The 10 Most Significant Artistic and Philosophical Influences to Stanley Kubrick

8. Eugene Berthold Friedrich Brecht (Bertolt Brecht) and 9. Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud (Antonin Artaud)

Verfremidungseffekt (Distancing Effect) and Theatre of Cruelty


When it comes to Kubrick’s confrontational, cinematic style, look no further than Brecht and Artaud. Many of his films exhibit theatrical characteristic borrowed from those to titans and originators of the theatre.

Brecht — German-born from Augsburg — proposed a play should not allow the theater-goer to get emotionally involved but somehow view the proceedings rationally. The only way to accomplish that was to consistently remind the audience through a variety of means that they are observers, not participants. This is known as the Brechtian Distancing device.

Some of the techniques include an actor addressing the audience directly, lighting — bad, harsh or otherwise, perhaps even pointed at the audience, songs that interrupted or against the action, misdirection, title cards, someone speaking stage directions out loud and so on. How many of these techniques did Kubrick employ cinematically? All of them! Narration, title cards, harsh or unusual lighting, contrapuntal music, dynamic cuts, loud bangs or chords after long periods of silence — all of these found form and function in a Kubrick film.

Artaud — a Frenchman from Marseille — on the other hand, seemed to be a bit more esoteric in his thinking. He felt, like Brecht, that theater had become too staid and secure. He advocated extreme measures that subverted the text of the play — that maybe even involved the audience directly — to create a type of symbiotic relationship between the two that shattered the false reality of the production.

Cruelty did not mean actual pain or violence, except that which is done to the play (not the playwright!) itself — a violence of ideas, thoughts, emotions, connections, resolutions — anything necessary to shock ones preconceptions into different modes of comprehension.

Artaud wanted to remove words altogether and make a kind of visual play made up entirely of motion in an extremely codified, ritualized way that somehow attained spiritual awakening amongst its participants, which could, if so moved, include theater goers as well as actors. This was very forward thinking stuff!

Kubrick (at least in his films), like Artaud, was a nihilist and fully embraced many Artaudian concepts — especially in his dystopian trilogy of Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange.


10. Wilhelm Richard Wagner

Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art)


Stanley Kubrick, as far as I know, never listened to opera much less Richard Wagner. Perhaps he should have. The two geniuses — the supreme titans of their craft — share a number of striking similarities that bears witness to a pattern of consistency amongst the movers and shakers of art or industry.

Wagner, like most of Kubrick’s indirect influencers, was German-born, from the city of Leipzig, Saxony. His paternity is in question. Carl Friedrich Wagner, a Leipzig police chief, first raised Wagner. There is evidence to suggest that Wagner may have been sired by actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer, with whom Wagner’s mother, Johanna Rosine, had an affair. Geyer was also Jewish. Until age 14, Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer.

Kubrick, like Wagner, was a late bloomer who showed little aptitude for what was to come.
Kubrick, like Wagner, struggled with his early works before finding his artistic “voice.”
Kubrick, like Wagner, once he really got going, produced masterpiece after masterpiece until the end of his life.
Kubrick, like Wagner, controlled every element of every production. Wagner even went so far as to build his own theater that would show only his works – the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.
Kubrick, like Wagner, wrote all of his scripts (in opera they are called librettos.)
Kubrick, like Wagner, took advantage of the latest technology to help produce his vision.
Kubrick was Jewish. Wagner very well could be!
Kubrick and Wagner both vastly redefined the language of their art.
Kubrick’s films consistently make the Top 10 or Best 100 lists. All of Wager’s 10 operas are never out of repertory.
Both Kubrick and Wagner have fans who are either vehement detractors or irrepressibly loyal that think the sun sets on their respective work. There is little middle ground.

And, most of all, there is no mistaking “A film by Stanley Kubrick” in the same way there is no mistaking a Wagnerian opera. From the first opening shots (Kubrick) or chords (Wagner), we know exactly what we’re in for.
And this brings in the quality of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.

Whether by design or accident, as a true auteur in control of all aspects of script, production, and post-production, starting with Paths of Glory, Kubrick made films that contained many similar characteristics. The plot changed but his unique style remained almost intact with few exceptions.

