Christiane Kubrick had 42 wonderful years with her husband. But in the decade since his death, she has been beset by tragedy. For the first time, she talks about losing one daughter to cancer, another to Scientology – and why her uncle made films for Goebbels.
It's Thursday evening and the tiny figure of Christiane Kubrick takes to the stage at Somerset House on the Strand in London, to introduce an open-air screening of her late husband's film Paths of Glory. She reads from a prepared script: "Important events in life feel like they happened yesterday. But it was 53 years ago that Stanley saw me on German television and hired me . . ."
Stanley Kubrick gave Christiane the part of a bar singer. They married and barely left one another's side for the next 42 years. They raised three children: Anya and Vivian, plus Katharina, her daughter from an earlier marriage. Now, when she isn't running her art school from their Hertfordshire manor house, Childwickbury, Christiane is a kind of travelling protector of Stanley's legacy, trying to imagine how he might have wanted things done.
She continues reading: "I thought Stanley was extraordinary, and by some miracle he thought the same thing of me. As a result, my life has been a very happy one, very wonderful in every respect." Which is no longer quite so true. After four decades inside Childwickbury – where the Kubricks created a kind of blissful, busy mix of film production and family life – she has fallen victim to a series of tragedies. The one involving her daughter Vivian has been a family secret, but now, on the night of the Paths of Glory screening, she says she wants to talk about it.
I've known Christiane for eight years, on and off. I dealt with her while making my documentary, Stanley Kubrick's Boxes, which involved me looking through the 1,000 boxes he left behind. She was always welcoming and charming, even though, as she said, she was struggling with the "abyss" his death in 1999 created. One time, she and Anya spotted me riffling through one of his old notepads in the stable block. She said: "I get very upset at seeing some of his old things. The paper is so dusty and old and yellow. They look so sad. The person is so very dead."
There were some things I always felt nervous asking her about, like anything to do with her uncle Veit Harlan, but tonight over dinner – Paths of Glory making her nostalgic for the early days, I think – she brings the subject up herself. "Stanley and I came from such different, such grotesquely opposite backgrounds," she says. "I think it gave us an extra something. I had an appalling, catastrophic background for someone like Stanley." She pauses. "For me, my uncle was great fun. He and my father planned to join the circus. They were acrobats. They threw me around. It was a complete clown's world. Nobody can imagine that you can know someone who was so guilty so intimately – and yet not know."
It turned out that when Harlan wasn't clowning around with Christiane, he was writing and directing propaganda films for Goebbels. The most notorious was a film called Jud Süss, in which venal, immoral Jews take over and ruin a German city, stealing riches, defiling Aryan women, etc. The film was shown to SS units before they were sent out to attack Jews. Harlan was tried twice for war crimes, and exonerated, proving that Goebbels had interfered with Jud Süss, forcing him to re-edit and inject more antisemitism.
"Where my uncle was an enormous fool, as many talented people are, was that he mistook his gift for intelligence," says Christiane. "He was a great big famous film person. He looked better and talked better and had enormous charm. So he thought he was also far more intelligent than Mr Goebbels. Goebbels was 10,000 times smarter than my uncle." She pauses. "Film people, actors, are puppets. We are silly. We are silly folk."
Christiane says her uncle's story reinforced for Stanley and her their great principle in life: always be suspicious of people who have, or crave, power. "All Stanley's life he said, 'Never, ever go near power. Don't become friends with anyone who has real power. It's dangerous.' We both were very nervous on journeys when you have to show your passport. He did not like that moment. We always had to go through separate entrances, he with [our] two American daughters upstairs, and me with my German daughter downstairs. The foreigners downstairs! He'd be looking for us nervously. Would he ever get us back?"
Christiane laughs; of course they were always reunited. They spent a lifetime together inside Childwickbury, where Stanley created his self-governing mini-studio and the children went to progressive schools that eschewed hierarchies. And, in fact, her German daughter Katharina remains at Childwickbury to this day, painting and making jewellery and helping her mother run her art school. But the two daughters by Stanley are gone. I had no idea when I met Anya, their middle daughter, in 2007 that she was sick. "It was one of her great gifts to her son she never, as much as possible, allowed him to feel any of her horrible illness," Christiane says. "She died over 10 years. With all the things you have when you have cancer. The hair loss. The lot. She had a terrible time."
