There’s a long history in Hollywood of shelved projects, abandoned franchise dreams, stalled careers, and entire genres that lost favor or profitability. 9 times out 10 these problems and failures are the result of a myriad of complex issues and contributing factors. Sometimes though… Sometimes you can pretty much pin everything on one film that fucked it up for everyone. Whether it’s a movie that killed a rival project, destroyed a filmmaker’s career, squashed some brilliant idea, or took the shine off of an entire genre, this CHUD List will catalog the films that were just total, unapologetic Cockblocks.
Day 13 (Kubrick’s Aryan Papers)
The Cock: Stanley Kubrick’s Aryan Papers. It was to be the man’s Holocaust epic; a film he’d been chasing and essentially developing since the late 70s. His artistic vision being a film with a “dramatic structure that compressed the complex and vast information into the story of an individual who represented the essence of this man-made hell.” In other words, another Stanley Kubrick masterpiece.
The Block: Ostensibly, it’s Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that plays the culprit on this one. But, while that’s technically true, it’s only a partial truth. When you get right down to it, that particular cock was being blocked as early as 1976, and by not only that particular Spielberg film, but others as well, along with other of Kubrick’s own films and, finally, Kubrick himself.
How it Went Down: Making a Holocaust movie was something Kubrick had been incredibly interested in early on. So much so that in 1976 he approached author Isaac Bashevis Singer and asked him to write an original screenplay, with the above quote given as a guide. Singer, who wasn’t himself a Holocaust survivor, turned the offer down, stating that he didn’t know anything about the Holocaust and that “an outsider wouldn’t be able to do it justice”, and Kubrick let the idea sit.
Until 1991, when he read Wartime Lies, a short novel by Louis Begley that concerns a woman and her nephew making their way through Nazi-Occupied Poland by pretending to be Catholics. The story, Begley’s autobiography, impressed and moved Kubrick and he wrote the first-draft screenplay of Aryan Papers, which was to be his follow-up to Full Metal Jacket. Warner Brothers (with whom Kubrick had been making films since A Clockwork Orange, after the MGM dust-up in ’69) gave him the green light and pre-production began whole-heartedly in 1993. Kubrick was so enthusiastic that he was willing to shoot abroad (which was a big deal since he hadn’t left England in over 30 years) and he had gone as far as hiring set and costume designers and started the casting process for the lead role of Tanya, the aunt. Reports had Kubrick toying with the notions of Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman, but ultimately he decided on Johanna ter Steege.
December of ‘93 (December 15th, to be exact) brought the release of Schindler’s List. Kubrick didn’t initially let it dampen his enthusiasm, saying “The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t,” but with Spielberg‘s film garnering so much success at the Box Office and the Academy Awards, the Warners (who still felt the sting that came with releasing Full Metal Jacket so soon after Platoon), decided that it would be best to concentrate on AI first and, in 1995, the project was officially shelved.
AI was pushed back a bit further as Kubrick wanted to see where technology was headed after the things he saw that ILM was capable of in Jurassic Park and he turned his attentions to Eyes Wide Shut, which he‘d also been sporadically developing since the ‘70s.
And then, of course, in March of 1999, just after finishing post on Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick died of a heart attack in his sleep.
Bullet Dodged or Greatness Robbed: You read a lot about how much of a perfectionist Stanley Kubrick was and you see how, more often than not, that perfectionism comes across on screen. When you couple that with how personal of a project this was for Kubrick and how concerned he was with telling the story the way it needed to be told and doing the entirety of it perfect historical and artistic justice, there’s no fathomable way that, had Kubrick actually been able to make it to HIS satisfaction (the biggest if of them all), it wouldn’t be one of the single greatest films ever made. It would also have been one of the single most harrowing and viscerally devastating films ever made. The type of movie that makes people say “I’m glad I saw it and I’m never going to watch it again.”
Verdict: Greatness robbed.
The Alternate Universe: With the development of this film spanning decades, you could really lose yourself rolling up your sleeves and playing Revisionist Cinema History. “What if Singer had written the script?” Then you go from there; Kubrick’s Holocaust movie becomes his follow-up to Barry Lyndon, it does amazingly well, he uses the success from that to get the Warners to buy the rights to Napoleon from MGM and bankroll that, etc and so forth…
But, instead, we’ll focus a bit on reality and revise history only as far as 1999. Kubrick doesn’t die, Eyes Wide Shut goes on to perform about as well as it did and he turns toward his next project. The question is – would his next project have been AI or Aryan Papers? There’s no way of knowing for sure, as both projects were equally high on his (and the Warners‘) priority lists, but there are reports that have him telling Spielberg that he’d be the best guy to direct AI with Kubrick taking the role of producer. If that had indeed been the case, then, being roughly 5 years removed from Schindler’s List, there’s every chance he would have continued work on Aryan Papers. But would he have finished it?
At this point, if I had to venture a guess, I would say no.
Kubrick, being the obsessive perfectionist that he was, was never really confident in his ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told, no matter how passionate he was about it. In 1980 he told Michael Herr that it was the one thing that he wanted to make more than any other, but “good luck fitting it into a two-hour movie.” He was constantly seeking reassurance on it even after it became Aryan Papers and was in full-gear. In Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Christiane Kubrick is quoted as saying that even though Schindler’s List had a lot to do with it, “there was another thing — that he felt it just couldn’t be told. ‘If I really want to show what I have read and know happened’ — and he read everything — ‘how can I even film it, how can you even pretend it?’ … He became very depressed during the preparations and I was glad when he gave up on it because it was really taking its toll.”
Stanley Kubrick himself, it would seem, was the biggest cockblock of them all.
The Remains: Well, the main remnant is the rights. The Warners still own them and the Kubrick estate is more than happy to let the right filmmaker bring it to life. Once again (as in with Napoleon), Ang Lee’s name was dropped.
There’s Taschen’s book, The Stanley Kubrick Archives (only $200!) and the aforementioned Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Though both books cover the entirety of Kubrick‘s career as opposed to focusing on Aryan Papers alone, there is a nice amount of information on the film, including an essay in the Taschen book by Kubrick’s brother-in-law and producer Jan Harlan.
There’s also the art-project film, Unfolding the Aryan Papers, made in 2009 by Julie and Louise Wilson for the Kubrick Exhibit at BFI Southbank (which is where the above image of ter Steege is from). Given access to the entirety of Kubrick’s archives and granted an interview with the film’s star, Johanna ter Steege, the project finally brings Kubrick’s original test photography of ter Steege to film, intercut with interview footage. A rudimentary Google search didn’t turn up any streaming versions of the film online, though I’m sure some of you more resourceful chaps could find it.