Artists go through several periods, phases of inactivity, or explosions of creativity, but it all comes back down to core concepts, intention, private meaning, and artistic preferences. They fashion a repeatable, cinematic language or visual clue all to their own. Some artists, like Wagner write down their thoughts and processes in great detail that make for fascinating reading.

Others, like Kubrick, expressed their views in interviews only — and sparingly at that — preferring the film to tell the full and only story on and about their craft. All things considered, Kubrick would be mortified at the trollish, information-devouring aspect of the Internet. He would certainly think it is unnecessary to know everything about every artist from working conditions to when they took their tea break.



kubrick myths

What fitting conclusions can we draw from Kubrick’s sources?

His roots in Russian film orthodoxy are the easiest to trace, as is his affection for Ophülsian didacticism and camera movement. There are clear examples throughout his career that point directly to those influential artists. But, beyond that, aside from a few interviews, nailing down Kubrick’s epistemology requires a leap of faith more akin to writing a doctoral thesis based on intellectual conjecture than facts.

Kubrick is that inscrutable and largely indecipherable and always open to interpretation despite anyone’s claim to authority, mine included. This came about perhaps by design but probably mostly because he never really lost the shy reticence he demonstrated as a child — we really don’t change that much after all. We adapt, yes, but change little. Why he was that shy with an intellect as acute as his is the $64,000 question.

Perhaps he was bullied for his smarts? Perhaps he just wanted to be like everyone else and repressed his true nature as much as possible. His last big interviews were during the 2001 phase in the late 60s. After the controversy of A Clockwork Orange in the early 70s he pulled back a lot and disappeared behind the walls of his estate.

The fact that the vast majority of his sources are German is of no surprise and cannot be discounted. Philosophical influences are harder to prove, of course. Technique has trackable footprints, whereas theory and philosophy in relation to story and structure leaves only impressions in the nebulae of the mind. I understand the dynamics of filmmaking — often you have happy accidents that have little to do with conscious decisions.

I cannot conclusively prove Kubrick was consciously paying visual homage to literary and philosophical concepts developed by Freud, Jung, Brothers Grimm, Nietzsche, Brecht, Artaud and Wagner any more than I can prove Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, was the real Shakespeare even though the preponderance of circumstantial evidence agonistically analyzed suggests “William Shakespeare” was a nom de plume masking the identity of the true author and nothing else.

Likewise, the analysis of style, content, story, structure, and characterization shows that Kubrick had a clear attraction, consciously or not, to many things German — all subject to broad interpretation, of course. He even married a German, for crying out loud.

But let me make an even bigger leap even though it departs slightly from my Teutonic concept (and because it fits so well!) Cabbalist tradition (a body of mystical teachings of rabbinical origin, often based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures that is distinctly Jewish) teaches that all forms of knowledge flows from within, anchored by the Sefirot and connected by pathways that represent ‘subjective understanding and relationship…when two sphere are connected.’

The strict elegance of Cabbalistic teaching may explain why Kubrick’s characters seem mere ciphers than three-dimensional people. Kubrick, for all his visual flair, has always been a formalist, framing his mise-en-scène in constantly mirrored, iconic arrangements. The Cabbalist ‘tree of life’ is mirrored left and right, anchored by a center spine, the left meaning spiritual love, and the right spiritual will. Divided vertically into three triangular areas, they are represented by spirit, soul, and personality of the divine — a life force.

kubrick movie posters

If most of his characters seem as ciphers, it may be precisely because they are rigidly constructed paradigms of Cabbalistic/Nietzschean tradition. There is no on/off, right/wrong, left/right in the traditional sense. In the Kubrick universe, there are ways of tracing character motivations that makes their elemental natures easier to comprehend and visualize in pure, cinematic forms.

Once we understand that their emotions have no basis in any conventional reality, once we can divorce our preconceptions from common platitudes and the husbandry of directorial averageness. We can raise the level of our involvement from the entertained to the questioning and, once we’ve become active, critical thinkers always questioning, always searching, we have then equalized the playing field and become one with the master.

