Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story Part One


(SPOILERS for both the movie Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story”. The translation of “Dream Story” is an excellent one by Margaret Schaefer from the collection Night Games. To supplement some points, stills from the movie have been used. Some of these stills contain nudity. For the usual tiresome reasons, the usual suspect parts of these stills have been distorted.)

From Cracked‘s “Twelve Classic Movie Moments Made Possible By Abuse And Murder”:

Just to be clear, we’re not criticizing him for being a perfectionist. Lots of people like to make sure shit is done just right. But at some point, you go past “perfectionist” into “obsessive-compulsive.” Beyond that on the spectrum, you have “insane,” “a danger to himself and others” and finally a category that experts have simply named, “Stanley Kubrick.”

Eyes Wide Shut, the last film of a great director, may also be the last film of a great era. It is a deeply personal, often static, very intimate story, yet made up of images that have the majesty of an epic. It has nothing of the design, in conception or character, of most films now, designed for banality, to be as widely seen as possible, to be understood easily by children. So, I think of it as a monument, or, to be morbid, a grave marker, of a few decades in the United States when the extraordinary possibilities of film were staked out, and many risked a great deal not simply for the usual bounty of the movie business – whores, cash, and ego – but for the possibility of creating something breathtaking and effervescent, made entirely of light. With this, Terry Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York may be the terminii of putting vast fortunes and rep into the possibility of a legacy of a lasting pile of images. This period is marked not simply by the greatness of the works, but the vast scale of the attempts at such greatness, whether it’s Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War, Once Upon a Time in America, Heaven’s Gate, The Last Emperor, Heat, Blade Runner, Days of Heaven, Empire of the Sun, or this. These movies, whether or not they entirely succeed, have something of the character of Egyptian tombs or Roman festivities, the vast power and wealth of empire invested in strange, glittering, magnetic obelisks.

Much of Kubrick’s work is considered enigmatic, and his last is masked by an obscurity that is part inherent, part willed by adherents of the director, just as the idols of a religion might derive some of their power from their obscurity. It is, however, not entirely as obscure as it needs to be; by looking at the Arthur Schnitzler story on which it’s based, for illuminating clarity and for the brilliance of the story itself, we may have a greater sense of the movie’s focus, why the movie’s trance holds and breaks, why the genius of the story may be trapped in amber of a place and time, immovable to anywhere else.

The plots of both Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story” are roughly the same in many externals, with the small changes making an extraordinary difference in tone and theme. A doctor and his wife have a brief fight over their respective sexual pasts, the doctor has to leave for a medical emergency, then has a few thwarted sexual possibilities before sneaking into a sexual masquerade. The next day he retraces the path of the night’s potential conquests, investigates the mysterious sexual party, is strongly dissuaded from these inquiries by persons unknown, looks into the death of a woman whose fate may have been caused by the same mysterious powers that held the masquerade,
breaks from his inquiries out of fear or lack of belief, and returns to the union of his wife.

A first difference is how both works treat sexual desire. “Dream Story” has Fridolin traveling through a world very much of his own creation, each scene reflecting his own infatuations. These desires may make him anxious, but they emerge from within, and they are very much our own. Eyes takes these same desires and makes them alien, malevolent, and emerging from without, sex entirely as dangerous threat. When going through both works part by part, I’ll mention the obvious contrast at relevant points.

The second, crucial, difference between the movie and its source might be that of weight and lightness. The distinction is best expressed by Italo Calvino in his chapter “Lightness”, from Six Memos For The Next Millennium. His essay gives a full and extraordinary examination of the idea, but a small fragment should be suitable for our purpose:

We might say that throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, and sensations.

The images of Eyes have extraordinary weight, each giving a sense of having been forged with great skill and hard work. “Dream Story”, has an outward casual, easy quality to it, a lightness of fine dust, which point by point forms into a vision, all the more haunting that each dust point was seemingly so simple and inconsequential. Schnitzler’s story embodies the very aspect of the dream in its form, an image where things happen quickly, often barely seen, decisions are made impulsively, with the dreadful sense of later consequence when the dreamer wakes up. This is what gives the story an eeriness, because in the vivid mid-section we seem clearly to be in a dream, yet the events of the dream continue on in waking reality. The reader waits to break from this extended dream, yet it never takes place, we remain in the dream, only guessing at what takes place outside this shadow world. It should be noted that to achieve something like the effect of the book here, Kubrick would have to sacrifice something of his technique, his images would have to be a little more careless, a little more lacking in craft, as if they just flowed like loose words from a sleeping man. To write more of this, it is necessary to look at how “Dream Story” begins, an opening entirely absent in the movie.


