Notes on Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Novella and Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut

Rainer J. Kaus
University of Cologne

Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Novella and Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut have much in common and are at the same time very different from each other. Stanley Kubrick sets the story of the novella in present-day New York. The main protagonists are the married couple, Fridolin and Albertine, renamed William (Bill) and Alice and portrayed by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Taboos and problems of secondary relationships in marriage in Vienna at the turn of the century (also frequently referred to as the age of decadence) are transferred to modern-day New York. In doing so, a not inconsiderable part of the mood, atmosphere and fantasy of the Viennese novella is estranged and thus translated into a new message by setting it in present-day New York. Certain questions regarding to what extent fantasy and reality in their mutual dependencies are concretized by the film and conveyed to the viewer can be raised. Schnitzler's attribution of the reality of the dream to Albertine and the testing of fantasy in Fridolin's reality is also sensitively put into question by Stanley Kubrick. The film and the novella are to be reconsidered by means of an exemplary juxtaposition. The marital drama from the turn of the century possesses a present-day relevance which, despite liberalization, the breaking down of taboos and changes in moral values, has not lost any of its intensity the yearning for intimacy in a satisfying relationship, but also its simultaneous endangering by our unconscious desires, feelings and fantasies. Arthur Schnitzler, who was a medical doctor by profession, was admired by Freud for his knowledgeable descriptions of psychic processes. They were not friends, but had great respect for each other. It is said that it was only the children of Freud and Schnitzler, who played together with each other, who gave occasion for correspondence between the two.

Arthur Schnitzler was born in 1862 in Vienna and died in Vienna in 1931. His narrative, Dream Novella, was first published in 1925 in the journal, Die Dame (The Lady), in the December issue 1925 and the March issue 1926. In the same year, the novella was published by Fischer Verlag in Berlin as a book. The story tells of a well situated bourgeois married couple. He is thirty-five years old and a doctor with his own practice and consultations at the outpatients" clinic. She is some years younger than he is and seems to be totally absorbed by her duties as wife and mother.

The time-frame of the narrative spans thirty-four hours, starting in the evening at nine o"clock while the couple's small daughter is reading a fairy-tale out loud, who falls asleep doing so1. She wakes up with a fright when her father shuts the book and says that it is time to go to bed. The nursery governess comes in and puts the little girl to bed. Once the parents are alone, they talk about their experiences in the seductive atmosphere of the previous evening, the last masked ball of carnival season. They tell each other of their encounters and their relief at finding themselves once again in the sheltered intimacy of the familiar other. The night after the ball they are even united in the bliss of love in a way they have not experienced for a long time.

The conversation gradually extends also to other secret wishes and fantasies of the couple and is mainly shaped on the initiative of Albertine, who is the first to tell of the erotic attraction of a young man whom she had seen in the hotel during their last vacation in Denmark and to whom, after mutual signs of fascination, she would have given everything, even though at that time she had also especially felt and enjoyed the closeness to Fridolin. In response to a question about comparable experiences on his part, he tells of a quite young girl with loose blonde hair on the beach who, despite mutual attraction, had ordered him to go away. Through their departure, both relationships were left in limbo, but Albertine thought that in future they should always tell each other such things straight away.

This conversation is suddenly interrupted by the maid who reports to Fridolin that he should come urgently to the privy counsellor because of an emergency. The chamber maid brings him his fur coat, he quickly takes leave of his wife and, in his thoughts, he is already somewhere else. When he arrives at his patient's place, the patient is already dead. He issues the death certificate and opens the window through which warm spring air flows in. Suddenly, Marianne, the daughter of the house, reveals feelings of affection and desire to him. Despite the fleeting thought that she would look better if she were his lover, his feelings remain rather indifferent. Relieved, he takes his leave after the bell rings and Marianne's fiancé comes in. Now he can take leave of both of them and goes out into the night, at first with no definite destination.

On the way he comes across tipsy students who jostle him, a homeless man on a park bench and a small, dainty prostitute who accosts him. He goes off with her to her room, but because of inhibitions which are not clear to him, he cannot desire her.

