The Arty Semite

Dreaming of Arthur Schnitzler

By Benjamin Ivry

Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Schnitzler

The Viennese Jewish doctor Arthur Schnitzler, whose 150th birthday was on May 15, 2012 wrote dozens of plays, including “Professor Bernhardi,” about a Jewish doctor, and “Round Dance,” adapted by the German Jewish director Max Ophüls into the 1950 film classic “La Ronde.” Schnitzler’s “Dream Story” inspired the 1999 Stanley Kubrick film “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.

Apart from these frank examinations of erotic impulses, Schnitzler also trained his clinical eye onto his own psyche. At age thirteen he began to keep a dream journal, which he added to until his death in 1931. From 1921 onward, he prepared these descriptions for eventual publication, although only in May did Wallstein Verlag publish “Dreams: the Dream Diary 1875-1931,” the first authoritatively edited, complete version of this fascinating text. It reveals prescient awareness of growing European anti-Semitism, as in a dream from September, 1916 recounting a meeting of “German Nationalists” where a blond man tells Schnitzler: “You don’t understand about honor because you’re a Jew.” Schnitzler sharply replies: “You always have more honor than I do, because you have the honor to speak with me, whereas all I have is the honor to speak with you.” In a July 1924 dream, Schnitzler goes with his literary friends Stefan Zweig and Paul Wertheimer to an outdoor pub in a Vienna park where a “swastika society” awaits them, and it is impossible to flee immediately. In such fraught reveries, Schnitzler found solace by surrounding himself with Jewish friends and others whom he admired, from Theodor Herzl and Gustav Mahler – who both pop up in a single December 1916 dream – to such contemporaries as playwright Richard Beer-Hofmann and novelist Felix Salten.

The last-mentioned, best known for having written “Bambi,” which inspired the Disney animated classic, also wrote the more Schnitzlerian 1906 erotic novel “Josephine Mutzenbacher: The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself.” a racy work also available in French translation. Despite such friends, anguish is ever-present, as in the March 1900 dream account which begins: “Salten has murdered a woman.” Foreboding dreams of funerals, coffins, and public embarrassments such as riding a horse naked down a public street are offset by moments of solace from the arts. Of these, music is a chief balm, and in one 1922 dream about Mahler, Schnitzler notes an “immense feeling of happiness, that I am permitted to speak with him.” These uncanny, elusive jottings make compelling reading.

Watch a brief excerpt from “La Ronde,” Max Ophüls’ 1950 screen adaptation of a work by Arthur Schnitzler here.

And watch a German TV tribute to Schnitzler here.

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Friday Film: Weimar Cinema Beyond Caligari

By A.J. Goldmann

Getty Images
Elizabeth Bergner, who played the starring role in ‘Fräulein Else.’

“Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares,” running at MoMA until March 7, 2011, is billed as the largest-ever retrospective of German cinema from between the Wars to be shown in the United States. The era’s defining cinematic style, expressionism, is well-represented in dozens of offerings, giving a healthy dose of the atmospheric, disturbing and downright spooky in classics like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “M,” “Nosferatu,” “Vampyr” and “Waxworks.”

But alongside these seminal works, the 75-film retrospective — created with assistance from the F.W. Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden and the German Kinematek in Berlin — also highlights lesser-known and in some cases downright impossible-to-find fare, such as the surviving early comedies to which Billy Wilder lent his talents as screenwriter (see the 1930 ménage à trois musical “A Blonde’s Dream”).

On December 13, the museum will screen the impossible-to-find silent version of “Fräulein Else,” adapted from the revolutionary novella by Arthur Schnizler and directed by Paul Czinner. Schnitzler’s slim volume, written in a breathless interior monologue, tells of a young woman who consents to appear naked before the benefactor who is willing to save her father from financial ruin.

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Making a Mess of Comedy

By Matthew Rovner

Wiki Commons

Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.

There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.

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Jewish Impostors, Past and Present

By Benjamin Ivry

Although Shabbetai Zevi naturally gets most of the attention, Jewish history has been marked by a series of impostors. On February 16, Bloomsbury USA publishes a collection by the late New Yorker reporter St. Clair McKelway, “Reporting at Wit’s End,” which includes the complete 1968 book “The Big Little Man from Brooklyn” about the Jewish impostor Stanley Jacob Weinberg.

The Brooklyn-born Weinberg (1890-1960) had many aliases, eventually settling on “Stanley Clifford Weyman,” because, as McKelway points out, “he wasn’t entirely satisfied with his name or with himself.” To win fame and prestige, Weinberg pretended to be everyone from Rudolf Valentino’s funeral director to the personal physician of film star Pola Negri. Lawrence J. Epstein’s “The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America” claims that Weinberg may have even inspired Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” a chameleon who blended into various identities to seek anonymity. Yet as McKelway states, “The men [Weinberg] became were never obscure.”

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