“It’s Probably Going to Be the Hardest Film to Make”
“It’s Probably Going to Be the Hardest Film to Make”
Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Schnitzler, and the Long Gestation of Eyes Wide Shut
Abstract and Keywords
Stanley Kubrick wanted to film Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle since the early 1950s. His interest lay in Schnitzler’s fascination with sexuality and domesticity. The intersection of Schnitzler’s writings with those of Sigmund Freud was of particular interest. Kubrick’s favorite director, Max Ophüls, had adapted some of Schnitzler’s plays, and this also attracted the author to Kubrick. Even though he kept putting off the making of the film, its ideas percolated into those films he did make, from Fear and Desire through The Shining. During this long period of gestation, Kubrick entertained many ideas for writers and stars. At one point, he wanted to make it as a comedy. Only after the failure to get his Holocaust film or his science fiction film, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, made did he finally turn to directing Eyes Wide Shut.
Keywords: Kubrick, Schnitzler, Freud, Ophüls, Vienna, Jules Feiffer, Terry Southern, La Ronde, Lolita, Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark, Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory, Traumnovelle, Eyes Wide Shut, sexuality
Eyes Wide Shut was close to 50 years in the making. Like all of Kubrick’s films, it started by reading a book. Kubrick read voraciously throughout his life. “All the films I have made have started by my reading a book. Those books that have been made into films have almost always had some aspect about them which on first reading left me with the sense that, ‘This is a fantastic story: is it possible to make it into a film?’ ” Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, Traumnovelle—about a married couple, Fridolin and Albertine, who inhabit a dreamlike world of sexual jealousy and restlessness—which would form the basis of Eyes Wide Shut, presented itself as a “fantastic story” very early on. Traumnovelle had been serialized in Die Dame magazine in Vienna before being published as a book in 1926. It was translated into English by Otto P. Schinnerer as Rhapsody: A Dream Novel in 1927 and reissued in 1955. This was the edition—along with a translation made by his executive producer and brother-in-law, Jan Harlan—that Kubrick eventually used to develop his film.
Alexander Walker suggests that “Kubrick’s hankering to make a film of Schnitzler’s novel probably goes right back to his cinema beginnings.” While Schnitzler and his work may not have become an obsessive concern with Kubrick—indeed, our point is that it took a lifetime for him to finally realize it—Schnitzler and his time were never that far from Kubrick’s mind. The author and his story hit a deeply personal chord that kept sounding, no matter how quietly and intermittently, throughout his filmmaking career. Schnitzler’s work had a persistent effect on Kubrick’s thinking, even his state of mind.
There are some uncanny parallels. Schnitzler claimed to have worked on Traumnovelle for about 20 years, from 1907 to 1925; Kubrick claimed to have (p.14) worked on adapting the novella for 30 years. Schnitzler was age 66 when he finally completed the novella and he died at 70; Kubrick completed his screen adaptation of the story in 1999, and he too died at 70. Kubrick’s middle-class Jewish urban upbringing in the Bronx, combined with his Austro-Hungarian Jewish lineage, was certainly different in time and place from Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle Jewish upbringing in Vienna. But Kubrick and Schnitzler were both sons of educated doctors who encouraged their sons’ creative and artistic talents. Schnitzler was a writer and pianist and Kubrick loved books and music (especially the drums) as well as chess, sports, and photography.
How did the young Kubrick discover Schnitzler? James B. Harris, Kubrick’s producing partner in the 1950s and early 1960s, confirms that Kubrick had read Traumnovelle before they met in 1955. According to Michael Herr, who coscripted Full Metal Jacket and became a confidante and friend, Kubrick had read the novella in the 1950s, because in 1980 Kubrick sent him a copy, telling him “he’d read it more than twenty years before.” His first contact may have come in the well-stocked library of his physician father, Jacques—or Jack, as he preferred to be known—who encouraged his son to delve into his books deeply and freely. Kubrick had discovered other books through his father’s library, notably Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory (1935), which he eventually adapted in 1957. There is good reason to believe that he discovered Schnitzler there as well. Schnitzler may also have come his way through the courses he took at New York’s City College and Columbia University after he finished high school.
It may also have come by means of his second wife, Ruth Sobotka, born in Vienna in 1925, the year before Schnitzler published Traumnovelle. By 1947, Sobotka was living and working as a ballet dancer in New York. Kubrick had met her that year when he photographed her for the January issue of Look, and if you look closely he can be seen sitting in the audience in the film of Hans Richter’s avant-garde Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) in which Sobotka was featured. Kubrick began dating her around 1952. Sobotka was active in New York’s thriving avant-garde world and introduced Kubrick to many of its key figures. Kent Lambert is certain that she introduced him to Austrian literature, including Schnitzler’s work and Traumnovelle. He says, “Her influence on Stanley Kubrick and his films was significant.” Kubrick’s third wife, whom he married almost immediately after leaving Sobotka, Christiane Kubrick, said that her husband “saw extraordinary parallels between his relationship with Ruth and the Traumnovelle hero’s dealings with women.” Sobotka died in June 1967, a year before he first decided to adapt the novella into a film.
Schnitzler cut an interesting figure both in his life and in his writings. He was a member of the Young Vienna group of writers and intellectuals that included such luminaries as Hermann Bahr, Richard Beer-Hoffmann, and Peter Altenberg, who helped to shape 20th-century Viennese modernism. He was a friend of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and a contemporary of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gustav Mahler, Hermann Broch, and Stefan Zweig. In Zweig’s words, Schnitzler gave “Viennese literature a new status in Europe, a rank that it had never before reached.” Schnitzler was prodigious sexually, with many mistresses and affairs, and literarily an introspective author who used his work as a process of self-analysis. He was a dueling, philandering, cosmopolitan polymath who kept a diary of his promiscuous sex life, including, it is said, every orgasm he had. He has been described as “perhaps the most famous portrayer of adultery in literature written in German.” Schnitzler was obsessed with sex, in his life as well as his writing. Kubrick compared Schnitzler to Napoleon when explaining his interest in making a film about the emperor. He told Joseph Gelmis, “His [Napoleon’s] sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler.”
Schnitzler’s treatment of sex and sexuality appealed to Kubrick. His written works are mostly about sexual affairs, liaisons, adultery, betrayals, seduction. In his 1902 short story “Death of a Bachelor,” for example, the letter of a dead man reveals to his friends that he had seduced each one of their wives. At one point, Kubrick wanted to film it. The blasting of domestic tranquility seems to have been as much on Schnitzler’s mind as the sexual act itself, which, in Schnitzler, was always suggested, even though, given the time in which he wrote, never described. But Kubrick was free to show and tell—to a point, at least—and to probe more deeply than Schnitzler into the sexual roots of domesticity and its discontents.
Clearly, the erotic thrust of Traumnovelle appealed to him, and the sexuality inherent in Schnitzler is a key reason Traumnovelle haunted Kubrick for so long. But there are also its themes of dreams, the fluid boundaries between dream and reality, the doubling of characters and events, the crisis of the male libido, identity, odysseys, fantasies, marriage, dysfunctional family dynamics, and sexuality that show up frequently in Kubrick’s work, from his earliest photographs and documentaries through his final film. This intertwining of interests helped seal the bond between the two artists, with sexuality being a most important link.
Sex was often on Kubrick’s mind. Tony Frewin, Kubrick’s longtime assistant, recalls that Kubrick was fascinated by pornography and the erotic, and sexual imagery permeates Kubrick’s work from his earliest photography for Look magazine through his last film. A full-page photograph taken by Kubrick of artist Peter Arno in his studio features a fully nude model in semi-rear view. The picture was considered so risqué that Campbell’s Soup withdrew its advertising contract with the magazine. The caption to the photograph, stating that the much older Arno only likes to (p.16) date “fresh, unspoiled girls” much younger than himself, has vague premonitions of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Even more explicit are the contact sheets for a series called “Woman Posing” in which a woman dances suggestively on stage, removing her clothes until she is wearing a very skimpy bikini with a see-through bra.
Kubrick managed to slip female nudity into his documentary of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), The Seafarers, which showcases “the first example of nudity in a Stanley Kubrick film and shows the director’s adolescent sense of sexuality.” At one point, the screen is filled with a shot of a pinup calendar on the wall of the Seafarers’ barbershop. On it is a naked woman, wearing only a string of pearls draped above her breasts. Kubrick’s biographer Vincent LoBrutto suggests the “shot is there to entertain the hard-living sea-bound men who will be the main viewers of the in-house film and to arouse the perverse and devilish sense of humor tickling Kubrick.” Meanwhile the voiceover narration says, “A pleasant sight after any voyage is . . . the SIU barbershop.” And when the film depicts the SIU building’s art gallery, Kubrick includes two female nudes, echoing the earlier pinup calendar in the barbershop.