He drew her to him and started to make love to her as he might to an ordinary girl or a woman that he loved. She resisted and, feeling ashamed, he eventually desisted.2

Back on the street, he decides to note down the house number and have her sent wine and some sweets the next day.

He goes on and comes to a coffee-house which makes a rather dilapidated impression on him. There he meets an old friend with whom he had studied medicine but who never succeeded in completing his studies. Instead he has become all the more a talented and desired pianist. His name is Nightingale. Nightingale recalls at once his earlier debts to him which he can now pay from a well filled wallet.

Fridolin wonders about this and becomes curious. Nightingale reveals to him that he plays piano for a secret society at a place unknown to him. After Fridolin insists for a long time, Nightingale agrees to take Fridolin with him and to tell him the password. But beforehand, Fridolin must get hold of a costume and a mask.

On the advice of the costume hirer, Fridolin chooses a monk's habit. His experiences with the costume hirer and his daughter, Pierrette, who seems to be more a kind of Lolita and ignites his erotic desires, are here mentioned only in passing. A coach which, with its coachman sitting unmoving in a high top hat and completely in black, reminds Fridolin of a funeral coach, brings him to the unknown place. Fridolin is admitted after giving the password, "Denmark", which awakens associations with the erotic fantasies of Fridolin and Albertine during their last vacation.

Then the occult atmosphere of the house surrounds him. Women with masks and cavaliers in multicoloured clothes are walking up and down.

The room opposite was suffused with dazzling light, and there the ladies were standing motionless, each with a dark veil covering her head, brow and neck, and a black lace mask over her face, but otherwise completely naked. Fridolin's eyes roved hungrily from sensuous to slender figures, and from budding figures to figures in glorious full bloom; and the fact that each of these naked beauties still remained a mystery, and that from behind the masks large eyes as unfathomable as riddles sparkled at him, transformed his indescribably strong urge to watch into an almost intolerable torment of desire.3

Suddenly a slim, boyish lady approaches him whose voice seems familiar, but her face remains hidden behind a mask. She warns him urgently to leave the house immediately. But he wants to stay with her and, despite the danger she has hinted at, asks whether he can see her again. She refuses. He is asked once again for the password, but he knows only the password for admission, not that of the house. He is then confronted with the demand that he take off his mask. He refuses at first and a lady in a nun's habit avows that she is prepared to vouch for him. But because he wants to prevent this, he declares that he is prepared after all to take off his mask, give his name and accept all the consequences. She pleas with him not to believe that he can save himself and her as well in this way.

And, turning to the others, "Here I am, at your disposal—all of you!" Her dark costume fell away from her as if by magic, so that she stood there in all the radiance of her white body...4

Even before Fridolin can recognize her face, he is pushed out by the others. He tries to make a mental note of the house so as to find it again.

The coach brings him back to the city by a roundabout route. Even the coach itself assumes an eerie character with its opaque windows and tightly locked doors which seem to open by themselves through an invisible mechanism. He reflects once more upon his experiences in the mysterious company.

And he vowed not to rest until he had again found the beautiful woman, whose dazzling nakedness had so mesmerized him. Only now did he think of Albertine—and felt as though he were obliged to conquer her as well, as though she could not, she would not be his again until he had betrayed her with all the others he had met that night, with the naked woman, with Pierrette, with Marianne, and with the little trollop from the narrow back street.5

At four o"clock in the morning, Fridolin comes home and meets with Albertine, who is drowsy with sleep. He is taken aback by the sudden, shrill laugh with which she awakens from a dream. And he asks her to tell him her dream.

In this dream, in various sequences as if in parallel to Fridolin's experiences of the past night, Albertine lives through and describes erotic fantasies. They go beyond the usual boundaries of what Albertine could imagine in a waking state. Thus she says,

It would be ... hard to conceive of anything in normal conscious life that could equal the freedom, the abandon, the sheer bliss I experienced in that dream. And yet throughout all this I never for a moment ceased to be aware of you.6

Her Bacchanalian dream fantasies intensify and mix with sadistic desires that have their culmination in Fridolin's crucifixion, which she allows to happen without pity.

