Eyes Wide Open: A Comparison in Bavarian-Influenced Films

“Now, get undressed,” demands an anonymous man in a bronze mask and a caped robe, sitting center on a throne. “Get… undressed?” asks Dr. Bill Harford (played by Tom Cruise), who was already commanded to reveal his identity for falsely impeding upon this rich, anonymous sex party. “Remove your clothes. Or would you like us to do it for you?” continues the leader in the bronze mask. Dr. Harford is nervous. His voice is shaky; his hairline is damp; and director Stanley Kubrick circles Harford with a moving camera, revealing both Harford’s anxiety and the large number of piercing eyes watching behind a variety of concealing masks. The quality and standards of films of the 20th century have changed, but even on a cross-cultural level, movies like the aforementioned American film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and the German film, The Blue Angel (1930), share cultural themes. Voyeurism, the sexual and pleasurable gaze from one person to another, is one of the primary themes that tie both films together. The main characters in Eyes Wide Shut and The Blue Angel unexpectedly experience a shift from being the voyeurs to becoming the object of voyeurism, commenting on the sexual desires that underlie a society’s class, addiction, and national identity.

In its depiction of a gentlemen’s club, The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, comments on the class structure of pre-Nazi Germany. The movie’s opening shots reveal a town at work – people are herding chickens, cleaning their shops, and we even see a women idolize the poster of a provocative Lola Lola (played by Marlene Dietrich). But the audience doesn’t truly feel a sense of the class system until they see the gentlemen’s club through the eyes of Prof. Immanuel Rath. In many ways, Rath represents the upper middle class. He’s educated, proper, and teaches at an all-boys prep school. Compared to the working class street workers, Rath represents society’s wealthier and bourgeoisie.

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So when Rath first enters the Blue Angel in search of his students, he is unquestionably out of place. Von Sternberg cross-cuts Rath’s walk to the club with Lola singing songs to foreshadow their future relationship, but to also depict “…a street that is portrayed ominously as a realm of shadows, an eroticized lower-class milieu…” (McCormick, 117)[1]. When Rath arrives at the club, he first can’t figure out how to get around the cheap netting that hangs as a barrier to the show. He awkwardly stumbles his way around the netting, only to become the club’s center of attention. Rath is so uncomfortable because he’s forced to be a part of this lower-class structure he’s never known before. As men out of frame are yelling such things as “Feast your eyes on me!” in order to grab the attention of Lola on-stage, Lola uses her spotlight in return to pinpoint individuals in the audience. She picks out the man who she will spend time with later, and that man is Rath. A giant spotlight is the only thing that illuminates his confused face. The light, as McCormick writes, “…bears a relation to the ‘cold,’ ‘surgical’ gaze so often mentioned in accounts of Weimar society…” (117), and it is also the point in which the voyeurism is reversed onto him. At first, Rath stands up proud to have been selected, but when he doesn’t quite understand what he’s been selected for, he looks around quickly and nervously at the unseen men of the audience. He then becomes the laughing stock as he spots one of his students and chases him into Lola’s dressing room.

Lola is Rath’s gateway to the lower class – a class categorized by cheap night clubs, rowdy men, entertainers like clowns and showgirls, and most importantly sexuality. Rath isn’t concerned about any of the other men that regularly attend the Blue Angel. He’s only concerned about his students. He feels as though educated students at the sophisticated college he teaches need not be engaging in sexual endeavors. Rath is so opposed to it, in fact, that he becomes somewhat melodramatic in the way he both follows his students to the club, and then acts conspicuous the next day in class as he jots down angry notes.

But Rath’s approach to sex isn’t an uncommon one for the time. In a series of interviews Erich Fromm analyzed in the book The Working Class in Weimar Germany, several hundred Germans were asked about their takes on women’s fashion of the Weimar Republic. This included short skirts, silk stockings, and short hair – Lola’s exact on-stage image. As Fromm notes, “This fashion was connected with general attempts at female emancipation; a greater freedom of social position as well as of sexual norms…” (150). The results of his survey revealed that white-collar workers enjoyed this fashion 15% moreso than the unemployed; however, a number of reasons were because of its practicality. “‘It is not a question of liking. It is practical,’” one response said. “‘Yes, but not because of its erotic elements, but because it is more hygienic,’” said another [2]. Such responses suggest that Germans of the time liked women’s fashion, but still categorized it as a necessity moreso than a choice. This is an indication that their sexual desires were kept somewhat concealed, or even denied.