When I met her, would she have been in pain? "Yes," says Christiane. "She had Hodgkin's disease. She had a great deal of pain. She was very much like Stanley in many respects. She looked like him and had many of his characteristics. She was intelligent and a nice person." Anya died in July 2009, aged 50.
I never met their youngest daughter, Vivian. There was mention of her being in Los Angeles, but I sensed I shouldn't ask about it because something had happened. Vivian had once been a big presence in the family. When she was 17, she directed a brilliant documentary, The Making of The Shining. When she was 24, she composed the score for Full Metal Jacket. She shot 18 hours of behind-the-scenes footage for that film too, but it was never edited. You catch glimpses of her in the rushes I once got to watch: beautiful, effervescent, headstrong. At one point, Stanley turns her camera on to her and she tells him if he doesn't turn it off she'll take her top off to embarrass everyone. He quickly turns it off.
"She is a fabulous person," says Christiane. "Beautiful, very witty, enormously talented in all sorts of directions, very musical, a great mimic, she could play instruments easily, she could sing, she could dance, she could act, there wasn't anything she couldn't do. We had fights. But she was hugely loved. And now I've lost her." She pauses. "You know that? I used to keep all this a secret as I was hoping it would go away. But now I've lost hope. So. She's gone."
It all began, she says, while Stanley was editing Eyes Wide Shut, which starred Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Stanley asked Vivian to compose the score, but at the last moment she said she wouldn't. Instead, she disappeared into San Francisco and Los Angeles. "They had a huge fight. He was very unhappy. He wrote her a 40-page letter trying to win her back. He begged her endlessly to come home from California. I'm glad he didn't live to see what happened."
On the day of Stanley's funeral, Christiane says, Vivian arrived with a woman nobody recognised. "She just sat in Vivian's room. Never said hello to us. Just sat. We were all spooked. Who was this person? Turns out she was a Scientology something-or-other, don't know what."
"Did Vivian give a reason why she joined the Scientologists?" I ask.
"It's her new religion," Christiane shrugs. "It had absolutely nothing to do with Tom Cruise by the way. Absolutely not."
"Maybe it was her way of dealing with her father's death?"
"I think she must have been very upset," Christiane says, "but, again, I wouldn't know. I know nothing. That is the truth. I can't reach her at all. I've had two conversations with her since Stanley died. The last one was eight years ago. She became a Scientologist and didn't want to talk to us any more and didn't see her dying sister, didn't come to her funeral. And these were children that had been joined at the hip."
I tell her that she seems to have handled all her tragedies with remarkable resilience. "I dare say I have, yes," she says. "But I've also been very sad. I was helped by my children. Anya, in particular."
She says that when Stanley was alive, he kept her and their daughters cosseted from stress, from life's legal and financial arrangements, allowing them to float through Childwickbury without worries. But he died long before anyone expected he would, and Christiane has been left with burdens she never anticipated. So she's forever finding herself second-guessing him. Would he have handled the Vivian situation differently? Would he have approved of the way she speaks about him in interviews?
"I am very self-conscious and surrounded by his ghost when I do these things," she says, waving her hand towards the Somerset House stage. In the last year or two, there's been a Royal Festival Hall screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with live orchestra, a Kubrick season at the Barbican, a mammoth Taschen book Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, and more. "Would he like that?" she says. "I'm always having these conversations with him as I am not terribly secure. And I try to live like I think he would want me to go on, because of the grandchildren and everything. I'm also, by nature, quite gregarious."
At the end of our dinner I tell her, with some embarrassment, that I find her quite inspiring. She thinks about this for a moment. "I'm very pleased that Stanley liked me," she replies.
When I get home I mention to a friend, a Kubrick buff, that I'd just had dinner with her. "Oddly, I was just thinking about her today," he replies. "A Twilight fan said to me, 'Is there anything more romantic than Edward and Bella?' I immediately thought, 'Christiane Kubrick's protection of her husband's legacy.'"