In our unconscious, in the real of our desire, we are all murderers
Slavoj Žižek in Looking Awry at Popular Culture:
The first example that comes to mind is Woman in the Window by Fritz Lang: a lonely professor of psychology is fascinated by the portrait of a female fatale that hangs in the window of a store next to the entrance to his club. After his family has gone away on vacation, he dozes off in his club. One of the attendants awakens him at eleven, whereupon he leaves the club, casting a glance at the portrait, as usual. This time, however, the portrait comes alive as the picture in the window overlaps with the mirror reflection of a beautiful brunette on the street, who asks the professor for a match. The professor, then, has an affair with her; kills her lover in a fight; is informed by a police inspector friend of the progress of the investigation of this murder; sits in a chair, drinks poison, and dozes off when he learns his arrest is imminent. He is then awakened by an attendant at eleven and discovers that he has been dreaming. Reassured, the professor returns home, conscious that he must avoid ensnarement by fatal brunettes. We must not, however, view the final turnaround as a compromise, an accommodation to the codes of Hollywood. The message of the film is not consoling, not: “it was only a dream, in reality I am a normal man like others and not a murderer!” but rather: in our unconscious, in the real of our desire, we are all murderers.
Paraphrasing the Lacanian interpretation of the Freudian dream about the father to whom a dead son appears, reproaching him with the words “Father, can’t you see that I’m burning?,’’ we could say that the professor awakes in order to continue his dream (about being a normal person like his fellow men), that is, to escape the real (the “psychic reality”) of his desire. Awakened into everyday reality, he can say to himself with relief “It was only a dream!,” thus overlooking the crucial fact that, awake, he is “nothing but the consciousness of his dream.” In other words, paraphrasing the parable of Zhuang-Zhi and the butterfly, which is also one of Lacan’s points of reference: we do not have a quiet, kind, decent, bourgeois professor dreaming for a moment that he is a murderer; what we have is, on the contrary, a murderer dreaming, in his everyday life, that he is just a decent bourgeois professor.