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The Jewishness of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

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Nathan Abrams explores the underlying Jewishness of Kubrick’s notorious 1971 film.

‘So what is a nice Jewish boy from The Bronx like Stanley Kubrick doing making bizarre films like “A Clockwork Orange”’? Craig McGregor asked in the New York Times, referring to the controversial movie which was released fifty years ago today. 

One of the reasons was that it dealt with Kubrick’s long-term interest in Nazism and the Holocaust. Many of the metaphors and descriptions in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel evoke the trains, camps, and other details of the Holocaust, both directly and indirectly. Burgess invoked a consistent pattern of references to Nazi persecution and genocide: his protagonist Alex is incarcerated in Staja 84F, shorthand for ‘state jail,’ but which recalls the German Stalags of World War II, and Alex is forced to watch Nazi documentary footage of the death camps, mass shootings, and gassing of Jews. 

There was perhaps another reason. Up until that point, psychology was dominated by behaviourism and all the leading behaviourists were WASPs. This fact that didn’t go unnoticed by young people entering psychology in the 1950s. Looking back, a casual observer of the field at that time couldn’t help but wonder if there shouldn’t be two entirely related disciplines: ‘WASP psychology and ‘Jewish psychology.’ As Michael Lewis explains, where ‘the WASPs marched around in lab coats carrying clipboards and thinking up new ways to torture rats and all the while avoided the great wet mass of human experience. The Jews embraced the mess’. 

The leading WASP behaviourist was B.F. Skinner whose theories Kubrick attacked in the film. Kubrick himself said, ‘I like to believe that Skinner is wrong … where Skinner should be attacked is in his attempt to formulate a total philosophy of the human personality solely in terms of conditioning. This is a dreary conception. I like to believe that there are certain aspects of the human personality which are essentially unique and mysterious.’  

Sex and Satire 

Staying true to his New York Jewish roots, Kubrick’s film was a black comedy parodying contemporary society, laden with cynicism and irony, overblown caricatured characters and overacting. One of the characters was to be called ‘Nurse Brain Drain,’ showing a similar sense of humour. As Kubrick told Gene Siskel, ‘It’s a satire, which is to say that you hold up current vices and folly to ridicule. You pretend to say the opposite of the truth in order to destroy it.’ Its star, Malcolm McDowell said, ‘I honestly thought I was making a black comedy and played it for humor.’ He felt that he and Kubrick shared a ‘wicked sense of humor,’ which was as ‘black as charcoal.’ The result was, for the critics, like Mad magazine: full of mordant sophomoric and misanthropic humor. In the words of Jewish critic, Pauline Kael, a ‘jokey adolescent view of hypocritical, sexually dirty authority figures.’  

Intensifying the satiric effect was Kubrick’s decision to give the film the quality of a Hollywood musical. By orchestrating most of the violence to the Overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie (1817) and finding it in theatrical settings (on stage in at least two sequences), as well as within films within the film, the immediate effect was to make it a parody of West Side Story, or ‘Jerome Robbins gone mad.’ Other critics referred to it as ‘balletic’ and ‘vaudeville’. 

By including the melody of Singin’ in the Rain and concluding the film on that same tune, it fits nicely into a period of such Jewish musicals as Funny GirlThe Producers, and Fiddler on the Roof which also came out this year. Indeed, as if in an MGM production, Alex struts into the writer’s house with a cane and bowler hat, as if about to perform a tap routine. He does a soft-shoe dance, orchestrating the action, but punctuating it with choreographed movements. At one point, he even gets down on one knee like Al Jolson.  

As with his two earlier satires, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, sex was a major feature. The film was peppered with smutty jokes, sexual imagery, sight gags, and humour but in a manner forbidden by the Production Code hitherto. The result was frequent female nudity, what one critic called Kubrick’s ‘obsession with breasts,’ paintings and models of women in sexually explicit positions, a giant penis sculpture, phallic popsicles, naked Jesus statues, a defaced mural of Jesus with an erection, turgid codpieces, and a pack of ‘Eat Me’ dates in a hospital fruit basket. They gave the film the feel of ‘a high class Russ Meyer pornyshow.’ 

Kubrick’s Judaism 

Kubrick had never adapted a book with such an overtly religious leaning by such an openly religious writer. Anthony Burgess was a Pelagian Catholic who, in rejecting the concept of Original Sin, believed in the notion of moral progress, themes underpinning his 1962 novel. Burgess was explicit about his book’s religious intentions: ‘I wanted to show in my story that God made man free to choose either good or evil and this is an astounding gift.’ He described the book (and film) as a ‘parable’ and ‘intended homiletic work.’ ‘What I had tried to write was a sort of Christian allegory of free will. Man is defined by his capacity to choose courses of moral action. If he chooses good, he must have the possibility of choosing evil instead; evil is a theological necessity.’  