The first words of “Dream Story” belong not to Schnitzler, but the “1001 Nights”. The daughter of Fridolin and Albertine, the couple of the story falls asleep as she reads them:

“Twenty-four brown-skinned slaves rowed the magnificent gallery which was to bring Prince Amgiad to the palace of the caliph. But the prince, wrapped in his purple cloak, lay all alone on the deck beneath the dark blue, starry sky, and his gaze…”

Up to this point the little girl had been reading aloud, but now, suddenly, her eyelids fell shut.

This ancient book of tales foreshadows the nature of the story, staying in the netherworld of stories told at night, perhaps never leaving the bedroom for the world outside. It is also about what is now labeled the “orientalist” world, an exotic, mystic, pre-rational one, unlimited by Christian morals, a more sexual and mysterious life, yet at the same time, not entirely in an exotic land, but here, alongside them, the book of tales on the children’s bedside, just as the child’s bedroom is close by the parents’, the innocent beside the carnal, the dreams of Fridolin and Albertine merging with the “Nights”.

Equally important is the specific story quoted in this opening, with Schnitzler’s plot reflecting its various turns. The “One Thousand and One Nights” was well-known at the time, and the tale not an obscure reference, but one that the reader could be relied on to know or easily look up. The story of the princes Amgiad and Assad follows the two princes, children of the same king, whose respective mothers fall in love with each other’s son, Amgiad’s mother falling in love with Assad, Assad’s with Amgiad. This is not maternal feeling, but carnal, sexual love. When the princes reject this love, the two women mislead the king to think that the princes initiated the advances, which results in the king calling for the death of the men, and their flight from the kingdom. The story continues through various adventures, ending with the family reconciled, and both princes married. That there are two princes in the story, who are in effect doubles of each other, is crucial for what takes place in “Dream Story” where the theme of two men appears again and again, two men as a projection of Fridolin, two men as the two sides of his self, the rational and the sensual. There is another duality as well, of the material and the image of the material, with Fridolin traveling throughout the city while the subject of Albertine’s torrid dream, as well as Fridolin tantalized by the image of a memory of a woman, but the image alone, an image that persists after the woman’s body decays in death, an image that may ultimately have no connection with this woman at all.

One more relevant detail: in the world of “1001 Nights”, women may occasionally intrigue, but they are almost always entirely under the power of men. The two mothers may lust for each other’s sons, might lie to their king of what took place, but they live in mortal fear of what their king will do if he discovers their infatuation. A woman solicits one of the princes for sex in a manner no woman of Vienna, no woman who was not a prostitute, so brazenly would. Yet she is later beheaded without legal consequence when she betrays the prince. This is a necessary contrast with the surrounding structure of “Dream Story” where Fridolin again and again feels himself to be weak, under the influence of the women around him, unable to resort to the traditional prerogative of men, physical force, to impose his will. A key detail of the fragment of the “1001 Nights” glimpsed in “Dream Story” is Amgiad’s purple cloak which declares his imperial power. However, in the main of Schnitzler’s narrative, it is not Fridolin that wears this cloak, but a woman in a dream of Albertine.


After this brief moment with their child, the couple retire to their bedroom in “Dream”, to go over what took place at the masquerade they attended the night before. The detail of placing this masquerade as a past event, a memory that now wields influence on what takes place now and ever after through the plot, further connects this story with “1001 Nights”, a series of dream like tales, one after another, night after night, but also sets the tone of what will take place through “Dream”, a sense that the events are of the same hazy substance as a dream, yet have the consequential impact of actual events.

The events of this recalled masquerade share some of the details of the party in the movie. Fridolin meets two beautiful women, while his wife is unsuccessfully courted by a stranger. One difference is that this is a masquerade, and so many of the players have their faces concealed, making for a symmetry with the second masquerade of the story. The other distinction from the film, a difference in approach which recurs throughout, is that these moments are extraordinarily brief, barely seen by the reader, like the vivid, startling image of a dream which then recedes out of reach before it can be glimpsed in detail. This contrasts, of course, with the enactments in the film, where the encounters of both spouses go on at some length.

