Stanley Kubrick came very late in life to the screen adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, though he had read it and been intrigued by it some thirty years earlier.

by Jack Boozer

Stanley Kubrick came very late in life to the screen adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, though he had read it and been intrigued by it some thirty years earlier. The arduous process of transforming the novella into an acceptable screenplay and finally into the film, Eyes Wide Shut, reveals Stanley Kubrick’s method of adaptive collaboration, as well as what he brought to the film as director after the script was completed. Throughout his long career as a recognized auteur, Kubrick consistently relied on the adaptation of literary and popular novels and short stories. He sometimes wrote the screenplays himself, or he meticulously oversaw their written adaptation. This applied whether or not he took credit as a co-author on the screen.1 He was a constant reader who had an eye for strong stories that were often difficult to adapt. He once commented, “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, ‘Th is is a fantastic story: is it possible to make it into a film?’”2 More specifically, Kubrick’s highly selective eye sought material that might serve as a platform for his own unsentimental imagination and ideological concerns, which were deeply embedded in matters of major significance to Western culture.
Kubrick’s screenwriting and film experience in the twelve years preceding Eyes Wide Shut is instructive of both his thematic concerns and his time-consuming methods of project development. His Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket (1987) is based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers (1979), and Kubrick began discussions with that author and also with the author of Dispatches, Michael Herr, as early as 1980. This led to an extended adaptive screenplay collaboration with both that involved ongoing rewrites, over which Kubrick eventually took sole control during shooting.3 The seven year Full Metal Jacket project was followed by two failed efforts in the early 1990s to bring script adaptations of his own to film. He invited Steven Spielberg to direct his screenplay of what was to be called A.I.,4 but when the project floundered it was Spielberg who eventually bought the short story rights, rewrote the script, and directed the film. Kubrick also wrote a screenplay that he called The Aryan Papers, which was based on a novel about Jewish survival during the Holocaust.5 The tedious development of this project, too, was discontinued when Spielberg came out with a major Holocaust film project of his own, Schindler’s List (1993).
In 1994, seven years after the completion of Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick initiated work on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. The novella had been published as a magazine serial in Vienna and then 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 translated edition is the one on which Kubrick based his film project.6
Like Schnitzler, Kubrick came to Traumnovelle after having established a successful career.7 He was already familiar with Max Ophuls’s popular film adaptation of one of Schnitzler’s stage plays concerning sexual, cultural, and interclass relationships and titled, appropriately, La Ronde (1950).8 Kubrick’s urban upbringing in the Bronx and his Austro-Hungarian Jewish lineage were also not far removed from Schnitzler’s turn-of-the-century Jewish family experience in Vienna. Both Kubrick and Schnitzler were the off spring of cosmopolitan physicians who supported their sons in cultural activity and the arts. The young writer and pianist Schnitzler became a physician and a man about town,9 not unlike his observant protagonist in Traumnovelle. The contemplative Kubrick also loved books and music, but he was not socially gregarious and preferred the technical expressivity of cameras. These men also shared a greater intellectual awareness of the way in which personal experience and religious and political ideologies were shaped by the historical eras in which they lived.
Kubrick no doubt appreciated the strong visual quality of observational psychology10 in Schnitzler’s once controversial novella, which carefully traces erotic impulses through fantasies, dreams, and behaviors that challenge containment within marital, scientific, and class conventions. In films as diverse as Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, Kubrick had already shown an interest in psychosexual dynamics, family dysfunction, and social class. His political-military films (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket) also draw linkages between the male libido and imperialistic hierarchies, a relation hinted at in Schnitzler’s novella.
One further connection that may have attracted Kubrick to Schnitzler’s short novel was one he repeatedly borrowed from his literary sources, namely, symmetrical story construction. In A Clockwork Orange, a wild sexual escapade is eventually followed by an excursion of retribution that is particularly close to Traumnovelle in more ways than are immediately obvious. In Barry Lyndon, too, the first half follows the ascent of the eponymous character, who is brought low in the second half by most of the same characters who appear in the first half. But Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s eighteenth century English novel is a costume drama and not what he decided to do with the 1927 Viennese novella. That decision, however, also created further problems. Although Schnitzler’s 1927 fiction is basically contemporary in its foregrounding of the dreams, temptations, and jealousies of marriage, its cultural milieu is clearly dated, and its social commentary is muted.
Kubrick wanted the help of an appropriate screenwriter who could contemporize the novella and open it up in a way that would also allow him to contribute the full array of his own visual aesthetics. He had Warner Bros. contact Frederic Raphael, born in Chicago and educated in England, who had written the screen adaptations for Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, and Henry James’s Daisy Miller. Raphael also penned two original screenplays of contemporary life in the 1960s—John Schlesinger’s Darling and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road. Darling concerns a modern free spirit of sexual affairs (Julie Christie) who ultimately fails to find grounding and commitment in any one relationship. The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Raphael seemed most comfortable, in short, with themes of heterosexual life in the context of class and cultural change. He demonstrated both literary sensitivity in his script adaptations and timely personal and cultural integrity in his original screenplays.
