What inspired Stanley Kubrick

The film canon

Annette Kilzer

To person

Film critic and film historian. Texts in numerous daily newspapers, magazines, biographies and catalogs. Books about Joel and Ethan Coen, Til Schweiger and Bruce Willis. Berlinale delegate for Great Britain and Ireland.

Or: How I learned to love the bomb

Stanley Kubrick turns the threat of a war of nuclear annihilation into a grotesque comedy in the 1960s. Only in the humorous exaggeration does the horror of this scenario become apparent.

"Dr. Seltsam", 1964 (& copy Bertz + Fischer Verlag / original copyright holders)

Whether box office box office results, awards at film festivals or critical acclaim - the current success of a film may certainly always be an indication of its lasting later importance. But what lasting impression it leaves behind all fashions and trends is ultimately only revealed in the (film) story. Stanley Kubrick's black comedy "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) has received many such retrospective honors: This is what the film is like has been selected by the American Library of Congress as one of those American films to be included in the permanent collection of the national film holdings. In addition, it appears regularly in numerous "Best of" and "Top 100 of all Times" lists. An expert jury from the British film magazine Sight & Sound recently voted it one of the "ten best films of all time". For Kubrick, who with the previous film "Lolita" (1962) encountered bitter resistance from censors, critics and audiences, it was certainly a personal satisfaction. And yet: Often one cannot help but get the impression that such best lists primarily reflect a status quo of bourgeois education that is hardly questioned - too often the same films are adopted over and over again, as if the authors were less interested in them really best films than their own art-loving and film-historical image. "Dr. Strange" is also ennobled by an unmistakable argument, namely the influence that the film has on everyday and pop culture. In any case, in the Anglo-Saxon-speaking world, "Dr. Strangelove" has long since become a synonym for the former US Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Henry Kissinger. The interaction between reality and cinematic fiction is fascinating: after all, Kubrick and his two scriptwriters had thought of Henry Kissinger, who later became the American Secretary of State, when developing the eponymous, chain-smoking German with dark glasses in a wheelchair. He also bears traits of the futurologist Herman Kahn, but above all Wernher von Brauns, the rocket researcher of the "Third Reich", who headed the American program for space exploration after the Second World War. In addition, Kubrick was inspired by the character of the mentally deranged scientist Dr. Rotwang from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) inspires with his prosthesis of a mechanical arm and his hand, which is also in a black glove.


"Dr. Strangelove" is based on the novel Red Alertpublished by former Royal Air Force Lieutenant Peter George in 1958 under the pseudonym Peter Bryant. Largely unnoticed by the public at the time, the book met with great resonance in specialist circles and was recommended to director Stanley Kubrick in 1961 by Alistair Buchan, head of the London Institute for Strategic Studies.

In American cinema of the 1950s, the fear of the nuclear apocalypse was mostly encoded in science fiction films. At the end of the decade, however, both the real political scenario and its implementation on the screen became more concrete. End times mood dominated many American films, for example in Stanley Kramer's "The Last Shore" (On the Beach, 1959), in which a submarine crew enjoyed a respite from dying on the coast of Australia for a short time after the other continents had already moved on are atomically contaminated. Or Ranald MacDougall's "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" (1958), in which three survivors of a nuclear disaster meet in the skyscraper jungle of New York.

When the American film studio Columbia in the spring of 1962 Kubrick's screen adaptation of Red Alert announced, the real threat of the Cold War between the US and the USSR had also intensified. The so-called Cuba crisis was just around the corner: when Soviet President Nikita S. Khrushchev wanted to expand Cuba into a missile base, the military on the staff of American President John F. Kennedy recommended a surprise attack. They had planned the invasion of Cuba for the end of October 1962, and Khrushchev withdrew his missiles just in time.

Despite the confident pose, the collective unease and oppression of the West was also evident in Hollywood's output. For example, the political films of those years "Ambassador of Fear" (The Manchurian Candidate, D: John Frankenheimer, 1962) or "The Best Man" (The Best Man, D: Franklin J. Schaffner, 1964), not only address the threat behind the "Iron Curtain," but also a potential conspiracy and seduction in Washington. Also in the spring of 1962 United Artists announced a very similar competing project to "Dr. Strange", namely the film adaptation of the bestseller Fail Safe. This book (the film was later shown in the cinema under the German title "attack target Moscow" [D: Sidney Lumet, 1964]) warns against a technology that can no longer be controlled by humans. While in "Dr. Strange" a crazy general orders his B52 squadron to launch a nuclear attack on military targets in the Soviet Union, here a bomber squadron is set off due to a short circuit. After an unprovoked attack took place in both scenarios, the Soviet Union retaliated.

But although - or precisely because - the real threat seemed so enormous and intensified by the media reflection, Kubrick decided after a few weeks of script work to change the serious tone of the original in favor of a black comedy. He also didn't like the original resolution: At the end of the novel, the bomber mission is canceled, so that the Russian weapon for the counterstrike, the so-called "Doomsday Machine" - is not used. If the novel ends with the hope that the world can save peace, Kubrick wanted to present a more pessimistic ending. "The fact that the atomic bomb has not been used intentionally or accidentally on people since World War II is like an airline that has not had a crash in 20 years. You have to admire such an achievement, but you also know it isn't can go on forever ", he said in 1965 to the Sunday Times Magazine.