In Kubrick’s first feature-length film, Fear and Desire, there is a long sequence in which the crazy soldier Sidney tries to calm a local captured fisherwoman who has been tied to a tree. His attention turns into a sexual assault. The promotional materials for the film emphasized this sexualized sequence. Kubrick’s next film, Killer’s Kiss, features a boxer who falls in love with a “taxi dancer” (a euphemism for prostitute), variations of which we meet in Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, as well as the latter’s source in Schnitzler. There are similarities between the nocturnal wanderings and dreams of Davey Gordon in Killer’s Kiss and Bill Harford, who wanders the dream city of Kubrick’s last film. Davey goes up against a lower-class proto-Ziegler (Victor Ziegler, the malicious presence in Eyes Wide Shut) called Rapallo, whose very name suggests “rape” or “rapacious,” and who is aroused by watching Davey getting beaten up on TV and forcibly has sex with Gloria, who despises him. In an echo of Schnitzler, Davey even duels Rapallo to the death—but with an ax, pike, and plaster mannequins rather than swords. The Killing continues the sexual theme with its sly references to the repressed and unrequited homosexual desire of the fatherly Marvin Unger toward his younger protégé Johnny Clay. Sherry Peatty, the vampish, sluttish wife of her weak, love-smitten husband, George, wheedles the information about the racetrack robbery scheme and tells it to her lover. Sherry uses her noir femme fatale wiles to ruin Johnny Clay’s robbery scheme and get everyone but Johnny killed.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is permeated with sexual imagery. From its opening coupling of the refueling of the B-52 bomber to its final, orgasmic, nuclear annihilation, the thrust of the film is the perverse conversion of power and potency. Many of the names are sexually charged: Buck Turgidson, Jack D. Ripper, Lionel Mandrake, King Kong, Merkin Muffley, DeSadesky, Kissov, and the like. General Jack D. Ripper fears the loss of his semen, (p.17) or “precious bodily fluids” as he calls it, and turns his fear of sexual impotence into nuclear destruction. General Turgidson complains that we don’t want the Russians to catch us with “our pants down.” As the apocalypse begins, the inhabitants of the War Room fantasize about the sexual attractiveness of the surviving women, whose ratio will be 10 to each male and who will accompany them into the mine shafts where they hope to reproduce the human race.
Sexuality in Full Metal Jacket is part of its very discourse. Sexualized language, sexualized actions are a constant, whether in the near-constant reference to fucking or the twisted jargon of US Marine Corps drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the grunt-speak of the GIs as they penetrate deeper into Vietnam, or the “me so horny” mantra of the Vietnamese prostitute. Full Metal Jacket can be read as a long reverie on sexual repression. The film climaxes with the killing of a female sniper, whose dying plea of “shoot me,” coupled with Rafterman’s observation of “hardcore,” plays on the double meaning of firing a gun and making a pornographic movie.
In those films in which shades of Schnitzler begin to be visible— Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining—themes of sexuality and domesticity are prominent. But in none of these films, including the adaptation of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, is there the naïve subtlety found in Schnitzler’s own work. Obviously, Kubrick, filming in the 1950s through the 1990s, could show and tell more that Schnitzler could at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, both Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut pushed the boundaries of film censorship in Britain and the United States. By the time it came to make the film, Kubrick could represent sex and sexuality explicitly. Alice Harford tells her husband of her attraction to a handsome sailor when they were on vacation. Her admission sets Bill off on his nocturnal wandering, during which he imagines the sailor, at first in full uniform, making love, with increasing vigorousness and nudity, to his naked wife. There are naked bodies vigorously fornicating during the orgy—bodies digitally covered for its initial US release (see Fig 5.1). Eyes Wide Shut does not so much stress sexuality as it inquires into the stresses of intimacy in marriage and the imaginings of a husband who feels his very masculinity is called into question by revelations that his wife has her own sexual longings. The film summarizes Kubrick’s sexual obsessions quietly but devastatingly as Bill’s damaged sense of masculinity propels him on one sexual misadventure after another.
Freud and the Fin de Siècle
But more than the attraction of sexuality drew Kubrick to Schnitzler. Ilan Stavans characterizes Schnitzler’s oeuvre as describing “an atmosphere of hypocrisy and masquerade, recreating a world of capricious gamblers, duplicitous women, and obsessed men moving through the glittering, doomed society of the late nineteenth (p.18) century.” While such a description perfectly fits Barry Lyndon (set in the late 18th century), it also is apt for much of Kubrick’s other films that are set in the present, Eyes Wide Shut in particular. Stavans points to Kubrick’s almost clinical approach to his characters, much like Schnitzler’s as cold and “without affection.” But he stresses as well that, despite the distance, even the misanthropy, the two artists investigate their characters’ interior, nocturnal lives. Both Kubrick and Schnitzler, he writes, are a bit cynical, even misanthropic. Kubrick goes further than Schnitzler in exposing his characters’ vulnerabilities, and both “investigate their nocturnal life, [pitting] the unconscious against the public façade.” For Schnitzler, “hysteria, hypnosis, and the tension between morality and pleasure were [his] main subjects, which explains Sigmund Freud’s deep interest in him.” For Kubrick, hysteria is more restrained, and in place of hypnosis, dreamwork is his concern, especially in Eyes Wide Shut. Both artists were interested in “bourgeois degradation, hypocrisy, and illicit liaisons” themes which animate Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut. Like Schnitzler, the tension between interiority and the external world percolated up from a Freudian base where sexuality and its discontents drive their characters’ misadventures.
Always Sigmund Freud. Kubrick was drawn to Schnitzler and even more fervently to Freud. Kubrick mentioned how “Schnitzler’s plays are absolute gems of buried psychological motivation.” Freud was drawn to Schnitzler and once wrote to him: “I have gained the impression that you have learned through intuition—though actually as a result of sensitive introspection—everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons.” Diane Johnson, who cowrote the screenplay for The Shining with Kubrick, felt that “Freud always interested him, which is why he was attracted to Schnitzler.” In unpublished parts of a long interview with William Kloman of the New York Times in 1968, Kubrick recounted how “I saw a letter in Psychological Quarterly that Freud wrote to Schnitzler where he said that Freud has always avoided meeting Schnitzler socially . . . because he said he had always regarded Schnitzler as his doppelganger, and there’s supposed to be some superstition that if you ever meet your doppelganger, you’ll die.” Freud’s letter is worth quoting in full:
I think I avoided you out of a kind of fear of encountering my double. Not that I easily identify with another or that I wanted to ignore the difference in talent that separates us, but in immersing myself in your splendid creations, I have always believed I would find, behind their poetic surface, the assumptions, interests, and results that I knew to be my own. Your determination, like your skepticisms—which people often call pessimism—your sensibility to the truths of the unconscious, mankind’s drives, your dissection of our conventional cultural attitudes, your intellectual concentration on the poles of love and death, all of that awakens in me a strange sentiment of familiarity.
(p.19) It could be said that Kubrick’s romance with Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle was itself a process of sensitive introspection, of determination and skepticism, over a very long gestation, just like Schnitzler. Perhaps Freud’s words also speak for Kubrick who, as Michel Ciment suggests, “waited decades before meeting Schnitzler ‘as through a glass, darkly’.” Ciment even sees Kubrick as Schnitzler’s double. This may go too far. There may be some uncanny parallels between Schnitzler and Kubrick, but the director’s life and art are nothing like Schnitzler’s. Perhaps there is something aspirational going on: Kubrick was not Schnitzler, but Schnitzler wrote the kind of literature Kubrick felt was waiting to be filmed. Freud, particularly his theories of the uncanny and the return of the repressed, infiltrates almost all of Kubrick’s films. Between the two, the theorist of the unconscious and the writer of unconscious, libidinous drives, Kubrick found inspiration.
Kubrick responded to a modernist impulse in fin-de-siècle Vienna. This included the work not only of Schnitzler (who was in fact not pleased with the direction of some new modernist artists) and of Freud, but also of the painters Oscar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and especially Gustav Klimt, whose gold-flooded canvases influenced much of the set design of Eyes Wide Shut and whose eroticism would be taken to heart. There is also the notion of the fin de siècle itself, the mark of a turn in culture and politics with the ending of one millennium and the beginning of another. Eyes Wide Shut is a fin-de-siècle work, made and released at the end of the 20th century and set in New York—not the New York of the neorealist location shooting that makes up Kubrick’s second feature, Killer’s Kiss, but an imaginative melding of the city of his memory and of old Vienna that had become fat with wealth. The Zieglers of New York and the inhabitants of the orgy (“If I told you their names . . . I don’t think you’d sleep so well,” Ziegler tells the stunned Bill Harford) were quickly making up the 1 percent. The Harfords of New York were getting reasonably wealthy servicing them. Tim Kreider points out that both fin-de-siècle Vienna and New York were “corrupt and decadent high culture[s] dancing at the brink of an abyss. In the champagne haze of Victor’s party the 1990s and 1890s become one, just as the ’70s and the ’20s met in one evening at the Overlook Hotel.” Kubrick had always been interested in questions of class and wealth—not to mention the abyss into which the world is ready to fall—and these interests infuse his last film. He had always been interested in Freud and sexuality, in the uncanny, in the possibilities of painterly compositions in his films, in the turmoil of the male unconscious. He found it in Schnitzler, his cohorts, and their milieu, awaiting a final spark that was quite long in coming.
