In addition to his legendary and invaluable contribution to cinema, Stanley Kubrick left behind plans for a slew of unmade films upon his sudden death in 1999. From a historical epic about Napoleon Bonaparte to ambitious science-fiction fare, these passion projects failed to materialize for various reasons, including financial woes and technological limits. Among those that never made it to the screen was an adaptation of Louis Begley‘s 1991 novel Wartime Lies, an account of Jewish survival during World War II. Securing rights to the novel and planning to film it under the title Aryan Papers, Kubrick went to work, devoting painstaking efforts to researching the sprawling history of Nazi-occupied Europe. But after a lengthy preparation process in which he read, observed, and studied everything he could get his hands on regarding the Holocaust, Kurbrick abandoned Aryan Papers, effectively deeming the cinematic medium inadequate for capturing the horror and scope of the Holocaust.
Set in Poland during the 1930s, Wartime Lies chronicles the efforts of Maciek, a Jewish child, to conceal his identity while living under the Nazi regime’s brutal rule. Having lost his mother in childbirth and his father to the Russian army, Maciek is taken in and cared for by his Aunt Tania, a stubborn, cunning, and resourceful woman of fierce independence who doesn’t mince words with her young companion. Interspersed with philosophical anecdotes delivered by someone who may or may not be Maciek, Begley’s novel paints a grim yet subjectively intimate portrait of survival during one of history’s darkest chapters, exploring weighty themes surrounding human suffering, childhood memories, identity, and reconciliation between past and present.
Along their journey, Maciek and Tania acquire fabricated documents enabling them to assume Catholic identities, a plot point that would inspire the title of Kubrick’s planned film. Proving resilient and adaptive to horrifying circumstances, the boy and his aunt defy overwhelming odds, and, though they successfully navigate the ruthless underbelly of Nazi-occupied Europe, they’re left with lifelong scars of wartime trauma. Given Stanley Kubrick’s affinity and seemingly singular ability to put some of the human condition’s bleakest travails under a cinematic microscope, often through an objective perspective devoid of moral judgment, it’s no wonder he was attracted to Begley’s novel. Taking on the project, however, made an unpleasant and lasting impression on the filmmaker.
By the early 1990s, Stanley Kubrick hadn’t been behind the camera since 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, and it would be another eight years before he made his next and final film, Eyes Wide Shut. But despite the ever-increasing time he took between projects, his drive to find the next great cinematic subject to challenge his sensibilities and growth as an artist never wavered. Harboring an interest in World War II and the Holocaust for years, Kubrick considered numerous angles and stories through which to satisfy his desire to explore such events on film.
According to The Independent, Kubrick had an idea to explore the Nazi regime and the Holocaust through high-ranking officer Joseph Goebbels and his infamous influence over German cinema before and during the war. An attempt at another film involved Kubrick’s brother-in-law and creative partner, Jan Harlan, enlisting the efforts of novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer to write a screenplay about the Holocaust. Singer, however, declined participation, telling Harlan he “didn’t know a thing about it” and further insisted a film on the subject would benefit from the input of someone who had experienced it firsthand. Refusing to give up on the project, Kubrick eventually stumbled upon Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies and became convinced he’d found the perfect source material to adapt for a film about the Holocaust.
Notorious for his perfectionist nature and meticulous attention to detail, Stanley Kubrick’s preparation for Aryan Papers was characteristically tireless and in-depth. In addition to writing a screenplay, he scouted locations throughout Europe and reportedly considered shooting the film in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “He would very reluctantly have moved himself to Bratislava and to Brno,” Jan Harlan told The Independent. “He wouldn’t have liked that, but it was no pain, no gain in this case. There was no way you could have done these locations in England.”
With a script in place, Kubrick began searching for his cast. Among those in consideration was Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege, whom Kubrick phoned to discuss the project. “He asked me several questions about the films I had done – very specific questions,” she remembers. Their conversation led to a meeting at Kubrick’s home in England, where they spoke about various subjects and did camera tests. “Let’s open a bottle of champagne because you’ve got the part,” Kubrick reportedly told the actress. Returning to Holland and thrilled about the opportunity she’d been offered, Johanna ter Steege waited for updates on the project. But her excitement turned to devastation upon receiving news regarding Aryan Papers‘ development.
Seven months after securing her role in Aryan Papers, Johanna ter Steege was told Stanley Kubrick was shelving the film. Recalling the actress’ reaction, Jan Harlan likened her disappointment to that of a talented musician realizing she had suddenly lost the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall. Having missed out on what could’ve been a career-changing role and a chance to work with one of history’s greatest filmmakers, Johanna ter Steege didn’t discuss Aryan Papers for years, but she stayed in touch with Harlan and Kubrick’s family after he died in 1999. A critical factor preventing Aryan Papers from moving forward was Steven Spielberg‘s Schindler’s List, which began filming in early 1993 as Kubrick was nearing production. Along with his studio backer, Warner Bros., Kubrick was concerned that his film would bear too much resemblance to Spielberg’s, and he was wary about whether audiences could endure and embrace back-to-back dramas depicting the Holocaust.
Spielberg’s rival film wasn’t the sole reason behind Aryan Papers‘ demise, as Kubrick’s extensive research and immersion into the Holocaust left him feeling melancholic and questioning whether any film or filmmaker could do the subject justice. Kubrick’s widow Christiane remembers, “He felt it just couldn’t be told. He became very depressed during the preparations, and I was glad when he gave up on it because it was really taking its toll.” Echoing the sentiment, Jan Harlan said Aryan Papers would’ve been “a very silent film, a very serious film. It’s a big, risky topic.” While filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has since tried his hand at adapting Louis Begley’s novel, Aryan Papers has yet to see the light of day, and one can only speculate about what Kubrick could’ve brought to the material. Considering his well-earned reputation as an assured cinematic trailblazer, it’s sobering to think that even a genius of his caliber experienced moments of self-doubt, hesitance, and emotional turmoil regarding a project.