12/02/2011 08:33 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'A Dangerous Method': Notes on a Film About Freud and Jung

I am no apologist for either Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung but this film was a petty, if not perverse, rendition of a profound moment in the intellectual and social history of the Western world. What makes the film's treatment (no pun intended) of this era so troubling is that not many know the actual story about the origins of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, nor of its twin human pillars -- namely, Freud and Jung.

It is 1904, and a horse drawn carriage is transporting a writhing and screaming young woman to the Burgholzli Clinic in Switzerland. Her Russian, Jewish, bourgeois family has sent her to this renowned treatment center where she will be cared for by the gifted Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The Burgholzli Director, Herr Doctor Eugen Bleuler, had gained fame for naming "schizophrenia." Bleuler described this disorder in a more hopeful manner than had Emil Kraepelin who had earlier called it Dementia Praecox, signaling an early and hopeless course. Jung too was an innovator, like his mentor, and had read Freud's accounts of the "talking cure" (as it was called). Jung would try it on his new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Almost instantaneously, she recalls humiliating thrashings by her father, dating back to when she was four. Very soon thereafter, she adds she relished the abuse. That's short-term therapy if I ever saw it.

Spielrein is a perfect patient for the "talking cure" -- to distinguish this approach from the purgatives and emetics, bloodletting, cold baths and restraints that constituted too much of 19th century hospital psychiatric treatment. She was intelligent, highly educated, Jewish, and suffered from the condition then known as hysteria. She was not psychotic, nor did she have depression or bipolar disorder. She had fits, like the infamous hysterics treated by the great doctors of 19th century French psychiatry (especially Charcot and Janet). Bouts of hysteria are wildly expressive behaviors and Knightley embellishes them to a fare-thee-well. Sabina, like the grand hysterics of her era, was trying to communicate through her body and her symptoms what she could not say in words because of shame, repression and the oppression that was the fate of being a woman in Victorian times.


Freud (played cautiously by the usually uninhibited Viggo Mortensen) claimed that his treatment could turn neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. Jung's ambition for Sabina was far greater, it was Pygmalion: he would help her become a doctor. Jung, married to a devoted and very rich wife who bears him five children, soon invites his patient to assist in his research. From bench to bedside, but not in the traditional sense of how science goes from the laboratory bench to its use in hospitals for patients. Instead, we see him do the ethically unspeakable, namely have a torrid sexual affair with his patient. While this indeed did happen, the dominance it has in the film is unfortunate -- especially since what may be most disturbingly memorable from the film are the sadomasochistic sex scenes so graphically performed.

The relationship between Freud and Jung has intrigued many an author. A Dangerous Method dwells on the father-son aspects and caricatures both men. Freud is the rigid, doctrinaire Jew aspiring to a place in society who spent most of his adult life trying to earn enough to support his large Viennese family. Jung is the wealthy, aristocratic Swiss Protestant who is getting special messages from the universe that became instrumental to his later theories about archetypes. Freud saw human nature as driven by unconscious forces of sex and aggression where Jung saw a "collective unconscious," the repository of human experience from time immemorial. Where Freud saw fate perhaps it could be said that Jung saw opportunity.

Sabina serves as a link and a source of conflict between the two men. Freud was appalled by Jung's taking his patient as a lover. He was also threatened by Jung's ideas and the impact they could have on the fledgling field of analysis. Jung was enraged by Freud's determination to rule psychoanalysis and dominate Jung and dismiss his ideas. Sabina does become a doctor and psychoanalyst who challenges Freud himself but returns to her perverse relationship with Jung, and then rebuts him. Yet there is far more going on and the film seems to not appreciate the history of early 20th-century Europe with the rise of totalitarianism, the persecution of Jews, and the nightmare of Hitler. It also does not credit these two psychiatrist pioneers with advancing theories of the mind that changed the Western world.

Freud had to flee his country to escape the Nazis. Many contend that Jung became a Nazi sympathizer. Jung had a severe and several year long episode of psychosis, recently illustrated in the publication of The Red Book, full of mysticism and primary process material. Freud did open his mind to the role of the ego, the rational part of the mind, and his daughter, Anna, was extraordinary in her work. She explained how our mind works through "defenses," like denial, intellectualization, repression, sublimation and passive aggression, which are now part of our vernacular. Jung recovered from his psychosis and has left us with an understanding of the deepest of individual and social determinants of behavior. There was far more going on than Carl bedding and beating Sabina or Freud frowning upon that disgraceful behavior, which the film tends to leave you recalling.

David Cronenberg, the film's director, and the writers, appear to have missed the plot. They had a phenomenal story and the finest of actors. The audience could have left the theatre without indelible images of abuse in the forefront of their experience. They could have been illuminated by the mental and spiritual human wellsprings revealed by these great men, despite all their limitations, which are among the most profound influences we have on our minds today.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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