The collaboration between Kubrick and Raphael on the Schnitzler adaptation is carefully recounted in Raphael’s revealing book, Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick (1999). Raphael describes his screenplay work with the famous auteur as a thankless, trying, and exhausting twenty-four month marathon that began in 1994. His memoir is a tightly focused insider’s look at the screenplay working procedure, attitudes, and lifestyle of Kubrick. Employing at times direct dialogue from Raphael’s conversations with Kubrick or with his own wife regarding the project, the memoir provides a close running commentary. It is also exceptional for its unblinking artistic and personal assessment of the director, particularly under the circumstance of Kubrick’s death in March 1999, just days after an initial private preview screening of Eyes Wide Shut in Manhattan for the actors and the studio (and at a time when Kubrick may still have intended a few final tweaks to the film’s score). It wasn’t until his first visit by taxi to Kubrick’s secluded home near London that the name of the author whom Raphael was being asked to adapt was inadvertently revealed. Raphael observed firsthand Kubrick’s well-known obsessions with privacy and secrecy. For his part, Kubrick has responded elsewhere to questions about where and how he lived relative to his work:

You read books or see films about people being corrupted by Hollywood, but it isn’t that. It’s this tremendous sense of insecurity. A lot of destructive competitiveness. In comparison, England seems very remote. I try to keep up, read the trade papers, but it’s good to get it on paper and not have to hear it every place you go. I think it’s good to just do the work and insulate yourself from that undercurrent of low-level malevolence.11

In fact, the biggest mistake Raphael said he made with the director occurred at the point of the full script draft’s completion, when he sent a documentation copy of the draft to his representative at the William Morris agency and to a close friend for filing back in the States. This made Kubrick furious because he didn’t want the public alerted to what he was doing, and it nearly got Raphael fired before final revisions with the director were completed (Raphael, hereafter parenthetically abbreviated as R., 26–27).
Most significantly, however, during the extended period of their work, Raphael notes Kubrick’s failure to be forthcoming about what he wanted from the adaptive screenplay, which necessitated the constant rewrites from which Kubrick seemed gradually to formulate on his own what he might finally be looking for. Raphael saw this as Kubrick’s “dread of the ‘conceptual’: he has no interest in purpose and refrains from declaring any big idea” (R., 58). Rather than taking a prescriptive or even supportive role in the collaboration process, Kubrick would simply tell him, after numerous revisions, when they might move forward and begin to deal with the next scene. As Raphael notes, “He always knew what he didn’t want, never what he did” (R., 122) He goes on to explain, relative to the infrequency of their face-to-face meetings:

I was quite unable to guess what he would applaud and what he would ask me to do again. Sometimes he would leave me in doubt for several days. As the days and weeks went by, I wrote and I waited and I wrote again… it is natural for directors, of whatever skill, to seek to turn writers into their creatures. The frog and the scorpion can never contract out of their allotted roles. (R., 122)

The slavish nature of Raphael’s collaboration in the writing of Eyes Wide Shut took its toll. He concluded toward the end of his work with Kubrick that “he doesn’t want to make anything with anyone” (R., 113). Raphael goes on to explain: “I have come to realize, painfully, that I am there to provide a script to which he can then apply himself without me… All he requires of me is a text that can be made audible and visible” (R., 150). His lament is common to screenwriters, who know that directors may change a script at will through the remaining stages of shooting, editing, and sound mixing. During their infrequent script meetings and several phone conversations, Raphael came to believe, especially in light of the often intimate sexual nature of the story material, that “what concerns him is always the furniture, the mechanics of such things, never what anyone might feel” (R., 163). Raphael saw that Kubrick (the sincere family man in real life) was taken by the impersonal orgy in this story, and they researched historical references to the phenomenon. But again, as opposed to Raphael’s concerns with character motivation in the screenplay’s development, he noted that Kubrick had “an almost solipsistic lack of interest in character” (R., 161). Kubrick was searching for a prevailing story conception during the course of their collaboration, and he hoped that his writer might provide him with a contemporary turn on most of the character and story elements that would make this possible. Raphael was not alone in being left out of the creative process that went on in Kubrick’s mind at the script stage. Kubrick also treated his film cast in much the same fashion during shooting. In the Warner Bros. documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), Tom Cruise (who also narrates) observes that when actors asked Stanley what he wanted in the typically numerous takes for almost every scene in Eyes Wide Shut, his only response was that he “wanted the magic.” Nicole Kidman, who played Tom’s character’s wife in the film (Kubrick wanted an actual married couple for his lead roles, which might suggest his wish to capture a heightened realism in marital jealousy), notes in the same documentary that Stanley’s approach on the set “was about a discovery. He wanted to investigate every avenue… to perfect it. Stanley hated to explain himself about a scene or the film as a whole.” The third member of the lead cast to be interviewed was Sydney Pollack, who believes that Stanley was after something spontaneous and essential “not in a literal but in an imaginary way.” Perhaps at this stage Kubrick felt that voicing conceptual perspectives on the set would have squelched the possibility of “spontaneous” illumination in performance, since the adapted screenplay already indicated a clear story structure and theme, if not the precise situational inflection of character that the actors may have been looking to their director to suggest. Notably, here as elsewhere, audiences do not get emotionally close to characters in Kubrick films so much as behold them in a total audiovisual space that is always fully and mindfully articulated. This helps to explain the director’s reticence with his writer and his cast to predefine character emotions and thus encourage the spectator’s uncritical emotional identification with them. Kubrick’s consistently strong denunciation of dehumanizing forces in Western culture is partly realized through a mental distancing from character melodrama.
Meanwhile, as Frederic Raphael continued to write deep into the screenplay, he also came to realize the extent to which Kubrick had “convinced himself that our salvation lies in keeping to Schnitzler’s beats… he wants as straight a translation as can be” (R., 163–164). With this in mind, therefore, I provide a brief summary of Schnitzler’s lesser known novella, which is credited on-screen as having “inspired” Eyes Wide Shut. This is not to judge the fidelity of the film to its source but rather to demonstrate where Kubrick and Raphael were starting from, and the process by which their script “collaboration” finally became the guide for the much expanded cultural commentary that appears on-screen.
