Jane & Louise Wilson, "Unfolding the Aryan Papers," Feb. 13-Apr. 26, 2009, at BFI Southbank Gallery, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XT UK
During a residency at the Stanley Kubrick Archive at London’s University of the Arts, Turner Prize-nominee twins Jane & Louise Wilson came across an intriguing group of costume-fitting photographs, taken for a Kubrick movie that was never made: The Aryan Papers, the WW2 story of a Polish Jewish woman who attempts to save her family by passing for a Catholic. Kubrick had strong feelings for this project, as Louise has pointed out in an interview, since "it was the closest of any of his films that would have come to being slightly biographical, in the sense that he had family from Eastern Europe who were lost in the Holocaust."
Kubrick had been thinking about a Holocaust movie since the mid-‘70s. Unable for years to find the right script, it was only in 1993 that he decided to go ahead with an adaption of Louis Begley’s book Wartime Lies (1991). For the lead character, he wanted a relatively obscure young Dutch actress named Johanna ter Steege, some of whose family, coincidentally, had been involved with the Dutch resistance. Ter Steege was invited to come to Kubrick’s residence in St Albans for screen tests, and was eventually offered the role. A few months later, faced with news of the soon-to-come release of Steven Spielberg’s Shindler’s List (1994) , Kubrick and Warner Brothers decided that the two Holocaust films was one too many, and the project was shelved.
The consequences of this decision were devastating for ter Steege. Her breakthrough film didn’t happen. For years, ter Steege refused to discuss the incident, but the Wilsons tracked her down, and in their 17-minute-long film Unfolding the Aryan Papers (2009) -- now on view at London BFI to coincide with a Kubrick retrospective -- she recalls it all: her meeting with Kubrick, the way he scrutinized her, registering all her movements, the celebratory champagne, and later the months of waiting that led to nothing. "In the end, when he decided not to do the movie, for two days I stayed in my bed and I put the blanket over my head," ter Steege remembers, "and after two days I got out of my bed, and I said, OK, go on."
The Wilsons’ film is infused with Kubrick’s presence, but it isn’t about him, it’s about his frustrated actor, her disappointment and her strength. For the first time in their career the Wilson sisters, mostly known for their video installations tackling historically loaded architecture, experiment with portraiture.
Unfolding The Aryan Papers is an attempt to capture ter Steege’s presence over time as a theatrical being: who she was, who she is, who she was supposed to be, who she could have become, all reflected in the eye of the camera lens. It combines her old self, the hopeful young actress posing in Kubrick’s film costumes, her character’s voice as it appears in snippets of Begley’s book, and her present reality as a mature woman. The camera follows the lines of her body, her neck, her arm, the star-like wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, in a tender celebration of the marks left by time and experience.
With both reserve and determination, the actress fully embraces the cathartic game, posing in dresses similar to the ones she wore almost 20 years ago. Often a still image seemingly taken in the early ‘90s turns out to be one of the Wilsons’ contemporary photographs. In the telling, Ter Steege’s "I was" and "I am" are visually interwoven, as if to underline the inseparability of the two.
Towards the end of the piece the narrative is interrupted by photographs of Poland during the war, and for each image the actress gives a simple, mechanical description: ghetto life, German soldiers, slum interiors. Onto the personal and the fictive, the Wilsons superimpose the horror of a recent episode of Europe’s tragic collective history. Their film is a masterly collage of temporalities which delicately unfolds the stories, distant and close, that informed ter Steege’s very own being.
The film Unfolding the Aryan Papers can be watched online at www.animateprojects.org
COLINE MILLIARD is a writer based in London.