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Eyes Wide Shut comments differently on class and sexuality than The Blue Angel; however, like Rath, Dr. Harford only sees social class after attending a sex club (or more like cult in this case). Dr. Harford is rich. He’s invited to New York’s finest parties where he’s seen flirting with beautiful women, as well as makes a house call, where the very wealthy female daughter of one of Harford’s patients kisses him and tells him she loves him. But Dr. Harford is devoted to his wife, Alice. He flirts, but there’s very little indication that he voluntarily cheats.

After Harford and Alice smoke cannabis one evening (a comment on 20th century upper-class rule-breaking), Alice admits to having a fantasy about a naval officer she saw at a vacation spot. Harford becomes envious. This sends him on a late-night adventure through the city, exploring a sexual curiosity that he now feels a sense of entitlement to. He’s first approached by a prostitute – a representation of the lower class. The two of them only kiss, however, because they are interrupted by a phone call from a worried Alice. There is a part of Harford that doesn’t want to throw his marriage and family away because of a sexual act with a lower-class citizen. He’s looking for something grander, which is why he pays her money – in form of an apology – despite engaging in any additional activity. Harford then reacquaints with one of his old med school peers at a piano bar. There is something mysterious about this man, Nick Nightingale. He’s a med school dropout who makes a living freelancing at different parties, one of which he’s required to be blindfolded throughout. “The last time, the blindfold wasn’t on so well,” Nightingale said, followed by a sly smirk. “Bill, I have seen one or two things in my life. But never, never anything like this. And never such women…”

The walk through the sex party featured at an isolated mansion, in which Harford obtained the address and password – “Fidelio – from Nightingale, was much more collected than Rath’s walk through a nightclub. The entertainment aspect features the audience standing in balconies and circled around nude women, who are a part of some mystical ritual in which one leading man chants an unknown dialect to the sounds of Nightingale’s dark notes, watching them move their bodies in unison to their master. At the lower-class nightclub featured in Blue Angel, the men were rowdier and less discreet about speaking their minds about sex. At the upper-class nightclub featured in Eyes, the men hide their identities behind masks, too ashamed to be recognized by others (which they most likely know) as that doctor or lawyer or family man engaging in an orgy with prostitutes.

Yet it’s for the aforementioned reason that sex isn’t vilified in the same light it is in Angel. The club’s confidentiality allows people to continuously engage in voyeurism, thus reserving sex for only the most elite. In Herbert J. Gans’s article, “Kubrick’s Marxist Finale,” he writes how the classes are distinguished by their access to sex, and even though Harford is extremely rich, he’s not accepted by the upper-most class by being denied continual access to the party. “What, after all, are people’s eyes wide shut about if not the class system, as well as their exploitation by the rich and powerful?” Gans writes. Furthermore, when Harford is pinpointed and asked to forever leave after revealing his identity, it’s even more dramatic an instance because a shift in voyeurism has occurred that cannot be replaced. The spotlight reveals all: His credibility as a voyeur is diminished, and his attempt at moving up a class is denied. Consequently, he will now solely become the object of voyeurism, a concept that will drive him, as well as Rath, into a downward spiral of addiction.

It’s a series of events onset by external sources that drives both Rath and Harford on a self-enlightening sex journey. And both of those external sources are females. For Rath it is Lola Lola, someone he knows very little about, and for Harford it is Alice, someone who hurt him with confession. But nonetheless, both men have become entranced in this concept of lust, and their addictions become even fonder after seemingly bad experiences at sex clubs. Harford needs to know why he’s being followed and threatened with his life should he return to the orgy again, and Lola represents an exoticness that has been missing from Rath’s life. Both men are addicted to the underlying sex culture present in every society, and, ironically, this is not due to the persistent sensations of physical pleasure, but rather an onset of gazes.