The novella begins with Fridolin and his wife Albertine attending their young daughter’s reading of a fairy tale about a prince who, on a dreamy night, is being delivered on a galley rowed by slaves to a palace for his pending marriage. This sets the mythic tone for Fridolin’s actual journey, which begins in marital distrust and the longing for adventure and becomes an episodic, circular rite of passage wending its way back to his marriage bed. Once their daughter is asleep, the couple find themselves briefly reflecting on a masquerade ball and those with whom they flirted the previous night. This leads to admissions by each of them regarding their own sexual fantasies involving strangers while on a recent vacation in Denmark. So upset is Fridolin at the potent revelations of his wife’s longing for a sailor she had merely seen there that he finds himself momentarily launched on a restless excursion of his own. Whether his nighttime adventure is specifically for sexual consummation as revenge for Albertine’s fantasy is not altogether clear, since he decides against sex with a prostitute, who then refuses payment. Repeatedly, the novella emphasizes the troubling nature of erotic energy in dreams and lived experience as it relates to personal autonomy, marital fidelity, and social desires.
Fridolin’s odyssey begins with a call on an elderly patient who has just died, and whose daughter for the first time expresses her love for him before being interrupted by the arrival of her fiancée. After Fridolin’s passing encounter with a street prostitute, he finds himself in a club where a former student acquaintance happens to be playing piano. From him he learns of a strange private costume ball later that night that includes beautiful naked women and is being hosted by a secret society that requires a password for entry. Armed with the password “Denmark,”12 and dressed in the costume of a masked and black-robed man in a three-cornered hat, he crashes the late-night affair. There, in an unremarkable suburban home, he discovers an intense proceeding that may be “a meeting of some religious sect” but where veiled women dressed as nuns suddenly remove their robes to reveal a variety of nude body types. The masked men, who have given up their black monks’ robes to reveal their dress as cavaliers, rush to the women and begin to dance in the voluptuous setting. Fridolin retains his robe because it covers his normal street clothes, and he receives glaring looks, particularly from “two noblemen.” One attractive brunette steps forward and whispers urgent warnings for him to leave, on pain of death. Fridolin is soon challenged also by a few angry cavaliers, who threaten him with complete disrobing and worse. The humiliating crisis again brings forth the kind brunette, who offers herself speaking in the religious diction of “atonement” for his apparent “sins.” This brave act before the alerted assembly appears to place the woman in great jeopardy, even as it allows Fridolin to go free. On his strange carriage ride home, Fridolin remains mortified by what may have happened to her. He believes that he may in fact be in a delirium and still lying in his bed at home having a nightmare. He checks himself physically: “Fridolin opened his eyes as wide as possible [italics mine], passed his hand over his forehead and cheeks, and felt his pulse” (R., 97).13
Fridolin finally arrives back home at four in the morning to find his sleeping wife in the middle of a nightmare, which she gradually recreates for him as she “twines her fingers in his.” Albertine explains that in her dream, galley slaves row Fridolin to her door to rescue her, but after a night of love together prior to their wedding day, they find themselves the next morning naked and without clothes. She is filled with terror and shame and blames him. Fridolin immediately sets off to find clothing. But this is difficult, because he soon finds himself under a penalty of death if he does not become the paramour of the flaxen-haired “princess of the land.” Albertine describes her appearance as similar to that of the seductive young girl Fridolin confessed an attraction to in the past. She imagines Fridolin brutally whipped by the princess even as she herself is left happily alone. Albertine eventually makes love with a man like the one she described in Denmark. At the same time, she feels indifference, and laughs when she notices that Fridolin is now being nailed to a cross by soldiers and priests for his continued rejection of the princess. Although these dream images seem to stem from the couple’s sexual competition, they also suggest that Albertine intuits her husband’s real adventures earlier that night and thus her enjoyment of his punishment while she commits adultery. But her dream’s introduction of the ruling princess and the crucifixion of Fridolin (a Jew) also further elevate the scenario to sociopolitical and sacrificial connotations. Taken together, Fridolin’s actual experiences with the street prostitute, and with the monks turned cavaliers and the “nuns” apparently of noble rank at the secret orgy, as well as Albertine’s dream references to the couple’s naked isolation and to the imagined queen who crucifies Fridolin, all point to issues of physical vulnerability, class rank, social condemnation, and a cabalistic religiosity of the powerful and privileged. There are also the anti-Semitic overtones of the street incident involving Aryan fraternity boys in blue caps, who jostle and mock Fridolin. At this story juncture, however, what remains of greatest concern to Fridolin (besides his wife’s licentious behavior and disregard for him in her dream) is the persistent question of what has happened to his lovely rescuer from the troubling sexual escapade. He sets out first thing the next day to locate the house where the bacchanalia occurred in order to discover the fate of this mysterious woman. Warned away from the house with a threat, he grows increasingly disoriented and begins to feel that all of life is an illusion. He enters a café and finds a newspaper that informs him of the death of a baroness, an “unusually goodlooking woman,” by poisoning. Two men were seen to have left this woman’s apartment at 4 a.m., leading Fridolin to assume that she is the same woman with dark flowing hair who rescued him. Distraught, he makes his way to the city morgue in order to establish her identity. The circumstance at the morgue is described at great length. The presence of an attending physician, Dr. Adler, and his technical research over a microscope runs counter to Fridolin’s extreme emotional state. Fridolin now “twines his fingers” in the stiff, cold ones of the Baroness’s corpse (paralleling his earlier action with Albertine, and thus the women’s psychological association), and he mourns her loss for his sake. The baroness takes on the burden of his transgressions, while Albertine’s dream has him sacrificed. Fridolin’s disoriented experience with the corpse is the emotional turning point in the story for him, since he now looks upon death in a context that includes both sexual desire and personal and social responsibility for his walk on the dark side. Schnitzler’s narrative accomplishes this intensification through its shift from a question of Fridolin’s marital fidelity to one of his culpability in setting a woman up for murder, and a baroness at that. The extended and rather gothic scene in the dimly lit morgue follows Fridolin’s agitated concern not only for answers to his role in her demise but also for some larger understanding of the reliability of his perceptions, and thus the very ground of reality and of his identity.
