The War in the War: Referencing the Holocaust in Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET

11 May 2014

It is widely known that, for nearly 20 years, Stanley Kubrick considered making a film about the Holocaust: The Aryan Papers.  This project was set aside several times, including in the mid-1980s when Kubrick began work on his film Full Metal Jacket.  In the end, Kubrick would never return to the Holocaust project…or did he?

It is no surprise to anyone who knows Kubrick’s work that this writer/director was fixated on the Holocaust.  Not only did he overtly contemplate making The Aryan Papers, but he also references the Holocaust in several of his films.  On its surface, Full Metal Jacket is about the Vietnam War; however, on some level, Kubrick pulls in the Holocaust and some of its most traumatic images to infuse his film with terror and trauma, as well as enhance his film’s impact on viewers.

The opening scene of Full Metal Jacket is a new squad of Marine recruits having their heads shaved.  One by one, the camera introduces the film’s cast of characters, each looking somber, as someone rushes a razor over their heads to clear it of all hair.  The final shot in this sequence is the floor, covered in hair of all different types, lengths, and colors.  It stands to reason that this opening is a reference to the Holocaust; Jews brought to concentration camps also had their heads shaved upon entry.  Moreover, Nazis collected mounds of hair, as well as piles of shoes, luggage, and other personal items, which are now lasting images from the Holocaust.  Kubrick’s shots of the recruits having their heads shaved is similar to the experience Jew’s had when having their heads shaved during the Holocaust, but the final shot, the shot of the floor covered in the recruit’s hair, is an intentional reference to the Holocaust.  That said, Kubrick’s film opens by likening Marine recruits entering basic training to Jews entering a concentration camp during the Holocaust, a bold and terrifying likening.

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In basic training, Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) is the dictator-like sergeant.  He demeans and demoralizes his recruits, highlighting how inhuman the recruit’s lives are while training.  Yet, it is not only his behavior that likens him to a dictator; on Christmas, Hartman tells the recruits that Chaplain Charlie (and obvious reference to Charlie Chaplin) will tell them a story.  Hitler modeled his look from Chaplin’s famous dark hair and signature mustache.  Hartman’s mention of Chaplain Charlie (Charlie Chaplin) communicates a connection between him and the dictator of the Holocaust.

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When Private “Joker” (Matthew Modine), the protagonist, arrives in Vietnam, he and another Marine, Rafterman, are approached by a Vietnamese prostitute.  The scene plays out as the woman tries to sell sexual favors to the men.  In the background of the shot, which is also the center, focal point of the shot, a billboard appears.  On the left and right of the billboard is the number 33, unmissbale to viewers.  While “Joker” and his comrade haggle with this prostitute, the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and took power, looms above them.  This reference to the Holocaust is not as overt as the hair used in the opening sequence, but the meticulous Kubrick did not waste the opportunity to send another subliminal message about the Holocaust to viewers of Full Metal Jacket.

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Moving on, in the second half of the film, Kubrick uses a mass grave, smokestacks (or objects which appear to be smokestacks), and burning fires, all references to the Holocaust.  The mass grave, which “Joker” is sent to report about, echoes the mass graves used to conceal exterminated Jews in the Holocaust.  In Kubrick’s scene, the bodies of the Vietnamese victims have been sprinkled with lime, a white powder.  This is one of Kubrick’s most interesting moves in Full Metal Jacket.  The extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust was a racially motivated genocide; Jew’s were not a part of Hitler’s Aryan Race. The Vietnamese victims in this mass grave have been made white; their race is removed by the lime dusting.  The mass grave in Full Metal Jacket echoes the mass graves used in the Holocaust, and this racial element only makes the likening between Kubrick’s depiction of the Vietnam War and the Holocaust even stronger.  Also, the smokestacks in the background of the film’s final battle, along with the fires that burn all around the sniper-infested wasteland of the film’s climax, all subliminally communicate images from the Holocaust to viewers.

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Lastly, the film’s climax is a shoot-out between the squad of Marine’s “Joker” belongs to and an unknown sniper.  The sniper, hidden within a fortress of ruins has the advantage because this gunman is concealed; the Marines are exposed, and therefore many are hit. “Joker” eventually enters the sniper’s lair and locates the gunman, a young woman.  What viewers may also notice is the sniper’s lair is full of swastikas.  Although its origins trace back far before Hitler, and the symbol’s meaning is positive and deeply spiritual, the swastika, to a post WWII, 20th century audience, is a symbol of the Holocaust; it is a hate-filled, dangerous symbol that represents Hitler and the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitic ideology.  Not only has “Joker” entered a sniper’s lair, a dangerous enough place, but a lair full of swastikas increases the scene’s tension, making it horrifying.

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In his book The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust, Geoffrey Cocks, a historian, points out the link between Kubrick and the Holocaust.  Cocks carries the connection between Kubrick and this period of history throughout Kubrick’s life and work.  When discussing Full Metal Jacket, Cocks mentions some (not all) of the references to the Holocaust identified in this post; however, Cocks argues that Kubrick’s own Jewish identity had a significant impact on his work; Kubrick could not make a film directly about the Holocaust because it would be too public a statement about an identity Kubrick was uncomfortable making.  Therefore, Kubrick is indirect and coded in his reference to the Holocaust in this film.  Arguably, this is where Cock may have it wrong.

Kubrick may have simply avoided the Holocaust directly, such as through his undeveloped project, The Aryan Papers, because he felt the Holocaust could not be communicated effectively by cinema.  This is what Kubrick claimed.  His references to the Holocaust throughout his filmography—within films set in different times, events, and circumstances, Like in Full Metal Jacket—allow Kubrick to use the horror of the Holocaust to enhance the terror, trauma, and emotion is his films.  Put another way, Kubrick may not be avoiding the Holocaust in his filmmaking because of his feelings about privacy and his personal struggle with his Jewish identity; Kubrick is consistently reverting back to the Holocaust, an event he seems comfortable referencing throughout his filmography—and auteur’s touch—suggesting he uses this historical reign of terror to infuse his psychological thrillers with terror.

In Full Metal Jacket, alluding to the Holocaust, sending subliminal messages, and communicating (un)consciously to views about the Holocaust while making a film about the Vietnam War makes Kubrick’s film more powerful and effecting, a purposeful, intentional move on Kubrick’s part.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 11/05/2014.

One Response to “The War in the War: Referencing the Holocaust in Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET”

  1. Fantastic piece. I love reading theories about Kubrick, especially when it comes to the Holocaust. Geoffrey Cocks’ cook is a really interesting one, probably one of the best I’ve read on Kubrick. You can trace the Holocaust back through a lot of Kubrick’s films if you look closely, which I think is even more interesting given he never made the Aryan Papers.

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