This short passage is all that’s given to the episode:

Fridolin had no sooner entered the ballroom then he had been greeted, like a long lost and now impatiently awaited old friend, by two red dominoes, whom he couldn’t for the life of him identify, though they had shown strikingly detailed knowledge of his student and internship days. They had left the loge to which they had eagerly invited him with the promise that they would come back – unmasked – very soon, but had stayed away for so long that he, becoming impatient, had decided to go back down to the ballroom where he hoped to meet the two enigmatic figures again. But however carefully he looked around, they were nowhere to be seen; instead, another woman unexpectedly took his arm. It was his wife, who had just abruptly freed herself from a stranger whose melancholy and blasé manner and foreign, evidently Polish, accent had at first charmed her but who had then offended and even frightened her with a casually dropped, unexpectedly, vulgar, and hatefully impertinent remark.

The lack of specific details, actual conversational quotes, do not diminish this moment, but add to the effect, a hazy moment that strikes like a pebble in the water and whose vibrations travel through till the end. The dominoes are simply hooded cloaks, women entirely unseen and unknown to him – yet, somehow, who know Fridolin very well. We may have here the female duality like that of the two princes of the “Nights”, two halves of women, not two women who we will literally encounter again and again in the story, but two aspects which will become re-imagined in various variations over and over by Fridolin in the course of the plot. Another theme that begins here is the story’s approach to color, a far simpler one than that of the film. Red is one of the only colors stressed in the story, and its use is for the obvious emphasis, of sensuality. As already mentioned there is the purple, in one scene there is a rainbow palette, and in two others, blue, but otherwise, that’s it. The use of color exemplifies the story’s method, with symbols used but ones that are extraordinarily simple and intuitive, having no manner of elaborate construction, but very much like a dream, where an image may contain second or third meanings, yet these same images are built intuitively, impulsively, and the underlying idea may be inferred fairly easily.

Eyes makes the two beautiful women unmasked and literal, two beautiful women only who know Bill from a specific episode when he helped them, rather than the enigmatic, brief image of the story, women masked in red robes who somehow know many intimate details of the hero but whom he doesn’t recognize at all. There is also the beginning of the movie’s own very complicated color scheme. Kubrick first creates an incredible background for the party of blazing white light which surrounds Bill and Alice during these scenes. We might think of these moments of courtship as occurring in an elevated place, the white light of a point nearer the sun. Light, of course, can be broken into many fragments in a prism, and after these scenes, Bill is called in to help the man behind this fete, Dr. Ziegler. He ascends a staircase, and reaches the bathroom, where the light is broken into its various prismatic colors: the blue and red of the dragons, the blue of the exterior through the window, the red of the sofa chair, the green and yellow of the walls, the various colors of the painting. There is the white light of courtship, here are the underlying colors of that light, the messy carnality that follows, that lies beneath, appropriately in a bathroom, a place we associate with physicality and exposure, defecation and bathing.

Bill climbing stairs at Ziegler's

Ziegler and Mandy in bathroom

From here on, the color scheme is extraordinarily intricate, far more complex than that of the book, and one which I cannot say I follow. I will pick this up at later points, but at this moment I think it’s enough to say that red and blue are made into a point counterpoint, two intertwining and competing forces, though not with red as sensual. Whereas red is only associated with the erotic in the story, red appears in many places here where it makes no sense in that context, such as the red clothes of Bill and Alice’s daughter, while absent in other obvious sexual contexts. In the second masquerade, there is a red cloak, a red circle in which the opening ceremony is performed, and red in the carpeting, but an absence of red in the masks of the women, with the sacrificial woman given, pointedly, a blue feathered headdress. This is one aspect that makes it difficult for me to think of Eyes as a dream, though that might well be the intent, since, though its colors are sometimes too vivid and rich to denote realism, the color methodology is too complex, a deliberate industriously thought out map, for the effortless uninhibited images of a dream.

This scene featuring Ziegler is not in the story, as Ziegler is not in the story. An in-depth examination of Ziegler will be taken up only later, but for the moment, I think it’s enough to say that his creation is one more way that the movie inserts those whose sexual character is very different from Bill / Fridolin, in this case, a callous, mercenary, pervy older man, for whom lust is another manner of acquisition. A final, and smaller note: Nightingale is entirely absent from this episode in the story as well, introduced only later, when Fridolin meets him at a small club.


After the first masquerade in both story and movie, the couple has a very satisfying sexual episode. The next day has their usual work routine, then a sudden conjugal argument at night, but the routines of that day, and what the argument is about, are very different, necessarily different because of the shift in time and place from Habsburg Vienna to contemporary New York City. The source of conflict in the story is very much about sex. In Eyes, the source is very much Alice and work.

