Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Legend of Greta Garbo, or Woman as Thing: Hollywood Creations in Max Frisch's Stiller

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Legend of Greta Garbo, or Woman as Thing: Hollywood Creations in Max Frisch's Stiller

Article excerpt

"I have never seen anything in my life more beautiful than you.

-John Barrimore (as Baron von Gaigern) to Greta Garbo (as the prima ballerina Grusinskaya) in Grand Hotel

'Das Weibliche ist das einzige Gefäß, was uns Neueren noch geblieben ist, um unsere Idealität hineinzugießen. "

-Johann W. Goethe, in Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe

"In this poetic field the feminine object is emptied of all real substance. "

-Jacques Lacan, "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis"

One of the very first texts in the twelve-volume edition of Max Frisch's Gesammelte Werkeis a short piece written in 1932 entitled "Erhebt die Greta Garbo." What makes this fictionalized account of a young man's infatuation with the Swedish superstar remarkable is not only the homage it pays to the iconic beauty. It is notably the only text included in this initial volume that, aside from Frisch's first novel, fürg Reinhart, features a fictional protagonist. While the autobiographical bent of the narrative is hardly disputable, its presence within this collection of non-fictional texts (mainly editorials, book reviews, travel impressions, and other autobiographical narratives that Frisch wrote as a free-lance journalist between 1931 and 1934) stands out with its dreamy Taugenichts, the office clerk Magnus Klein. Strictly speaking, Magnus Klein, whose love for Greta Garbo defines his existence, is Frisch's first fictional character. And indeed, his propinquity to Frisch's later title character in Stiller, the novel that catapulted the Swiss author to international repute more than twenty years later in 1954, is unmistakable. For just like Anatol Ludwig Stiller, Magnus Klein is a latter-day Rip van Winkle, the character from American folk legend caught up in his own dream world after whom Max Frisch explicitly modeled his celebrated novel character.1

What further ties the early short story and the later novel together is the histori- cal person of Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928), the Swedish silent-film director best known for having discovered and introduced Greta Garbo to the screen. I will argue here that this pioneer of early cinema, whose cantankerous personality led him to experience bitter failure in Hollywood, served as a model for Frisch's own feisty protagonist. The thwarted artistic careers of the real and fictive Stiller-Mauritz, the film director, and Anatol, the sculptor-are merely one testimony to their similarity. Even more compelling is the relationship of the two artists to their female partners. The reputedly odd, symbiotic relationship between Garbo and her mentor, who were dubbed by friends "Pygmalion and Galatea" (Katz 1096), parallels on a number of levels the obvious Pygmalion-Galatea relation between the sculptor Stiller and his beautiful wife and model, the ballerinajulika Stiller-T schudy. Seen in this light, the "feminine mystique" with which Frisch imbues his fictive diva is not only a purposeful allusion to his own film idol, but also a complex representation of man's creation of woman into the fundamentally inaccessible object of his idealized love.

To be sure, this is the quintessential role of woman in courtly love, to which I refer in the title of this article, byway of allusion to Slavoj Zizek's well-known essay, "Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing," itself a reading of Jacques Lacan's "Courtly Love as Anamorphosis":

[T]he object is attainable only by way of an incessant postponement, as its absent point of reference. The Object, therefore, is literally something that is created-whose place is encircled-through a network of detours, approximations and near misses. It is here that sublimation sets in-sublimation in the Lacanian sense of the elevation of an object into the dignity of the Thing. (Zizek 157)

It will be my purpose here to demonstrate just how closely Max Frisch's image of woman adheres to such a model, which is, in turn, precisely the cool, enigmatic im- age that Greta Garbo famously embodied both on and off the screen. …

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