I wanted you at least to hear my laughter while they nailed you to the cross. And so I burst out laughing as loudly and piercingly as I was able. That was the laughter, Fridolin, with which I awoke.7

Some authors try to understand Albertine's dream on the level of the manifest dream. This leads to very contradictory statements and contortions. In William H. Rey's interpretation, for instance, there is no reference to the fact that the dream follows, so to speak, a hermeneutic of understanding. Thus, the dream is not simply a matter of the removal of the "inhibitions of consciousness" and the "release of libido", as Rey says8, but rather it comprises also complicated mechanisms such as condensation, displacement, inversion into the opposite and, not least of all, dream censorship.9

Fridolin resolves to take revenge on Albertine and even to separate from her. The next morning he packs the monk's habit and the pilgrim's hat which he has to return to the costume hirer.

He had worked out his program for the day carefully and even with a touch of pedantry.10

He forgets, however, to take the mask with him. This parapraxis will later on be the key to understanding Albertine more deeply who, with the mask, gives a sign of her sensitive way of dealing with Fridolin's attempts at erotic emancipation.

And this parapraxis is not the only reference to Freudian thinking. The fact that Schnitzler invites all sorts of depth-psychological interpretations can be seen, for instance, in the study by Hertha Krotkoff on the Dream Novella.

One could easily be tempted to construct intentional resonances from the common features in the title and theme of the works by Freud and Schnitzler. The idea of a position taken toward Freud's scientific interpretations of dreams in the form of a novella lies to hand. The extent to which conjectures in this direction are justified may perhaps be revealed sometime by the diaries.11

With other authors, the relation to Freud often seems somewhat forced. This reveals both the possibilities and limits of the dream narrated in literature vis-à-vis the "really" experienced clinical dream. It can easily happen that Schnitzler's genuine achievement is overlooked.

There is in any case clear evidence that Schnitzler used depth-psychological insights in a literary way already in 1880, long before Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900. Schnitzler's unfinished sketch Spring Night in the Surgery Theatre serves as evidence. It was written already twenty years before the Interpretation of Dreams was written.

Without exaggeration it can be said that even before 1894, Schnitzler's writings reveal all the convictions and insights that in his later works are regarded as obviously having been influenced by Freud. All the principal features can be recognized: the hidden depths of the personality, the various levels of consciousness, the domination of the conscious by the unconscious, doubts about the freedom of will, knowledge of the significance of dreams, the enormous influence of childhood experiences on the development and the psychological significance of sexual impressions.12

Kenneth Segar, who regards Schnitzler as being predestined to have a deeper access than others to the lives of people because of his original profession as physician13, even refers to similarities between Freud and Schnitzler in the terminology they employ. Particularly striking is Schnitzler's concept of "middle consciousness" to which he attributes an intermediate position just like Freud does to the "preconscious".14 A semi-conscious state between unconsciousness and preconsciousness that Michael Scheffel sees at work precisely in the mutual investigation of each other undertaken by Fridolin and Albertine.15

Apart from performing his medical duties, Fridolin, the protagonist of the novella, also seeks out all the stations of the previous night after Albertine's dream confession, but this tour becomes a series of disappointments for him. He looks for Nightingale and is told of his violent disappearance. When giving back the costume he meets the daughter of the costume hirer once more and has to admit that she is a whore. The sweets which he wants to take to the young prostitute, Mizzi, he cannot deliver personally because in the meantime she has been admitted to hospital. With Marianne, the daughter of the deceased privy councillor, he wants to begin his revenge on Albertine. He imagines a kind of double life.