After Harford returns home from his night out, he deals with internal confliction. He stares at his sleeping daughter, feeling shameful; however, he locks his gown and mask in his office, and then lies to his wife about his evening’s whereabouts. He can’t help but feel disgrace for what he’s done, but he can’t help but feel intrigued about that forbidden lifestyle. Upon returning, his wife awakes from a dream in which, again, her fantasy naval officer was a part of. She tells Harford (who was acting somewhat comforting) about her erotic dream in which she was having sex with many random men and laughing at Harford for not being a part of it. Despite Alice’s hysteria and refusal to continue with the story, Harford urges her to continue, reminding her, “It’s only a dream.” But as Sigmund Freud’s studies dictate, dreams are an expression of one’s subconscious, and Harford can’t help but feel neglected and a byproduct of patriarchal disorder with his wife’s persistent sexual confessions.

Consequently, the gazes from two main voyeurs Harford encounters on his post-sex party investigation are somewhat dramatized, but are nonetheless pleasurable. He first encounters a hotel clerk while investigating the whereabouts of Nick Nightingale. Nightingale has been missing all day, and Harford is worried that this has something to do with the unauthorized transfer of the “Fidelio” password. But the audience can’t seem to focus on anything but this hotel clerk’s attraction for Harford, and Harford’s willingness to go along with his flirtation. The two smile at one another, and when the clerk asks if he’s a cop, Harford tells him that he’s an “old friend” of Nightingale’s and a doctor, which prompts the clerk to turn into a school girl with a crush. As the clerk is willingly telling Harford about the strange circumstances with Nightingale’s checkout earlier that morning, the clerk leans in closer to Harford, who doesn’t back away. Harford is getting the information he needs, but at the expense of both a desirable and undesirable gaze.

Furthermore, upon his return to the costume shop, he reacquaints with the owner, the owner’s daughter, and two businessmen. The previous night, the owner caught his daughter having unwarranted relations with these two businessmen and threatened to call the cops. But, as the owner now says, “things change,” which signals to Harford that he’s pimping out his daughter. The previous night the daughter used Harford as a shield of protection from her father’s anger. But today, she stares at Harford as a pleasurable client, almost as if there’s a new radiance of sexual enlightenment. While the daughter may be too young for Harford to feel a sense of engagement, Harford later decides to visit the prostitute that, in a way, started this whole journey.

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With his post-sex party experiences, Harford is turned onto the underlying world of sexuality, and he realizes his subjection to this voyeurism now more than ever. While the gazes he receives may not be of particular interest to Harford, he can’t help but feel intrigue and addiction to them. He’s getting an attention that may have been lacking in his marriage, and it’s ironic that this be the case because it’s that knowledge of having a wife at home that makes Harford feel safe and invincible. In a New York Times review called “Tickets to Fantasies of Urban Desire,” Stephen Holden writes,

“’Eyes Wide Shut’ is an extended Freudian dream grafted on to another dream: of contemporary New York as Sin City, in which sexual predators from all sides threaten to devour the innocent doctor and his wife. Their only protection from the encircling demons is a frightened, trembling commitment to monogamy.”

The characters’ voyeurisms Harford encounters lead him back to the gates of the mansion, where he receives a threatening note advising him to “Give up your inquiries which are completely useless…” Additionally, he revisits the prostitute from the night before, where he learns from her roommate that she just discovered she was HIV-positive. Both dramatic events show the realities of sexual addiction, which is why Harford is relieved when his wife finds his sex party mask.

