Stanley Kubrick first caught sight of Christiane Harlan on German television in 1957. Intrigued by the young German actress, he cast her for the final scene of his film "Paths of Glory," where she sang to soothe an angry mob of French soldiers. In 1958 they were married, before the film had even finished filming.
Their whirlwind relationship endured; Stanley and Christiane spent 42 years together until his death in 1999.
She is an artist in her own right, her paintings adorned the apartment of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise's characters in "Eyes Wide Shut," and as Kubrick's emotional center, she counterbalanced his intense work ethic. Today, she travels with her brother Jan Harlan (Kubrick's longtime producer) and they work to keep Kubrick's memory alive.
I met with her in LACMA's new Stanley Kubrick exhibit, which opens November 1. Even among the extraordinary exhibits unveiling the auteur's creative process, she stood apart. Clad in a long greenish Kaftan, adorned with a large turquoise necklace, she exuded the aura of someone whose whole life was subsumed in art. As we walked through the exhibit to go outside for a chat, she heard Stanley's voice coming from a television screen. It was a short documentary depicting Stanley at work. She stopped and her eyes locked with the screen. She cracked a small smile as she watched her husband at work, on the battlefield of "Full Metal Jacket," on the sets of "Barry Lyndon" lit only by candlelight. Then the credits rolled, and she looked back at me. "Oh sorry," she said, "I forgot all about our talk. You know, sometimes things get a little hazy in your 80's."
Christiane and I eventually made it outside, and we discussed Stanley's boyish imagination, whether he considered himself an artist, and how the contemporary film market can produce another filmmaker like Kubrick.
Tell us about the very first time you saw Stanley Kubrick?
Christiane: He hired me. So I'm sitting behind his desk in his office in Geiselgasteig in Munich and I was impressed.
What were your first feelings about him when you first saw him? Were you like, "This is the guy I'm going to marry?"
Christiane Kubrick: You know, you can never reconstruct moments like that. I really couldn't begin to tell you. The fact is that it all happened very quickly. I think if that happens to you, and it happens to both partners, you are unbelievably lucky.
Could you talk about the first couple of films Stanley started working on? How did he prepare for them, and what was his regular routine before a film?
Christiane Kubrick:: The story. He had to fall in love with the story. Then he worked like mad on the story until he really liked it. Then he would prepare the really technical things, he would prepare everything that had to do with the film. He enjoyed that very much. He enjoyed the hard homework enormously. He was also the producer of his films, so he also enjoyed being a good businessman and to have all the money on the screen and nowhere else. And he believed that's how he gained the respect of the studios who gave him enormous freedom - because he was responsible and he didn't just throw their money around. He had a very small crew, he kept it all very intimate and I think that was his specialty. He didn't shout around and he was a very concentrated person and I think that made him special. He was easy going.
Jan Harlan mentioned that Stanley was an obsessive filmmaker. Is that how you'd describe him?
Christiane Kubrick:: Yes, he was. You know the word obsessive always gives it a sickly sound. How about if you really have fun, you don't want to think about anything else, you don't want to do anything else, and you're not interruptable even if you are interrupted. You're having a good time. That is very concentrated work. Yes he had the same obsessiveness a three year old has with things. That is the purest form of working hard - you don't think you're working hard, you're just having a brilliant time.
What was the film he had the most fun working on?
Christiane Kubrick:: Each film obviously, otherwise he wouldn't have done it. Each film had some special stuff, he enjoyed battle scenes, war films, but he also enjoyed "Barry Lyndon" when he looked at Gainsborough and said, "I want to walk into that painting, into that bathroom, into that garden." To have the same light, the same colors, to make the painting into a film. And that was very much the sensitive photographer he was. He also liked big action scenes, and you name it. He thought he had a very good toy there.
What were some of the other pieces of artwork or artists that he looked to for influence for his films?
Christiane Kubrick: Everyone. He looked at many, many films. Sometimes even at certain bad films because they had one scene in it that he liked. He liked those boring films with dog fights and airplanes. He was an airplane freak. But he wanted to see everything that was going on, he really watched more films than anybody I can think of—with passion.
Did he see himself as an artist?
Christiane Kubrick:: Yes, very much so. Any artist hopes they are one. It was no different.
Some filmmakers don't see themselves as artists really. They are more interested in the idea of management, being able to make a film together and working with a lot of people, to make a product to put out to market. But Kubrick seemed like he had a singular vision
Christiane Kubrick: He wanted to make a very good film. He hoped he would be an artist. And if you want to put in commercial edge, most artists, only if you are very good do you get a chance to do another one. It's self-feeding. Yes, he wanted to do it right. Desperately so.
If Stanley Kubrick were alive today as a young person starting to make films, do think he would have been able to make films in the same way that he did? Or was it because he was at a time when film was becoming new and more open to experimentation?
Christiane Kubrick: If he were [young] today, he would not be off the internet. He would be trying to make little films by what they all do, using other people's films like crayons, only write, "I don't own anything," and only cut them together. He'd have a ball. He wouldn't go away from the computer at all. He'd still like photography. He would feel, as young people do now, that they have more equipment, they have better opportunities, and they have much more competition, so it evens itself out.
He seemed like a private man. Was there something that Stanley wanted the public to know about him that no one really knew?
Christiane Kubrick: No, I don't really think at all. I don't think he really paid attention to that. He wanted publicity for his films, not for himself. I want people to know that he was incredibly nice and intelligent and fun to be with and lovable.