Genius artists being who they are, sub-consciously gravitate towards certain viewpoints they like and admire and distill what they’ve learned into a visual coherence, bringing form and function and structure to a whole host of ideas and concepts, some quite deliberate and others born from deeper recesses.

While Kubrick films often defy meaning at first, throughout my many articles I’ve tried to present a picture of an intellectual giant who approached his craft on a different plain than anyone else. His didacticism reduced his films into mythic fables and these fables into Nietzschean consciousness. But is Kubrick truly Nietzschean or is it just an infatuation? Who really is the man? The artist?

In Kubrick’s films, there is a definite and articulated inclination to madness, violence, anger, perversion, and domination without offering anything in return — no love, as in Mozart; no light, as in Göngora; no joyful Will in love, as in Santayana. The evil of Will is that you can will anger, vengeance, or malevolent duty, and it becomes a lie that is not necessarily yours. Geniuses are truly great when Will comes from love and detachment (e.g. Mozart, Göngora, Schopenhauer, Santayana), not from determination (e.g. Nietzsche, Picasso).


Killer’s Kiss ends happily, if somewhat unconvincingly, but it was downhill from there. Real love is loving the love in others, the ideas they have, their potentialities towards their own perfection. Will in domination, power and energy, as in Nietzsche, is barbaric — and Santayana and Virgil show us how painful it can be when applied.

In Kubrick, one finds causality but little love. Redmond Barry loved his son wholeheartedly, that is plainly evident, but he clearly didn’t love himself or even his wife. Did Alice love her husband in Eyes Wide Shut? Did Humbert Humbert love Lolita? Did Sgt. Hartman love his troops? Did Jack Torrance love his ghosts? Did anyone love anyone in 2001?

In real life, Kubrick was, by all accounts, a happy if overly controlling man, surrounded by his numerous cats, dogs, and other animals, not to mention his large family unit ensconced in a large, idyllic country estate. Was it always paradise? No. Family units by their very nature are not always harmonious.

But it’s still hard to reconcile the private side versus the creative side. In filmmaking, he lorded over his domain with feline precision and Nietzschean temperament while offering little in return. He is truly an agnostic filmmaker who left a loyal audience to fend for themselves and search, often in vain, for nuggets of meaning in his vast, gargantuan canvases.

If it sounds like I am trying to find the proverbial “Rosebud” moment to explain everything, I am. In the vast hoard of Kubrick memorabilia unearthed after his death, a sled, unfortunately, wasn’t among them.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s not for me or anyone else to decide. Perhaps it’s better this is left undecided — it gives us more to talk about. What we are left with is Kubrick as mythmaker, Kubrick as sentient, Kubrick as family man and cat lover, Kubrick as iconoclast, Kubrick as intellectual giant, Kubrick as the greatest, most varied filmmaker the world has ever known or had the privilege to see. In the end he was just a man, religiously pursuing his art along a golden highway paved with hubris, wit, intelligence, and courage built in a universe from whose borne no traveler returns.

Every profound thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood. The latter may hurt his vanity, but the former his heart, his sympathy, which always says: “Alas, why do you want to have as hard a time as I did?”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil.”
Translated by Walter Kaufman

This article is the 6th in a series of 7 articles devoted entirely to Stanly Kubrick, auteur & filmmaker. The previous articles published in Taste of Cinema are: 10 Reasons why Stanley Kubrick is the greatest Filmmaker who ever lived, 10 greatest uses of Music in a Stanley Kubrick film, 10 greatest Performances in a Stanley Kubrick film, 10 greatest mythologies of Stanley Kubrick, and 13 films, 13 scenes, the Misc en scene of Stanley Kubrick.

Author Bio: Mark Krasselt is a writer, designer, and all-around creative who reads too much and has seen too many movies. He has been fascinated with Stanley Kubrick since his first saw 2001: a space odyssey at age 8, and this fascination has never abated. He has even written a long thesis on the famous director, titled “Stanley Kubrick: lessons of a Sentient,” which he hopes to expand into an even longer book.