PRINT February 1991


Reversal of Fortune

The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myelf; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence. Odd contradiction: a floating flash.
—Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1981

It is a bitterly cold night in Newport, Rhode Island, several days before Christmas 1980. The camera focuses on the lavish dining room of Clarendon Court, the palatial estate of Martha “Sunny” von Bülow and her second husband, Claus von Bülow. The attractive von Bülow family—Claus, Sunny, their teenage daughter Cosima, and Sunny’s 21-year old son by her first marriage, Alexander—are eating dinner around an elegantly appointed table. The mood is tense. No one speaks. Cosima and Alexander glance nervously at one another, and every so often Claus looks up anxiously at his wife. Sunny’s blond hair is neatly coiffed. She wears an elegant blue dress, a strand of pearls, and, incongruously, a pair of sunglasses. With her shaky left hand she holds a lit cigarette; with her right a spoon, which this reactive-hypoglycemic woman uses to eat her dinner—a huge ice cream sundae.

This incident, which purportedly occurred in the hours before Sunny von Bülow fell mysteriously into an irreversible coma, may not have happened as the scene above suggests. But in Barbet Schroeder’s recent film Reversal of Fortune, which explores the successful appeal of Claus von Bülow’s conviction on charges of assault with attempt to murder his wife by injecting her with insulin, establishing what happened is never really the issue. So many American movies celebrate the values of truth and justice. Even when the mood is noir, there is usually some kind of restitution of order, some kind of redemptive victory. But Schroeder’s interweaving of sometimes conflicting voices—including those of Claus (Jeremy Irons), his attorney Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), and Sunny (Glenn Close)—refuses to allow a single version of “reality.” Take the dinner scene, painted not in the black and white of satire or parody but as a difficult gray space of hypothetical possibilities. The action reads on multiple levels. First we laugh at Sunny’s weirdness; then we are horrified by her self-destructiveness. Are we witnessing a cry for help before a self-administered overdose? Or is her morbid behavior pushing her husband that much closer to killing her? Is his “murderous” act one of passively doing nothing as she moves closer to suicide? Or does the scene’s humorous edge make this guessing game absurd? In Schroeder’s recreation of life in Clarendon Court—which departs considerably from Dershowitz’s journalistic account of the case in his book Reversal of Fortune—a fact is never just a fact; through visual and verbal ambiguities, and extraordinarily nuanced performances by Irons and Close, the film continually questions the mythologies of truth and justice.

As the movie opens, the camera takes us past a private security guard into Sunny von Bülow’s hospital room. A pale yet still beautiful Sunny lies comatose in an elegant antique bed. In voice-over, she introduces us to some of the details of the case against her husband: his refusal to call for a doctor despite her life-threatening symptoms; the mounting suspicion of her children and personal maid Maria (Uta Hagen) that Claus was up to no good; the “discovery” of a vial of insulin and an insulin-encrusted needle in his closet; his affair with soap-opera actress Alexandra Isles; and finally the $14 million he stood to inherit if Sunny died.

The scene then shifts to the comfortable but rumpled home of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who receives a call from Claus asking him to handle the appeal.1 The film is thus divided into two realms: the world of the combative Jewish Dershowitz and his multiracial, male-and-female team of former and present students, and the icy private world of the aristocratic von Bülow family at the time of the alleged crime. This structural bifurcation does not always work in the film’s favor: the scenes of Dershowitz and his students (except those directly involving Irons’ Claus) invariably read as pedantic and flatfooted. Those representing Clarendon Court, however, are far more complex.

In these scenes Schroeder attempts to recreate “testimony” in a manner that constantly reveals its vulnerability. The approach seems to share concerns with Errol Morris’ brilliant but problematic docudrama The Thin Blue Line, 1988, which used re-created action and interviews to investigate the injustice dealt Randall Dale Adams, a drifter convicted of murdering a police officer in Dallas, Texas, in 1976. But Morris’ film, which contributed significantly to Adams’ successful appeal of his sentence, is obsessed with the details of what really happened on the night of the murder. And it is not actually the function of the legal system to uncover the truth: the lawyer’s task is more to tell a story—to build the most persuasive possible narrative out of the known facts.

Not only prosecution and defense produce these stories—judge or jury, who must tell themselves a story that supports their verdict, do as well. A preeminent juridical myth blasted in Schroeder’s film is that such stories are inevitable, self-evident narratives of truth. Of course, the difference between a “true” history and an “invented” one, as the contradictory verdicts of the two von Bülow trials prove, is “finally nothing more than a distinction between a persuasive interpretation and one that has failed to convince.”2 The production of judicial history inevitably hinges on a relationship between word and world. As such, judgments on truth and falsehood are just as circumstantial and interpretive as “judgments of felicity,” where the question of a statement’s factuality will receive a different answer in different circumstances.3 Thus truth, to one extent or another, is the hostage of interpretation, and interpretation is always motivated by the ideological imperatives and biases of the interpreter. In Reversal of Fortune, Schroeder foregrounds these obvious problems inherent in legal decision making.

