Revelations and Resurrections

David Cronenberg on 'A Dangerous Method'

by Christopher Sweetapple

18 November 2011


One thing that struck me, towards the end of the movie—in fact the word comes up in the dialogue several times—was when Sabina says to Jung (I’m paraphrasing), “What we’re doing here is giving the patients back their freedom.” This is what really made me think hard after I left the film, because adding the element of freedom to our understanding of seduction, as psychoanalysis does, really complicates the field.

Yes, and of course Otto talks about freedom as well. “Freedom is freedom,” he says. And that’s a very seductive idea. And yet, as you say, it’s complex. Think back to when Otto says to Jung, “just take her out back and thrash her within an inch of her life! I don’t understand why people make pleasure so complicated!” And then Jung replies, “well, pleasure is complicated, as you well know.” It’s not just in the interactions between the characters. It’s in their awareness, their thoughts, too.

I really loved Otto’s character.

Yes, me too!

Something almost Marquis de Sade about him…

Well, I disagree. He’s really a proto-hippie. De Sade enjoyed being evil; he built a fetish out of it. Otto, on the other hand, is not that. He doesn’t want to inflict pain on anyone. He’s not sadistic. He’s going with the flow, you know? He’s totally ‘60s. He’s a vegetarian, he lives on a commune, he takes drugs and has loose sex and encourages everyone else to take drugs and have sex.

And these are ideas that certainly cycle. The Greeks had their equivalents. It comes around, because someone has a revelation. I remember the ‘60s: people were like, “these rules of society, the surface reality we’re presented with are just a possibility, not a given.” Especially if those rules aren’t words from God, people oftentimes realize that they can change those rules, that arrangements are not how they have to be. We can do it another way. Without marriage. With drugs. With a different kind of sex. With communal living. With no property

This is incredibly exciting to think about, and it’s a true revelation because you realize—I mean, I took LSD once, and it was a fabulous trip. Obviously it freaked me out because I never did it again. However, it does let you know that reality, as we perceive it, is only one possibility.

I think of it this way: take a dog. We may be in the same room, but its reality is totally different, because of its body, so how it sees and smells and what-not. But it’s another actual reality, different from human reality but just as real. This is a potent realization. We have to then figure out, what do we do with it? And Freud, in his own way, dealt with this. And Jung as well. For Jung in fact, he had visions, actual religious-type visions that he even desired to induce in himself.

So what do you do with that?

Well that’s exactly it. What do you do with that? Looking at Jung, he became a kind of spiritual leader, a religious leader, although I’m sure Jungians would resist that characterization, although we’ll see, because they seem to like it.

Have “the Jungians” seen the film then?

Yes, some have. Some official ones, big-time Jungians. And they seem to really like it.

Who are these Jungians, anyway?

They exist, a real scientific community. I think in Zurich there are hundreds or thousands of them. Here in North America, less, but they are about spiritual realization and dream analysis. It’s very big into the theraputic practice of writing down and analyzing dreams.

You’ve heard of the collective unconscious, of archetypes? This is all part of the Jungian structure, so when you plug into that… Go to YouTube and view some interviews with Carl Jung. There are a lot of them, because he died in 1961. So unlike Freud, we have a record of Jung speaking and lecturing, in English, as well. And you’ll see that he’s very seductive but in a grandfatherly sort of way. Seems like a very sweet, humane guy. And he’ll explain to you all of his stuff. But spiritual self-realization is at the heart of it. And for people who can respond to that, it works.

I know some people who’ve been through Jungian analysis, and they claim it really helped them. Now, with what, I don’t know—I never asked them. Jung, you know, said that Freudian analysis only works for Jews. He was obviously thinking of the structure of Jewish households as he saw it. But that’s a pretty brutal thing to say.

Besides Jewish family structure, wasn’t that comment of Jung’s an expression of dominant, wide-spread understandings of racial difference of the time?

Certainly. Many Aryan intellectuals, like Wagner or Nietzsche, were obsessed with Jews and Jewishness. And they weren’t all anti-Semitic. Wagner yes, Nietzsche no. But they were obsessed with these Jewish themes at that time.

You know, Jung did say that when “we” Aryans were wearing animal skins in the forests of Europe, Jews already had 2,000 year of incredible civilization and sophistication. But, you know, he wasn’t saying that as a compliment. Because the unfortunate thing, according to Jung, was the Jews lack a connection to the soil, with the land. He doesn’t have a heredity connection with the land.

It’s the whole blood-and-soil thing which, with the Nazis, became a nightmare, so one could say—I think there are definitely Freudians who regard Jung as anti-Semitic. My take is: by the standards of his time, he wouldn’t have been considered egregiously anti-Semitic, but from our perspective, of course he was. Those attitudes were in the air then though. But he did say things like “Jews should dress differently so we can tell them apart from other people.” Well, that was before the Jewish star that Jews were forced to wear in the ghettos. He wouldn’t have said that after WWII, but he did say it before. So…yeah, this is all very intriguing, difficult stuff.

Last question: I’d like to hear a bit from you about Keira Knightly’s Sabina Spielrein. Such an amazing performance. Tell us about your work together.

She really is wonderful in the film. So much of her performance is her work, though. Of course we collaborated. But she really did her homework, reading all the letters and studying the script. And we thought through together precisely what hysteria was.

There are records of hysterics. Christopher found even the original notes made of Sabina’s arrival at the Burghölzli, detailing her symptoms. So we knew what her particular symptoms were. And we looked at Charcot, who worked explicitly on hysteria, which was a real condition of the time. Hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus, and in fact a particularly barbaric way that medicine dealt with hysteria at the time was to remove some women’s uteruses. And there’s footage from the time, of women suffering from hysteria. And there are photographs.

So we knew, basically, what we were dealing with. And we had to let the audience know that Sabina was suffering from a real disease, not just neurosis, but a real physical malady and that she was completely dysfunctional and unpresentable to society—

Grotesque, even.

David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg

Absolutely. With the facial ticks and all that. It’s hard to watch. And we felt we did a relatively subdued version of it compared to what the reality would be. But I suggested that we concentrate on the mouth, the face and the jaw because, well, it’s the talking cure. She was being encouraged to say the unspeakable, things a woman of her time shouldn’t even think let alone express.  She’s a very smart woman, so part of her psyche wants her to utter these truths, but it comes out deformed and not understandable.

That struggle, I gave her that. But how to act that struggle, she came up with that.

Well, it was a fantastic performance in a fantastic movie. Thanks, Mr. Cronenberg.

Thank you.

Christopher Sweetapple is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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