A Dangerous Method: lavish but perfunctory treatment of three psychoanalysts

David Cronenberg, “A Dangerous Method” (2011)

Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s stage play “The Talking Cure” which itself is based on John Kerr’s book “A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein”, this historical drama revolves around the tense professional and personal relationships formed by famous psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and Jung’s patient Sabina Spielrein who herself became a physician and psychoanalyst. It begins with Spielrein’s admission to the Burgholzli hospital where Jung (Michael Fassbender) is a practising physician. Using the then revolutionary talking method of uncovering a patient’s unconscious desires and needs and bringing them to conscious knowledge, Jung discovers the cause of the hysteria that afflicts Spielrein (Keira Knightley) which confirms his readings of Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories. Jung then encourages Speilrein to study to be a doctor. His wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) persuades him to contact Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and the two men establish a professional relationship that lasts some six years, during which time their beliefs and theories on psychology, in particular on the human sexual drive, the nature of unconsciousness and the importance of religion, diverge and cause tensions and arguments. At the same time Jung and Spielrein embark on an affair that includes sadomasochism; Jung breaks it off but later resumes it when he agrees to mentor Spielrein for her dissertation. Eventually in 1912, while attending a meeting to discuss psychoanalytical journals, Freud faints hysterically and Jung rescues him. After this, the two men reduce their contacts to letter-writing and eventually stop collaborating. In the same year, Spielrein stops working with Jung and returns to her family; she marries a physician, Pavel Scheftel.

Primarily dialogue-driven, the film isn’t more than a series of huffy-puffy temper tantrums and professional disagreements. Every time the psychoanalysts’ conversations threaten to become interesting, even if in a cartoony way when they discuss their dreams, the narrative cuts out before any analysis begins and the film pulls back by a quick edit to another scene. The result is that “A Dangerous Method” is not at all dangerous and the sex scenes, particularly those where Knightley is required to flash a nipple, appear entirely gratuitous. Although the actors do their best and Knightley overacts her role in early scenes when Spielrein is hysterical, their scenes are directed and filmed in such a dispassionate way that any significant things they say are undercut and severely weakened: Jung’s attempts to push psychoanalytic theory into something pro-actively therapeutic and transformative receive some attention but the film “balances” his ambitions with Freud’s supposed caution and staying within what is known, and Spielrein’s support of Freud’s position in spite of her sympathy for Jung’s opinion. This perhaps should have been the film’s major theme and conflict: psychoanalysis as merely a mapping of human sexuality and unconsciousness (the stand taken by Freud and Spielrein) versus psychoanalysis as striving to understand human sexuality and unconsciousness fully in order to effect a transformation of human motivation, behaviour and perhaps society itself.

Speilrein’s assertion that the sex drive contains within itself elements of the drive to life and of the drive to death merits only two small scenes; this treatment is quite typical of the film’s generally shallow investigation of the discoveries that she, Jung and Freud make during the period covered. There is no question then as to whether the film is sympathetic towards women or not: it really isn’t, particularly in its treatment of Jung’s wife Emma who is nothing more than a baby-making machine / homebody whose wealthy family supplies Jung with the money for his work and research. Jung’s reliance on Emma’s wealth is both his support and weakness: without that money, he would never have been able to pursue psychoanalysis but at the same time, he can never leave his wife though he becomes indifferent towards her. After breaking off his affair with Spielrein, he promptly takes up with another Jewish female patient, Toni Wolff, who is mentioned briefly near the end.

The film briefly touches on the backgrounds of Jung, Freud and Spielrein: both Freud and Spielrein are Jewish and Freud’s position on religion is negative, no doubt due in part to his having suppressed Jewish religious influence in his professional life in an age where anti-Semitism and German nationalism, based on Romantic ideas about returning to nature and shunning industry and cities, could be very strong (although it’s possible that Germans and Austrians as people were actually much less anti-Semitic and nationalistic than English and French people were in the late 19th century) while Jung, the son of a pastor, was more positive about admitting religion, the mystical and the paranormal into his investigations of human psychology. If I may digress, Jung’s ideas were eventually to lead to the idea of the collective unconscious and the development of psychological archetypes which in the hands of Nazis led to institutional race discrimination against Jews, gypsies and others and thus to the extermination camps set up in remote parts of Poland; and which in the hands of others can still lead to bizarre New Age beliefs and belief systems, new forms of racial and social prejudice and barriers, and impositions of idealistic ideologies on people which can encourage new forms of repression and denials of freedom. Jung had to be aware of what the Nazis were doing with his ideas and theories as he joined the National Socialist party in the 1930s and edited a journal that endorsed Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”; he later claimed that he joined the Nazis to save his career and theories but had he been genuine about saving his reputation and work, he would have done what Freud did and left Germany. As for Freud, he was content to limit himself to investigating the psychology and psychopathology of individual people, and the individuals’ immediate social environment, but he shied away from examining the larger socio-cultural context and its influence on individual and mass psychology; this limitation allowed his nephew, Edward Bernays, to hijack his theories and use them as tools in the service of American corporations and the US government to govern people and tell them what to think and feel.

Spielrein tragically did not have the opportunities that Freud and Jung had: returning to Russia in 1923, she raised a family with her husband (who was later purged by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s) and trained other doctors but when the Nazis arrived in her home town Rostov-on-Don, she and her two daughters were captured and shot dead by a German SS death squad along with 27,000 other Jews and Soviet civilians in Zmevskaya Balka in August 1942.

In short, “A Dangerous Method” attempts to cover serious topics in a shallow and clumsily comic way. The film’s narrative and visual format lavish more attention on recreating the late 19th century / early 20th century world in its bourgeois glory than on a rigorous, in-depth exploration of three psychologists and their complicated professional and personal relationships.





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