Lolita tackled Holocaust and US antisemitism

Stanley Kubrick's Lolita celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The film was based on Vladimir Nabokov's notorious 1955 novel of the same name, which he adapted into the screenplay.

While not immediately obvious, Nabokov's novel has an underlying twin concern with the Holocaust and antisemitic prejudice in postwar America.

In a book full of subtle allusions to the Second World War, for example, the protagonist Humbert Humbert refers to his antagonist Clare Quilty as 'subhuman'.

Humbert is himself refused entry to restricted hotels because he is mistaken for a Jew.

Nabokov's wife and son were Jewish and he was shocked to find the 'Gentleman's Agreement' type of antisemitism still going strong in America in the 1950s in which the phrase 'Near Churches' meant 'No Jews'.

While these Jewish themes perhaps went missing in the adaptation of the novel into a film, one wonders if its traces can be entirely scrubbed away.

I would argue that multiple coded clues allow us to read an implicit Jewishness into the film which may be missed on first viewings.

Kubrick greatly expanded Quilty's character. In the novel, he is a shadowy figure, rarely glimpsed, but in the film he's far more present.

He only appeared in 34 minutes of the 154-minute film, but he is ubiquitous, even when absent.

The film opens and closes with his name. The move of shifting his death from the end to the beginning of the film makes him the centre of it.

In this way, Kubrick inverted Nabokov's interest of a narrative of sexual infatuation with a young girl and made it into his and Humbert's obsession with Quilty.

And who did he cast to play this role? The mercurial Peter Sellers whom Kubrick admired and had seen in his previous films as well as heard on his The Goon Show recordings.

Sellers' mother was Jewish and related to the famous Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza - at one point Sellers dons a pair of boxing gloves perhaps in homage to his great grandfather.

Kubrick not only cast Sellers but also allowed him more freedom to improvise than any of the other actors on the film. In turn, Sellers, arguably, based many of his tics on Kubrick.

At the same time, it's also significant that for the role of the monstrous suburban housefrau Charlotte Haze, Kubrick chose the high-profile Jewish actress Shelley Winters, who had won an Oscar for best supporting actress only three years earlier in The Diary of Anne Frank.

Playing a Jewish refugee in constant fear of being discovered by the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam, her casting goes some way to recovering Nabokov's twin interest with the Holocaust and antisemitic prejudice in post-war America.

In both their performances, Winters and Sellers provided much material into which one can read their religious and ethnic backgrounds.

So while Lolita may not be an obvious choice for a column on The Greatest Jewish Films, the manner in which Kubrick translated the novel from page to screen leaves us with much Jewish food for thought.

Given that the film is now 50 years old, it is certainly worth a re-watch with this in mind.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph