In 1981 and '82, European filmmaker Barbet Schroeder was so fascinated by the story of Claus von Bulow that he was regularly clipping stories about him from newspapers.

"I was interested at the time in doing a comedy about the super rich, the idle rich," Schroeder said in a telephone interview from New York. "But, of course, it would have been a bitter comedy, and I decided this (von Bulow's story) was not the thing because how could you have a movie with von Bulow as a main character? I thought it was impossible."Those who see Schroeder's highly acclaimed new film "Reversal of Fortune," which opened Friday in Salt Lake theaters, may still wonder how he did it.

In an incredible balancing act, Schroeder investigates the American criminal justice system, tells the tragic story of von Bulow's wealthy wife Sunny slipping into an irreversible coma, presents von Bulow as a seemingly unfeeling snob while showing that he was unfairly tried and convicted of trying to kill her, never offers an opinion as to whether von Bulow is guilty or innocent - and plays it all as a black comedy.

It is an amazing cinematic feat and will doubtless be nominated for several major Academy Awards next spring.

Schroeder, who directed "Reversal of Fortune," credits screenwriter Nicholas Kazan ("Frances," "At Close Range," "Patty Hearst") with solving the problems of telling the story satisfactorily.

"Many years later, when I was trying to work with Nick Kazan on another project, he had found the solution. Through the character of the lawyer you could actually enter the story outside the courtroom, using the lawyer as a detective."

The lawyer is Alan Dershowitz, who wrote a book about his piecing together of events leading up to Sunny's coma before appealing von Bulow's conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kazan based his screenplay on Dershowitz's book and the trial transcripts.

In addition to Kazan's script, the film works largely because of three solid lead performances - Ron Silver as Dershowitz, Glenn Close as Sunny and especially Jeremy Irons as von Bulow.

Schroeder said it was Irons' Oscar-nominated performance as psychotic twin doctors in "Dead Ringers" that made him first choice for von Bulow. "It was the most incredible performance in the last 20 years. He is a genius actor.

"I knew if he accepted to change physically, to go through physical transformation, he would be perfect. Instead of a bad German, I had in mind something much closer to an ambiguous English gentleman. It just happened that von Bulow was raised in England, raised there since age of 7, so I felt free to go in that direction.

"He (Irons) does only one movie a year, no more, and he was free, and Glenn Close was free, too. The only one not free was Ron Silver. He was doing `Enemies - A Love Story,' and since I couldn't find anybody better than him to do the part we decided to wait three months until he finished `Enemies.' "

Schroeder was also quick to point out that the talent of Howard Feuer, who was the film's casting director. "I have an eye for casting, but I have an eye for good casting-people, also."

He said the real von Bulow has not seen the film, as it has not been shown in London, where von Bulow currently resides. But he's not really concerned about von Bulow or any of the other principals characterized in the film. "It is a work of fiction based on fact. We tried to show all points of view and tried to make the most ambiguous movie possible to leave everything open.

"I'm sure they're all upset. I wouldn't like to have a movie made about me. I'm sure I would find it inaccurate, even if it were positive about me I would be saying it is not me."