home | news | articles | therapy | A Dangerous Method - reviewed by Jessica Woolliscroft

A Dangerous Method - reviewed by Jessica Woolliscroft

A Dangerous Method

Here is yet another film featuring sex between therapist and client. Unfortunately for we psychotherapists this is the favourite leitmotif of filmmakers when they decide to depict the world of psychotherapy. Typically the films are crass and the psychotherapy profession ends up with its reputation in the gutter. However, this film is about so much more...power, love, abuse, betrayal, class, being Jewish, being female, and being alive.

As my train hurtled south to London through a beautiful snow covered landscape, I wondered how the film would affect people, and particularly current and potential clients. Would it put people off? Scare them away from trusting the healing of psychotherapy?
Arundel House used to be the headquarters for MI5 who have apparently moved out. It is extremely plush with thick carpets and cameras where you least expect them.  Apparently they were given £6million by an Asian politician to refurbish the screening room. As I searched the thickly carpeted corridors for a vacant loo, I found brass plaques indicating the new tenants of the building... ‘Security Analyst: Pacific Asia’ and ‘Defence Advisor: Croatia’ for example. I do not know what Freud would deduce from this, but for me it just made the whole conference so much more exciting.

My immediate response to the film was that I loved it.

I thought Keira Knightly was superb in her portrayal of Sabina Spielrein, an intelligent, sensitive and wounded person caught in a relationship that is both loving and abusive. By abusive I do not mean the obvious fact that a key player in the film gets thoroughly ‘spanked’, but the subtle abuses of trust and love that occur when necessary boundaries between patient and doctor are crossed.
The film begins with Sabina understandably terrified at being sent to the Burgholzli Psychiatric Asylum, where she is rapidly brought under the spell of Carl Jung, her psychiatrist and analyst (who is played by Michael Fassbender as rather self obsessed, ambitious and greedy man). Jung is to use Freud’s revolutionary ‘Talking Cure’ to treat her. She is encouraged by Bleuler the Hospital Director to work, so becomes Jung’s medical assistant and they soon form an intellectually stimulating partnership – sharing ideas and encouragement. When Freud sends Otto Gross, an infamous anarcho analyst, sex and drug addicted psychiatrist ( played to hilarious and horrifying effect by Vincent Cassel) to be analysed by Jung, Jung instead falls under Otto’s influence and proceeds to give up any restraint, starting an affair with Sabina...which ends badly... as these things always do.

I feel I should not divulge any more other than to acknowledge that Viggo Mortenson plays Freud sympathetically and conveys well the pain that is felt on discovering that a loved and respected person has behaved ‘dishonourably’. Jung was Freud’s much loved intellectual ‘son’ and his ‘heir’ to psychoanalysis. The film is powerfully affecting as it touches upon their tragic and irrevocable split.

Following the premier we were treated to some wonderful reflections on the film from a very distinguished guest list. Here is a taste of their contributions. (I believe that, as it was filmed, CAP will be trying to make this very successful conference available to the general public).

Lisa Appignanesi
Author of the prize-winning Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the present and All about Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion, as well as co-author of Freud’s Women.  Chair, Freud Museum, London.
Lisa described her visits to Burgholzli Hospital and how after watching the film and being discomforted by Jung’s behaviour, she tried to explain it by the fact that this was the early days of psychoanalysis when there were no rules. However, she seemed mainly preoccupied with her interview with Viggo Mortenson, who apparently carried out extensive research at the Freud Museum into Freud’s character and writing. Funnily enough, most of the questions from the floor to Lisa also concerned Viggo Mortenson’s visit to the Freud Museum.

Deirdre Bair      
Author of Jung: A Biography.  Winner of the 2004 Gradiva Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (in the US) for best biography and finalist in biography for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Other award-winning biographies include Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Anais Nin.
Deidre gave a humorous description of her time with the Jung family and how they revered Emma Jung (his wife) so much that they could not countenance even a biography being written about her. She also revealed that many people from all walks of life that she has interviewed are completely split about the film. Some see Jung as a hero for daring to explore the edges of the psyche and some revere Freud for refusing to use religion to avoid existential pain.

Helena Bassil-Morozow
Helena Bassil-Morozow is a cultural studies theorist and film scholar. Her monographs include Tim Burton: the Monster and the Crowd and The Trickster in Contemporary Film.
Helena held the conference in thrall with her stylish red hair, her wonderful Russian accent and her precise analysis of the film. She described for us Cronenberg’s oeuvre and fascination with the problems presented by the physical body and the horrors of death. She explained that Cronenberg is certainly a Freudian and would also have portrayed Otto Gross as a sort of turn of the century beatnik. Helena also made one of the best jokes of the conference describing Jung as a kind of psychoanalytic Harry Potter.

Christopher Hauke
Author of Jung and the Postmodern: Interpretation of Realities and Jung and Film: Post-Jungian Takes on the Moving Image. Senior Lecturer in Psychoanalytic Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London.  Jungian Analyst.

Presented an interesting essay on what is a true story? This film is supposedly based on truth, but the filmmakers have distorted some of the ‘truth’. For example, Toni Wolfe is not Jewish but in the film she is described as such. Also that Jung is described as loving Wagner the man and his music when actually he is recorded as saying he disliked Wagner. These issues are more important as we ask whether Jung did actually have an affair with Spielrein. It would seem pretty clear that he did, although there was no evidence that their sexual activity including spanking.  This was added by Cronenberg...no doubt to raise the film’s profile. Chris Hauke made a superb Freudian slip when he said that “Jung really valued the importance of friction...I mean fiction...” How we laughed!

Gottfried Heuer
Editor of Sexual Revolutions: Psychoanalysis, History and the Father. President of the International Otto Gross Society. Jungian Analyst.
For my money, the best presentation of the day was given by Gottfried Heuer a German body psychotherapist and neoReichian who went on to train as a Jungian and who has become an expert on Otto Gross. He was passionate in his essay about psychoanalysis as a tool for revolution and for increasing the freedom of people. He gave a systematic deconstruction of all the excuses made for Jung for his behaviour and reminded everyone in the room that all the protagonists in the film had actually been abused as children. He strongly asserted that Jung had in fact crossed a line, and that his treatment of Sabina was abusive. This was made clear in the film when Jung stops the relationship. In one fell swoop Sabina is deprived not only of her lover, but also her analyst and intellectual mentor....a cruel blow. Who would believe her? Evidence also points to the fact that Jung had Otto Gross diagnosed as a schizophrenic when he realised his ‘Talking Cure’ would not work with him...this to protect his own reputation, but has sabotaged Gross’s professional reputation for more than a century.
Gottfried Heuer deserved his ovation for a heartfelt presentation as he illustrated the abuse of power over women, Jews and patients. He claimed that Sabina was a great intellectual who healed herself despite Jung’s abuse not because of it.

Andrew Samuels
Author of Jung and the Post-Jungians and the award-winning Politics on the Couch. Professor of Analytical Psychology, Essex University. Jungian Analyst. Chair, United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. 

Andrew Samuels closed the conference by looking at the limited roles available to women and Jews at that time. Women could be Mother, Hetaerae (a type of soul mate), Amazon or Medial (a person who focuses on relationships). He wondered whether women hold themselves back by always sacrificing themselves for relationships. He also traced the Jewish legacy of psychoanalysis. Freud had hoped that Jung, a Swiss Protestant would be able to promote psychoanalysis without the constant anti Semitism Freud was subjected to. After all her wonderful work establishing child psychology and psychoanalysis in Russia, Sabina Spielrein and her two daughters were shot by the Nazis in their local synagogue. Her sons were also murdered by the Nazis. Samuels informed the conference that in Russia now, memorials to the Jewish victims of the Nazis are being steadily removed. It was a tragic note on which to end a wonderful conference.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.