Victor Ziegler: A Postscript

In my book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, I detailed how the character of Victor Ziegler in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) can be read as Jewish. In fact, in my follow up book, I found the evidence that proved it. But one thing that escaped my attention in the twenty years I have been watching, teaching, and studying that film was the level of his anxiousness.

On one level, Eyes Wide Shut can be read as a film about status. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) is obsessed with it. Note how he reacts when his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), points out that Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) is a pretty good piano player for a physician. He is extremely quick to point out that Nightingale is, indeed, not a doctor. Bill flashes around his state medical board card at every opportunity. Being a doctor matters to Bill.

But Ziegler is equally concerned for his status and two moments in the film code this. The first is when the prostitute Mandy (Julienne Davis) overdoses in his bathroom. Ziegler is concerned that what he perceives as an embarrassing problem is removed as quickly as possible. However, if he was so superrich as we might be led to believe then why is it an issue?

The second is during the long billiards table scene (pictured above) when Ziegler is afraid that Bill almost screwed it up for him by infiltrating the orgy. From this and what he tells Bill, we can deduce that Ziegler acts as some sort of middleman: “I recommended that cocksucker to those people and he’s made me look like a complete asshole [my emphasis].”

Note how he says “those people” as one might say “you people.” Those people are not his people. As he explains, “Who do you think those people were? Those were not just some ordinary people. If I told you their names… no, I’m not going to tell you their names… but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well at night.” Presumably, Ziegler does not sleep so well at night particularly since he’s fucked up and hence why he goes to such lengths to shut Bill up by having him followed.

Those people are the modern descendants of the sorts of people we see in the portraits behind Ziegler’s head. “All the Best People,” as Lord Wendover calls them in Barry Lyndon (1975). But those people are presumably not Ziegler’s ancestors.

So why are those portraits there then? As we point out in our book, Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film, in screenwriter Frederic Raphael’s first draft, Ziegler’s great-grandfather is described as “The Robber Baron.” Raphael writes in the script how “Old New York and new York are meeting in the mansion which great-grandfather ZIEGLER , the Robber Baron built.” In more detail, Raphael describes how “ZIEGLER is old money and beginning to be some-thing of an old man, but he still has the buccaneering confidence of a man who was once described as ‘the rich man’s Averell Harriman’.”

At this point, his first name is Frank or Francis, but it later changes to Paul. Only in the 1996 draft does he become Victor, an investment banker, and his wife is named Ilona.

These changes, and the fact that Kubrick first hired one Jewish actor/director in Harvey Keitel, and then replaced him with another in Sydney Pollack, render Zielger not as old money but as new money, a parvenu, nouveau riche social climber like Barry Lyndon.

As with much in Eyes Wide Shut, those portraits are a facade — did the Ziegler family really emigrate with them or did Ziegler buy them lock, stock, and barrel when he bought his New York townhouse? The seem far too classy for a man who likes to hang art objectifying women in his vulgar and oversized bathroom.

Or, perhaps they serve as surveillant eyes on Ziegler, the middle man, the hedge fund manager or investment banker, whose job, like Bill’s and so many other workers in the film, is to provide a service — making superrich people even richer. To remind him where he stands on the social spectrum, out of reach of the top.

But Ziegler is also concerned for his own position, which Bill threatens, much as the newer Jewish arrivals from Eastern and Central Europe (like Kubrick’s ancestors) threatened to undermine the already-established one of the German Jews who immigrated a generation earlier.

Ziegler is acutely aware that his own status, as the Jewish middleman — servicing profit and orgies., is not secure. He remains merely the court Jew whose real-life avatar was Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, the subjet of the notorious antisemitc Nazi propaganda film, Jud Süß (1940) directed by Kubrick’s wife’s uncle Veit Harlan.

Uncut Jews

*spoiler alerts*

In my 2012 book, The New Jew in Film, I wrote about the proliferation of new Jewish character types, ones that played with and undermined previous stereotypes. I argued that the number of such stereotypes exploded in the era after 1990.

One such character type was what I called “Jews in too deep or out of their depth.” Quoting the book:

Many violent films depict Jews who are not only out of their depth, but also who, metaphorically speaking, cannot swim. Gangster films, in particular, present Jews as victims. Typically, the Jew attempts to pass as tough, posturing as a gangster, but is ultimately exposed as unable to cut the mustard criminally and ends up dead. At the same time, often little sympathy for their plight is demonstrated, as these Jews tend to be ugly, both morally/ethnically and physically.

If only Uncut Gems had come out when I wrote the book. Howard Ratner is the epitome of this new Jewish character type who is out of his depth and cannot swim. He attempts to pass as tough, posturing as a gangster, but is ultimately exposed as unable to cut the mustard criminally and ends up dead. But, unlike his previous counterparts in this role, there is sympathy for his plight. His death is shocking, undeserved, and lingers in the memory.

Howard Ratner, as played by Adam Sandler, is the unholy offspring of a marriage between Sacha Baron Cohen and Al Pacino. He is ugly, morally, ethnically, and physically, subjected to an endless wurlitzer of dealing, pawning, and gambling. He is a low-class Bernie Madoff, building a crumbling empire on a Ponzi scheme. To throw in a British analogy, he is a latter-day Del Boy who you can imagine saying “This time next year we’ll be millionaires.” And he almost makes it, on paper at least.

He is a shpritzer, shooting his mouth off incessantly, talking himself into and out of trouble, Jew as mouth as brain. His monologues are interspersed with Yiddish and profanities (so many fucks that my mum walked out of the film).

His taste is vulgar. He sells tchatckes albeit not to Jews.

Most of the Jews in this movie aren’t attractive characters. None of them shines in a good light. Idina Menzel plays his wife Dinah; Eric Bogosian is Arno, his (easily mistaken for Jewish) brother-in-law and a loan shark who mixes in violent company; Judd Hirsch is Gooey, his father-in-law.

One of the only characters who comes across well is Julia, Howard’s employee and girlfriend, who, ironically given her name (Jewlia/jewelry) who seems to genuinely love him and despite the mulitple opportunities to screw him over opts against. She even gets a tattoo of his name.

Howard — can you get a name more Jewish than that? — plays a shyster jeweler just like his namesake Gerald Ratner who described his products as “total crap.” Such an expression describes much of what Ratner sells in his store.

Except for one product — an uncut black opal — upon which Howard’s unattainable dreams are built. But why name this movie Uncut Gems when only one is on show?

I can’t help thinking that the reference is a crude one: to foreskin.

“Uncut” is a synonym for uncircumcised and “gems” stands for genitalia, as in “crown jewels” or the Yiddish/German schmuck (which Howard also is) that means “jewelry” or “adornment.”

Are Josh and Benny Safdie really saying that no matter how ugly Howard inter alia might appear, that the genuine ugliness comes from the goyim in this film, those goyische shtarkers who ultimately screw Howard and his brother-in-law, as well as those Jews who behave like them in an “uncut” fashion?