The 10 Most Significant Artistic and Philosophical Influences to Stanley Kubrick

4. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche


2001 space odyssey

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was one of the most polarizing forces of nature who ever lived. Not so much for his demeanor than for his words. Firebrand, scourge, originator, cultural critic — a true Renaissance man who was extremely well-educated — he wrote poetry and was a formidable Latin and Greek scholar. He influenced many, many artists and the world alike with his deeply probing, deeply influential, deeply controversial philosophy.

Millions of words have been written him and the meaning of his works. I am not going to rehash all of it. Mainly, Nietzsche wrote about the will to power, the Übermensch (Overlord or Superman), and eternal recurrence. He was a firm believer in the now and actual, and fully embraced the realities of our present lives over what might exist in the world beyond, if anything. He was an avowed atheist and considered religion to be a man-made creation that corrupted man’s ability to free will. His impact was enormous and still felt today.

Artists gravitate to Nietzsche like white on rice. Kubrick is no exception. Composers, painters, filmmakers, photographers, and many others have all produced works based on Nietzsche’s philosophical writings. There is something strangely attractive and alluring — even forbidden — about them. They pander to weaker artist’s sensibilities to rise above the stamp of authority that prevents their ascendency, as well as support and promote a stronger-willed genius his king-of-the-world status.

One of the fundamental questions of all art is who are we, where did we come from, and what lies beyond? Nietzsche addresses all of that in a particularly nihilistic but somehow transcendent and quixotic way. His writing is astonishingly powerful, his prose enveloping, his thoughts inscrutable — but he is rarely judgmental without good reason. True enough, he does criticize organized religion most strenuously, but his reasons are clearly stated for reasons central to his concept of Will. One can take it for what it’s worth.

Kubrick, too, questions without moralizing. Religion as spoken dogma rarely enters into his films except for the odd scene or character. A Clockwork Orange has a Chaplain, as does Barry Lyndon. But the concept of religion as an antidote is turned on its ear: Alex “reforms” his ways after he befriends the prison Chaplain but little does the Chaplain know that Alex augments his fantasies with violent and sexual imagery from the Old Testament!

Other than standard Christian tropes, the minister says significantly little. Reverend Runt in Barry Lyndon says even less except mostly to scowl and hate on Barry. Kubrick’s anti-heroes are still allowed full reign to terrorize free from God’s judgment or from the director’s.


In 2001: a space odyssey, all that changes. God is at the very heart of the film — Kubrick has even said as much in interviews. This is rather odd because he is never mentioned by name and because the film is so overwhelmingly Nietzschean in the most sonic, extraordinary way. It classically, confrontationally, pits the two opposing philosophies — that are more like matter and anti-matter — on a collision course to see which one can create the most desirable type of human.

It’s a brilliant dichotomy. The monolith is clearly a sentient, intelligent being who acts as a change agent at seminal moments in the film but, beyond that, little else is explained in this largely wordless film. What is telling is Kubrick’s script was quite wordy and explained everything.

Late in the editing process he removed all of the expository dialog, voice-over narration, and any scenes that told too much and — in true Eisensteinian fashion — crafted a brand new film language much less a brand new film. Perhaps in some odd way, Kubrick emulated D. W. Griffith after all. What remained was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, even to this day.

Kubrick gives us a modern world that is desolate in spirit, cold in character, and empty in emotion. Civilization is too absorbed in its own technologies to notice or care, all the while eating itself to death in the vacuum of space. There is dialog but little is really said. There is action but little really happens. Emotions are all but non-existent. Man has become little more than a parody.

A meeting of great importance — where the main topic is how to break the news of confirmed extra-terrestrial existence to world — is handled in a way that is only slightly more complicated than ordering a hamburger. Indeed, one of the films best visual jokes is the extremely complex set of directions one has to read in order to use the toilet.


2001 reflects a great bitterness in Man’s progress of consciousness. Oft quoted, one of Nietzsche’s most famous lines is this: What is ape to man — a ridicule, a grievous shame. And that is what man is to the Superman — a ridicule, a grievous shame. The entire film becomes a riff on the Nietzschean presumption of Will.

The rebirth of Bowman into Starchild is not necessarily a thing to rejoice. First we should ask: what is there that is worth saving? What, exactly, is the Starchild there to do — embrace humanity in the spirit of Nietzschean joy? Will he sing Ode to Joy or Dies Irae? Is he there to fulfill or destroy? Whatever it is, Kubrick offers no visual answers other than musical clues in Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra “Sunrise” prelude. Madness and death is just as likely to follow as world peace and eternal bliss.