Once more Fridolin returns home very late at night, as he wonders if all he has experienced might have been a dream. This time, however, he discovers on his pillow beside his sleeping wife the mask he had worn to the orgy the night before. After a moment of rationalization in his state of exhaustion, he bursts into tears and provides Albertine with a full confession of what his actions may have caused (not reiterated in the text). He asks at last what they should do, and she expresses gratitude that they have come through their adventures unharmed, be they “ ‘real or only a dream.’ ” For her, “ ‘the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth,’ ” and “ ‘now I suppose we are awake,’ she said,” at least “ ‘for a long time to come.’ ” The morning light shines through their bedroom window, and they can hear their daughter stirring in the next room. And so the tale of the ardent psychic voyager Fridolin concludes with the nurturing words and embrace of his wife, who does not look to social conventions or ideology for answers but trusts rather in her intuitive acceptance of the confusion that she observes as belonging (melodramatically) entirely within their personal domain. This seems to be intended as a consciously romantic assessment of all that has gone before, although Schnitzler hints ironically at the question of whether momentary marital rapprochement could possibly conquer the subconscious forces of desire and dreams, not to mention the persistently troubling ethnic, theocratic, and even paramilitaristic social realities that remain unresolved in the story.
Schnitzler’s novella demonstrates, on the one hand, his appreciation for psychological complexity, represented by Albertine’s intuitive powers of inspired imagination in nightmarish dreams and their potential to off er a fuller personal awareness. Fridolin, on the other hand, feels compelled to act out his profound restlessness of desire (for liberation?) through direct experience in the tangible world, even as he endangers himself and others in his adventuresome risks. Thus, Schnitzler demonstrates the marriage between physical and psychic experience, whether curative or not. Sigmund Freud, Schnitzler’s Viennese compatriot, had read his work and complimented him as Freud’s own doppelgänger. He expressed envy that Schnitzler could intuit “secret knowledge” that Freud could discover only after “arduous examination”.14 Schnitzler was not, of course, after case studies of psychological pathologies. Rather, he set his protagonist Fridolin on a journey of desire that finally tests the limits of conscious awareness through experiences of loss, guilt, and the possibility of atonement. This is established through the novella’s predominant story emphasis on the psychosexual as well as the social-theocratic aspects of Fridolin’s experience and Albertine’s dreams, in which the personal stakes of their marriage finally appear to take some precedence over the other broader questions of their cultural circumstances. In constructing the screenplay, Kubrick and Raphael both recognized the interior dimensions as well as the less developed social aspects of the novella. Raphael felt that he was the one who initially wanted to push the story emphasis beyond individual longing and toward a more comprehensive portrait of contemporary social class and power relations. Nor did Kubrick finally protest, though he had always been wary of being too obvious in character intent, dialogue, and theme, since he never wanted his films to function mainly as reductive ideas. After completing 2001, he spoke of how he hoped audiences would respond to his work generally: “I think an audience watching a film or a play is in a state very similar to dreaming, and that the dramatic experience becomes a kind of controlled dream… the important point here is that the film communicates on a subconscious level, and the audience responds to the basic shape of the story on a subconscious level, as it responds to a dream.”15 Traumnovelle provided a literal story of oneiric experience, although Kubrick and Raphael clearly did not want their screen treatment to be merely a reflection on the interchangeability of waking versus dream life. Kubrick’s choice of title for the film is indicative of his eventual emphasis: Eyes Wide Shut might insinuate a potential for psychological awareness through dreams, although the title’s dominant allusion is to myopia in perception despite wakefulness. The title change removes the word Traum (dream) from the original German in favor of a physical sense of seeing without seeing, of a blindness to social consciousness.
The displacement of personal autonomy and family or community cohesion by alienating forces is repeatedly held up for examination in Kubrick films such as Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. Kubrick, a Jew, knew where Western life had led since 1926 and had experienced deep anguish over the genocidal devastation of the Holocaust. Frederic Raphael, also a Jew, pointedly observed that it would be “absurd to try to understand Stanley Kubrick without reckoning on Jewishness as a fundamental aspect of his mentality, if not of his work in general” (R., 108). This may seem surprising in light of the nearly complete lack of Jewish characters in his films. Here, too, Kubrick specified that Raphael should make the central couple thoroughly gentile and mainstream, with the English-sounding family name of Harford (perhaps coined from the auteur’s living area of Herefordshire). When Bill is jostled in the street by a group of young men, he is accused of being gay. Kubrick did not want ethnicity to distract from audience identification with the Harfords’ mainstream status and rather typical marital issues; they eventually confront far more suggestive and omnipresent contemporary challenges than does the couple in the novella.
