A film researched and then abandoned by legendary film director Stanley Kubrick is the basis for a new exhibition in Coventry.
Former Turner Prize nominated artists Jane and Louise Wilson’s film installation Unfolding the Aryan Papers is showing at the Herbert, as an addition to the Caught in the Crossfire exhibition about how artists deal with conflict and reconciliation.
The work followed research the sisters did in the Stanley Kubrick Archive. They found Kubrick’s own research into a film he planned to make about people fleeing the Holocaust, based on the Louis Begley novel Wartime Lies about a Jewish boy and his aunt who escaped Second World War Poland by pretending to be Catholics.
Speaking as the work was still being installed, Louise Wilson said: “Obviously Kubrick was such an amazing artist, director, when we went to see the archive we thought how do we access a lot of that work that is so iconic and already exists in the consciousness and it led to us looking at the projects that weren’t realised.
“It was not necessarily to develop into our own work, but something that could become a starting point. We were very intrigued because we’d seen so much research material that was related to the Aryan Papers.
“We were researching and looking through the stills for locations and everything such as wardrobe and that’s when we sort of happened upon the pictures of Johanna, and that became a way of accessing it in a sense. The book itself is a fascinating book.”
Johanna ter Steege had been cast by Kubrick to play the lead role, and there were a number of pictures of her in the wardrobe her character would wear, and also trying out lots of positions and gestures.
The Wilsons got in touch and went to Holland to meet her.
Louise said: “Johanna was extraordinary, very generous, amazingly intelligent, brilliant – an amazing actress.
“Jane and I went to Haarlem to meet Johanna the night before we were doing the interview. We went for a dinner and it was like she was interviewing us and several glasses of wine later …. We knew that she was in her own way sounding us out and decided how much she wanted to reveal in a sense and she was very generous and after we’d done the interviews she said she knew we didn’t have much of a budget but if we wanted her to come to London she would, and that was amazing.”
The 17-minute film combines Kubrick’s research and still photographs he took of Johanna, with file photos of the Holocaust, a new interview voiceover with ter Steege and film the Wilsons have taken of her in costume in the wonderfully-atmospheric art deco Hornsey Town Hall, reading from the book and the script which was a work in progress in 1993. Louise said ter Steege’s interview was very much reflecting on what had happened.
In the film Johanna talks about meeting Kubrick, and how after he scrapped the project she took to her bed for two days. She appears now in the empty building looking vulnerable and fragile in a delicate petticoat, touching the wall nervously, while her voiceover in character talks about saving her nephew from the Nazis, while all the time she has a German officer lover.
Louise added: “It was brilliant and obviously we showed her all the pictures of the wardrobe – she was very trusting and generous. It was the first time we’d filmed in Hornsey Town Hall, this weird art deco building, and it felt really the right context to recreate some of those images. Johanna says in it that Kubrick said she didn’t want to change her accent, she could come from anywhere in Europe, but that building was very indicative of art deco and all that period.”
At the Herbert, the film is shown on a large screen, reflected on two side screens which gives it extra depth.
The cinematography, combined with the mixture of images, the shots of Johanna then and now, and the beautiful old building which could indeed be anywhere in Europe in the last 80 years combine to make it a fascinating work, which feels a very short 17 minutes to watch all the way through.