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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 55.3: Nathan Abrams
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The Wandering Ape: Postscript to “Kubrick’s Double: Lolitas Hidden Heart of Jewishness.”

Nathan Abrams

Kubrick’s interest in sub-textual Jewish masculinity was rendered through two characters in his 1962 adaptation of Lolita: Quilty and Humbert. This was possibly drawn from the manner in which Vladimir Nabokov characterized Humbert, which hinted at his Jewishness. He wrote that Humbert’s father was composed of “a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins.”[1] Furthermore, Humbert sports “thick black eye-brows and a queer accent.” He is “attractively Simian,” has “ape eyes,” an “ape-ear,” and an “ape paw.” Lionel Trilling in his review of Lolita also referred to Humbert’s “‘ape-like’ lust.”[2] Hirsuteness is a stereotypical marker of Jewish masculinity in which the Jew’s body was presumed to be abnormally hairy and apish.[3] Such Jewish writers as Franz Kafka, whom Kubrick said was his favorite author, analogized the experience of the Jew in Western civil society to that of a captive ape. In his “A Report to An Academy,” first published in Martin Buber’s journal, The Jew, in November 1919, an ape explains how he has learnt to mimic human ways, reflecting the antisemitic accusation that “Jews will never become true Germans; their Germanness is a mere sham. The more they try to change, the more they reveal themselves as fundamentally defective.”[4] Kafka’s story was a satire of mimicry as the alleged basis of assimilation. Significantly, in an “Afterword to Lolita,” Nabokov explained the germination of the novel. “As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”[5] Nabokov’s recollection uncannily mirrors Kafka’s story, which Nabokov perhaps acknowledged in giving Humbert the name Hamburg (when writing to the Enchanted Hunters hotel) – precisely the place where Kafka’s ape arrived.[6]

In the novel Humbert drives a car named the “Melmoth.” Melmoth the Wanderer is a Gothic novel by Charles Robert Maturin, published in 1820, in which the central character, Melmoth, is a Wandering Jew type, a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life; he spends that time searching for someone who will take over the pact for him. The novel takes place in the present but the backstory is revealed through several nested stories-within-a-story that work backwards through time. Rendered into Hebrew, Melmoth becomes m,l,m,t which could be translated as from-to death, or as a homophone for teacher (melamed) which, of course, Humbert is when he reaches America.[7]

Significantly Nabokov suggests that Humbert is the Svengali figure, the antagonist of George du Maurier’s Trilby, that infamous literary embodiment of nineteenth-century English hatred of the Jew as a dirty, sinister, and predatory figure, selfishly manipulating the innocent, and adapted into the 1954 film Svengali (Noel Langley).[8] As Margaret Stetz has argued, less than ten years after the Holocaust and the Nuremberg Trials, British audiences were treated through this film to a rewriting of history through the spectacle of an innocent, blonde, hyper-Aryan German girl victimized, exploited, and terrorized by a figure well known to be a Jew.[9] In the novel, Humbert adopts a pseudonym of “Mesmer Mesmer,” being a short form of the very mesmerism at which Svengali excelled. However, Kubrick downplayed this aspect, choosing to present Humbert as seemingly more mesmerized by Lolita than mesmerizing her.[10]

Humbert is often mistaken for being Jewish and hence is victim to the type of genteel antisemitism prevalent in postwar America and various racial slurs. Charlotte, Jean Farlow, Quilty, and the receptionists at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel all assume, on the basis of his foreign-sounding name (German perhaps), looks, physiognomy, European extraction, and manners, that he is Jewish. Quilty tells him, “You are either Australian or a German refugee. This is a gentile’s house – you’d better run along.” Before marrying him, Charlotte first wants to find out precisely how “foreign” he is: “Looking down at her fingernails, she also asked me had I not in my family a certain strange strain.” She can tolerate a “Turk” as one of his ancestors, as long as he himself is truly Christian; however, “if she ever found out I did not believe in Our Christian God, she would commit suicide.”[11] Likewise, her friend, Jean Farlow, also has a vague suspicion he may be Jewish because of his dark looks and exotic name. When her husband, John, is about to make disparaging remarks about Jews in Humbert’s presence, “Of course, too many of the tradespeople here are Italians, ... but on the other hand we are still spared-,” she cuts him off.[12] Humbert attempts to check in to The Enchanted Hunters Hotel but is initially refused entry because it is restricted, advertising itself as being “Near Churches,”[13] a coded expression used in adverts to indicate its discriminatory, restrictive practices.[14] Yet, Kubrick omitted many of these details, consistent with his practice of removing explicit references to Jewishness from his films.