It is in the realm of contemporary character and plot motivation related to the socioeconomic dimension of desire that the contributions of Frederic Raphael were initially crucial. Most important, he was responsible for both creating and developing the character called Victor Ziegler in the screenplay. This new character—who does not exist in the novella—becomes central to the entire contemporary theme that Kubrick eventually put on-screen. Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) appears along with Bill Harford in three key scenes: the first occurs toward the beginning, at Ziegler’s Christmas party, in a bathroom of his huge urban home; the second is at the grand orgy at a massive country estate when they are in mask; and the third is the climactic discussion in the billiard room at Ziegler’s home, in which Ziegler reveals the identity of the dead woman Bill believes tried to save him. Raphael’s idea and intentions here were explicitly addressed to Kubrick:

It [the novella’s plot] was, I argued, seriously unsatisfactory unless, for instance, the man I had called Ziegler was somehow involved both in the orgy and in Bill’s escape from danger. To avoid resolving the issue, merely because Schnitzler had left it all in the air, would be to make the same mistake as Antonioni when he failed, at the end of Blow Up, to let us have any idea why anyone had been murdered, or by whom. (R., 145)

During the script’s composition, Raphael argued not only for the critical billiard room confrontation between Bill and the wealthy Ziegler regarding the dead woman but also for Ziegler’s revelation about what group was behind the orgy in which she played a role.16
On-screen, Bill and Alice Harford are presented as beautiful, sophisticated, but at first rather naïve citizens in America’s urban society. Their expensive apartment and social world in New York City (actually shot in London) seem at first untouched by the more chaotic world down on the streets. The warm appeal of their home interiors, however, is periodically counterbalanced by neon-lit commercial exteriors along shadowy streets and byways of unpredictable danger. This juxtaposed imagery surrounding Bill’s excursions is psychologically suggestive, but it also reflects a rich-poor gap that becomes an important signifier of class differences. To accentuate this difference, Kubrick, unlike the novella’s author, has his upper-middleclass Adam and Eve figures play out their drama at Christmastime.17 He persistently dresses his interior scenes in reds and blues, while often further lighting these tints with blue overtones. The light blue interior wash comes either through windows at night18 or from above in key scenes and thus creates an expressionistic sense of fantasy and nightmare, of claustrophobically enclosed and uncanny spaces. The Christmas red, in contrast to the blue, is also part of a thematic series of binaries: warmth and cold, interior and exterior, dream and reality, and a personal longing and social exploitation that finally require further elaboration. This begins with the fact that Bill’s sexual jealousy toward his wife becomes merely a pretext in the film for an extended venture into a world of seduction, wealth, and power. This is carefully developed through a series of details that assert class difference and mythical economic fulfillment. As if the cold blue contrast to the presence of warm Christmas lights and Christmas trees in interiors were not enough, there are dialogue references to color as a promise of Eden. The models who flirt with Bill at Ziegler’s party say very suggestively that they are taking him to “the end of the rainbow,” as if sexual gratification and the more typical allusion to a pot of gold were the same thing. The shop where Bill rents his costume and stumbles on an unseemly sexual episode also has painted red-and-blue signage naming it The Rainbow. Even the large bag in which Bill carries his burdensome costume prominently features the store’s name. These and other dialogue cues and visual images crescendo in the blue-washed trial scene at the orgy.
The film opens just as Bill and Alice dress for the gala party at the huge urban mansion of Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife. The grandiose surface elegance of Ziegler’s private party becomes a hallucinatory pleasure garden that overlays some troubling events. Bill and Alice quickly become separated at the classy affair and find themselves in flirtatious circumstances that are extended beyond anything in the novella. In the film, when Bill is summoned upstairs by Ziegler, he tells his two seductive escorts that this is “to be continued.” He must tend to another one of Ziegler’s beautiful party guests, a momentary sexual partner who has overdosed from drugs and lies naked and inert before the two men and perhaps near death. Her position in a lounge chair imitates a painting of a reclining nude set over an elaborate fireplace, as if she were just another part of the furnishings. Dr. Harford is successful in awakening her and insists she go into drug treatment, but he also continues to kowtow to Ziegler as the older man proceeds to blame the poor victim, named Mandy, and to ask Bill to keep the incident to himself. Meanwhile, the tipsy Alice downstairs averts a heated seduction by her lascivious Hungarian dance partner, Szavost. He wants her to go upstairs alone with him to see Ziegler’s “private collection” of artifacts. He is an even more obvious incarnation than is Ziegler of a decadent ownership class that enjoys an institutionalized form of vampirism in art, women, and business. But unlike the way Bill is subtly drawn into a conspiratorial friendship with Ziegler, Alice shows her ability to play with Szavost’s temptations while tipsy without caving in to his luxurious charms.