Rath’s addiction to sexual desire more strongly connects with Freudian belief, and this is mainly because he doesn’t have a strong woman figure in his life. Rath discovers that he had mistakenly obtained a pair of Lola’s undergarments. So the next day, he eagerly ventures back to the club to return them, making him feel like a hero of sorts. When he arrives, however, he was immediately patronized by Lola. “I knew you’d be back,” Lola said. “They all come back for me.” Such a statement implies that she is a force of nature that is more powerful than any decision-making capabilities Rath may have. But Rath likes being “babied.” He feels special when she makes demands in the same way a mother would order around her son. “Here, hold this,” Lola says, handing him her make-up. As the two sit at Lola’s make-up desk, von Sternberg frames them at mid-range, avoiding any sort of close-up in order to effectively show Lola’s physical higher positioning on her chair. She reigns over him, and Rath is so fragile that already Lola is able to turn him into a blushing schoolboy with every look and an obedient pet with every command.

The voyeurism Rath receives and necessitates correlates to the theories of Freud’s Oedipus complex. In Nicholas Rand’s article confronting this theory, he writes:

 “Stated briefly, we learn from Freud that, having channeled his diffuse instinctual satisfactions to the phallic genital area, the male child is organically impelled to formulate desires of exclusive incestuous possession of the mother – the person who called forth many a pleasurable sensation all over the body and increasingly in the genitals themselves through nursing, bathing, dressing, cradling and cuddling” (56).[3]

Just as in the case with Harford, there is a patriarchal disorder that leads Rath to an “organically impelled” sexual addiction. In Rath’s case, however, it’s in the dominating yet protective nature of a mother that suggests Lola to be desirable. But as with Harford, addiction leads Rath away from his comfort zone. Rath becomes a clown at the Blue Angel, and when he’s denied of Lola’s attention in their marriage, he drives himself to madness. Both the ending to Eyes Wide Shut and The Blue Angel are abrupt, but make aware the notion that both Harford and Rath return to their class system and lifestyle somewhat sexually unfulfilled. And this is all a dangerous byproduct of the addiction onset by that desirable gaze.

The presence of Freudian ideals are evident in both films because Freud was an Austrian psychologist whose views were well-established by the time The Blue Angel was released in Germany. But his work can also be seen in 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut for the mere possibility of the novella Kubrick adapted it from. Traumnovelle (“Dream Story”), written by Austrian-writer Arthur Schnitzler in 1926, confronts issues of desire and illusion that create the foundation for Kubrick’s movie. But while the film adaptation is set in New York City, Kubrick makes a number of Austrian references. Some include his use of Mozart’s Requiem, as well as making the password to the sex party “Fidelio” – the name of Beethoven’s opera[4].

But beyond this is that very tie that binds the national identities of 20th century America with early 20th century central Europe – film as a form of expression. “Arthur Schnitzler, perhaps the most famous portrayer of adultery in literature written in German, has frequently been called a moralist who simply described his society as he saw it without making judgments pro or con,” Charles H. Helmetag writes in his article “Dream Odysseys: Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.” Kubrick, similar to the Harfords’, grew up in a New York City apartment. He was eager to adapt Traumnovelle into a movie for several decades, making it ironic that it was barely completed before his death. What did Kubrick see in particular about America’s underlying sex culture? What did he notice about society? Von Sternberg, born in Austria, was impoverished growing up, and lived on the streets starting at age 17. His father, a bully, married Josef’s mother against his father’s will[5]. What did von Sternberg notice about the lower-class European sex society? Is it possible that, like Rath, he longed for the attention of his mother?

While these questions may never be fully answered, such directors turn moviegoers into spectators. They challenge audiences to view the world in movies and the world in which they live with a certain lens of modernity. Movies – whether from pre-Nazi Germany or pre-millennium America – act as a voice to identify the underlying, or even blatant, themes in society. Film directors create a concept in their eyes, passing their knowledge and vision onto the public in order to provoke some sort of emotional impact. And this, ultimately, allows for moviegoers to experience a certain, special pleasure that transforms them into the ideal voyeurs of sorts.

Works Cited

[1] McCormick, Richard W. Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and “New Objectivity.”

[2] The Working Class in Weimar Germany (157)

[3] “Did women threaten the Oedipus complex between 1922 and 1933?”

[4] Helmetag, Charles H. “Dream Odysseys: Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.”

[5] Gallagher, Tag. “Senses of Cinema: Josef von Sternberg.”

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