Anthony Burgess appearing on After Dark on 21 May 1988

Kubrick betrayed his indebtedness to what Burgess described as ‘the Judaeo-Christian ethic that A Clockwork Orange tries to express.’ For Kubrick, a man unable to choose is not a man but an animal, showing his debt to normative Judaism. Yet, Kubrick went ahead by misdirection, denying that this view of mankind derived from his Jewish background. ‘I mean, it’s essentially Christian theology anyway, that view of man.’ Instead, he claimed it came ‘From observation. Knowing what has happened in the world, seeing the people around me.’ 

It’s noticeable, though, that the most religious iconography is seen only in the prison and that this society appears completely areligious. In this way, Kubrick critiqued the Bible and biblical-based religion, particularly Christianity, for its hypocrisy. 

Starry Yahoodies 

Kubrick’s views on free will and Christianity may have slotted in nicely with rabbinic Judaism but, in signature fashion, his attitude towards Jewishness was contradictory. While he omitted references to some of the novel’s Jewish characters altogether, he kept the names of others, and included direct verbal and visual references to Jews, as well as inserting subsurface Jewish characters. In the novel, one of the masks was to be of Benjamin Disraeli and in prison, there are fellow inmates called ‘Zophar’ (one of the biblical Job’s three friends) and ‘Big Jew.’ None of these details appeared in Kubrick’s drafts or the final film. 

Where Burgess directly invoked the Nazi genocide of the Jews, Kubrick refused to do so. In the novel, Alex explains how he was shown ‘a particularly bad film of like a concentration camp,’ as he gets his conditioning, but in the film, we see sequences of combat and Hitler and Himmler commemorating the German dead of World War I. Kubrick explained this avoidance by saying, ‘I didn’t want to show scenes of a real camp.’ He added, ‘Also somehow the idea of watching Nazis marching along to Beethoven’s Ninth has echoes of those pictures (like Judgement at Nuremberg) in which people say things like ‘How can a country that produced Beethoven…?’’ He told Victor Davis of the Daily Express, ‘Culture seems to have no effect upon evil. People have written about the failure of culture in the twentieth century: the enigma of Nazis who listened to Beethoven and sent millions off to gas chambers.’ 

Yet, Kubrick kept Alex’s visions of ‘starry yahoodies tolchocking each other and then peeting their Hebrew vino and getting onto the bed with their wives, like handmaidens, real horrorshow.’ Research materials show that these scenes were based on the costume epic Ben-Hur

The Jewish theatre actor and director who had already directed theatrical productions of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial, Steven Berkoff, was cast as a cop. Kubrick also considered him for the role of Joe the Lodger.  

Kubrick also kept the Jewish name of one of the conspirators – Rubinstein. And one reviewer, even felt that Dr. Brodsky (Carl Duering) was Jewish. Lending some credence to this point, Brodsky’s surname is a version of the Galician town of Brody, an important centre of Jewish life on the border between Austria and Russia. It was also the surname of the famous Jewish poet, Joseph Brodsky who, in 1963, wrote ‘Abraham and Isaac.’ On-screen, he resembles a hybrid of the real-life Stanley Milgram (whose experiments were being conducted at this time), as well as Doctors Zemph and Strangelove in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove respectively. 

The way that Kubrick rewrote the role of the Catlady lends her a subsurface Jewishness. In the novel, she was an old, eccentric woman with a walking stick. In the film, she becomes a youngish, diet-slim 40-year-old, in a room full of vulgar, garish and pornographic art and sculpture, one piece of which is the cause of her death.  

Before they attack her, Georgie (James Marcus) justifies robbing her because her house ‘is full up with like gold, and silver, and like jewels.’ But the way he pronounces ‘jewels’ sounds as if he is saying ‘Jews.’ These changes turn her into the common stereotype of the rich, unsympathetic, uncaring, vulgar, Jewish pornographer. The piece of art with which Alex murders her is called by one critic a ‘sculptured schlong,’ as if her sub-textual Jewishness is given through his deliberate use of the Yiddishism for ‘penis.’ 

In the role, Kubrick cast Jewish actress Miriam Karlin. Described as ‘a female Peter Sellers,’ she’d earlier starred in East End, West End, a six-part comedy series penned by Jewish writer Wolf Mankowitz, and was part of what was called ‘Mankowitz’s Jewish troupe.’ She had also appeared in Sellers’ Market with Sellers himself. In 1960 she played in the anxious Jewish mother, Mrs. Matthias Hand in Hand, played a mean-spirited Jewish wife in The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963), and starred opposite Topol, as Golde, in the 1967 London production of Fiddler on the Roof. She had also played Mrs. Van Daan in a version of The Diary of Anne Frank

Karlin was also a prominent Jewish activist, a member of the anti-Nazi League which fought British neo-Nazis. She had lost family members in the Holocaust: Karlin’s Dutch mother’s entire family was murdered at Auschwitz. Karlin felt the Holocaust ‘was so very close to me personally. Far too close – I identified so closely with Anne Frank. If my mother hadn’t stayed in England and married my father, she could have been me.’ 