Unlike many action and war films today, Kubrick's film was made without support from the American government. But the US military couldn't help but comment. The film begins with a roll title in which the US Air Force assures that they would definitely prevent the events depicted in the film. The whole thing is linguistically so ornate that one would almost assume that Kubrick would have had a hand in this too. This official denial is followed by the recording of a large cloud field. A voice from the off explains that rumors were circulating that the Soviet Union had stationed a "Doomsday Machine" - in the German dubbed version "Weltvernichtungbombe" - that could turn the earth into a wasteland. Then we see how the Red Alert is triggered in the Burpelson Air Force Base. General Ripper informs his Group Captain Mandrake that he has initiated "Plan R" and thus ordered the bombing of his bomber squadron, which is two hours away from their targets in the interior of the USSR. According to Ripper, he found that American drinking water had been contaminated. After all, it is noticeable that the Soviets always only drink vodka - for this reason, he too no longer drinks water and refuses to give women "his essence" during sexual intercourse.

General Ripper also orders Bomber Major Kong and his crew to drop them. With a big one Last FrontierGesture, the commander clings to his Texan cowboy hat and lets old western heroes rise again while he opens the folder with the orders. This later also contains the description of the emergency ration for jumping over Russian territory, as we know it in this way or similar from Vietnam films: "A 45th automatic pistol, two packets of ammunition, concentrated food for four days, a packet of medicine Antibiotics, morphine, vitamins, stimulants, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, a Russian dictionary combined with a mini Bible, $ 100 in rubles, $ 100 in gold, nine packets of chewing gum, condoms, three lipsticks and three pairs of seamless nylons ", meaning" everything for. " a great weekend in Vegas ".

At the same time there is a meeting between the American president and his military staff in the so-called Was room instead, which Kubrick had the famous production designer Ken Adam, who among other things designed the control centers of power for various James Bond films, designed as an oversized game of poker. The president, a thoroughly rational person, is pushed and incited by his bellicose generals: Of course, this acute incident was caused by individual misconduct. But when the machinery has already been set in motion, one can also see how things develop.

The American president tries to establish a telephone connection to his Soviet counterpart - at this point Kubrick remembers in his streetwise brooklyn humor, the sense of survival on and off the street, then back to Billy Wilder's allegedly lightweight Jewish joke - one more proof, of course, that such stereotypes do not apply: The phone call between the American (Sellers) and the allegedly vodka-pregnant Soviet President is in any case a showpiece of cinematic screen humor.

The most obvious change compared to the original is that Kubrick has knitted the serious stuff into a satire - no less serious, but often shrill and disrespectful. To him the story seemed too absurd, too paradoxical, but it was entirely possible and probable. It is, so to speak, an experience that man cannot decide through trial and error. If it were told in a serious tone, it could quickly become ridiculous. In contrast, Kubrick used the strategy of black comedy. Basically, a comedy can be more realistic than a drama because the bizarre elements of the story come across in a completely different way, says Kubrick. Therefore, he brought the American Terry Southern on board as another screenwriter, who developed his weird humor with the satirical novel Candy had proven. During their two-month collaboration, Kubrick Southern picked up the Bentley every morning at five o'clock with a driver. On the way to the Shepperton studios in London, they then worked on the script, at two desks built into the back of the old limousine. The shooting took place in England, as Peter Sellers was not allowed to leave the country due to his upcoming divorce. Sellers were originally supposed to take on four roles. However, after breaking his ankle, Western veteran Slim Pickens took over the role of Major "King" Kong. Sellers could still be seen in three roles: as Dr. Strange (in the original: Dr. Strangelove, who - as it is said in a dialogue - was called "Dr. Strange Love" before his American naturalization), as American President Merkin Muffley and as British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake.

"Dr. Strange" brings together a cabinet of grotesque characters. Modeled after real personalities, the sexual connotation of war and eroticism, of weapons and phallic symbols, i.e. the sexual pathology of war, is underscored by the satirically exaggerated choice of names. General Jack D. Ripper, tormented by impotence fantasies, is named after the notorious drive killer, the English surname of officer Lionel Mandrake is derived from the aphrodisiac mandrake root and the first and last name of American President Merkin Muffley refer to female pubic hair. Of course, this is surpassed by the title hero, who nourishes his "strange love" from death and annihilation. Eroticism and sexual innuendos appear in the film in all sorts of sublimations and caricatures.

Many contemporary critics did not like the fact that Kubrick dressed such a serious subject in the guise of comedy. The people who surrender themselves to the violence of supposedly infallible machines seem too obviously fallible. Yet its performance in film history is undisputed. "I don't pretend to know all the answers," said Kubrick in an interview with critic Gene D. Phillips, "but the questions are certainly worth thinking about."