Nabokov On Screen

John Colapinto looks beyond Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita to other adaptations of Vladimir Nabokov:

[When] another Nabokov novel hit the screen [in 1978] … it was, again, one of the dark-comic masterpieces from the author’s sojourn in Berlin in the nineteen-thirties: “Despair,” a novel whose plot seems tailored to a high-concept, one-sentence Hollywood pitch: “Man meets his double, swaps identities, and kills him for the insurance money.”

Like “Lolita,” the story features a highly unreliable narrator, Hermann Hermann, who also happens to be the main character—which poses real challenges to any filmmaker. Fortunately, the director was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, working from a script by the equally gifted Tom Stoppard and starring the superb Dirk Bogarde as Hermann. Fassbinder retained the Nabokovian humor but introduced his own astonishing touches, like the moment when Bogarde’s Hermann, the owner of a chocolate factory during the rise of the Nazis, stares down into a pile of baby-shaped chocolates in a bin, his eyes growing wide with premonitory horror at what suddenly seems to be a heap of corpses.

Stoppard, meanwhile, provided a script that more than matches the source author’s word play, and hints at Hermann’s creeping departure from reality, as when Hermann, obsessing over his insurance scam, mishears the word “merger” as “murder.” “Merger, murder,” Hermann says, shrugging, as if they’re all the same. Of all the Nabokov movies, this is the only one to rival Kubrick’s “Lolita,” and it is still in circulation, in libraries and on Amazon.