Dr. Strange Love

Arthur Schnitzler's paranoid, erotic 1926 novella inspired Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

By Curt Holman
July 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Dr. Arthur Schnitzler, an Austrian novelist and playwright renowned for his psychological acuity and frankness about sex, died in 1931, but he's just been initiated into an exclusive fraternity. It's a men's club comprising such diverse members as Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen King, Lionel White, Anthony Burgess and William Makepeace Thackeray -- all writers whose work has been made into films by the late Stanley Kubrick. Except for "2001: A Space Odyssey," based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, every Kubrick film -- beginning with "The Killing" in 1956 -- has been adapted from a novel.

Kubrick was a Schnitzler fan for decades, telling Robert Emmett Ginna in a 1960 interview, "It's difficult to find any writer who understood the human soul more truly and who had a more profound insight into the way people think, act and really are, and who also had a somewhat all-seeing point of view -- sympathetic, if somewhat cynical."

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Kubrick would reveal an affinity with that perspective as he developed his signature filmmaking style, an icily formal, deliberately paced approach that conveys a clinical, third-person-omniscient point of view. That cool, scrutinizing tone proved the most consistent quality in his body of work, linking movies as diverse as "Lolita," "The Shining," "A Clockwork Orange" and "Barry Lyndon."

Of all of Schnitzler's work, Kubrick was most drawn to "Traumnovelle," a slim, 1926 novella published in the United States as "Rhapsody: A Dream Novel." The book is an erotic reverie frequently interrupted by bouts of paranoia. Kubrick contemplated filming the book for decades, and even considered a big-budget, hardcore pornographic treatment in the early 1970s. Diane Johnson, who collaborated with Kubrick on the script for "The Shining," says he showed it to her in 1979, and that "Kubrick had apparently shown 'Dream Novel' to all the writers he had worked with, to friends, perhaps people at Warner Bros. He had shown it to others since, over the years, apparently searching for the suggestion that would unlock for him something that drew but puzzled him."

At some point after the release of "Full Metal Jacket" in 1987, Kubrick found the key to "Traumnovelle" and, working with screenwriter Frederic Raphael, adapted the book, retitling it "Eyes Wide Shut." The most conspicuous change involves updating the setting from Vienna circa 1900 to modern New York, just a few years shy of 2001. But the sexual odyssey undertaken by the main character remains essentially the same as in Schnitzler's novella.

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At the beginning of "Traumnovelle," a well-heeled Viennese couple, Fridolin and Albertina (in "Eyes Wide Shut" they become New Yorkers Bill and Alice Harford, played by Tom Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman) put their daughter to bed. They casually swap stories of being propositioned at a recent masquerade ball, then confess to more serious but unconsummated temptations from earlier in their marriage.

That night, Fridolin, a medical doctor, has professional duties that call him away, and as he strolls turn-of-the-century Vienna's cobbled streets, one sexual opportunity after another is laid before him: the willing daughter of a recently deceased colleague, a saucy prostitute, a simple girl whose father is pimping for her. He manfully resists them all until he reaches a mysterious villa where a secret society gathers for a masked orgy: The men dress up first as monks, then as musketeers, while the women wear nun's habits, then nothing but veils. At first an observer, he's exposed as a stranger before he can join in the debauchery and only escapes unscathed thanks to the intervention of an alluring, aristocratic woman.

When he returns home, Albertina awakens and relates a dream with Freudian parallels to Fridolin's recent sexploits. In her dream, as a merciless queen condemns her husband to death, Albertina takes part in a Bacchanalian romp: "Just as I saw you," she tells him, "though I was far away, you could also see me and the man who was holding me in his arms. All the other couples, too, were visible in this infinite sea of nakedness which foamed about me, and of which my companions and I were only a wave, so to speak."

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Stung by this intimation that his wife has a faithless heart, Fridolin leaves and retraces his steps, prepared to seize the pleasures he previously refused and fantasizing about a double life as "a libertine, a seducer" as well as a family man. But this time all the carnal avenues are closed, and he winds up at that deadest of dead ends, a mortuary. The book ends with the daughter's laughter, but Schnitzler doesn't indicate whether the marriage's status quo has been restored or overturned.