Max Ophüls and Schnitzler
Max Ophüls was a direct, cinematic influence, paralleling Schnitzler. Ophüls, one of the few directors whom Kubrick continually mentioned as an impact on his own work, had made films from two of Schnitzler’s plays, Liebelei (1933) and Reigen (La (p.20) Ronde, 1950). Were he in New York at the time, Kubrick would likely have seen La Ronde in 1954, when the Supreme Court lifted New York state’s ban on the film, which had been condemned for “immorality.” It had already opened in Los Angeles in 1951, and Kubrick may have seen it there since at the time he was traveling back and forth between the two cities.
Ophüls was the maker of lavish period films marked by dynamic, perpetual camera movements that traced the sexual peccadillos of La Belle Époque and the details of his characters’ every mood and gesture. La Ronde, based on Schnitzler’s play, is a playful, self-reflexive work in which a master of ceremonies cum ringmaster leads the viewer through the affairs of a variety of lovers. Its lightheartedness masks a somewhat mordant view of intimacy or its absence that might well have appealed to Kubrick even this early in his career.
“I did very much like Max Ophüls’s work,” Kubrick wrote to Alexander Walker. “I loved his extravagant camera moves which seemed to go on and on forever in labyrinthine sets.” It is at first glance a curious attraction, until we remind ourselves again of Kubrick’s early affinity for the fin de siècle, the period beloved by Ophüls as well. Kubrick saw in Ophüls that same yearning for the churn and charm of the belle époque at the dawn of modernism that Kubrick himself seemingly felt for many years. In Ophüls as in Schnitzler are the tales of sexual misadventure, of infidelities and affairs, of human sexual foibles that Kubrick, perhaps indulging a precocious young adult desire, found attractive and challenging as cinematic material. What’s most interesting is that he fought that desire until near the end of his career. In the early 1960s he was considering a “rethink version” of Ophüls’s 1949 melodrama The Reckless Moment (which was filmed in Hollywood and starred James Mason) and, though nods to Ophüls show up here and there, particularly in Paths of Glory and Barry Lyndon, it is not until Eyes Wide Shut that Kubrick gives him his full attention.
What Kubrick never suppressed was the dynamic movement of Ophüls’s camera, which is barely still for a moment, movement that goes, as Kubrick said, on and on. From Davey’s nightmare in Killer’s Kiss, where the camera flees through a city street printed in negative, through the opening shot of Eyes Wide Shut, as the camera gracefully follows Bill and Alice as they leave for the Ziegler’s party, Kubrick’s moving camera shots remain in the memory: the long sweep across the bus station when Johnny Clay brings his suitcase to a locker in The Killing; Col. Dax’s walk through the trenches in Paths of Glory; Poole’s jog around the circular interior of the Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Alex’s march through the record boutique in A Clockwork Orange; the suicidal march of the troops in Barry Lyndon; Danny’s bicycle ride through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining; Hartmann’s stroll through the barracks, abusing his troops, in Full Metal Jacket. These are some of the bravura moving camera shots in Kubrick’s films.
There are more subtle tracks, such as the mysterious lateral movement of the camera that precedes Jack emerging from the shadows of the Overlook as Wendy (p.21) reads his engrossing manuscript—“all work and no play”—or the circles around the inner sanctum of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. And there are innumerable yet even more subtle camera movements, all of which, large or small, demonstrate Kubrick’s control over cinematic space and his creation of a dynamic imaginary world. Ophüls’s camera movements may be passionately decorative filigrees; Kubrick’s are stronger statements of spatial mastery.
For Ophüls, camera movement was mostly ornament. The febrile perfidy of the characters who populate his films, the intricate series of romantic and sexual combinations that shift throughout them, energize his camera’s rhetorical intricacies, which in turn give his characters a sense of grace—not only graceful, which such movements certainly are, but bestowing the grace of a passionate cinema. For Ophüls, cinema was camera movement, the opposite of the stable, eye-level view that conventional cinema is made of; the opposite of filmmakers who depend not on the moving camera but solely on editing to construct their narratives. The lavishness of Ophüls served as a foil for the astringency of the Kubrick style, creating tension between his big, symmetrical compositions and sweeping tracking shots. Ophüls provided an aspirational style for Kubrick, and he would create a direct homage to the director’s The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953) in the dance sequence with Alice and the Hungarian early in Eyes Wide Shut (see Fig. 7.3).
Kubrick needed that “spark” to push him into adaptation. Keep in mind that the only major works of fiction that Kubrick adapted were Lolita and A Clockwork Orange. The rest were relatively minor works, pulp fiction, wartime memoirs, a horror novel, or short stories in the case of 2001. Kubrick’s imagination needed a shove, something that resonated if not on the page, then with his own ways of thinking about the world cinematically, ways of thinking he might not have been aware of until sparked by something he read. Schnitzler resided in Kubrick’s imagination for years until he understood how he could adapt Traumnovelle and could absorb everything that surrounded it and its origins clearly enough to finally spark it into a film that encompassed the two worlds.
Interestingly, Schnitzler himself became interested in film during his late 40s. His diary records regular visits to the cinema from 1908 onward. He was courted by many film companies and wrote many drafts of screenplays of his works that were never adapted. Siobhȧn Donovan believes that Traumnovelle is marked by Schnitzler’s love of cinema. In fact, at the time of its original publication, the novella was considered for cinematic adaptation, including a brief interest by MGM. In 1930, Schnitzler wrote a fragmentary screenplay based on Traumnovelle as part of an unrealized plan to have G. W. Pabst adapt it to a film. The screenplay ends with Fridolin’s visit to the costume shop. Schnitzler’s screenplay bore a great resemblance (p.22) to his novella, just as Nabokov’s adaptation of Lolita that he made for Kubrick to film in the early 1960s strongly resembled his book.
There is no available evidence that Kubrick read Schnitzler’s screenplay. Nor is it clear whether Frederic Raphael, who eventually wrote the initial scripts for Eyes Wide Shut, did either. In any case, Schnitzler’s screenplay was little known, in German, untranslated, and only a fragment of the full novella. Jan Harlan, who translated the original novella for Kubrick when they could not source the rights to the translation after optioning the rights to the novella from Fischer Verlag, says Kubrick did not see this partial screenplay. Andreas Conrad, however, suggests that Kubrick had access to it via Schnitzler’s grandson, Peter: “there is some evidence that Kubrick, in preparing his film, drew on the scenic treatment that Schnitzler himself had already made for Pabst.” As to what that “evidence” is we do not know, but Kubrick’s finished film and Schnitzler’s screenplay do share some similarities, both having an opulent ball at their respective openings.
The novella was later adapted by Austrian television in a 1969 film directed by Wolfgang Glück. Again, we do not know if Kubrick saw it (although Conrad suggests he did ask to view it). Traumnovelle was later adapted for Italian television as Ad un passo dall’aurora [One Step from the Dawn] in 1989. Yet again there is no evidence that Kubrick had seen it.
Letting Schnitzler linger, Kubrick’s interest turned to other Viennese writers. When The Killing wrapped in 1956, he and James B. Harris worked on adapting Zweig’s 1913 novella Burning Secret, his “sardonic Freudian account of sexual infidelity.” Originally published as Brennendes Geheimnis in 1911, it is told from the perspective of a 12-year-old Jewish boy whose married, upper-middle-class Jewish mother is the object of seduction by a suave gentile baron who befriends him in an Austrian holiday spa resort as a means of gaining access to her. Zweig describes the baron as a “Frauenjäger,” which is literally translated as “a hunter of women.” The seducer in Burning Secret might well may have stayed in Kubrick’s mind to provide the template for Victor Ziegler and Sandor Szavost in Eyes Wide Shut, characters who do not appear in Traumnovelle. Kubrick commissioned Greenwich Village novelist Calder Willingham (who would work on the screenplay for Paths of Glory) to write a script for the film.
Kubrick worked on the adaptation with Willingham and, according to Harris, “it took quite some time to develop the Burning Secret script.” Together, Kubrick and Willingham set about transforming the Burning Secret novella. They had to update it from its 1911 Austrian spa setting and to transform the Germanic dialogue into something recognisably American. They also had to turn it into a filmable script. It had already been done in 1933 by Robert Siodmak, a director who Kubrick admired and whose influence can be detected in his first three films. But the Kubrick-Willingham screenplay bore little resemblance to that film (which Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decried). Harris found Zweig’s story “very weak [ . . . ] it’s a one-line joke, so to speak, and I wasn’t in favor even developing it, but Kubrick (p.23) was insistent on it. I think he had a great appreciation for Stefan Zweig.” Perhaps he was again inspired by Ophüls, who, during his time in Hollywood, had adapted Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). While a script of Burning Secret was completed, it never came to fruition when MGM, the studio Kubrick was working with at the time, canceled the project.