On the other hand, Kubrick’s casting choices also suggest that he was looking for an actor with some Jewishness or at least was able to produce a performance capable of being read as such. As mentioned above, he approached Peter Ustinov with a view to casting him as Humbert.[15] Although not Jewish himself, Ustinov’s great-grandfather Moritz Hall had been born Jewish before converting to Christianity. Ustinov had appeared in Kubrick’s previous film, Spartacus, playing the role of Batiatus in such a way that it certainly tapped into age-old Jewish stereotypes. Batiatus is an immoral slave trader who is driven by profit. He is a “peeping tom,” salaciously and voyeuristically leering at Spartacus and Varinia. Phillips and Hill refer to “Batiatus’ mincing mannerisms,” hinting at his homosexuality.[16] He is also cheap: when learning of Crassus’ impending visit, he orders a slave to serve his second best wine but then changes his mind: “Serve my best wine – in small goblets.” As Phillips points out, his “desire to please the visiting dignitary is in conflict with his innate stinginess.”[17] Pauline Kael praised Ustinov’s portrayal of the slave dealer’s “groveling sycophancy and his merchant’s greed,”[18] as when “in exchange for the franchise to auction off the slaves who survive the battle, Batiatus, ever the opportunist, agrees to finger Spartacus for Crassus.”[19] Walter M. Abbott, S.J., of the National League of Decency felt “it is offensive to the Jewish faith to have a man who is so obviously Jewish playing the role of the cowardly, venal commander of the Capua gladiator institution.”[20]

Ultimately, Kubrick cast James Mason. According to various writers, Mason was always Kubrick’s first choice for the role of Humbert.[21] Phillips and Hill state that “Kubrick felt that Mason represented perfect casting.”[22] When Kubrick first approached Mason, he had been offered a starring role in The Gay Life, an adaptation of a stage play, Anatol (1893), by Arthur Schnitzler whom, as we know, Kubrick admired. Previously, Mason had starred in Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) in which, in one part, he assumes the role of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, the individual credited with being the forefather of the Hebrew people.[23]


Kubrick’s various allusions to other films in Lolita also hint at Humbert’s Jewishness. In physiognomic terms, Mason fitted Nabokov’s description of Humbert’s hirsuteness: we see his hairy chest in the bath and as he rises from bed on the day that Lolita leaves for camp. Various sequences evoke other roles played by Jewish actors. The opening toenail painting sequence, for example, alludes to Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945) in which Edward G. Robinson, playing an older artist besotted with the younger Joan Bennett, paints her toenails. The shooting at the painting evokes the moment in Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958) when gangster Lee J. Cobb fires into a large picture of Jean Harlow, while Humbert’s bathtub whiskey references tippler Robinson’s similar posture in Key Largo (John Huston, 1948).[24]


In the film (as in the novel), Humbert is connected with many bathrooms – a key signifier of cinematic Jewishness.[25] Charlotte makes a point of showing off her “old-fashioned” plumbing to Humbert, of which she is proud, and which she thinks will impress him. Humbert hides in that bathroom to write his journal, which is where Charlotte discovers it, and Geoffrey Shurlock of the Production Code Administration objected to the “offensively vulgar flavor” of the sounds of grunting from behind the closed door.[26] Following Charlotte’s death, Humbert lies in the bathtub sipping Scotch. And he spies Lolita talking to Quilty from a bathroom window.


At the same time, Humbert is feminized, subject to a plot in which he has little agency. Things are done to him rather than by him. As a prospective lodger trapped in Charlotte’s house, she entraps him despite his repeated attempts to back away from her relentless advances. After the high school dance, he is given pink champagne and made to do the cha-cha clumsily. He attempts to instruct Lolita in poetry but ends up as a trained seal being fed the reward of a fried egg which she lowers into his mouth. On the day that Lolita leaves for camp, donning a silk dressing gown, he becomes the proverbial static “woman at the window,” so generically typical of costume drama. As Naremore describes it:

from a slightly low angle, we watch as he forlornly gazes down over the balcony. The camera rises and cranes into a closer view of his misery as he leans over and watches her go; then it follows him as he turns and wanders into her room where, surrounded by girlish possessions […] he sits on her bed, buries his head in her pillow and weeps. It’s as if we were watching a Douglas Sirk picture with the gender roles reversed, so that a “feminized” man suffers for love.[27]


Ultimately, Lolita seduces him and thereafter he becomes her slave as coded by the opening credits. He makes her sandwiches “loaded with mayonnaise, just the way you like it,” paints her toenails, buys her presents, does all the housework, and, like a governess, attempts to oversee her education.[28]


