In 1985, Stanley Kubrick was handed a book on the survival of jazz in Nazi-occupied Europe. A snapshot of a Luftwaffe officer casually posing among black, Gypsy, and Jewish musicians outside a Paris nightclub caught his eye. It looked like something out of Dr. Strangelove, he said. He'd long wanted to bring World War II to the screen, and perhaps this photograph offered a way in.
"Stanley's famous saying was that it was easier to fall in love than find a good story," says Tony Frewin, Kubrick's longtime assistant (and, for the purpose of disclosure, an editor-at-large at my former magazine, Stop Smiling). "He was limitlessly interested in anything to do with Nazis and desperately wanted to make a film on the subject."
Kubrick has long been associated with creating arresting visions of warfare. When it was announced this month that Steven Spielberg will produce Kubrick's screenplay Napoleon as a television miniseries, the initial speculation was largely about how the ambitious battle scenes, originally conceived to maximize tens of thousands of extras, will be achieved.
However, it's Kubrick's interest in jazz-loving Nazis that represents his most fascinating unrealized war film. The book that Kubrick was handed, and one he considered adapting soon after wrapping Full Metal Jacket, was Swing Under the Nazis, published in 1985 and written by Mike Zwerin, a trombonist from Queens who had performed with Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy before turning to journalism. The officer in that Strangelovian snapshot was Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, a fanatic for "hot swing" and other variations of jazz outlawed as "jungle music" by his superiors. Schulz-Koehn published an illegal underground newsletter, euphemistically referred to as "travel letters," which flaunted his unique ability to jaunt across Western Europe and report back on the jazz scenes in cities conquered by the Fatherland. Kubrick's title for the project was derived from the pen name Schulz-Koehn published under: Dr. Jazz.
"Stanley was fond of titles in search of screenplays," Frewin says. "And Dr. Jazz was such a rich subject—the contrast of what was going on in the camps, on the Eastern front, and yet here was a German officer who was having a good time listening to jazz. Stanley was also drawn to what this said about music and its ability to unify people and transcend even rigid political differences."
While a script for Dr. Jazz never materialized—and the project was later shelved, in part due to Aryan Papers, a film set in occupied Poland that Kubrick abandoned in the mid-'90s despite an intensive preproduction—Zwerin's research remains engrossing today.
Though stationed in Paris for more than 20 years as the jazz critic for the International Herald Tribune, Zwerin never acclimated. "I consider myself on loan, like a Picasso," he writes in Swing. "One year led to another and now I find myself without a place to hang." Parisian loneliness had become "literally breathtaking, a gasp not a gas." Seeking refuge, Zwerin traveled the continent collecting interviews with the jazz preservationists who gathered in basements and backrooms during occupation, and filed their reminiscences in the IHT, among other publications. (Swing is a collection of his columns that reads like a collage, with digressions upon digressions.)
Zwerin is at his best when conversing with musicians—at one point he even brandishes his horn for a post-interview blowing session—but the more surreal findings come from encounters with the occasional toe-tapping retired Nazi officer. In the skies over London, we learn that a Luftwaffe ace tuned into the BBC while crossing the Channel, hoping to catch a few bars of Glenn Miller before bombing the radio antenna. On the ground, when the Royal Air Force rained bombs on Vienna, a trombonist in a Nazi swing band "would stick his trombone out the window and play 'St. Louis Blues' instead of hiding in the cellar." (In order for that particular jazz standard to pass muster in Vienna, the title was first changed to "Sauerkraut.")