Only now, when the day’s work was finished for both of them and no disturbance was likely, the child having gone to bed did the shadowy forms of the masquerade, the melancholy stranger and the red dominoes, rise into consciousness again and all at once the insignificant events were magically and painfully imbued with the deceptive glow of neglected opportunities. Harmless but probing questions and sly, ambiguous answers were exchanged. Neither failed to notice that the other was not completely honest, and so both felt themselves justified in taking a mild revenge. They exaggerated the degree of the attraction that their unknown masquerade partners had exerted upon them, made fun of the jealous tendencies of the other, and denied their own. But the light banter about the trivial adventures of the previous night gradually became a more serious conversation about those hidden, scarcely suspected desires that are capable of producing dark and dangerous whirlpools in even the most clearheaded, purest soul. They spoke of those hidden regions that barely attracted them but to which the incomprehensible winds of destiny could still drag them, even if only in a dream.

Anxiously drawing closer to each other, both searched for an event, however indifferent, for an experience, no matter how trivial, that might count as an expression of the inexpressible and whose honest confession now could perhaps free them from the tension and mistrust that was gradually becoming unbearable.

The story leaves ambiguous who begins these inquiries, and there is a sense given that they are both equally drawn forward and hesitant about these self-investigations. In the film, the questioning is initiated by Alice, she is the one interested in this, with her husband keeping pace.

The back and forth of the couple reaches a peak now:

Albertine, whether she was the more impatient, the more honest, or the more kindhearted of the two, first summoned the courage for a frank confession.

Her confession arises out of the impulsive questions each has about the masquerade. In the film, there is a conversation about their respective partners at the party, before Alice gets angry at Bill for a prolonged moment, and it is only then that she speaks about her time with the naval officer.

The difference, I think, is rooted in what precedes the dialogue. In the story there is this description of their days:

The husband’s profession called him to the bedside of sick patients at an early hour, and household and motherly duties prevented Albertine from staying in bed much longer than he. So the hours had flown by soberly in predetermined daily routines and work, and the events of the previous night, those at the beginning as well as those at the end, had grown pale.

These roles, the man busy at work outside, the wife at home taking care of the home and child are to be expected of Vienna at the time. Alice in Eyes is a professional woman very much of our time, who once ran an art gallery. She spends her day with her child, doing rather dull tasks, including wrapping presents.

Alice and daughter wrapping presents

After her husband arrives home, she mentions that they might finish the wrapping that night, but he casually declines.

BILL watches TV with his feet up. ALICE pushes past his legs without asking or giving notice.

So how do you feel about wrapping the rest of the presents?

Uh…let’s do that tomorrow.

ALICE gives him a hard look.

Alice gives Bill hard look

He has spent the day doing far more interesting work than she has, and she’s aware of this. She’d dearly like to finish the wrapping that night so she’s not burdened with it another day, but her husband puts this off, not noticing or asking anything of her needs. We see her in the mirror of the bathroom, and there is something obviously bothering her, something she wants to bring up, but doesn’t know how. She takes out the pot to relax a little.

Alice overwhelmed looks in mirror

The partners of Bill and Alice are not equal, with Bill getting two lithe young models, and Alice getting a much older man. Alice is the one who starts the questioning, and I think she does this, in crudest terms, to start a fight, but more specifically, to give her husband a sense of how unhappy she is with the way their lives are arranged now, her life is arranged now, whatever agreement they might have had when the child was born. When Bill brings up her seducer at the party, Alice clearly thinks the man was ridiculous, and there was no possibility of anything taking place.

Tell me something…those…two…girls…at the party last night…Did you…by any chance…happen to…fuck…them?


Anyway, who’s the guy you were dancing with?

ALICE cracks up.
A friend of the Zieglers.

What did he want?

What did he want? Sex…upstairs. Then and there. (continues laughing)

Is that all?

Yeah, yeah, that was all.

Just wanted to fuck my wife?

That’s right.

Where the story’s conversation focuses on sexual possibilities, when Bill brings up the possibility that the only reason this man started talking to Alice was out of sexual interest, she gets very upset.

Woah…woah woah woah…wait. So. Because I’m a beautiful woman, the only reason any man ever wants to talk to me is because he wants to fuck me? Is that what you’re saying?

She is exasperated at being restricted to the limited roles of either mother or object of seduction. When they move to the issue of sexual temptation, Alice focuses not on the various women Bill would run into throughout his life in the city, but exclusively those at his place of work. I don’t think this is incidental, but a detail which points to the true focus of Alice’s concern.

Let’s say for example you have some gorgeous woman…standing. In your office. Naked. And you’re feeling her fucking tits. Now what I wanna know…I wanna know what you’re really thinking about when you’re squeezing them.

