Kubrick or Bergman? What’s the Difference?

Kubrick may be less theological than Bergman, but they seem to arrive in many of the same places and predicaments. The solidity of 19th century realism in the arts will not do.

Scanpix via Wikimedia Commons
Ingmar Bergman in 1965. Scanpix via Wikimedia Commons

‘Kubrick: An Odyssey’
By Robert P. Kolker and Nathan Abrams
Pegasus Books, 656 pages

‘God and the Devil: The Life and Works of Ingmar Bergman’
By Peter Cowie
Faber & Faber, 416 pages

Is the following a description of Stanley Kubrick’s films or of Ingmar Bergman’s? “The striking imagery, the Kafkaesque sense of dread more or less evident in each film, and the pessimism about human perfectibility are themselves constants, though constantly rethought and reseen.” 

Both directors were part of the “modernist project,” to use the term favored by Mr. Kubrick’s biographers, which means, as Susan Sontag kept telling us, an attention to “formal experimentation” — the words, in this case, though, belong to Messrs. Kolker and Abrams.

The epithet Kafkaesque does not appear in Peter Cowie’s biography of Bergman, but the director did stage “The Castle,” a Kafka novel. Alas, the biographer has nothing to say about the Bergman/Kafka nexus. The novel’s protagonist, K, could be Kubrick, an alien in a frustrating existence of ambiguity. I’m reminded of this every time I take an elevator and think of Kubrick’s most haunting film, “The Shining.”

In Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf,” a painter disappears and his wife is tormented by frightening visions, so no wonder she can’t sleep. Doesn’t that remind you of that anything but dull boy, Jack, in “The Shining”? Kubrick may be less theological than Bergman, but they seem to arrive in many of the same places and predicaments. The solidity of 19th century realism in the arts will not do.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975). Warner Bros via Wikimedia Commons

If Kubrick and Bergman are about not knowing what the score is, if their films, for all their differences, arrive at the horror of a world that is not empirical, what is there left for biography to do? So, one director was Swedish and the other American: So what? Or maybe the question should be: Why not?

Why shouldn’t Kubrick’s and Bergman’s films coincide and, perhaps in a film-crazed mind, coalesce? In their films, the supernatural is a factor that we cannot ignore because we can see it. Call what their characters observe hallucinations, but the point of watching a film, as these two directors understood, is that as soon as the image is presented to the eye, it cannot be unseen. 

Such questions ought to bedevil biographers, but Mr. Cowie, for example, in covering a 60-year film and stage career, has to breeze by what he has to deem, I suppose, a minor production like the staging of “The Castle.” So I favor the Kubrick biographers, who will not let Kafka alone because Kubrick could not do so.

Kafka, the biographers report, was one of Kubrick’s favorites. They deem “Dr. Strangelove” a “Kafkaesque satirical comedy about nuclear war.” Kubrick said that was the “only honest way to deal with the thing.” The so-called sane leaders in this film cannot be trusted any more than the eccentrics played by Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, and George C. Scott.

Nevertheless, Kubrick wanted interviewers to know: “I’m not a Franz Kafka, sitting alone and suffering.” He had a “wife, three children, three dogs, seven cats.” Yet his brooding films put him on the same island with Bergman — and in the same hotel. The biographers interviewed Diane Johnson, who worked on the screenplay for “The Shining,” and she said: “Stephen King isn’t Kafka, but the material of his novel is the rage and fear within families.”

Kubrick told an interviewer that he did not want to make “The Shining” with the “dramatic, phony lighting, which one normally sees in a horror film. I compare that with the way Kafka or Borges write, you know, in a simple, not-baroque style, so that the fantastic is treated in a very everyday, ordinary way.”

“Kubick: An Odyssey” is built on revealing concatenations of the biographical, the aesthetic, the literary, and the cinematic — sometimes all built into one long sentence: “Kubrick’s deliberate location of The Shining in the bourgeois spaces of the well-to-do hotel evoked the interwar milieu not only of the US, but of pre-war central Europe, when Jews like his own ancestors and Kafka himself frequented such spas as Marienbad – the location of Alain Resnais’s haunting 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, which influences The Shining – Stefan Zweig’s ‘Summering’ in Burning Secret, or even Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.”

Mr. Rollyson is the host of a podcast, A Life in Biography, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, has authored “Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon.”


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