Id-Yid 

Even more significantly, the way that Kubrick portrayed Alex also opens the possibility of reading him as Jewish. Kubrick referred to Alex as ‘a creature of the id’. Here, one can read an equation between Kubrick and Philip Roth who, in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), exclaims, ‘Let’s put the id back in yid.’  

Although Greek in origin, the name Alexander had become, among Jews, a ‘sacred name,’ sanctified by constant usage, as an homage to the benevolent conqueror, Alexander the Great.  

Alex is highly intelligent, witty, charming, and inventive, eloquent and certainly brighter than his droogs, as well as many of the adults around him. In his use of language and superior intellectual abilities to his fellow droogs, he demonstrates Yiddische Kopf. In such lines, as ‘to tolchok a chellovek in the kishkas,’ Kubrick heard an echo of the language spoken by his grandparents, as kishkas is Yiddish for guts. 

There are other markers of Alex’s potential Jewishness. His apishness, like a simian from 2001, also hints at this. His movement at times, such as when he fights his fellow droogs, is apelike resembling the confrontation at the oasis in 2001. As he wanders around his flat, scratching his behind, he also appears apish. As our ‘humble narrator,’ he is aware of the bars of his cage, becoming a version of Kafka’s Red Peter and hence, in turn, Humbert. Alex lacks table manners: at the film’s end when he is being fed, he opens his mouth wide and chews with broad, lip-smacking, exaggerated movements.  

His parents’ taste in décor is vulgar. The piece of pop-culture kitsch, Erica Eigen’s ‘I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper,’ is played to hint at the bad taste of his parents. Alex’s mother does not dress as becoming her age especially by comparison to his father who is more traditionally dressed. Addicted to ‘sleepers,’ she wears outlandish fashions and purple wigs.  

In classic stereotypical fashion, his father is a weak figure while his mother is overindulgent and credulously accepts Alex’s poor rationalizations for how he earns his money. Their interactions are even ‘Pinteresque,’ referring to the work of Jewish playwright Harold Pinter whom Kubick admired.  

Alex is portrayed in the film as a biblical Hebrew and like a good Jew, he prefers the Old Testament (‘I didn’t so much like the latter part of the book [the New Testament], which is more preachy-talking than fighting and the old in-out.’) and is seen scourging the source of Christianity: Jesus. He identifies with Dracula, a character laden with Jewish imagery – in 1971, General Mills Corporation had introduced a monster-themed breakfast cereal named ‘Count Chocula,’ wearing a Star of David. 

With his dancelike grace, Alex is performative, particularly when delivering a beating. He performs in the abandoned theatre and following his treatment he stars on stage in what Falsetto refers to as ‘skits.’ Falsetto’s use of this word recalls Sellers in Lolita and Strangelove and, as a brilliant mimic. 

Alex is the sacrificial victim, the Isaac of the film. He is subject to various oedipal pressures, particularly by the State and its enemies, all of whom look to sacrifice him for their ends. Where the former looks to remove his free will, the latter aim to kill him, although rather than ‘offering him up’ as a sacrifice, they ironically cause him to jump down to this death. In addition to his silently impotent father, Alex has other symbolic Abrahamic fathers – Deltoid, the chaplain, the doctors, the writer, and the Minister of the Interior.  

As the scapegoat of the film, Alex’s Jewish victim status is reinforced. In the scene when the effectiveness of the Ludovico Technique is proven, Alex is abused, hit, and forced to the floor by an ‘actor’. Nausea induced by his anger incapacitates him. Lying flat on his back, helpless, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, and made to lick the sole of the actor’s shoe with the words, which were a departure from Burgess’ novel, ‘You see that shoe?’ In a Woody Allen sort of way, how the actor pronounces ‘You see that shoe?’ sounds like ‘You see that Jew?’’  

Indeed, it is through the Ludovico Treatment that we see the most images of Nazism and World War II than in any Kubrick film before or since. Alex is forced to watch film footage of what Kubrick called ‘Nazi film,’ including ‘Concentration camps,’ ‘Hangings,’ ‘Firing squads,’ and ‘brutal Nazi kickers and shooters.’ Alex’s final session has scenes from Triumph of the Will (1935) and German wartime newsreels. 

The device used to keep his eyelids open ‘resembled something from a torture chamber’ according to Kubrick’s widow, Christiane. Overseen by Dr. Brodsky, played by the German actor Carl Duering (who previously played German and Nazi officers on film and television), the treatment itself evokes the notorious pseudo-scientific medical experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Time described its advocate, the Minister of the Interior, as ‘a kind of well-tailored Goebbels, and unctuous fascist.’ And when the droogs convert to police officers and take Alex to a secluded rural area where they can do him in, it has resonances of Nazi special killing squads. Surely perceiving Kubrick’s intentions, the Jewish Chronicle reviewer noted how ‘the continuous, mainly classical, background music serves, like the pyjama-clad orchestra in Hitler’s death camps, to underline the horror rather than detract from it.’ 

That Brodsky invokes B.F. Skinner, as well as Mengele, conjoins Kubrick’s two original intentions for making the film: Nazism and WASP psychology.  

All photos: Youtube, Wikipedia.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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