Alice. I happen to be a doctor. It’s all very impersonal. And you know there’s always a nurse present.

So, when you’re feeling tits it’s nothing more than just your professionalism, is that what you’re saying?

It is only after this moment of anger, then the focus on work, that Alice makes her confession, and I do not think it is out of impatience, honesty, or kindheartedness, but reprisal, to make clear to her husband that she is not simply his domain and vassal, that she has parts unknown that elude him. Her story of the naval officer starts after this dialogue.

I’ll tell you what I do know. You got a little stoned tonight, and you’ve been trying to pick a fight with me, and now you’re trying to make me jealous.

But you’re not the jealous type, are you?

No. I’m not.

You’ve never been jealous about me, have you?

No, I haven’t.

And why have you never been jealous about me!

Well, I don’t know Alice. Maybe because you’re my wife. Maybe because you’re the mother of my child and I know you’d never be unfaithful to me.

You are very, very sure of yourself, aren’t you?

No. I’m sure of you.

A small digression. It is here, in much of this scene, that we see Kubrick’s mastery of images. This is an extraordinarily simple scene, with unexotic elements, a man and woman arguing, yet he creates something distinct and subtle at once. An example would be this shot, the camera giving us a great sense of Alice’s beauty that is intimate while distant, exactly how Bill sees his wife at this point:

A great shot of Alice triumphant beautiful distant

She talks about her time with the naval officer. Bill does not remember this man. Perhaps it is only myself, but I think the man he sees as the naval officer is a younger version of a man he has seen, her seducer at the ball. I see a resemblance between the two:

Alice dancing at party

Alice's fantasy with naval officer

In the story, Albertine talks of a military officer she felt a great sudden lust for while the couple were on vacation in Denmark. In the movie, Bill does not bring up any encounter in reply to this, while the story’s Fridolin talks of a girl he himself became infatuated with on this same Danish vacation:

But one morning I suddenly became aware of a female figure that had been quite hidden only a moment before and was now cautiously walking on the narrow ledge of e beach hut set on piles in the sand, her arms spread out backward against the wooden wall behind her. She was a very young girl, maybe fifteen years old, with loose blonde hair flowing over her shoulders and to one side over her delicate breast.

That the girl is fifteen is not an indicator that Fridolin is a pedophile. It is very much connected with his courtship of his wife and when they were married. Earlier in their conversation, there is this moment between the two, when they talk about the moment they met, the night before they were engaged.

“Albertine – so there is something that you’ve kept from me?”

She nodded and looked down with a peculiar smile.

Incomprehensible, unreasonable doubts awoke in him.

“I don’t quite understand,” he said. “You were barely seventeen when we got engaged.”

“Older than sixteen, yes, Fridolin. And yet – ” she looked him squarely in the eye – “it wasn’t thanks to me that I was still a virgin when I became your wife.”

“Albertine – !”

But she continued:

“It was at Lake Wörther, just before our engagement, Fridolin. There, one beautiful summer evening, a very handsome young man stood in front of my window that looked out into the large and spacious meadow, and while I talked with him I was thinking – yes, just listen to what I was thinking – What a lovely, charming, young man – he would only have to say the word – the right word, of course – and I would come with him into the meadow and walk with him wherever he wanted to go – maybe into the woods – or, even better, we could take a boat out into the lake – and I would grant him anything that he wanted that night. Yes, that’s what I was thinking. But he didn’t say the word, that charming young man; he only kissed my hand tenderly – and the next morning he asked me – to be his wife. And I said yes.”

Fridolin, annoyed, let her hand drop. “And if,” he said, “someone else had by chance stood at your window that night and said the right word, if it had been, for example – ” and he pondered what name he should say, but she had already lifted her arms in protest.

There is an asymmetry between Fridolin and Albertine, with Fridolin having been with many women, while Albertine, to Fridolin’s best knowledge, has only been with him. This is why the possibility that she has been with another man at some point is so haunting to him in the story, and perhaps rings less true in the movie. Regarding the previous point, the girl Fridolin fixes on is fifteen; his wife was sixteen or seventeen when they were engaged. What tantalizes him is the idea of sleeping with Albertine before he was with her, paradoxically knowing his wife before she became his wife, as someone different than the woman he met. This recurs through the story, with the storeowner’s daughter and the prostitute Mitzi both young enough to be substitutes for his wife to be.

Both scenes end with the hero leaving to give his respects at a house where one of his patients has died.


All images and dialogue excerpts copyright Warner Brothers.

On April 25, 2015, this post underwent a copy edit. On September 13, 2017, it underwent another copy edit.

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