The recently rediscovered screenplay, however, provides some clues to how Kubrick would later adapt Schnitzler. It was not to be a straightforward adaptation of Burning Secret as Andrew Birkin would do in 1988. Kubrick and Willingham updated the setting, characters, and dialogue by relocating the story from a fin-de-siècle spa to a place they renamed as the Bedford Forrest Hotel in the Appalachians in the American South in the mid-1950s. The bored baron becomes a more mundane insurance salesman, Richard Hunt (his name echoes Zweig’s description of the Baron as a “hunter of women”) from Philadelphia, supported by the largesse of his elderly aunt. Edgar becomes Edward “Eddie” Harrison. His “Mama” becomes Virginia. As befitting the 1950s in Hollywood, and Kubrick’s signature practice, any trace of Jewishness is removed. Like Traumnovelle, Burning Secret and its themes of forbidden sexuality was never forgotten.
Around this time, Kubrick wanted to adapt Schnitzler’s “Death of a Bachelor.” Harris discussed the story many times with Kubrick, because “that was our favorite of all the Zweig and Schnitzler and everything.” However, they never purchased the rights, possibly because its brevity made it too difficult to adapt. Kubrick subsequently commissioned Willingham to write an original story about an unfaithful wife, possibly as an alternative to Burning Secret and “Death of a Bachelor.” Nothing came of that as well.
Shortly after its publication in English in 1957, Kubrick and Harris had read Lolita, a novel that bore some commonalities with Schnitzler. They were excited to adapt it. Nabokov’s novel about an older man’s obsession with a 12-year-old nymphet contains two episodes that have parallels in Traumnovelle. The first is Schnitzler’s description of Fridolin’s lust for “a young girl, possibly fifteen years old, with loose, blonde hair hanging over her shoulders and on one side over her delicate breast. [ . . . ] All at once, however, she smiled, smiled marvelously. Her eyes welcomed me, beckoned to me, and at the same time slightly mocked me, as she glanced at the strip of water between us. Then she stretched her young and slender body, glad of her beauty, and proudly and sweetly stirred by obvious admiration.” The second is the episode in the costume shop where Gibisier’s (Milich in the film) daughter accosts Fridolin: “a young and charming girl, still almost a child, wearing a Pierrette’s costume, wriggled out from under the table and ran along the passage to Fridolin who caught her in his arms. [ . . . ] The child pressed against Fridolin, as though sure of protection. Her little oval face was covered with powder and several beauty spots, and a fragrance of roses and powder arose from her delicate breasts. There was a smile of impish desire in her eyes.” In a late version of the Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, Milich’s daughter is described as about 14, close to the object of (p.24) Humbert Humbert’s lust. In the film, as played by Leelee Sobieski, she could be the Lolita who, in the novel, was too young to pass the censors back in the early 1960s.
Other events intervened. In 1957, Kubrick left Ruth Sobotka, and Los Angeles, to make Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas in Germany. This World War I movie could not be more different from Traumnovelle, but Kubrick’s second combat film, with its dramatic tracking shots through the trenches and graceful indoor camerawork, does owe something to the influence of Ophüls. Paths of Gory is a largely homosocial film, focusing as it does on the misery of troops during World War I. But even in this milieu, repressed sexuality rears up as Col. Paris (Ralph Meeker), one of the men sentenced to face a firing squad, suddenly blurts out: “It just occurred to me . . . funny thing . . . I haven’t had one sexual thought since the court martial . . .pretty extraordinary.” The soldiers’ anger and repression are released at film’s end when a captured German singer at whom they have been wolf whistling and jeering reduces them to childlike weeping.
While shooting the film, Kubrick met the woman who was to become his third and last wife. Kubrick had seen Susanne Christiane on German television and hired her over the phone for the part of the singer in Paths of Glory. The circumstances of their face-to-face meeting uncannily echo Fridolin’s in Traumnovelle. They met in person, Christiane recalls, at “an enormous masked ball where I was performing. He was the only one without a costume. He was quite baffled.” Kubrick’s marriage to Christiane might have very briefly diverted his thoughts from stories of marital infidelity.
In 1958, through an introduction by his childhood friend Alex Singer, Kubrick approached Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer as a possible collaborator on an adaptation of Traumnovelle. Kubrick had already registered the title Sick, Sick, Sick, borrowed from Feiffer’s newly published collection of comic strips, which explored characters stuck between frustrated love and desire in Greenwich Village, while also commenting on contemporary politics. Kubrick wrote to Feiffer expressing “unqualified admiration for the scenic structure of your ‘strips’ and the eminently speakable and funny dialog.” He wished to further “our contacts with an eye toward doing a film along the moods and themes you have so brilliantly accomplished.”
Kubrick told Feiffer that he wanted to collaborate on a screenplay based on Traumnovelle or another Schnitzler story. “I have always been interested in doing a modern love story with backgrounds of the Ivy League, Park Avenue, and Greenwich Village,” Kubrick wrote to Feiffer, “much in the same mood and feeling as some of Arthur Schnitzlers [sic] works. Gaiety, charm, humor and excitement on the surface, concealing a fundamentally cynical and ironic sense of tragedy beneath the surface. Having spent my youth in the Village and having been on the fringe of the other two genres during my days on Look, I feel they represent the ideal chance to do something along the lines presented. The people are free (for the most part) of the drudgery of the problems of existence and can concern themselves with ‘getting kicks’ out of life. The atmospheres have charm and gaiety, as well as falseness.” “Charm and gaiety” (p.25) are qualities not usually associated with Kubrick’s films, and few of his characters “get kicks” out of life—though they might be kicked by it. Clearly at this point in his young career, the Viennese offered something brighter than the work that was occupying him at the time. Kubrick would have to dig into Schnitzler’s darkness before he could see something approaching optimism. As to Feiffer, he was invited to Los Angeles, and Harris remembers “entertaining him when I was living at the beach in Santa Monica.” Again, nothing came of those meetings.
Reenter Kirk Douglas. The star of Paths of Glory, as well as producer and star of Spartacus, invited Kubrick to direct the sword-and-sandal epic after firing its first director, Anthony Mann. The result was wholesome, depicting the delicate, all-but-chaste love between Spartacus and Varinia under the leering eyes of Batiatus and Marcellus. But even then, Kubrick managed to slip in material that focused on the debauched, libertine, all-consuming tastes and appetites of the Romans, whether for men, women, boys, food, or wine, and included in its precensored version the homoerotic desires of Crassus toward his body slave Antoninus. Spartacus was political as well—it could hardly help but being so given its writers. But its politics were muted beneath the spectacle of Hollywood’s ancient Rome.
What is more, if Douglas is to be believed, it was he who indirectly introduced Kubrick to Traumnovelle around 1959:
When we were having problems on Spartacus, I once took him with me to one of my regular appointments with Dr. Herbert Kupper, my psychiatrist. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to use your therapy visits to help work out specific problems—and Stanley and I had more than a few issues that could use a professional referee. I can’t tell you that it helped our working relationship—but Dr. Kupper did make one suggestion to Stanley that had a tangible impact in his life. He recommended a book—a 1926 German novella, Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler—that he thought would make a good movie.
The relationship between Douglas and Kubrick on the set of Spartacus was indeed fraught, and in his autobiography, Douglas later referred to Kubrick as “a talented shit.” The meeting with Douglas’s psychiatrist may have been an act of desperation, the offer of Traumnovelle prescient and redundant. But then again it may have been entirely apocryphal.
Yet, around May 1959, Kubrick invited Schnitzler’s grandson, Peter, to spend a day on the set of Spartacus. Kubrick and Schnitzler chatted about his grandfather’s work and Kubrick mentioned his interest in adapting some of that work into a film and acquiring “motion picture rights, etc.” Schnitzler later wrote, “I am excited at your interest in, and ideas about, my grandfather’s work and I hope that something comes of it.” He then mentions notebooks belonging to Arthur Schnitzler that he will send to Kubrick. We don’t know if these were ever sent or received.
(p.26) In June 1959, Harris and Kubrick’s thoughts turned to another Schnitzler- and Lolita-like novel, continuing what Ciment considered Kubrick’s “vision of love”: “deviance, non-reciprocity, aggression, or an absence of feeling and physical rapport.” They registered with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, a novel published in Russian as Kamera Obskura (1933), translated into English in 1935 by Winifred Roy, and then again by Nabokov himself and republished in 1961. Laughter in the Dark dealt with a similar theme as the later Lolita: an older man’s fatal obsession for a much younger girl who ends up deserting and betraying him. It revolves around an artist, Albinus, who is sexually infatuated with a teenager but ignorant of her true nature—she is only using him for fame and his fortune. His infatuation leads to his eventual blindness (eyes wide shut?) and death. One episode, in particular, seems to have left a lasting image in Kubrick’s imagination:
She had very little money left. In her distress she went to a dance hall as abandoned damsels do in films. Two Japanese gentlemen accosted her and, as she had taken more cocktails than were good for her, she agreed to spend the night with them. Next morning she demanded two hundred marks. The Japanese gentlemen gave her three fifty in small change and bustled her out . . .