Being at once a hard-working reliable progressive doctor, a decent husband, family man and father, and at the same time a profligate, seducer and cynic who played with men and women as his whim dictated—this prospect seemed to him at that moment peculiarly agreeable. And the most agreeable thing of all about it was that later on, when Albertine imagined herself secure in the haven of her tranquil conjugal and family life, he would be able to smile coldly and confess his sins to her, and thus get even for all the bitterness and shame she had brought upon him in her dream.16

But when he sees Marianne again, he is overtaken once again by his original indifference. He tries to find the villa again in which he had met the mysterious beauty, and does indeed find it, but there he is handed a letter with the repeated warning to cease all his investigations.

He tries intermittently and repeatedly to assure himself of the familiar everyday world. He calls home; after his consultations he checks on his wife and child and discovers to his relief that Albertine's mother is visiting her and that his daughter is learning French with the governess.

And it was not until he reached the stairs that he again had the sense that all this order, balance and security in his life was really an illusion and a lie.17

In a coffee-house he reads in the evening paper about the attempted suicide of a refined, strikingly attractive baroness who reminds him of the woman who had wanted to risk her life for him at the orgy of the mysterious society. He visits the anatomical institute for pathology where he finds only a corpse that he tries to identify. But he has to acknowledge that her face had been hidden behind a mask for the whole evening and he becomes aware that,

ever since he had first read the notice in the paper, he had been imagining the faceless suicidal woman as having Albertine's features; indeed, as he now realized with a shudder, his wife had been incessantly hovering before his eyes as the woman he was seeking.18

After a confusing, emotional leave-taking from the desired woman, which is burdened by guilt feelings, Fridolin comes home in the early hours of the morning. With alarm he discovers next to Albertine's face the mask which he had obviously forgotten that morning. He is shaken and starts sobbing. He then feels Albertine's hand stroking his hair. He resolves to tell her everything. Albertine listens to him calmly and responds to him, smiling, that basically both of them should be grateful for the fate of having survived for the moment all the confusions and entanglements. To Fridolin's sceptical question whether she knows that for certain, Albertine replies,

"As sure as I am of my sense that neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person's entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being." "And no dream," he sighed quietly, "is altogether a dream." She took his head in both her hands and pillowed it tenderly against her breast. "Now we are truly awake," she said, "at least for a good while."19

The novella ends where it began, with the little daughter. With a "victorious" ray of sunlight and the bright laughter of a child from the next room, the new day begins. It is characterized by the interplay between the protagonists, Fridolin and Albertine, as well as the secondary figures. The sequence of Fridolin's encounters with women represents one of Schnitzler's special techniques. Through the intermeshing of day and night in the narrative, a precise temporal determination can be made. The beginning and the end are defined by the couple's child. The Dream Novella is subdivided into seven sections. Sections four and five deal mainly with the world of the unconscious. The intermeshing of interior world and external world, dream and reality is shown in their split and reconciliation—an equilibrium that is very unstable and is only granted in the happiness of the moment.

For a long time, Stanley Kubrick had the intention of filming Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Novella. He purchased the film rights already in 1971. Schnitzler himself had also written a film script in 1930. At the invitation of the director, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, who wanted to take advantage of the success of other films based on Schnitzler's works, he wrote the manuscript for a silent movie version. In this he envisaged a real attendance at the ball which in the novella is transposed into a shared memory and which will crop up again in Kubrick later on as a party at Victor Ziegler's, a friend of the couple.20 But the film script remained unfinished. Pabst turned it down and it was not realized. It would be interesting to be able to compare both film versions. But we cannot do this. For a long time it was also not certain whether Kubrick himself had access to Schnitzler's script.

That Kubrick's analogous way of proceeding was probably immediately inspired by Schnitzler's own preliminary work has been demonstrated by research in the meantime, for Kubrick had asked Schnitzler's heirs for permission to read the draft script during his own preliminary work.21

In Kubrick's film, Schnitzler's protagonists, Fridolin and Albertine, become Bill and Alice Harford. Kubrick's film composition employs cuts, supplements and changes to the novella in order to integrate it better into the film. The sequence of events in the whole story and also most of the dialogue are essentially similar to Schnitzler's.