Kubrick reportedly said he was never sure whether "Traumnovelle" was a comedy or a tragedy, and he considered casting Steve Martin in the Fridolin role. There's nothing overtly funny in the book, but you can view it as a deadpan exploration of the old saw that you won't get any if you go looking for it. Structurally, "Traumnovelle" has a symmetry reminiscent of the first and last acts of "A Clockwork Orange," where Malcolm McDowell's ultra-violent Alex abuses people in the first part, then is abused by them later.

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Much of Schnitzler's writing is marked by an interest in sex. Like Anton Chekhov, Schnitzler practiced medicine before pursuing a literary life, and his specialties in syphilis and psychiatry would later inform his writing. His concern with the heart in addition to the areas below the belt is reflected in such titles as "Casanova's Homecoming" and "Liebelei," a play variously translated as "Flirtations," "Playing With Love" and "Dalliance" (the latter is the title of Tom Stoppard's English translation).

Like Kubrick, who offered scathing depictions of war and the military in "Dr. Strangelove" and "Full Metal Jacket," Schnitzler was a pacifist, sharply critical of the armed services. His stream-of-consciousness novella "Lieutenant Gustl" got him court-martialed by the Austro-Hungarian military reserve for painting a damning portrait of a brutish soldier. "Lieutenant Gustl" and the tragicomedy "Das Weite Land" (translated as "Undiscovered Country" by Stoppard) reveal a special abhorrence of the Hapsburg Empire's obsession with dueling -- a topic Kubrick himself tackled in "Barry Lyndon."

Schnitzler wrote his most famous work, "Der Reigen," aka "La Ronde," in 1902, with no expectation of seeing it publicly performed. He printed only 200 copies to distribute among friends. The play lays out a sexual daisy chain of five men and five women: A prostitute sleeps with a soldier, who sleeps with a chambermaid, who sleeps with her young employer, who sleeps with a married woman, and so on, ending up with the prostitute again. In David Hare's transatlantic hit adaptation of the play, retitled "The Blue Room," Kidman herself played all the female roles. Kidman's highly publicized nude scenes in both "The Blue Room" and "Eyes Wide Shut" are giving Schnitzler his biggest boost of the century.

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"Traumnovelle" and "La Ronde" are the best examples of Schnitzler's equivocal and all-seeing eye -- the perspective that so attracted Kubrick. In prose and drama, Schnitzler approaches sexual inconstancy in a clinical, nonjudgmental way. Neither "Traumnovelle" nor "La Ronde" offers tidy explanations of the human heart. The works suggest Rorschach blots, awaiting the reader's interpretation, and it's inevitable that Schnitzler's adapters should put their own stamp on the material. In Max Oph|ls' 1950 film of "La Ronde," Anton Walbrook's crooning narrator/stage manager adds some Gallic savoir-faire, while Hare's "Blue Room" employs the coarse joke of identifying the length of each erotic encounter -- from "45 seconds" to "one hour and one minute" -- at every fade to black.

Given his fascination with sex, death, consciousness and Vienna, one could easily imagine Schnitzler as a nom de plume of Sigmund Freud himself, who was in fact born six years earlier than the playwright. They admired each other, but weren't close. In a 1922 letter congratulating Schnitzler on his 60th birthday, Freud makes this remarkable profession: "I think I have avoided you from a kind of reluctance to meet my double ... Your preoccupation with the truths of the unconscious and of the instinctual drives in man, your dissection of the cultural conventions of our society, the dwelling of your thoughts on the polarity of love and death; all this moves me with an uncanny feeling of familiarity."

Many of these preoccupations apply to Kubrick himself, especially when his films pursue themes of relationships and sexuality. As a domesticated, civilized man beset by his baser instincts, Fridolin/Bill Harford can be seen as a more controlled, straight-laced sibling to Humbert Humbert of "Lolita," Alex of "A Clockwork Orange" or even Jack Torrance of "The Shining." But Schnitzler provides Kubrick a route to a more intimate treatment of human passion than he'd ever attempted before.

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It's hard to read "Traumnovelle" without trying to see it as Kubrick did, and in your mind's eye you can see his Steadicam roaming starry Vienna as it did the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining." Advance buzz has it that despite the updated setting and some new characters, "Eyes Wide Shut" will be more faithful to Schnitzler than "The Shining" was to King, or "A Clockwork Orange" was to Burgess. But no matter how faithful the film is to the book, it's fittingly Schnitzlerian that Kubrick would expire just after having consummated his dream project.


Curt Holman

Curt Holman is a freelance writer in Atlanta.

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