Those “Japanese gentlemen” would turn up having a threesome with Milich’s young daughter in Eyes Wide Shut. Although Harris remembers they bought Laughter in the Dark only as a protection for Lolita, documents in the Kubrick Archive reveal a fair amount of work on the property: there is a scene-by-scene treatment written by Carlo Fiore and a later treatment and script by Kubrick himself. Significantly, Kubrick’s script provided the template for Eyes Wide Shut, as Kubrick translated Nabokov’s novel from Berlin to contemporary Manhattan, as the opening of the script suggests: “Titles over shots of New York establishing end of the working day. 6 P.M. Street lights going on, people going home, etc.” Laughter in the Dark never went into production.
But Schnitzler continued on Kubrick’s mind. An interview in 1960 suggests Kubrick’s ongoing interest in updating Schnitzler. He told The Observer newspaper, “I know I would like to make a film that gave a feeling of the times—a contemporary story that really gave a feeling of the times, psychologically, sexually, politically, personally. I would like to make that much more than anything else. And it’s probably going to be the hardest film to make.” That same year, in an interview with Robert Emmett Ginna for Horizon magazine, he continued expressing his affinity for the Viennese author. Kubrick described him as “one of the most underrated authors of the twentieth century.” “This surface of gaiety and vitality, superficiality and gloss, through which you penetrate for yourself to start getting your bearings as to the true nature of people and situations.” He continued: “His plays are, to me, masterpieces (p.27) of dramatic writing” and “I think he’s one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century; probably because he didn’t deal with things that are obviously full of social significance, he has been ignored. I know that, for my part, it’s difficult to find any writer who understood the human soul more truthfully, 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.” When Ginna asked Kubrick what he would do beyond Lolita, he replied, “In recent years, unfortunately, with the exception of Arthur Schnitzler and a few other writers—I haven’t read too much fiction” before saying, “there are a couple of stories, which I can’t mention because I haven’t bought them yet, of Arthur Schnitzler.”
Kubrick briefly considered a number of other projects in a similar vein: Roger Vailland’s La Fête (1960), an autobiographical story of a libertine hunting for pleasure; Edward Adler’s Notes on a Dark Street (1961), a collection of nightmarish but life-affirming sketches of life among the extremely poor on New York’s East Side; and Three of a Kind, an “unusually daring” and suggestive television series recounting the sexual adventures of three men and “as many [women] as leaves on the trees.”
Instead, Harris and Kubrick decided to push on with their adaptation of Lolita. Production Code restrictions meant Kubrick’s treatment of sex was heavily censored through the 1950s and 1960s. Nonetheless, this did not dampen his fascination with sexuality and its discontents. In a cat-and-mouse game with the American and British censors who paid close attention to the script, Harris cleverly gained their cooperation. Some of Nabokov’s more salacious elements—wife swapping, anal sex, orgies, and pornographic films—did not quite make it into the movie, and Lolita’s age was bumped up to slightly more than nymphet status. Kubrick decided to merge the erotic into the comic and both into an uncanny ironic mode in which Humbert Humbert becomes the victim of his desires and is undone first by his vicious double, Clare Quilty, and then ultimately by Lolita’s desires for marital domesticity. Indeed, the skewed domesticity of Lolita forms some of the roots for Eyes Wide Shut. In a circularity reminiscent of Schnitzler’s Reigen (La Ronde), Charlotte Haze loves Humbert who does not love her. Humbert loves Lolita who does not love him. Lolita loves Quilty who does not love her. And Richard loves Lolita but she does not love him. Humbert, like Bill Harford, is doomed to wander fruitlessly, driven by his imagination, lusts, and frustrations, moving in circles of lust and revenge.
Traumnovelle, or at least its sexual components, remained on his mind after he completed Lolita. Tom Cruise told Roger Ebert, “When he first wanted to do it [Eyes Wide Shut], it was after Lolita and Christianne [sic] told me she said, ‘Don’t . . . oh, please don’t . . . not now. We’re so young. Let’s not go through this right now.’ They were young in their marriage, and so he put it off and put it off.” Nicole Kidman adds, “Stanley was frightened of making the movie when he first read the novel years ago. Back then, his wife said, ‘Please don’t make this now at this stage of our (p.28) marriage’.” Exploring the darkness of marital relations was perhaps too soon to be appropriate for their young relationship. Instead, Kubrick pushed on with his project about a nuclear holocaust.
Following the completion of Dr. Strangelove, in the mid-1960s, Kubrick was still interested in properties of a sexual nature. Around this time, he considered adapting Rosalind Erskine’s Passion Flower Hotel, a 1962 novel about some enterprising boarding school girls who sell sexual services to the neighboring boys’ school. “We talked very strongly about doing that film,” Harris remembers, “so we decided . . . maybe one more together!” But they failed to make a deal with the owner of the rights and the project never came to fruition.
While working on Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick and Terry Southern, who had collaborated on the movie, discussed the possibility of a major Hollywood director making a big-budget hardcore pornographic film with high production values. Although this never materialized, the ideas ended up in Southern’s 1970 novel Blue Movie, which Kubrick pushed him to write, and which was dedicated to “the great Stanley K.” Southern sent drafts of it to Kubrick at the end of 1969 and the beginning of 1970. When Christiane read the galley proofs, she told him, “Stanley, if you do this I’ll never speak to you again.” Frederic Raphael suspects that Blue Movie was “partly behind” Eyes Wide Shut, where the dreams of a film about sexuality and its discontents would be realized.
Then, from 1964 to 1968, Kubrick made 2001. In this aseptic world, where even the desexualized humans are seemingly bodies devoid of sexual organs, Kubrick inserted an astral image of sexuality as the spermatozoon-shaped Discovery inseminates the universe. Some have even seen HAL as a jealous homosexual lover, who wishes to interfere with the camaraderie of Poole and Bowman, and whose unrequited love ends up in his dismantling. HAL can also be seen as the jealous parent who is sensitive to the superior knowledge he holds over everyone and everything in the journey to Jupiter and beyond the infinite. He is what Freud might call “polymorphous perverse.”
Starts and Stops
Being fascinated by Schnitzler was one thing, but actually getting the rights to the work and turning it into a script was another. There is uncertainty as to when Kubrick procured the rights to Traumnovelle. That he did own a copy in the mid-1960s is certain because it is listed in an inventory of his apartment. Kubrick’s biographer LoBrutto claims Kubrick only read the novel for the first time in 1968, and only then expressed an interest in adapting it. But this must certainly have been a re-read, because, as we’ve seen, all the evidence indicates that he was acquainted with it much earlier. But when exactly did he have the rights? One account is that, while finishing editing 2001, Kubrick asked the young Time magazine film critic (p.29) and screenwriter Jay Cocks to acquire the novel, as a front, in the belief that Cocks would get the rights much more cheaply than could a world-renowned filmmaker. Cocks secured the rights, which he then sold to Kubrick, in perpetuity, for one dollar. “Stanley was using me as a beard to buy the book, so they wouldn’t stick him up,” he stated. A handwritten file card in the archives, dated May 22, 1968, appears to back up some of this claim: “Rhapsody . . . Jay Cocks’ agent says $40,000 but obviously high.”
But there is an alternative version. Christiane Kubrick told Nick James of Sight and Sound that, after 2001, Kubrick was developing Traumnovelle for filming. He asked her to read it in 1968 (which would be later than the time she read it suggested by Tom Cruise) when he was looking for a new project. She recounted to Richard Schickel how she “remembers not caring greatly for it at the time, probably because she had become ‘allergic to psychiatric conversations’.” But Kubrick “took the passion for their arguments about the ‘dream story’ as evidence that material so stirring must be worth doing.” According to Kubrick’s eldest daughter, Katharina: “He obviously thought that it was a subject matter close to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship of whatever persuasion. I don’t know what his intentions were, I know that he wanted to do it for over 30 years, and that when he first found the story he decided along with my mother that they weren’t old enough or wise enough to deal with such a powerful subject matter.”
Harlan says that, around Christmas 1969, Kubrick “fell in love” with the novel (was he not “in love” with it years ago?) and in 1970 he began to “concentrate” on it. In April, this version goes, he asked Harlan to acquire the rights. “In April 1970,” Harlan says, “I entered into an option-purchase agreement with S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt to acquire the film rights to this novella. I entered into this contract in my name since Stanley did not want any publicity about his interest in this sexually charged story. The news might have been leaked and the press would have come up with all kinds of distracting speculations at a time when he wanted merely to think about whether this story could be turned into a screenplay.” Harlan made a rough translation of Schnitzler’s German text, and, according to Michael Herr and Tony Frewin, Kubrick subsequently bought up every copy of the 1971 reprint a couple of booksellers could find. Whoever is correct here is unknown, and, in the end, the fact of his longstanding interest in the story is what is important. It is certainly important to note that by the early 1970s, all the thinking about Traumnovelle was now being translated into the procedures necessary to turn it into a film.
