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High contrast and femtosecond speed have been achieved in an optically addressed anisotropically strained multiple quantum well modulator by exploiting polarization-sensitive optical nonlinearities associated with the interaction of resonantly excited excitons with a population of nonresonantly created excitons that adiabatically follows the temporal intensity profile of the excitation pulse. The resultant modulation is characterized by a contrast ratio of 380:1, corresponding to a dynamic polarization rotation of 18°, and a pulse-width-limited full width at half maximum of 165 fs. © 2000 American Institute of Physics.