Film Review – A Dangerous Method. Directed by David Cronenberg, Sony Pictures 2011

By Geoffrey Cocks

One of the characteristics of the psychoanalytic movement in Central Europe during the early twentieth century was the often important professional role played by women as theorists, practitioners, and patients.  One of those who performed in all three roles was Sabina Spielrein, an intellectually gifted woman from an affluent Russian Jewish background studying in Zurich and suffering from childhood traumata.  Spielrein was to play a particularly important role in the early and ultimately broken relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  Tyrannized by her own father, she would become Jung’s patient, colleague, and lover; one means for Jung to confront (or not) his own father issues; and, as a psychoanalyst herself the most important source for the articulation of the death instinct by a Freud beset with his own unresolved conflicts regarding his mother.  Freud’s version of Spielrein’s death instinct, formulated in the heaving wake of the First World War, would itself become part of the basis for object relations theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and feminist psychoanalytic sociology, all three of which conceived of the mother as the source of fundamental male discontent over desire for—and separation from—the original caretaker.  In the mid-twentieth century such and similar dynamics would coalesce with historical trends, events, and disasters in German history in particular to drive Hitler and his Nazi brethren to inflict anxious and murderous violence upon millions of human beings.  Among these millions of victims was Sabina Spielrein who, in the early months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, was, together with her two daughters, among the Jews in Rostov-on-Don who were rounded up and shot.

Based primarily on clinical psychologist John Kerr’s book, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud. And Sabina Spielrein (1993), A Dangerous Method begins on August 17, 1904.  A hysterical young woman is being transported by coach to the Cantonal Psychiatric Hospital and Clinic of Zürich, famously and widely known under the direction of Eugen Bleuler as the Burghölzli Clinic.  The woman is Sabina Spielrein, who is to be treated there by means of the “talking cure” pioneered by Sigmund Freud in Vienna.  As historian Peter Loewenberg has argued, the Burghölzli was a model scientific community in which new methods of psychiatry, in particular psychoanalysis, were cultivated.  One of the young men attracted to this creative scientific environment was a young follower of Freud’s method by the name of Carl Jung.  It is he who will supervise Spielrein’s treatment.  She will sit in a chair and he will sit in a chair located behind her.  Jung instructs her not to turn around but simply to talk about what she recalls about her life.  It is in this scene that the limitations of the film genre are most manifest.  Within less than three minutes of conversation—and one significant silence on the patient’s part—Jung elicits the core trauma of Spielrein’s childhood:  beatings by her father.  In a subsequent scene only two minutes are required for her to reveal that she was sexually aroused by the beatings and ever after would feel the urge to masturbate in response to any instance of emotional stress.  This elision of much of the hard, time-consuming work of mining the unconscious has the dramaturgical advantage, however, of drawing the viewer swiftly and surely into the pathos of the story the film has to tell.  The screenplay (written by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure [2002]) also includes one nice bit of parapraxis that emphasizes the content of unconscious emotion constituting a continuous individual history.  This is a very quickly spoken slip of the tongue by Spielrein as she describes how she began to seek out humiliation in order to experience arousal:  “I looked for any humiliation—even here.  You hit my cock with your stick.”  Suddenly the past (“looked”) has become the present (“even here”) and vice-versa in a classic psychoanalytic instance of transference, whereby the analyst becomes the object toward whom the patient expresses emotions connected with someone in the past.  Moreover, for the dramatic purposes of the film the future too is invoked since Spielrein and Jung will become lovers.  The nonsense statement (“my cock . . . your stick”) collapses the stick carried by the father (also his penis) into Jung’s (“your”), “my cock” representing her wish for possession of the penis as well as a rhetorical reversal that represents denial of the wish for sexual intercourse with Jung, her father, and any or all men.  She concludes:  “There’s no hope for me.  I’m vile.”

The first thing to say historically about what is to follow in the film is that there is no hard evidence that Jung and Spielrein had a sexual relationship, which included his indulgence of her masochism.  (Later, in 1910, when Spielrein comes to Jung’s home in Küsnacht for help with publication of her dissertation—and eventually they resume their sadomasochistic sex—Jung says that on Tuesday next “I’ll start ripping you to shreds.”)  Spielrein broadcast this relationship and kept a diary of it.  Today Freudians generally affirm the affair while Jungians generally deny it.  So-called “boundary issues” are a common occupational hazard in psychoanalysis wherein emotional involvement is central to treatment.  This was particularly the case in the early “frontier days” of psychoanalytic practice.  Also relevant in this regard is that the married Jung would later have a long-term sexual relationship with patient and colleague Toni Wolff.  In any case, the film presents the relationship as fact, beginning with Sabina’s invitation and Carl’s arrival one evening at her apartment door.  She—and the screenplay—in full psychoanalytic double-entendre mode tell him to “Come inside.”

It was this baggage that Jung carried with him to his first meeting with Freud.  The film shows Jung arriving in Vienna on March 3, 1906, but as Jung scholar Jay Sherry has pointed out, this meeting actually took place in 1907.  The film, again in indirect psychoanalytic fashion, hints at Jung’s own struggles with sexuality when it shows him at a dinner with an observant Freud and a tableful of astonished dinner guests, heaping his plate with mounds of food and vigorously gulping it all down.  The film seems to suggest that Jung’s insistence to Freud that psychoanalysis be a means of questing at mystical and eternal verities behind and beyond sexuality constituted unconscious denial of his own current and ongoing sexual needs, indulgences, and conflicts.  The film even provides in this respect a diaboli ex machina in the figure of Otto Gross, a brilliant but unstable psychoanalyst Freud had sent to Jung for treatment who appalls but also tempts Jung with his celebration of drug addiction and unrepressed sexuality.

The shadow of the coming World War—we know it of course—but the characters—and/or of course the filmmakers—too “sense” something terrible is in the offing.  In 1913 Jung, who believes, among other things, in premonitions, relates to a married and pregnant Sabina his recurrent dream of an apocalyptic flood from the North Sea that engulfs all of Europe and turns to blood, “the blood of Europe.”  And even more distant things, more terrible than the Great War.  Freud tells Spielrein to remember that they are Jews and that she should not put her trust in a fantasy of “mystical union with a blond Aryan” like Jung.  Indeed.  The concluding bits of text that are now standard in historical films tell us, over music from Wagner’s Siegfried, that Otto Gross starved to death in Berlin in 1919.  That Freud “was driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and died of cancer in London in 1939.”  And that Spielrein was taken by the Nazis to a synagogue in Rostov and murdered.  As for Jung:  He suffered from “a prolonged nervous breakdown during the First World War” and later became “the world’s leading psychologist.”  There is no mention of the fact that Jung for some years in the 1930s associated himself with a group of non-Jewish psychotherapists and psychoanalysts who established an institute for psychotherapy in Nazi Berlin under the leadership of a relative of Hermann Göring.


Geoffrey Cocks teaches at Albion College and is the author of numerous works, including
Psychotherapy in the Third Reich: The Göring Institute, 2nd ed. (Transaction 1997) and most recently The State of Health: Illness in Nazi Germany (Oxford 2012).

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  1. This was an outstanding essay that almost left me speechless, but I do have a gripe with David Cronenberg, so here is a link that dissects a movie he famously directed, The Fly. My own piece is here: http://clarespark.com/2009/09/07/melancholia-as-a-way-of-life/.

  2. I felt that the movie didn’t really live up to my expectations. It lacked depth and the characters’ interactions felt paltry, there’s so much more you could have done with Freud and Jung’s stormy relationship. Mortensen does really look like Jung, though.

  3. I meant “look like Freud, though”, of course!

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