At the exact same time, Kubrick was also actively pursuing his Napoleon project. Recall that, in 1970, he had told Gelmis that one of the things that attracted him to Napoleon was that his sex life was worthy of Schnitzler. So, even while concentrating on 18th- and early 19th-century France, Kubrick’s thoughts were never very far away from fin-de-siècle Vienna. Indeed, his Napoleon script, on which he labored for years during the 1960s and early 1970s, “highlighted the protagonist’s sex life in a (p.30) very explicit manner.” This was, in part, because the relaxing of censorship allowed Kubrick more freedom in sexual matters. He told Gelmis, “There’s been such a revolution in Hollywood’s treatment of sex” since Lolita, complaining how “because of all the pressure of the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita [ . . . ] If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did.” Surely, this freedom also pushed him to consider adapting Schnitzler; the orgy scene, previously impossible, could now be rendered in much more detail—though in the end it too would run into censorship problems in the United States. Kubrick’s Napoleon script never came to production.
A year later, in May 1971, Warner Bros. announced Kubrick’s next project as Rhapsody, an adaptation of Traumnovelle. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner reported that Kubrick was to “write, produce and direct Traumnovelle in England for Warner Bros. release,” describing it as “psychologically dramatic story of a doctor and his wife whose love is threatened by the revelation of their dreams. Filming is to start in the autumn.” In June 1971, Kubrick told John Hofsess that his next film would be about Napoleon followed by “an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s A Dream Novel,” and as early as December 1971, Kubrick may have been considering transposing Vienna to New York. Apparently, he also informed a French magazine that he planned to adapt Traumnovelle as a big-budget, big-cast porn film. Speaking to Bernard Weinraub of the New York Times, he said, “I would love to do a film in New York. I would like to capture some of the visual impressions I have of the Bronx and Manhattan. I love the city—at least I love the city that it used to be.” A poignant statement, given that Kubrick would not be back to New York for the rest of his life. The “New York” of the film Kubrick finally made of Traumnovelle was created in the studio and on location in and around London, with some second unit work of actual New York streets edited in. The New York of Eyes Wide Shut is an expatriate’s dream of the New York he once knew.
However, at this point, Kubrick told Ciment that he wasn’t sure about how to properly adapt it. “When he spoke to me about Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, Schnitzler’s novella, in the early seventies, he acknowledged that he was having problems adapting the third part of the book” and no further developments were made. Harlan recalls that “the complex layers of Traumnovelle defeated him.”
After failing to develop a satisfactory screenplay Kubrick soon gave it up, turning instead to A Clockwork Orange. Seemingly at some distance from his Viennese obsession, the film’s themes of sex and families, as well as its circular structure, chimed with Schnitzler’s novella. Rape is a primary occupation of Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange, a film whose frequent nudity, especially shots of topless women, gave it the feel of a softcore Russ Meyer porn film with high production values. Women are murdered, abused, raped, treated as objects with little concern as to their feelings. Perhaps only the closing scene suggests (p.31) fully consensual, mutually pleasurable, socially sanctioned lovemaking, but it is a masturbatory fantasy. Committing rape, fantasizing about Hebrew handmaidens in the Bible, or masturbating to Beethoven, Alex is a fully sexualized being, perhaps—at least for a while—the only uninhibited such character in Kubrick’s films. He is pure, violent, sexual Id.
But as always Schnitzler and Traumnovelle remained on Kubrick’s mind. “Schnitzler’s novella,” Jan Harlan insists, “was never forgotten.” In 1972, following A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s thoughts turned again to Vienna. Tony Frewin, Kubrick’s longtime assistant, noted that, during this period, Kubrick met again with Peter Schnitzler. Kubrick explained to Ciment how Traumnovelle is “a difficult book to describe—what good book isn’t? It explores the sexual ambivalence of a happy marriage, and it tries to equate the importance of sexual dreams and might-have-beens with reality.”
Christiane Kubrick revealed that the theme of the novel was one that they “both talked about a great deal. He thought about it in many different ways. It used to come back over the years again and again as you see friends getting divorced and remarried and the topic would come up again and it had so many variations and so much serious thought to it that he knew one day he was going to make it.” His second daughter, Anya, called Eyes Wide Shut “a very personal statement from my father. He felt very strongly about this subject and theme, and he honed down in it exactly the ideas, principles and moral philosophies he had lived by.” This is the closest statement we have about the deeply personal relationship felt between Kubrick and the film he would make of Traumnovelle. What started many years ago as an intellectual attachment became Kubrick’s most personal, possibly autobiographical, film.
But still the time was not quite right. With the failure of getting Napoleon made, Kubrick turned to Barry Lyndon, the stunning film that he made in place of the aborted Napoleon project, whose themes of adultery, social climbing, the hypocrisy of European aristocratic society, and dueling chimed with Schnitzler’s work. Painted on a large canvas of carefully made compositions, subdued in tone, it concerns domesticity and its discontents. Barry is a reprobate, who spurns Lady Lyndon’s love and traffics with whores. Unlike Alice, in Eyes Wide Shut, Lady Lyndon is not the cause of Barry’s actions but the passive foil against which his behavior is mirrored. Unlike Traumnovelle and Eyes Wide Shut, the domestic is irretrievably destroyed. During the making of Barry Lyndon, there is correspondence about extending the option for making a film from Traumnovelle. Harlan had arranged for a one-year extension of his option to acquire the motion picture rights to the novella, at a cost of 5,000DM (approximately $1,500).
According to Christiane, “Stanley worked on the script [of Traumnovelle] on and off between other projects for many years.” At this point, Kubrick was considering filming Traumnovelle in black and white, as a low-budget arthouse film, perhaps in the manner of Lolita. The film would take place in Dublin, influenced by (p.32) James Joyce’s Ulysses and his short story “The Dead,” or “mock New York” (using surrogate locations in Ireland and London), with Woody Allen in the lead, playing a middle-aged Jewish doctor. “It was always New York and present time,” Harlan recalls. But Kubrick never spoke to Woody Allen, says Harlan. “I met Woody in New York and told him all this and he said that Stanley had never asked him. But I know that Stanley had him in mind and he was pretty sure that Woody would play the part, had this become a project—it’s a great part and the two would have harmonised splendidly. Stanley loved Woody Allen’s films—‘particularly the early funny ones’.”
In 1976, Kubrick was still attempting to adapt Traumnovelle. He wrote to Anthony Burgess, possibly with a view to asking him to adapt the story. “I am curious to know how you like the book. The theme and the character will speak for themselves. There is, I fear, a narrative anti-climax which I have not been able to improve without doing violence to what I believe were Schnitzler’s ideas—but I am not a writer, merely an adapter, at best. I believe everything in the book would be more interesting anyway if it were set in a contemporary situation. Anyway—if you can give me a ring (transfer charges) when you have had a chance to think about it, I should be extremely grateful.” Burgess replied: “I have read the book and can see why you think a film can be made out of it—the opposition of dream and reality and yet the application of the same moral judgement to both is an interesting idea. Character in the book is non-existent and of course the translations obscure any literary merit the original style may have. I think the setting should be Schnitzler’s own Vienna or perhaps [a] genuinely fin-de-siècle one, with the music drawn from Strauss’s Metamorphosen, which I’m sure you know. The question is—do you want me to do anything about it? If so, how and when and for how much . . . I saw Paths of Glory for the tenth time when I was in Hollywood and consider it more than ever to be a masterpiece. Can a Schnitzler drama carry the same devastating load?”
Burgess, for his part, understood the inherent difficulties in Schnitzler’s novella. Its characters are, in fact, monodimensional, and the English translation does not carry the nuances of the original German. It would be up to Kubrick and his screenwriters, and of course his actors, to give the characters substance; it would be up to Kubrick himself to find the way to give his film a “devastating load.”
After the commercial failure of Barry Lyndon Kubrick turned to The Shining. Like Traumnovelle and Barry Lyndon, The Shining concerns domesticity and its discontents. The domestic scene also comes apart in The Shining, which is more about the hatred the husband feels toward his wife and son than it is about marital love. In fact, its most explicit sexual images are of a lithe young woman who transforms into a decomposing old crone as Jack embraces her, and of a man dressed in an animal costume (whether it’s a bear or dog isn’t entirely clear) fellating another man. Jack may also be repressing some homosexual desire, given (p.33) that we see him flip through a copy of Playgirl magazine, mirroring a scene in Dr. Strangelove where Major Kong flips through Playboy, as he awaits his interview with manager Stuart Ullman (whom some have read as gay). Domesticity and sexuality are skewed.