In Schroeder’s film, not even Sunny herself can tell us what happened on that fateful day in 1980. In Dershowitz’s book, however, the law professor himself appears to buy into the myth of truth: “In law, as distinguished from art,” he writes, “there is generally a truth. It may be difficult, indeed impossible, to discern. But discerning the truth is the central, though not the only, object of the legal system.”4 Dershowitz’s civil-libertarian writings have challenged the economic and racial disparities of the American legal system, but his uncritical acceptance of these tenets of truth fails to acknowledge the extent to which judicial history is inflected with the biases of the people charged with its construction and of the constitutional system on which it is based. Indeed, the space of American jurisprudence continues to be fraught with bigotry, leading Dershowitz’s fellow Harvard Law School professor Derrick A. Bell, Jr., to ask whether civil rights litigation in the United States is now “a freedom train that has run out of steam."5

The issue of civil rights might seem extraneous to a discussion of Reversal of Fortune—which, for all its intelligence, is also designed as scandals-of-the-rich-and-famous entertainment—were it not for the film’s somewhat understated subplot. Early on, Dershowitz angrily discusses with his son the case of the Johnson brothers, two black death-row inmates from Alabama who are about to exhaust their appeals. (The brothers helped their father escape from jail, and have been held criminally responsible for a murder he committed while on the lam.) This case serves several functions in the film: for one, Dershowitz’s pro bono defense of the Johnsons gives him a moral dimension, offsetting and justifying his acceptance of the sleazy, economically profitable von Bülow case. (The attorney actually tells von Bülow that the destitute Johnsons are “another case you’re paying for.”) The plight of the brothers also tends to underline the economic and racial inequities of the law. Taking Claus on a tour of his home, where a number of rooms have been allocated to different groups of students analyzing the von Bülow case, Dershowitz points out the closed door of the sole room devoted to the Johnson brothers’ appeal. At another point in the film, the attorney talks to one of the brothers over the telephone; we never hear Johnson speak, but he is clearly distraught. Von Bülow too faces a murder charge, yet he is cool, resolved, a confident white heterosexual male. With Johnson, on the other hand, we register—though we do not hear or see—the screams and tears of a man who realizes how little his life matters to society. And as the final credits roll we are informed that “the Johnson brothers are still on Death Row”—a sharp contrast to von Bülow, who has won his appeal, even though, unlike them, he is not obviously innocent of murder.

The Johnson brothers would appear to satisfy a function consistent with the rest of the film—that of overriding the mythology of truth. However, the Johnson brothers do not exist. Their story, in fact, seems based on another case handled by Dershowitz and associates of the Boston law firm of Hale & Dorr—that of the Tison brothers of Arizona. The Tisons, who freed their father and a friend in a violent jailbreak in 1978, are white, not black. They are also not on death row, their sentences having been set aside by the United States Supreme Court in 1987. Dershowitz, who mentions neither the fictitious nor the real brothers in his book Reversal of Fortune, and who did not have final script approval for the film, explained recently to the Boston Globe that the Johnsons represent a composite of his pro bono capital-punishment clients, at least one of whom is black. And he defended this conflation of characters as an effective dramatization of the “disproportionate discrimination against blacks on death row, which has been part of my crusade against capital punishment.”6

While the Johnson brothers are at best marginal in Reversal of Fortune, the haunting contrast they offer to the lush world of the von Bülows (and even to Dershowitz’s upper-middle-class life at Harvard) suggests a powerful rhetorical device. It is curious, though, that they exist only through their white attorney’s mouth. Of course Schroeder was making a film about life and living death in Newport, not about the many and various Johnson brothers currently lost in the legal system. It is to his credit that he also found a way to reflect, however tangentially, on social and juridical inequity. But it is unfortunate that the voiceless black brothers are so clearly an instrumental device, invented to throw a flattering spotlight on Dershowitz, the fighter for “truth.”

Maurice Berger is visiting assistant professor of contemporary art and critical theory at Hunter College, New York.


1. For details on the case, see Alan Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case, New York: Pocket Books, 1986.

2. Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1989, p. 95.

3. See ibid., pp. 87–102. See also Ronald Dworkin, “Law as Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 9, Chicago, 1982, pp. 179ff. On the ideological imperatives of the text, see Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, pp. 109–59.

4. Dershowitz, Reversal of Fortune, pp. xxiii-xxiv. Dershowitz has concluded that Claus von Bülow was “probably innocent” (p. xxii). In contrast, Barbet Schroeder says that this film “will not tell you whether von Bülow is innocent or guilty but . . . the audience will have all the elements to create their own theories.” Schroeder, in “Reversal of Fortune: Production Information,” Warner Bros. press release, 1990, p. 4.

5. Derrick A. Bell, Jr., quoted in Ken Emerson, “When Legal Titans Clash,” The New York Times Magazine, 22 April 1990, p. 63.

6. Dershowitz, quoted in Alex Beam, “Reversal of Facts,” The Boston Globe, 23 November 1990, p. 62.