“Mysticism”, pejoratively put?
Well yeah, that mysticism could get absorbed by the pop culture of the ‘60s. That’s not his fault. And I wouldn’t even say that “mysticism” is inaccurate of Jung, you know?
So you knew his works then?
Well no, I didn’t. You see, that’s the thing. This project encouraged me to read deeply into Jung and his work and to buy his Red Book. It’s interesting to see where he went. And where he went was exactly where Freud feared he would go. Into mysticism and spirituality and, basically, religion. And for me, that’s the joy of film making, because it encourages you to delve into things you wouldn’t ordinarily have the time to really delve into. And then I knew nothing of Sabina, before I read Christopher’s play, so that was all very exciting.
Let’s talk about Sabina Spielrein and her character for a bit. Her story is a total revelation, even for people like me who think they have a handle on the history of psychoanalysis. She’s written out of history, in certain ways. So how did you think about what, really, is a political act, that is, representing Sabina’s contributions literally to psychoanalytic thought, dominated in the popular imagination by these grand, male figures?
Christopher and I agreed that we both came to this project with prejudice, without an agenda. Not even a feminist, or anti-feminist, or Freudian or anti-Freudian one. Really, for me, the pleasure of it was resurrection. To bring these people back to life. And the era, which I said was so fascinating and significant. So let the chips fall where they may; let what happens happen. But doing the research, you clearly see a merging. You could see that Sabina was very influential on both Freud and Jung. But she gets maybe a footnote from Freud and totally nothing from Jung, in terms of acknowledgment.
Was that paper of her’s depicted in the film a real paper that you read?
Yes, of course. She’s a terrific writer, too. I mean, some of her stuff isn’t even translated yet. Now, remember, she’s a Russian writing in German and then when it gets to me it’s been translated into English, so it’s hard to know about the particulars of her language. It would have been perfect if I could have read her in the original German, but I can’t. Christopher could. But her writing is dense, it’s very technical. It’s full of literary allusions, mythical allusions.
That was the thing about all of them. Their awareness and reading of culture was so profound. Wagner and all that stuff in the film, that’s accurate. It was sometimes confusing, you know? Because it really takes deep understanding and lots of time to work it out. Because she and all of them were working on the details of how the things they were discovering manifested themselves in ancient societies, and also on their own societies. Now how does Wagner deal with this or that…It’s all exciting stuff.
So the film concludes on the eve of World War One. This reminded me of Michael Haneke’s recent The White Ribbon which also ends just before World War One.
I’m wondering what for you is interesting about this period of time, the first decades of the 20th century, and this place, central Europe?
When I went to Vienna, it was for the first time, for this movie. And I was just struck by how monumental the city was. I hadn’t expected that. In size and scope. And you realize that the people who built this city were building the capital of an empire. It was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it lasted for 700 years.
The feeling was—and it’s very beautifully described in the book by Stefan Zweig The World of Yesterday, a fantastic book—simply that they thought they were evolving into the ultra-super-civilized nation of Europe. Everything was very orderly and controlled. Very culturally deep. Reason ruled over everything. All the passions and crazy stuff was to be subdued by this commitment to reason. Man was evolving from animal to angel, basically, and that it was all proceeding as it should.
But then there was Freud, saying “Not so fast! This is a surface reality, because underneath we are still the animals and tribal barbarians we think we’re not, and we must acknowledge these things in order to deal with them.” And then the war completely showed just how right he was. I mean, it’s hard for people now who are so cynical about the various wars that we’ve experience to really grasp what a shock it was to the civilized Europeans that they could fall so quickly into tribal barbarism. I mean, the hideous atrocities, the trenches. So depressing and shocking for people who really thought they were en route to being the ultimate humans. And this was after 40 years of peace which seemed like a really long time for modern Europe.
But then suddenly this. And it seemed so stupid. I mean, they could see the insanity of it. And yet no one could stop it. So this was very alarming, as you can imagine. By the time you get to World War Two, people are more cynical, they’ve seen it happen already… You know, it goes on and on: Korea, Vietnam. What Freud said turns out to be, sadly, true. Civilization and its discontents. For me, the two things go together, Freud and these revelations.
What resonance do you see between that time and our time, especially since society nowadays doesn’t have a vastly held belief in the evolving nature of humans, etc.?
I know, I know. It’s got to be refreshing in a scary way to see that we’ve been through all of this before and that we handled it pretty badly, and that the repercussions are brutal. Today, we’re seeing it all. I mean, humans have invented money and the economic system, but they don’t seem able to control it. It’s a creature of its own. And yet it’s a reflection of humanity: of greed, ambition, stupidity, all of that stuff.
Same with “technology”. When people try to talk to me about the “inhuman-ness” of technology, I always say, “No! here’s nothing more human than technology.” We’re the only ones who do it. It’s absolutely a reflection of who we are, for good and bad. It’s not like something that’s imposed on us from outer space, I mean, we made it! And yet it seems uncontrollable. I certainly don’t have any answers for all mankind, unlike 7’s jeans, which I’m wearing, which have the “answer for all mankind” (Laughs). It’s good to be reminded of a couple things. Just the desire, the attempt, by cultured, intellectual people to really come to grips with the difficult things about the nature of humans, this is extremely important.
Even the physical stuff. Freud insisted on the reality of the human body, which is where I connect with him greatly. Because it was a disembodied society. You could see it in the clothes, the corsets, the collars. The body is wrapped up and stiff and controlled. And here Freud is talking about penises and anuses and vaginas and excrement and child abuse and incest. These were absolutely unspeakable things at the time. Freud, for me, is a heroic figure. And frankly Jung as well. We need more people like that today. It’s almost irrelevant if they’re actually correct about everything—where are our heroes now who don’t have an agenda but who are just trying to get at the truth of our situation?
Returning to the film itself, one theme I saw in the film was seduction, sexual and intellectual. There are so many different stagings of seduction in the movie—between Freud and Jung, between Sabina and Jung, between Otto and everybody, and perhaps even more fundamentally between artist and audience. The dynamics between pleasure, control and freedom that your film presents are really complex. I wonder: are relationships fraught by seduction something you’ve addressed in your previous films, or is this unique to A Dangerous Method?
I think that’s a very nice analysis and a great question.
Really! (Laughs) I don’t normally think in analytical terms that way when making a film. I absolutely don’t think about my other movies. To me, my previous work is completely irrelevant to what I’m presently doing. Because, and I’ve said this ad nausem, but when I’m working on a movie, I want to hear what the film tells me it needs. The film tells you what it wants, what style, what lens, what color, how you light it. It has nothing to do with my other movies. And it would be a huge mistake to impose my thumbprint, my Cronenberg-ness, on a work because it stifles the process of discovery. Especially if the movie is rejecting that. So I can’t say that seduction as a theme is something I’m deliberately working through in my movies. It’s not a conscious thing.
But certainly, everything you said is completely true. Yes, artists do try to seduce their audiences in particular ways, my film and every other film. Part of drama—you know George Bernard Shaw said “conflict is the essence of drama”. Conflict isn’t punching; it’s argument. It’s trying to convince someone of something, whether it’s your beauty and sexuality, or your theories of life are the correct ones and the person should abandon theirs, or whatever. So I think seduction is a natural, almost innate in the dramatic process.