterisation. Furthermore, correspondence from the Kubrick Archive during the production of Lolita indicates that Sue Lyons was being considered for the lead role of Robert Rossen’s 1964 film Lilith.

Lolita was last adapted in 1997 with young Humbert Humbert played by Ben Silverstone. Other than that, it was wiped clean of any Jewish traces. Nevertheless, it remains a story that has attracted Jewish writers to adapt it: playwrights Harold Pinter and David Mamet both attempted and failed. Despite, or maybe because of, its controversial and troubling subject matter, Lolita has a Jewish appeal. As Kubrick put it, “It concerns the outsider who is passionately committed to action against the social order...fighting to do some impossible thing.”

Nathan Abrams is Professor of Film Studies at Bangor University

September 02, 2022 12:49

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