The following day, as Bill and Alice share a joint while dressing for a shopping trip, they discuss what each did at the party, and Bill denies any sexual interest in the girls with whom he flirted. Alice is moved to challenge Bill’s denial with a vigorous interrogation. Alice feels eventually driven to tell him her feelings of rapture for a man she merely observed on one of their vacations, and Bill is unable to answer with any similar experience of his own. Whether drinking champagne or stoned on a joint, Alice seems able to move through the turmoil of her desires and subconscious toward their curative possibilities. The film reveals, however, the way Bill’s logical thinking and control tend toward repression and denial, an unwillingness to address subconscious truth and authentic feeling. The outwardly more adventurous Bill is nevertheless forced to confront a socioeconomic level of authority to which Alice is not directly privy, or else disregards as of little consequence. Kubrick always preferred to create at least enough distance and complexity in characters and scenes to encourage active audience contemplation rather than simply character identification. This is particularly apparent in the way he undercuts the titillating potential in his constant resort to glaring images of nudity and sexual embrace, whether seen or imagined. In the opening shot, before the film’s full screen title, Alice kicks off her dress and momentarily stands naked with her back to the camera. Both a later scene in which the couple lounge in their underwear in the privacy of their bedroom and again when they share an intimate nude embrace play initially to the viewer’s voyeurism. But in the first instance, the couple’s near nudity is resisted by Alice’s verbal attack on her husband, and in the second scene, during their sexual embrace before their dresser mirror, Alice glances at herself self-consciously just as the aggressive Chris Isaak song, “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” distances the viewer from their intimacy as well as its legitimacy. Much later, as Bill taxies to the mysterious orgy, he has tortured thoughts, shown in black and white, of his wife in bed with her stranger, and each time he imagines this, the image becomes more sexually aggressive than the last. Alienating devices such as these make the nudity and sex uncomfortable and viewer voyeurism self-conscious. So consistently are nudity and sex represented in increasingly degrading contexts of jealousy, fear, sickness, commerce, and finally death that it implicates the entire Christmas setting, normally taken to suggest generosity and good will. Further, the directorial consistency in the images of alienating voyeurism creates a tension at the level of appearances. They evolve into a motif that contradicts visual consumption and prepares the way for an additional level of meaning. Unlike Schnitzler’s bland orgiastic event that Fridolin attends at a modest home to the sounds of a harmonium and sacred Italian song, Kubrick’s primary spectacle occurs at a palatial country estate in a great, church-like hall, where an aggressive, single-note piano score collides against a forbidding deep voice chanting in Latin. Here, the now disguised Bill is surrounded by other masked figures on the main floor, while a small group of men and women on an upper level look down on those below. One senior figure stares down at him and nods in a seemingly disapproving recognition that has Bill confused. This large male, in a traditional mask of aristocracy,19 is later revealed to be the power broker Victor Ziegler. Most of the crowd on the main floor stands in the wings near a central performance by a masked, bishop-like figure in pink liturgical regalia. Pounding with his staff, he directs a circle of masked, leggy models of Barbie doll similarity to drop their cloaks and expose their nudity. While they are still on their knees, he approaches each woman individually and gives the consensual command to rise and seek a partner among the larger group. A debauched reflection of a high church Mass and Eucharist is unmistakable. As Bill wanders from room to room, the continuing displays of nude observers and raw sexual acts seem to follow Raphael’s suggestion for the screenplay “that the orgy take the form of a sort of sexual mall, perhaps in the library of the big house” (R., 145). Voyeuristic and active sexual behavior is meant by Raphael to be associated with the casual activity of shopping, which would explain the bored and unfulfilled faces of the nude figures who passively observe the sexual performers. As the acts of copulation (partly screened by cloaked bodies in the American release) are observed indifferently by a shifting audience of couples, Bill’s anxiety grows because he is sought out and further warned by one of the masked women with a large headdress. She seems to have recognized him as an outsider and taken pity on him, although soon afterward in the great hall, she is unable to prevent his ritual public unmasking and condemnation. Just before Bill is forced to remove his clothes by another formal command from the presiding “bishop” (who sits on his throne, which has a crown facsimile topped by a cross), however, the same masked woman reappears in an upper balcony and publicly offers herself as a sacrifice in his place. This scene suggests a strange insider morality that advances orgiastic sex, restricts it to lifeless codes of consumption, and backs it all by punishment for the uninitiated.
Kubrick and Raphael, therefore, while sharing with Schnitzler a dreamlike text of hierarchical psychodrama, not only extend the novella’s sexual associations to an organized ritual of consumer fetishism but also heighten the threat of a potent but secretive authority that wraps itself in a cloak of twisted religiosity and righteousness. The orgy spectacle asserts no less than a patriarchal, spiritually bankrupt Mass led by the privileged ownership class. The unmitigated and forbidding seriousness of Kubrick’s assault here is not to make a moral point about sex and sin but rather to emphasize how the natural appeal of sexuality has been commodified into a form of economic and political weapon. (Clockwork Orange carries a similar message, though in an entirely different tonal register.) Nudity and sexuality become bland and shameful under conditions of exploitation, which distorts rather than reveals truth and meaningful connection.
After Bill returns home and hides his mask, Alice awakens and tells him of her nightmare, which is almost the same as the one Albertine tells Fridolin in the novella. The business about Fridolin’s being pursued by a princess and nailed to a cross is exempted, however, perhaps because it has now been transmogrified into the religious insinuations of the Rafael/Kubrick orgy already described. In Alice’s dream, furthermore, she speaks of being the humiliated nude victim of a sexual assault involving several men, as if she were the one who had to take the responsibility and pay the price for her husband’s involvement with their society’s “leadership” class. In contrast to the happy Albertine in her dream, Alice is tortured by her husband’s absence and what we know of his flirtation with the privileged. Thus, the overwhelming impression of the entire night’s adventure is one of Bill’s introduction into the unseen vertical structures of economic and political power, where he should tread with great care lest he or Alice be severely punished. Indeed, when Bill retraces his steps in a state of guilt the next day, he is very menacingly followed.
As he seeks to locate those from his first strange sojourn, it becomes increasingly clear that the members of the lower service class he met along the way have suffered physically or worse. When Bill returns his costume, the obsequious vendor Milich stands with his daughter and propositions the doctor regarding her sexual availability; the street prostitute Bill almost had sex with turns out to have just tested positive for HIV; Bill’s pianist friend was that morning severely beaten and rushed from the city; and Bill is denied entry at the massive blue gate of the country estate with another dire warning. The lower orders are humbled while the power figures remain anonymous. Most important, Bill learns from a newspaper story of the drug induced death of a woman he believes to be the same one who stood up for him at the orgiastic ceremony. Beside himself with concern, he visits the morgue and is sufficiently convinced that it is the same woman.20 From his perspective of those suffering mistreatment, despair, and loss, Bill is called on his cell phone and asked to pay a visit to Ziegler at his city mansion.
