Venice Film Festival Reconstructs How Stanley Kubrick’s First Film ‘Fear and Desire’ Screened on the Lido

As the Venice Film Festival prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary, researchers have reconstructed how Stanley Kubrick’s first film, now known as “Fear and Desire,” came to screen on the Lido in 1952.

The screening of the film, initially titled “Shape of Fear,” took place at the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido on Aug. 18, 1952, in a section called Festival of the Scientific Film and Art Documentary.

Basically, Kubrick’s debut was invited for a special screening after not making the cut for competition due to “the length and character of the film,” as an exchange of letters between the 23-year-old Kubrick and then Venice chief Antonio Petrucci attests (see below).

The whole story has been reconstructed for the first time in the letters and documents preserved in the archives of the fest’s parent organization, the Venice Biennale, ahead of an international conference celebrating the 90th anniversary of the world’s oldest film festival, which will be held in Venice on July 9.

“The exchange of letters with the director of the exhibition, Antonio Petrucci, reveals [Kubrick’s] remarkable personality and his awareness of his own talent as a director,” the Biennale said in a statement. Kubrick at 23 was already a well-established photographer. 

The filmmaker’s debut, written by the future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Howard Sackler, is a fable on the senselessness of war that anticipates themes later developed by the director in “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket.”

“Fear and Desire” depicts an abstract, imaginary war between two deliberately unidentified nations. Four soldiers who survived after their plane was shot down find themselves behind enemy lines. They panic, and losing control, go on a violent and senseless rampage, capturing a young girl who crosses their path. The cast (Steve Coit, Frank Silvera and Virginia Leith) were almost all theater actors, except for the future director Paul Mazursky, who was a college student at the time.

When he finished editing, Kubrick rented a small theater in New York for the preview screenings, and for the distribution turned to Joseph Burstyn, who had brought the greatest masterpieces of Italian neorealism to the city. He chose the definitive title (“Fear and Desire”) for the film, which initially was meant to be called “The Trap” before it became “Shape of Fear.”

The fluctuating fortunes of the film are well documented by Richard Koszarski in the recent book “Keep ‘em in the East. Kazan, Kubrick and the Postwar New York Film Renaissance,” published by Columbia University Press.

Kubrick tried to take the pic out of circulation, dissatisfied with its box-office results and the negative reception it got from American critics.

Ultimately, the reclusive director, none of whose films ever went to Cannes, did not attend the Venice premiere of “Fear and Desire,” which is the first of three Kubrick films to world premiere from the Lido, followed by “Lolita” in 1962, and, posthumously, “Eyes Wide Shut” in 2019.

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