Humbert plays the classic schlemiel in the film. He is a model of ineptitude. His old world European savoir faire is continually undone, providing much of the comedy where he is concerned. The attempt at vengeful lover is undermined by his fur-trimmed topcoat and pathetic poem which Quilty mocks even when Humbert threatens him with a gun. He cuts a pitiful killer and is repeatedly distracted and thrown off balance by Quilty’s lightening wit and chameleon-like behavior. It takes repeated shots to kill Quilty who is not even put off by his firing of the gun. Even as he dies, it seems Quilty is unable to take Humbert seriously. And when Humbert does kill Quilty it seems almost by mistake. At the high school dance, Humbert is a chaperone but he sits awkwardly on a folding chair, balancing a cup of punch in one hand and a slice of cake in the other; every attempt to follow Lolita is foiled as one or other of the characters traps him down. When he tries to murder Charlotte, he snaps open the revolver only to spill the bullets on the floor. And he cannot even go through with it. Even though he seeks to disguise his desire for Lolita, Quilty instantly recognizes it exactly for what it is. Hs plan to seduce Lolita happens to be right in the middle of a police convention and he ends up sleeping on a collapsed cot, which takes much slapstick humor to erect.


If it was in the choice of Peter Sellers that Kubrick really displayed his fascination with the Jewish male, Humbert nonetheless presents a model of feminized Jewish masculinity, as a hairy, wandering, apelike schlemiel.


[1] Nabokov, Lolita, 9.

[2] Trilling, “The Last Lover,” 19.

[3] Kubrick would use this marker again in his other films.

[4] Franz Kafka, “A Report for an Academy,” available at Accessed Feb. 2015. Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, The Jewish Patient (New York & London: Routledge, 1995), 13.

[5] Nabokov, Lolita, 328.

[6] Kubrick had already implicitly compared Jews to apes in his earlier Fear and Desire when Mac tells the sub-textually Jewish Sidney, “If we’re not back by night, get in touch with her old man about a wedding. Maybe you can settle down in a tree house and raise some monkeys!”

[7] See Toni Wein, “Fixing Ireland/Fixing the Jew in Melmoth the Wanderer,” Patterns of Prejudice 40:1 (Feb. 2006), 1-24.

[8] Significantly Nabokov suggests that Humbert is the Svengali figure, who, in the novel, adopts a pseudonym of “Mesmer Mesmer,” being a short form of mesmerism at which Svengali excelled. However, Kubrick downplayed this aspect, choosing to present Humbert as seemingly more mesmerised by Lolita than mesmerizing her. I thank Danielle Friel for this observation. George du Maurier, Trilby (London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., 1895).

[9] Margaret D. Stetz, “The hate that dared not speak its name: Svengali, anti-Semitism and post-war British heritage cinema,” Journal of European Popular Culture 3:2 (October 2012): 155-68.

[10] I thank Danielle Friel for this observation.

[11] Nabokov, Lolita, 79.

[12] Ibid., 83-84.

[13] Ibid., 275.

[14] Alfred Appel, Jr. (ed.), The Annotated “Lolita” (London: Penguin, 1971), 423. Mizruchi also observes the novel’s “attention to American anti-Semitism.” Mizruchi, “Lolita,” 639.

[15] Apparently, David Niven, Noel Coward, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, and Laurence Olivier were all also considered.

[16] Phillips and Hill, Encyclopedia, 391.

[17] Phillips, Kubrick, 68.

[18] Quoted Phillips and Hill, Encyclopedia, 392.

[19] Phillips and Hill, Encyclopedia, 392.

[20] Walter M. Abbott, S.J., to Monsignor Little, 6. Oct. 1960, USCCBC. In the end, Batiatus shows a measure of menschlikayt by arranging to spirit away Varinia and Spartacus’ child from the clutches of Crassus and thence to escape from Rome.

[21] Baxter, Kubrick, 145.

[22] Phillips and Hill, Encyclopedia, 132.

[23] Certainly, in the moment when he uses Genesis 22 as a reason for killing his own son, it foreshadowed The Shining. That Mason asked Winters if it would make her feel any more comfortable if he told her that a long time ago his name was “Moskowitz, and not Mason?” may also indicate some Jewish heritage. Winters, Shelley II, 350.

[24] Naremore, On Kubrick, 103; Alfred Appel, Jr., Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 245.

[25] See Abrams, The New Jew in Film, chap. 8.

[26] Geoffrey M. Shurlock, letter to James B. Harris, 29 Aug. 1961, PCA, AMPAS. The toilet noises were diluted to several ambiguous murmurs and a single loud flush when Charlotte demonstrates the old-fashioned plumbing.

[27] Naremore, On Kubrick, 109.

[28] Ibid. 111. The opening sequence also recalls an episode when Jewish playwright Arthur Miller sat holding Marilyn Monroe’s foot “coyly but chastely” when they met at a party in 1950. Jonathan Freedman, “Miller, Monroe and the Remaking of Jewish Masculinity,” in Enoch Brater (ed.), Arthur Miller’s America: Theater and Culture in a Time of Change (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), 143.
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