Stanley Kubrick’s rare Zeiss Planar 50mm F0.7 ‘Barry Lyndon’

One of the rare Zeiss Planar 0.7/50mm film lenses used by Stanley Kubrick for his legendary interior shots without artificial light is now exhibited in the Zeiss Museum. Image and caption: Zeiss

Zeiss has announced that Jan Harlan, an executive producer who worked alongside the late Stanley Kubrick, has handed over one of only ten Zeiss Planar 50mm F0.7 lenses to ever be produced. The lens, which is one of three Kubrick had custom-made to be used as a cinema lens, is being lent to Zeiss to display in the company’s Museum of Optics, located in Oberkochen, Germany.

This particular lens has a rather interesting history. Only ten units were ever produced, with six of them being made specifically for NASA. Three of the remaining units were acquired and modified by iconic filmmaker Stanley Kubrick for use in his film, Barry Lyndon. In a day in age when low-light filmmaking was limited by the sensitivity of the film being used, Kubrick and his executive producer Jan Harlan opted to use one of these ultra-fast primes to film a scene that was lit by only two candles, each of which had three wicks for additional light.

The Zeiss Planar 0.7/50 mm was made famous by Stanley Kubrick. His executive producer, Jan Harlan, is now handing it over to the Zeiss Museum of Optics on loan. Image and caption: Zeiss

‘In 1972, I was able to pick up the lens here in Oberkochen directly from the developers,’ Harlan tells Zeiss. ‘And now I’m bringing it back home on loan to the museum to honour the heritage of Stanley Kubrick.’

Harlan goes on to tell the story about how Kubrick came up with the idea to use the lens and explains what modifications had to be made to this particular unit to be used with motion picture cameras.

‘Stanley read an article in the ‘American Cinematographer’ reporting about a ZEISS 0.7/50mm lens and got most excited. He asked me to research this. I called ZEISS and spoke to a Dr. Kämmerer who explained that this lens could not be used on a motion picture camera since the rear element is only a little more than 5mm from the film-plane. I told this to Stanley, and typical for him, he was not ready to take a ‘no’ for an answer and investigated whether there is a camera with this clearance of 5mm. A reflex camera is clearly not possible since there is no room for a reflecting mirror, but 5mm should still be enough room to allow a rotating disk. To make a long story short: I bought one lens and took it to Ed Di Giulio after Stanley had long talks with him. Ed re-worked the receiving mount of a Mitchel BNC and made it purely dedicated to this lens. After the test were successful, I bought two further lenses for potential conversion to other focal lengths. All are installed now in the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition except the one which I held back.’

On 15 September 2022, Harlan opened a special exhibition at the Zeiss Museum of Optics dedicated to this extraordinary lens. Image and caption: Zeiss

As Zeiss explains in its announcement, the Planar 50mm F0.7 lens holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records and captures roughly four times as much light as an F1.4 lens.