The Shining, with its concentration on the disintegration of domesticity and the wayward, pathological insecurities of its male character, contains elements of Traumnovelle. Alexander Walker observes how in certain interviews around this time, Kubrick expressed his admiration for the novella. Indeed, Kubrick’s annotated copy of The Shining contained the following scribblings:
A HOTEL IS SEX-ORIENTED ROOMS, BEDS, PLACES TO GO. SLEEPY BOREDOM LEADS TO SEX. COULD A SCENE START LIKE THIS AND TURN INTO SOMETHING HORRIBLE? SHOULD JACK HAVE FANTASIES? SAY, A JEALOUS FANTASY OF WENDY IN BED WITH OTHERS. [ . . . ] A brief scene? RHAPSODY IDEA!! Plant early on an innocent admission by Wendy that she has “thoughts” but never has—never would be unfaithful. “What kind of thoughts.” Sexy. Dreams. He could build on this in the hotel.
It is even rumored that all the hotel bedrooms were decorated with fin-de-siècle wallpaper and Kubrick did research on the work of Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann when designing the hotel.
As he was making The Shining, Kubrick gave a copy of Traumnovelle to Frewin, who often assisted the director in literary matters. What really appealed to Kubrick, said Frewin, “was the mystery, that there might be a world beyond our reach which we’re not privy to.” That same year, he talked about the story with Diane Johnson, his cowriter of The Shining. He had originally planned to adapt her novel The Shadow Knows, which had much in common with Traumnovelle, particularly in its Freudian elements. He suggested modeling the husband–wife relationship of the novel according to elements lifted from Traumnovelle. Johnson recalled, “Rhapsody must have been what Stanley read and gave to me as a thick Xerox.” Johnson felt that because it dealt with “the fears and fantasies of the male psyche [ . . . ] it can be seen to go with The Shining [ . . . ] He was thinking of Rhapsody all that time before.” “I didn’t actually remember that we were talking about Traumnovelle so regularly in connection with this script; obviously we were and he did give it to me rather early on and said, What do you think of this?” Elsewhere, Johnson recalled,
Kubrick had apparently shown Dream Novel to all the writers he had worked with, to friends, perhaps people at Warner Brothers. 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. For one (p.34) thing, he was not sure if this Freudian tale of eros, guilt, repression, and death was a comedy or a tragedy. (He leaned toward the comic and, I have heard, explored it with Steve Martin.) Talking to him about it, I remember thinking that the idea that it might be a comedy, clearly not Schnitzler’s view, was a kind of resistance on his part to its erotic content. But perhaps that was not the element he found most unsettling.
Johnson’s comment neatly sums up the conflicts that Kubrick wrestled with regarding the appropriate approach and tone that his adaptation should take. In the end, the film would be neither tragedy nor comedy, but a genre almost sui generis, borrowing some elements of family melodrama but exploring new territories of representing sexuality in the realm of dreams.
At this point Kubrick was continually making plans to make this film. At one point, in July 1979 while editing The Shining, he scribbled a note: “Neil Simon—Rhapsody,” referring to the prolific New York Jewish playwright and screenwriter, author, among many others, of The Odd Couple (film adaptation in 1968) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975). Around this same time, Kubrick did invite Steve Martin, who was in London doing his standup, to come to his house and discuss the possibility of starring in a film, despite the fact that Martin’s only film role to date was in The Jerk (1979), a film that Kubrick loved. Kubrick had seen him on a television show and, as Martin recalls, “He pitched what became Eyes Wide Shut,” an “enigmatic, beautiful book.” Michael Herr recalls, “Stanley thought it would be perfect for Steve Martin.” Kubrick continued thinking about the film and considering who might write the script. Other plans intervened.
With The Shining wrapped, Kubrick was searching around for his next project, possibly a war movie, possibly a film about the Holocaust. In 1981, Ioan Allen at Dolby Laboratories received a phone call from Kubrick. “Have you seen any recent movies that really explore today’s relationships?” He recommended Modern Romance (1981) directed by Albert Brooks, who then briefly entered the picture, with Kubrick calling him to praise the movie, about a man who breaks up with his girlfriend and then obsessively tries to win her back. “This is the movie I’ve always wanted to make,” he told Brooks, going so far as asking him for a look at his next script for the 1985 Lost in America. He also admired another film from 1985, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, with which Eyes Wide Shut has a passing resemblance.
Then, in January 1983, Kubrick passed Traumnovelle on to Terry Southern. He attached a note, saying, somewhat enigmatically, “Dear Terry—Rhapsody of a Dream novel (Traumnovelle = the German title). It was great talking to you and I look forward to our next conversation.” Kubrick wrote to Southern again, regarding some draft scenes he did of Rhapsody, suggesting that the “protag[onist] might be into gyno [gynecology].” Southern replied:
Regarding the fantastic cinematique [sic] potential of Rhapsody, I can only hope (“I trust, I pray!”) that you were not put off by the hastily written . . . extremely sketchy . . . rudimentarily conceived . . . (ILL-ADVISED!!??) mere indication of a possible scene wherein the physician-hubby is a grand gyno. Please recall, Stanley, it was your very own—repeat, “your very own”—notion that the protag might be into gyno (and for darn good reason!!!) (Letter follows.)
Anyway, I can hardly believe that you didn’t get a chuckle from her line (delivered with a glance of dark regard): “. . . and I suppose you’ve known many such women . . . ‘hooded-clit women’.”
Stanley, I’ve gone over the story myriad times now—and have plenty of good ideas, boffo and otherwise MEGA-B.O, if you get my drift. Perhaps if I sent you some more fully developed scenes, it would help persuade you.
As for “persuading” the so-called powers-that-be to okay and green-light/fast-lane my services, it occurred to me that you might say (when they ask “What’s he done lately?”) you could say: “Well, I just read a terrific script that he did for James Harris”, and thus, to that hopeful end, have enclosed same—with, of course, Jimmy B’s blessing to do so. Will you please give it the benefit of your internationally famous “Big Stan’s Fair Shake”, in a quiet well-lighted room?
God bless, Stan, and all the best.
Yrs in haste (& high anxiety),
P.S.: Naturally, it is not as amusing (award-winning, smash B.O. potench. Etc., etc.) as ours could be . . . but all who have read deem it ultra-fab. Check it out, Stan, I beg of you.
The scene that Southern had drafted involves a dialogue between a married couple, Brian Forbes, a gynecologist, and his wife Cynthia. Southern sets the scene as follows: “a possible exchange (after they’ve returned from an evening out, but before she lays her heavy ‘ready-to-give-you-up-for-the-boy-on-the-beach’ reminiscence on him).” Brian and Cynthia discuss whether he has ever felt any attraction for any of his female patients. Brian recalls a female patient, aged 26 or 27, with “long blonde hair,” he examined because she had (the aforementioned) “hooded clit” syndrome. Southern’s proposed screenplay came to nothing, and Kubrick turned to other projects. But an echo of an attractive blonde patient in Bill’s examining room and the leading questioning between husband and wife remained in Eyes Wide Shut.
According to Southern, Kubrick had notions that it could be played “as a sex comedy, but with a wild and somber streak running through it.” Southern’s son, Nile, states that “[a]fter reading it [Rhapsody], Terry challenged Stanley to ‘go the comedy route’.” In his letter to Kubrick, says Nile, “Terry was implying, ‘Let’s do (p.36) that Strangelove thing again. I’ll be in top form writing the most outrageous lines, just tell me what the basic situation is.” It seems that thinking about Traumnovelle suddenly morphed more directly into a comedy, not unlike the metamorphosis of Dr. Strangelove. But “the kind of tomfoolery” that Southern produced, suggests Southern biographer Lee Hill, “sabotaged Southern’s chances of getting Kubrick to seriously consider him as a collaborator on this project.” There would be no “MEGA B.-O.” elements in Eyes Wide Shut, certainly not the farce Southern had in mind. Kubrick ultimately solved the tension between the comic and the erotic by subduing both. There are humorous moments in Eyes Wide Shut—the episodes with Milich and his daughter, for example—but certainly not between its two central characters. The erotic would be a quiet current running through the film, too quiet for many viewers who expected sex rather than eroticism.
Nothing more happened, however, as Kubrick was busy with Full Metal Jacket. After that movie wrapped, Frewin put Kubrick in touch with Gershon Legman, a Beat writer who edited the short-lived Neurotica magazine, every issue of which Kubrick had bought and read. Legman was an expert on Europe’s sexual history, having published extensively on the origin and function of the dirty joke. Legman gave Kubrick a great deal of background on Schnitzler and the secret sexual history of fin-de-siècle Vienna, recalls Frewin. In the late 1980s, and continuing into the early 1990s, Kubrick also consulted with J. P. Stern (1920–1991), an authority on German literature, who had published books on Kafka, Nietzsche, and Schnitzler.