Entire dialogue passages are adopted as well as the sequence of events. All the more significant are the smaller and larger deviations.22

One of the most significant differences is that at the end of the film Victor Ziegler, obviously a friend of the Harfords, gives his commentary on the entire story to Bill. Victor confesses that he, too, was at the orgy. "If you knew about all those who took part in it, you wouldn"t be able to sleep at night," he says. Bill asks hesitantly about the beautiful woman who warned him. She was only a hooker, Victor replies. The whole thing was nothing but a staging, a "fake" to keep him from talking. He says the woman had been a drug addict, and the orgy did not have anything to do with her death. This conversation to make the background to the mysterious happenings explicable is not to be found in Schnitzler.

A further difference is the time of year at which the novella is set. In Schnitzler it is the carnival season in which people like to get dressed up and wear masks anyway. Apart from that, the choice of this time means that the story takes place at the end of winter. In Kubrick's version, the events take place in the time before Christmas, a sign of domestic family togetherness.

The password for admission to the secret society in Schnitzler is "Denmark" and refers to an experienced seductive erotic situation, whereas in Kubrick, the password is "Fidelio", a symbol for fidelity. This is a counterposition par excellence.

Also missing in Kubrick's version is the recollection which Albertine has in Schnitzler of the time shortly before her engagement when Fridolin was more reticent than she would have liked him to be. Whereas in Schnitzler, in the end, so to speak, all the threads run together in the dream, in Kubrick the climax of the film is Bill's visit to the orgy of the secret society.

Kubrick also takes the liberty of transposing the story in his own way. For him, film is a narrative artistic genre. The filmic narrative thus overlaps with the literary narrative. Kubrick's understanding of himself as an artist derives from the nineteenth century, even though the film is set in present-day New York.

Kubrick says in an early commentary on the subjects of his first films,

The representation of reality has no bite. It does not transcend. Nowadays I am more interested in taking up a fantastic and improbable story.

And he adds,

I always enjoyed representing a slightly surreal situation in a realistic way. I have always had a penchant for fairy-tales, myths and magical stories. They seem to me to come closer to our present-day experience of reality than realistic stories, which are basically just as stylized.23

In his film, Kubrick knows how to refuse in a subtle way, precisely by apparently fulfilling the norms of the bourgeois art industry.

There are musical and typological allusions in Eyes Wide Shut in descriptive names such as "Restaurant Verona", "Café Sonata" and "Gillespie's Coffee Shop". Other symbols include the many texts in newspapers, advertisements and on posters. While Bill is being driven in a taxi to the location of the Bacchanalian society, a neon sign appears along the way with the enticing message "Happy Holiday". Kubrick makes further ironic and even cynical allusions with the name of the newspaper, "Holiday Special", in which Bill reads of the drug death of the mysterious woman. The headline on the front page, "Lucky to be alive", also seems to be very dramatic. In the jazz bar where he wants to meet Nightingale, a poster can be seen behind his back with the text, "All exits are final".

The places, architecture, interiors and their furnishings also have decisive significance in Kubrick's films. For Bill, the protagonist in Kubrick's film, the place of the orgy and the secret society signifies a counter-pole to his marital home. This is the site of the narcissistic affront to both marital partners.

In the interior of the country house where the secret society meets, mirrors reflect the orgiastic happenings as visual doubles. In contrast to other scenes in the film, they are also filmed with a lighting and colouring that is richer in contrast.

In contrast to the warm tones of Victor Ziegler's villa in which at the beginning a party is taking place as a parallel to the ball in Schnitzler, the site of the orgy is drawn in gloomy, cold colours. The happenings are underscored by cult singing which stands in stark contrast to the waltz melodies of Ziegler's villa. A red car is parked in the driveway to the country house. Carpets and curtains are red, and also the carpet which lies at the centre of the ritual meeting.