In this climactic scene, Ziegler in a light blue shirt receives Bill in a large billiard room of huge windows filled with blue light. The wealthy man first attempts to soften Bill with an offer of cases of expensive scotch. Ziegler also pushes billiard balls about on his large pink felt table as he answers Bill’s increasingly pressing questions about what happened to Mandy. It is probably intentional that the table’s felt matches the color of the bishop’s cowl at the orgy, and that the centrality of the pool table matches the centrality in the prior scene of the metal slab in the morgue on which Mandy’s lifeless body reclined. Ziegler admits that Mandy was the same drug-overdosed girl Bill treated at his party and who spoke for him at the masque. He also tells Bill that he had him followed for his protection, although Bill believes it was to prevent his speaking to the police about the circumstances surrounding Mandy’s death. Ziegler increases his threat by explaining that Bill doesn’t know what kind of trouble he was in last night, and that if he told Bill the names of the people at the masque, “I don’t think you would sleep too well.” The implication that the masked attendees at the orgy are the political and business elite is confirmed. Bill now refuses to be cordial and pointedly challenges Ziegler’s evasiveness about Mandy’s death, about what kind of charade or so-called “faked intervention” by Mandy on Bill’s behalf would lead to such a thing. Ziegler simply says she was a hooker and a druggie and “got fucked” by a lot of men before she was taken home after the masque… “nobody was killed; life goes on.”
Bill now unconditionally recognizes what he saw only with his eyes wide shut at the beginning of the film. In the aftermath of the orgy, in his wife’s real and dream revelations, and now in the case of Mandy’s death, Ziegler becomes recognizable as the face of a viciously exploitative culture. His family name (not to mention his first name, Victor) is also phonetically close to the German term Sieger, or conqueror.21 Ziegler refuses to connect Mandy’s death “by drugs” with the abuse she has received at the hands of the power figures with whom he associates. Ziegler, steeped in denial, believes that Mandy’s death is based on her own inferiority. Bill, however, no longer blames Mandy but rather sees the self-preoccupied indifference in Ziegler’s position, as well as how he once colluded with it. Having now taken stock of Ziegler, Dr. Bill returns home, apparently resolved to atone for his involvement. He turns off the Christmas tree lights as he enters their large apartment, but he is shocked to see his mask on the pillow beside his wife. He collapses sobbing in Alice’s arms.
The next day, both shaken from their experiences, they give their closing lines in a setting invented by Kubrick for the film. They take their daughter Christmas shopping at a fancy toy store and find themselves surrounded in a pricey toy land of adults and children. Like Fridolin, Bill asks what they should do, and Alice makes the same replies given by Albertina. They should feel fortunate for having survived their struggle to an awakening, but with the understanding that nothing is certain or eternal. The immediate setting counteracts, however, the sense that full wakefulness can weigh against the forces of identity displacement in a highly seductive social formation. As they converse, their daughter has gotten herself momentarily lost among entire shopping islands of toys. What, then, will the distracted parents’ emotional catharsis mean in a world in which children are actively seduced by a class-oriented consumerism?22 The lush setting of large toys contributes to skepticism.
Alice’s final comment to her husband is also original to the film and a loaded reminder of the terror of modern isolation. Alice asks that they go home and “fuck,” directly asserting their need to find what connection and basic solace they can amid the debased commerce of distortions that have undermined the good faith and generosity that Christmas was meant to represent. In this his last film, therefore, Kubrick makes a Ulysses-like return to the familial hearth and its potential at least for honest personal intimacy within a greater political economic and pontifical landscape of secrecy and deception. Having completed his directorial travels through films involving war rooms, computer isolation in outer space, sleazy “milk” bars, psychosisfilled hotel landscapes, foreign battlefields, and the final nightmare of political and theocratic depravity, Kubrick has continued to prove his belief that contemporary Western culture is increasingly a paradise lost.
Whereas the 1927 novella’s emphasis falls on the psychological dimension of ethical, ethnic, class, and religious experience, Raphael and Kubrick build a contemporary psychological and political blend of these ingredients into a bad dream of false and degraded promise. Their adaptation thus constitutes a realignment and contemporary reaccentuation of the novella. It is hard to imagine that Kubrick could have developed the depth of story that this film became without the exhaustive efforts of Freddie Raphael, whose authorship remains central to its characterization and plot. In the film, Schnitzler’s tale is vastly enlarged into a compelling metaphor for the seductive exteriorization of native desire and fulfillment and the consequent loss of meaningful social agency. The “Zieglers” continue to rule. Years earlier, after completing the likes of Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick was asked how he thought the world would end. “ ‘I think the danger is not that authority will collapse,’ he said, ‘but that, finally, in order to preserve itself, authority will become very repressive.’ ”23 Such a thought is close to the warning delivered in Eyes Wide Shut of a pietistic society of political-economic expediency that depends on class envy (the eroticized promise of the rainbow) for its continuing control and exploitation. Victor Ziegler (partly through his association with the unholy and judicious bishop) personifies all of these linkages so carefully developed in the dialogue, the alienating use of sound, and the blue-tainted mise-en-scène of this adaptation. The film poses a privatized ruling order of grand spectacle that brandishes the signs of its wealth and public rituals even as it masks its debauchery and abuses of power. Perhaps Kubrick’s own epic voyage through cinema and into death has found some solace in reminding us of all the essential human connections that have gone missing, and of what might be done on the level of social as well as personal consciousness to begin to recover them.


1. Kubrick did his own adaptation of Lionel White’s novel Clean Break for The Killing. Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson helped him with the adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s fact-based novel Paths of Glory. The screenplay adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita is credited to Nabokov, although the film isn’t based on Nabokov’s published version of his screenplay. Peter George’s serious novel Red Alert is the basis for Strangelove, and though he is partly credited for the film’s screenplay, Kubrick saw the need for satirical treatment of the subject and brought in and also credited comic novelist Terry Southern to help him complete the project. Kubrick brilliantly adapted Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange on his own, as he did Barry Lyndon. He hired Diane Johnson to help him adapt Stephen King’s The Shining, and for Full Metal Jacket he brought in Gustav Hasford, whose work (The Short-Timers) they adapted, as well as another Vietnam War novelist, which is discussed further in my text.