Most films find it necessary to end on moral high note with some sort of explanation of benefits. Not Kubrick. That’s a large part of what makes his films so special, so unique, so unnerving. Kubrick does not dictate how his audience should feel. He never fully supports nor condemns. His endings come from our anti-hero’s free will, not a moral code. His characters move in a Nietzschean space of cause and effect and rarely think about consequences.


5. Sigmund Schlomo Freud and 6. Carl Gustav Jung

Sexual Repression and Duality


Freud and Jung are joined at the hip. Many of their theories intertwine — but with some important divergences.

Freud’s career and impact is titanic. He is primarily responsible for the Oedipus complex, and his belief in dreams as wish fulfillments and mechanisms of repression. He also sexualized almost all thought and behavior as an extension of libido and, most importantly in relation to Kubrick’s films, postulated the theory of the death dive — neurotic guilt which leads to a pathway of self-destruction. This is the opposite counterpart to Eros, which is life-affirming.

Jung, a peer, a friend, a co-worker and consultant to Freud, was much more of a Renaissance man. He wrote prolifically on a variety of subjects, not just psychiatry, on subjects that included archeology, literature, and religion. He theorized many concepts currently in use today. He did not sexualize activity, repressed or otherwise, as much (or not at all) as Freud. He is known primarily for individuation — the ability to incorporate opposites while still maintaining the self.

Almost all of Kubrick’s anti-heroes exhibit large parts of one or both of these philosophies. Some, like Full Metal Jacket, make direct reference to Jung. Indeed, the entire film is structured as polar opposites. Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, is the poster child of Freudian symbolism.

Less so The Shining but not by much. Dr. Strangelove trumpets its twisted, repressed sexuality from the opening scene to the last orgiastic release. There is not a scene, line of dialog, or character name that does not have some kind of scatological, sexual reference to the libido or lack of it.


7. Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm (Brothers Grimm)

Fairy Tales

The Shining movie

Who doesn’t like a good fairy tale? Stanley Kubrick certainly does, that’s for sure. Not only did Kubrick like fairy tales, he embraced them.

The Brothers Grim were two highly educated German academics who loved language and their Germanic culture. They collected, codified, wrote and published old folklore stories in an effort to preserve forgotten parts of their oral and sometimes-written story-telling heritage. It is important to note that the Brothers often expanded and/or embellished what they found or heard, while still trying to stay close to the source material.

Aschenputtel (Cinderella), Hänsel und Gretel, Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty), Schneewittchen (Snow White), amongst many, many others, are just some of the hundreds of stories that emerged from undeveloped or rural regions in Germany. They proved immediately and immensely popular.

As time went on, other cultures found their works violent, cruel, and foreboding — hardly the stuff one would want their child to read. Strictly speaking, the stories were never meant for children, but sometimes the Brothers would simplify or tone down the sexual imagery or violent undertones. Other times they would not.

As much as possible, they respected and honored the Germanic culture from which most of these stories emanated and, despite the atrocities — the cannibalism, mothers abandoning their daughters, fathers hating their sons — thought full disclosure better for German heritage and better for their readers. Germans were never one for hiding behind a whitewashed past.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

What did Kubrick learn from the Brothers Grimm? He learned that resolutions aren’t always happy. Someone almost always dies. The Blue Fairy doesn’t exist. Roads are for journeys not destinations. A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut are three films that most closely emulate a Grimmsian fairy tale. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a broader, more redefining sense, is the ultimate fairy tale.

Each of the four films exhibits solid characteristics — There is life, there is conflict, there is death, there is resolution (not always a happy one), and there is rebirth. If anything, Grimmsian fairy tales demonstrate a universe full of consequencialism — if one decides to run away from home, no one can help you and you can’t always predict the outcome.

Dax’s knightly efforts in Paths of Glory still leads to an execution. Bowman murders his “parent” and abandons his home and, after a long life (in a cage?), he becomes redeemed and reborn as a Nietzschean “Superman” — good for him, bad for the rest of the 8 billion souls on Earth.

Alex’s libidinous actions and free will exposes a clear social dilemma and double-standard, but he still gets the sex in the end because of his sufferings and father-figures who want to do good by their “sons” and abandon morals on the grounds of principal (and votes!), which begs the age-old question — which is worse, the disease or the cure?

Jack Torrance finds freedom amongst the hotel ghosts but loses his soul in the process and is doomed to a Sisyphusian nightmare of endless repetition — “…you’ve always been the caretaker, Mr. Torrance.” Dr. Harford tries to be a man — in effect running away from home — only to find out “mother’ (his wife) was right all along.

Naturally, Kubrick twists the world of fairy tales on its head, and freely combines genres and influences to craft his stories in unique retellings.