Book Review: Being Freud’s Double
Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story, Lieutenant Gustl and Fräulein Else
Father of the interior monologue, Arthur Schnitzler was also a pioneer in early writing for film
A man leaves his hotel at 3:00, says to the porter: "Do not wake up the lady; I’ll be back in a few hours." The porter, initially sleepy, becomes suspicious. He goes upstairs, knocks at the door. Complete silence. The hotel manager is summoned. They break down the door. The woman is lying on the floor, dead.
This is not the beginning of a Hitchcock film, but a manuscript that lay open on the writing desk of Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) when he was found unconscious on 21 October 1931. It was his last work for the big screen: not the first, but one of many that this author, who has often been unjustly regarded as antiquated, wrote for the emerging film industry, and one of a few novelties that made the rounds during this 150th anniversary year.
Celebrations have involved leading cultural institutions in Europe and the United States, from the Burgtheater and the Freud Museum in Vienna to the Austrian Cultural Forums in Rome and New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Leading themes, besides his uncanny Doppelgänger relationship with Sigmund Freud, are hitherto largely neglected topics such as his life-long meditation on his Jewish identity and his work as a screenwriter.
Talking to oneself
Born in Vienna to an upper-middle class Jewish family in 1862, like Chekhov, a doctor-turned-writer, Arthur Schnitzler is known as the foremost chronicler of turn-of-the-century Vienna and explorer of the human soul. His masterful stories and plays have found admirers in Thomas Mann and Henrik Ibsen, impressed Sigmund Freud, and inspired contemporary creative artists such as Tom Stoppard and Stanley Kubrick, whose film Eyes Wide Shut was based on Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story (1927).
The study of medicine, he wrote in his autobiography, "sharpened my eye and enlightened my intellect", equipping him for the diagnosis of society and human relationships in what has become known as the "art of nerves". A pioneer of the technique of the inner monologue long before James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Schnitzler is justly praised for the stylistic heights of his experimental novellas Lieutenant Gustl (1900) and Fräulein Else (1924).
Perhaps not by chance, the development of this technique ran in parallel to his interest in psychoanalysis. Schnitzler was among the first readers of the Interpretation of Dreams (1900). On 6 May, 1906, he wrote to Freud on the occasion of his 50th birthday, thanking him explicitly for the "numerous impulses" he had found in his works. For his part, Freud read Schnitzler’s work, quoted him in his writings and once suggested one of Schnitzler’s short stories as therapeutic reading to one of his patients.
Freud and Schnitzler kept a safe distance for decades, until Freud, at the age of 66, confessed in a letter having avoided him for fear of meeting his double. "I have often wondered," he wrote, "where you took this or that piece of secret knowledge."
Well before this Doppelgänger relationship made him famous for posterity, Schnitzler’s frank treatment of sexual and psychological themes, and the ensuing scandals, moulded his reputation during his lifetime. Lieutenant Gustl, a satire of the military, was regarded as a public insult to the imperial army and led to a trial. His play Reigen – better known by the title of Max Ophuls’ film version, La Ronde – caused riots in the theatres when it was first performed in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s, and was the target of harsh anti-Semitic attacks in the press and accusations of pornography. In a caricature of the time, the "Reigen poet" Schnitzler is depicted surrounded by pigs.
The play, which portrays hypocrisy and erotic adventures across the social ladder in an eponymous circular structure, caused the disdain of prudish audiences and was considered taboo. It was not, however, pornographic, since sex scenes are only ever alluded to and the obscene, in Marcuse’s acute words, remains, literally, outside the scene.
Yet the attacks came not only from the prickly bourgeoisie, but also from growing anti-Semitism from the 1890s onwards, which accused Jewish authors of being "a danger to national culture" and of "causing its decay". Unlike his friend Theodor Herzl, who was inspired to grand plans by the Dreyfus affair in France (stating on a visit to Schnitzler, "I have solved the Jewish question!"), Schnitzler could never warm to the Zionist cause. Whilst never denying his Jewish identity ("the complexity of my problem: an Austrian, a Jew", he wrote in his diary), he felt sceptical towards all mass movements. In his novel The Way into the Open (1908), Schnitzler offers, perhaps like no other, an extraordinarily vivid portrait of Viennese Jewry: its contradictions, perplexities and hopes at the turn of the century.
The curiosity that made Schnitzler a keen social observer also pushed him towards the novelties of modernity. Besides his interest in stream of consciousness and psychoanalysis, Schnitzler was fascinated by phonographs and cars, was one of the first in Vienna to own a telephone, and found the first flight connection between Vienna and Venice in the 1920s to be an "elevating experience".
Writing for film
With comparable enthusiasm, he followed the emerging film industry. He scrupulously documented his visits to the cinema, watching well over a thousand films featuring international stars of his time such as Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo; and such masterpieces as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.
It is perhaps less well-known that Schnitzler also wrote for the cinema. Intrigued by the new medium and its language – shifting perspectives, the use of close-ups and montage techniques – Schnitzler wrote altogether nine film scripts based on his works and left a number of sketches for new projects.
The year 1914 opened with the Copenhagen première of the first film based on one of his plays. In the 1920s, famous directors courted him. Austrian director Georg Pabst, who worked in Hollywood with Asta Nielsen and filmed Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, toyed with the idea of making a Schnitzler film. Hollywood producer Jo Sternberg (later famous for his films with Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s) visited Schnitzler from New York in September 1921, "expecting good business". In 1923, the Hungarian Mihály Kertész – better known as Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca – made Schnitzler’s costume drama Young Medardus into an Austrian blockbuster. Paul Czinner’s 1929 film version of Fräulein Else premièred simultaneously in 19 cinemas in Vienna and was a box-office hit.
This aspect of Schnitzler’s oeuvre, which has been the object of academic attention only recently, shows perhaps better than anything else how much this fundamentally traditional man liked to experiment. He did not turn his nose at surprise effects and suspense, but rather used them skilfully – and with his last project, his "murder mystery film", he chose a very fashionable genre.
In the end, we may ask ourselves who the man was who left a hotel at 3:00 and said to the porter: "Do not wake up the lady" – and wonder how Schnitzler’s murder mystery film might have ended. With the same speculative curiosity we, readers and researchers alike, may also ask ourselves how Schnitzler’s creative career would have developed if, on that October day of 1931, he had woken up from his sleep.
by Arthur Schnitzler
Penguin Books (1999)
by Arthur Schnitzler
Green Integer (2003)
by Arthur Schnitzler
Pushkin Press (1998)
Originally published on 14 Dec 2012.