2. Gene D. Phillips, Stanley Kubrick: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 179–180.
3. Greg Jenkins, Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation (London: McFarland, 1997), 109.
4. The source was science fiction writer Brian Aldiss’s short story, “Super Toys All Summer Long.” A.I. is an abbreviation for artificial intelligence.
5. The script was based on the novel Wartime Lies (1991), by Louis Begley.
6. Warner Books published a transcript of the Eyes Wide Shut screenplay in 1999 when the film was released, and also included a new translation of Traumnovelle by J. M. Q. Davies under the title Dream Story.
The references cited here are to the Rhapsody translation and pagination.
7. Schnitzler claimed to be working on this story idea for about twenty years. He was sixty-six when the novella was finally completed, and he died at seventy, while Kubrick completed his screen adaptation of it in 1999, the final year of his life at seventy-one.
8. Kubrick also admired Ophuls for the visual sophistication of his characterizations, including in particular his smooth-moving camera techniques, which Kubrick used and expanded upon.
9. In addition to being a physician, writer, and pianist, Arthur Schnitzler became interested in film in his later years and even wrote a fragmentary screenplay from Traumnovelle as part of an unrealized plan with G. W. Pabst to bring it to film. As might be expected, Schnitzler’s screenplay fragment is a near replica of his fictional story. There is no firm evidence that either Kubrick or his screenwriter read this untranslated and little known partial German script, which nevertheless has fleeting images from the wife’s dream of her husband’s little escapade in Denmark. Schnitzler’s script concludes at the point where he rents his costume and departs for the strange late-night party in a horse-drawn cab.
10. Schnitzler was also an early experimenter with stream-of-consciousness writing as he attempted to trace the swells of heterosexual desire and guilt intermixed with the reasoning processes of the mind.
11. Jenkins, Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation, 201.
12. This password to the orgy in the novella is meant to have direct associations with the couple’s summer fantasies in Denmark. The password is changed to “Fidelio” in the film, which is close to Fridolin’s name and has the direct sense of fidelity, and is thus further ironic in relation to Bill’s marriage. Fidelio is also the name of Beethoven’s only opera. Since one of the opera’s primary themes is loyalty, Raphael/ Kubrick may have had in mind the code of silence, which fits the Mafia and, as we shall see, the elite class behind the “sacred” orgy in the film.
13. The idea of a social and psychological awakening is present elsewhere in Schnitzler’s work. His short story “The Widower” describes a man who finds a letter from his best friend to his now deceased wife that makes their infidelity apparent. The text describes his reaction in words similar to those in Traumnovelle, which may have given Kubrick his idea for the film’s title: “And the first word that Richard reads… strikes him numb for a moment… With wide open eyes he looks around to see if everything in the room is still the same…” (Italics mine.)
14. Leo Carey, “The Dream Master: The Stories of Arthur Schnitzler, the Amoral Voice of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna,” The New Yorker (September 9, 2002), 154. The words are quoted in the article and apparently are from Freud, but the source is not cited.
15. Bernard Weinraub, “Kubrick Tells What Makes Clockwork Orange tick” New York Times, January 4, 1972.
16. To make his point to Kubrick about the possibility of a secret society of sexual license among the powerful elite, Raphael wrote an entire story about such a thing using real names and gave it to the director, who believed it to be factual at first because it was so thoroughly laid out (R., 146–148). Although such a society is not spelled out in the film, Kubrick obviously saw that something like this might exist, not to mention its metaphorical possibilities for what eventually became his larger thematic insinuations.
17. Martha Nochimson made suggestions about “the spiritual/consumerist oxymoron of Christmas” that appeared in an early draft of an article she was writing and are gratefully embraced here.
18. Also an effect of shooting interiors where exterior daylight is not color-corrected for interior tungsten.
19. This Venetian type of mask allowed the wearer to drink and eat without removing it. Almost all the masks for the film came from the craftsmen and shops in Venice. See Mario Belloni’s Maschere a Venezia (Venice: Ca’ Macana, 2002), 16.
20. The film is ambiguous on this point since a different actress was brought in to play the corpse in the morgue, although this may have been done because the other actress was not available at the time.
21. Also, Sieg Heil (hail victory) was sometimes given as a Nazi salute to another Austrian by birth, Adolph Hitler. Certainly Schnitzler, who understood imperial Austrian nationalism well enough in his own time, would have been appalled at the level of National Socialist anti-Semitism by the late 1930s. Raphael notes that he named Ziegler after an unpleasant former agent of his called Ziggy (R., 119), although the German language and Nazi associations seem valid and were probably considered eventually by Kubrick. The director had a German artist as his third and most long-term wife, Susanne Christian. Some of her art work appears in this film, as it did in others of his.
22. Kubrick and Raphael also add a scene at home before Bill’s second odyssey that involves their daughter’s request for a real puppy for Christmas, which she argues could serve as a watchdog. But then she goes back to her homework involving a math problem in subtraction testing how much more money one person has than another. This scene with mother and daughter over homework is also dressed in a strong red, white, and blue—as are others, including especially the closing scene with the family at the toy store.
23. Phillips, Stanley Kubrick, 185.

Source: Jack Boozer [Edited and with an Introduction by], Authorship in Film Adaptation, University of Texas Press Austin, 2008, pp. 85-106


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