The form in which the ritual of the orgy takes place is circular. Even the half-naked women are grouped about the high priest in the form of a circle. The masked groups gather around Bill threateningly. Even the room's architecture is characterized by curves and thus shows the room to be the centre of the happenings. The scene positioned approximately in the middle of the film is also no accident.

The reason for presenting the novella's content in such detail was to be able to detect Kubrick's deviations more precisely. The central position of the dream is weakened in Kubrick's version, but its emotional significance is communicated. The significance of the dream in the novella requires a more precise explication and interpretation.

By way of résumé it can be said that the entire world of symbols and motifs such as the coach and the Dane's yellow handbag in Schnitzler, is implemented in Kubrick in a filmic form. The mysterious, dreamlike dimension is expressed in Kubrick through lighting, colouring, slow or fast or continuous camera movement, including pan shots, and the resolution of the images (coarse-grained or super-clear takes).

Allow me one more short remark. Kubrick creates coherence in his films in subtle ways. The number on the protagonist's number-plate is 9987. This number refers to the year of production of his penultimate film, Full Metal Jacket (1987), and simultaneously to the film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).


1. The fairy-tale functions in the novella as the bearer of the mysterious, futural element. The galley in the fairy-tale, for instance, crops up once again in the dream of Albertine. The connection between dream, memory, external and interior reality as well as the fairy-tale character would have to be investigated in a separate study.

2. Arthur Schnitzler Dream Story translated by M. Q. Davies, introduction by Frederic Raphael, London 1999, p.26.

3. ibid. p.46

4. ibid. p.53f.

5. ibid. p.58

6. ibid. p.66

7. ibid. p.68

8. Cf. William H. Rey Arthur Schnitzler: Die späte Prosa als Gipfel seines Schaffens Berlin 1968, p.109.

9. Cf. Rainer J. Kaus Literaturpsychologie und literarische Hermeneutik: Sigmund Freud und Franz Kafka Bern, Frankfurt/M., New York 2003.

10. Schnitzler op. cit. p.70

11. Hertha Krotkoff "Themen, Motive und Symbole in Arthur Schnitzlers Traumnovelle" in: Modern Austrian Literature Volume 5, Numbers 1/2, New York 1972, p.73f.

12. Frederic Beharriell "Arthur Schnitzler: Freuds Doppelgänger" in: Literatur und Kritik, eds. Gerhard Fritsch, Rudolf Henz et al., Salzburg 1967, p.548.

13. Cf. Kenneth Segar "Determinism and Character: Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle and his Unpublished Critique of Psychoanalysis" in: Oxford German Studies, edited by P.F. Ganz and T.J. Reed, Oxford 1973, p.114.

14. Cf. ibid. p.119

15. Cf. Michael Scheffel Formen selbstreflexiven Erzählens: Eine Typologie und sechs exemplarische Analysen, Kap. 5. Narrative Fiktion und die "Märchenhaftigkeit des Alltäglichen" - Arthur Schnitzler: Traumnovelle (1925/26) Tübingen 1997, p.186ff.

16. Schnitzler op. cit. p.80

17. ibid. p.79

18. ibid. p.90

19. ibid. p.99

20. Sylvia Mieszkowski, "Das Leuchten der Möglichkeiten": Arthur Schnitzlers Traumnovelle und Stanley Kubricks Eyes Wide Shut, in: Bündnis und Begehren: Ein Symposion über die Liebe edited by Andreas Kraβ and Alexandra Tischel, (Reihe Münchner Universitätsschriften, Geschlechterdifferenz & Literatur, Publikationen des Münchner Graduiertenkollegs, Bd.14, eds. Gerhard Neumann and Ina Schabert), Berlin 2002, pp.210f.

21. Kay Kirchmann Stanley Kubrick - Das Schweigen der Bilder 3rd. enlarged edition, 11999, Bochum 2001, p.251.

22 Georg Seeβlen/Fernand Jung Stanley Kubrick und seine Filme 2nd. ed., Marburg 2001, 11999, p.287.

23. Kubrick, cited after Nelson, Thomas A. Stanley Kubrick Munich 1982 p.120