Around that same time, Kubrick contacted author David Cornwell (aka John Le Carré). He admired his novels and invited him for a private screening of Full Metal Jacket at Shepperton Studios, followed by supper, during which he talked about Traumnovelle and wondered if he would be interested in adapting it. (Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, suggests the meeting happened circa 1980, but Le Carré says it happened circa 1986/87.) Former Warner Bros. president John Calley recalled how Kubrick “thought Cornwell was the greatest dialogue writer. They had endless meetings about it, and David realized that he would never be able to subordinate his stuff to Stanley’s stuff, so he decided not to do it, but they admired each other tremendously.”
Cornwell describes it differently. He was walking the grounds of the Kubrick estate:
Pursued by dogs but no cats, Kubrick and I stroll the grounds while at his request I pontificate on how Schnitzler’s novella might be adapted to the big screen. Its eroticism, I suggest, is greatly intensified by inhibition and class snobbery. Vienna of the twenties may have been a hive of sexual license, but it was also a hive of social and religious bigotry, chronic anti-Semitism and prejudice. Anyone moving in Viennese society—for example, our young hero, the sex-obsessed medical doctor—flouted its (p.37) conventions at his peril. Our hero’s erotic journey, beginning with his incapacity to make love to his beautiful young wife and culminating in his frustrated attempt to take part in an orgy at the house of an Austrian nobleman, was fraught with social as well as physical danger.
Cornwell makes perhaps the best case for Traumnovelle we can find. He gives voice to what must have been Kubrick’s own enthusiasm for the potential adaptation. Cornwell warms to the task, arguing how the film must “recreate this repressive atmosphere.” “How do we do that?” Kubrick asks. Cornwell recounts the exchange that followed:
Well, Stanley, I’ve thought about this, and I believe our best bet is: go for a medieval walled city or country town that is visually confining.
Like Avignon, for instance—or Wells in Somerset. High wall—battlements—narrow streets—dark doorways.
An ecclesiastical city, Stanley, maybe Catholic like Schnitzler’s Vienna, why not? With a bishop’s palace, a monastery and a theological college. Handsome young men in religious gear sweeping young nuns with their eyes not quite averted. Church bells resounding. We can practically smell the incense, Stanley.
Is he listening to me? Is he mesmerized, or bored stiff?
And the grand ladies of the town, Stanley—pious as hell on the surface, and so skilled at dissembling that when you’re invited to dinner at the bishop’s palace you don’t know whether you were screwing the lady on your right at last night’s orgy, or she was at home saying prayers with her children.
My aria complete, and I not a little pleased with myself, we walk for a stretch in silence. Even the dogs, it seems to me, are quietly relishing my eloquence. At length, Stanley speaks.
“I think we’ll set it in New York,” he says, and we all set course for the house.
And that was the end of Cornwell’s involvement in the project. But his suggestion of an air of repressive medieval monasticism made it into the movie’s orgy sequence, which captured and expanded upon Schnitzler’s description of ecclesiastical revelers, monks and nuns in masks, and, if not church bells, certainly strange religious music.
During the same period, Kubrick tried to interest Herr, who had collaborated on Full Metal Jacket, in Traumnovelle. “His idea for it in those days was always as a sex comedy. He’d talked about this book with a lot of people, David Cornwell (p.38) and Diane Johnson among them, and since then David and Diane and I later talked about it among ourselves.” Herr described Traumnovelle as
. . . the full, excruciating flowering of a voluptuous and self-consciously decadent time and place, a shocking and dangerous story about sex and sexual obsession and the suffering of sex. In its pitiless view of love, marriage, and desire, made all the more disturbing by the suggestion that either all of it, or maybe some of it, or possibly none of it is a dream, it intrudes on the concealed roots of Western erotic life like a laser, suggesting discreetly, from behind its dream cover, things that are seldom even privately acknowledged, and never spoken of in daylight.
Herr understood the intricacies of Schnitzler’s story, and at a late point in the script’s development, Kubrick would invite him to help. Herr refused, but surely their conversations helped fashion Kubrick’s thinking about his adaptation.
In the period after Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick was busy on several other projects. He was adapting Louis Begley’s Holocaust-era novel Wartime Lies for a film to be called Aryan Papers, for which he did prodigious research, as well as a Brian Aldiss short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Yet another was Eric Brighteyes, H. Rider Haggard’s Norse saga, which Kubrick had been working on since the early eighties. Kubrick dropped Aryan Papers allegedly because Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List had appeared in 1993, and Kubrick, at Warner Bros.’s prompting, felt that two Holocaust stories could not coexist. As for A.I., Kubrick believed current computer graphics were not up to the task of creating the imaginary spaces that Kubrick and Fangorn (Chris Baker), whom he had hired to storyboard some of the scenes, had imagined. More to the point, the inherent sentimentality of a robot child who falls in love with his flesh-and-blood mother had a vein of sentimentality that Kubrick could not wring from the various screenplays he commissioned. He decided that Spielberg, with whom Kubrick had become quite friendly, would be the one to direct it, with Kubrick producing. Kubrick’s suggestion that Spielberg install a fax machine in his bedroom—fax and phone being his favored means of communication—put Spielberg off. He ultimately directed from his own screenplay after Kubrick’s death, with Harlan as one of the film’s executive producers and some of Baker’s designs finding their way into a very Spielbergian film (released in 2001). A.I. remained on Kubrick’s mind, however, even as he was making Eyes Wide Shut, as did Eric Brighteyes, which “stood a good chance of being Stanley’s next film,” said Frewin.
“And so, finally . . .”
“And so,” says Harlan, “finally, he was ready to face Traumnovelle. It was as if he had had to work through all the previous finished and unfinished projects to arrive at (p.39) the point where he could make this most difficult film of his career and life.” Perhaps Christiane had finally overcome her objections to making the film. “It was good that it took so long,” says Christiane. “By the time he was an old man he was in a far better position to make a film about the ultimate topic.” She added elsewhere, “I think it was a very good film for an older person to make with quite a lot of hindsight and you become softer and more honest with yourself as you grow up and I think that Stanley was much more pessimistic, much more cynical as a young man. Most of us become nicer as we grow older, even more mellowed and he was certainly more optimistic than I sometimes was.”
Perhaps it was only by the 1990s that Kubrick felt the time was right to put such a tale on screen. Paul Verhoeven’s erotic and explicit thriller Basic Instinct (1992), which contained a much freeze-framed and titillating scene, was a smash hit, defining the erotic thriller genre as one of the most profitable genres of the decade, initiating a flood of imitations. In 1997, Adrian Lynne directed a version of Lolita that was much more explicit than Kubrick’s many years earlier. When Eyes Wide Shut was eventually released, “representation of sex in non-pornographic films had started to be pushed to unprecedented limits both in Hollywood, and, especially in Europe.” This included Sitcom (1997), The Idiots (Idioterne, 1998), Romance (1999), Pola X (1999), Baise-moi (2000), A ma soeur (2001), Intimacy (2001), Lucia y el sexo (2001), and Nine Songs (2004). But even given this greater license, Kubrick’s film got into trouble with the MPAA ratings system, which demanded digital insertions to block out the more explicit images in the orgy sequence.
Maybe other factors were pressing on him. Kubrick’s life was beginning to wear down. There were domestic problems. His daughter, Vivian, left for America in 1994, eventually joining Scientology and beginning the process of disconnection from her family that the Church demanded of its adherents, events that were a blow to Kubrick’s lasting affection for his family. What’s more, his health was failing. But he pushed on with the film that was to become Eyes Wide Shut. He continued to consider several writers to do the script, including the American playwright David Mamet, whose work he admired. In 1993, while working on A.I., he had scribbled a note to himself: “David Mamet—Rhapsody.” (Later, in 1995 it was reported that Mamet had been working on a Lolita screenplay.) Over the summer of 1994, Candia McWilliam was approached to do some preliminary work on the screenplay. He kept the author and identity of the text a secret from her; she recalled, “He wanted me to guess by whom it was and by two days in I did but I didn’t want to spoil the fun so we did a little bit of speculation and then he said who did you really think it was by.” She continued, “The story at that point was clearly about the mutual manipulation of jealousy which is torture. It’s what we can do to one another in the most intimately painful way and it’s clearly quite obvious if you’re dealing with erotic entanglement there is a compulsion to hurt that lies very close to intense involvement.” The exact nature of the work that McWilliam did on the screenplay is unknown. Given that no extant version of her work is known to exist, it was more likely no more than just another discussion.
(p.40) Kubrick eventually settled on Frederic Raphael as the screenwriter for Eyes Wide Shut, like him an American Jew who had settled in England. They had first met at a dinner party in 1972, hosted by director Stanley Donen (recall that Kubrick used the theme tune from Donen’s 1952 Singin’ in the Rain in his A Clockwork Orange). Raphael recalled that Kubrick’s initial approach took place over the spring and summer of 1994 and, like so many Kubrick collaborations, it started with a phone call. This began the next struggle to get Traumnovelle into production, the protracted, sometimes painful (for both parties) process of getting a workable screenplay.