4. Ghosts in the archive

There are ghosts in the archive. I’m sitting at a table looking at books from Kubrick’s library. In the background I can vaguely hear a conversation about how old Danny is supposed to be in The Shining and how old the actor was when he played Danny. I’m half-listening. I’m quietly amazed that the actor was only six at most. It’s an age when it’s hard to tell what is real and what is imaginary. This suits the story of the film but I wonder what legacy it leaves for the child himself.

While I’m half-hearing this conversation I’m also reading Kubrick’s copy of Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness. In fact what I’m doing is reading the book filtered by Kubrick’s annotations. While the conversation about Danny is taking place I find myself reading a section Kubrick has underlined where Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka extermination camp, talks to Sereny about the protocol that went into the programmatic euthanasia/murder of children with disabilities. The section Kubrick has marked describes Stangl’s visit to a priest, and a nun who points at a child lying in a basket:

“’Do you know how old he is?” she asked me. I said no, how old is he? ‘Sixteen’, she said. ‘He looks five, doesn’t he? He’ll never change, ever. But they rejected him.’ [The nun was referring to the medical commission.] ‘How could they not accept him?’ she said. And the priest who stood next to her nodded fervently. ‘Just look at him,’ she went on. ‘No good to himself or anyone else. How could they refuse to deliver him from this miserable life?’ This really shook me,’ said Stangl. ‘Here was a Catholic nun, a Mother Superior, and a priest. And they thought it was right. Who was I then, to doubt what was being done?’ (p.58)

The child looks like he’s five but he’s really sixteen. Above him three adults stand as self-appointed judges to his fate. This is fascism. This is horror. Here in history is the horror of which humans are capable. There in The Shining is the haunting of the past still pursuing a child in the present. History isn’t in the past. Kubrick understands this. History changes us in the present.

In the margin of the Sereny book Kubrick has put an exclamation mark next to a footnote. It tells the story of a Nazi who returns to the Catholic faith when he receives a death sentence for the crimes he committed during the war. He receives a promise from the Church to look after his family in the future in exchange for his silence. Exclamation mark!

When should stories be told? Who decides when silence should be maintained?

Somewhere in this reading I wonder about the role of the artist. How does Kubrick read this book and the itemisation of atrocity it contains, as someone who translates the world into image and is such a consummate storyteller? What is the responsibility of the artist to this history, to any history? I’m thinking this as I turn the page and see Kubrick has been thinking this too, has made marks in response to a section about photographs, about whether or not photographs were taken of people dying at Treblinka. Kubrick marks two sections:

‘All the former SS men agree that photographs were taken. “I don’t think, though,’ said Suchomel, who seemed sincerely interested in clearing up this point, ‘that there were ever any photographs of people actually being killed. You see I would have seen them; because later my work included filing all the photographic material.’ (p.83)

‘'One thing I can testify to personally,’ said Frau Allers, ‘and you can quote me: as far as Schloss Hartheim was concerned, there wasn’t any possibility of taking photographs of people while they were dying. There was nothing in the door but a tiny peep-hole, like one had on a front door. You put one eye to it to see, but you couldn’t take a photograph through it.’ ‘You saw this tiny peep-hole yourself?’ 'Yes I did.’ ‘That was just there to allow doctors to confirm it was over,’ said her husband.' (p.83)

The peep-hole. The very opposite of the scale of vision Kubrick works in.

After the war, after the camps, what can the image do? Should it just perform histroical evidence? Should it peep at history? Or how can the image reveal something more, something about the true complexity of what people are capable of imagining – and also disavowing?

I’ve noticed throughout my time in the archive that Kubrick, even in research photographs, is drawn to a wide scene-revealing frame that contains a dark occluded centre. This, of course, is most apparent in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the monolith cuts a perversity of blackness across cinema’s wide-open gaze. But this isn’t the only place this framing is revealed. Looking through production stills across Kubrick’s career I’m struck by the Rothko-like concertina into a dark endpoint that his framing often offers. It’s a very radical strategy. It is the perfection of cinema and the end of cinema held in one frame. It is an image that is made of classical perspective, is about and made of the past, but also implies a future point, a vanishing point, the something that is nothing, and that’s there before us all in plain sight, an existential warning as blank and obvious as Magritte’s boulder that fills a domestic room.

And there we are: the cinema audience, the peeping tom to history, squinting at the spectacle of the recorded past. Powell and Pressburger were ruined by exposing this understanding. Their 1960 film Peeping Tom was universally loathed by reviewers and Powell, once the wunderkind of British cinema, found himself cast adrift and unable to work. In the same year Alfred Hitchcock also pointed out the murderous repression of the peeing tom in Psycho. Kubrick knew it and gave it back to audiences through affect.

The dark centre to the frame: a blind spot, the audience’s mortality. In the real-time that film time represents, what a radical thing to do. Vision and non-vision are side by side in Kubrick’s cinema. Mystery is a fact.

And ghosts? Ghosts are coincidence. They live somewhere in the territory between what we know, what we feel and what we disavow. But in the connections they enable, the post-war cinema audience has the gift of a chance, the chance to make meanings.