Revelations and Resurrections: David Cronenberg on 'A Dangerous Method'

Christopher Sweetapple

On the second day of our five-part interview series on A Dangerous Method, we talk with director David Cronenberg about Freud and Jung as heroes, the horrors of World War One and the reality of hysteria, among many other interesting things.

When it comes to Freud and psychoanalytic insights, it seems everyone's an expert nowadays. The ego, the superego, the unconscious, the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety, the anal stage,The Interpretation of Dreams...These are all familiar enough to be everyday terms or Jeopardy! answers. Freud himself worried openly about the public reception of his work, fearing conceptual dilution in the telephone game rely between the scientific discourse he thought to be founding and the social shape it took in its dissemination.

This fear of Freud's—or, this accurate prediction, as it turned out—is worked into the wonderful script of A Dangerous Method, by Christopher Hampton. And in the hands of Canadian director David Cronenberg, received wisdom and lame cliches about psychoanalysis and the Freudian legacy are thankfully confronted, even upended.

Making a dramatic story out of Freud's life and work has been surprisingly difficult for many writers. John Huston's mostly forgotten Freud (1962) took the tack of dramatizing Freud's early career. I don't think it unfair to call that movie a yawn-fest. Maybe because the script was so overburdened by all the cooks in the kitchen (Jean-Paul Sartre is credited with a draft that was many hours longer than the final version), or maybe because that time in Freud's work isn't as interesting as other periods of time—who knows? But A Dangerous Method it certainly is not.

If Freud has been hard to turn into a coherent, digestible story, Carl Jung's life and work would seem to present even more problems. Jungian concepts are obtuse. His (in)famous mysticism and religiosity color his esoteric texts. At least with Freudian (whatever that means) therapy, most people have a (mind you: simplified, maybe even false) idea of what to expect. But what's Jungian therapy even about?

In telling this particular story of Freud and Jung, writer Hampton had a big help: history, recorded in lost correspondence and piled under the debris of the Holocaust. Author John Kerr's path-breaking book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (1994) dug deep into the letters and records of Freud and Jung in the early years of the 20th century. There, Kerr reassembled an excised chapter of the story of psychoanalysis: Sabina Spielrein. Her own papers were thought to have been destroyed after her execution at the hands of a German Einsatzgruppe in Russia, but miraculously resurfaced.

First patient, then lover, then colleague to Jung, and known personally by Freud, Spielrein is shown to have contribute directly to the formation of several key psychoanalytic topics, like Freud's death drive and Jung's view on masculine and feminine psychic forces. She even, apparently, had a hand in the psychoanalytic training of Jean Piaget, famous developmental psychologist. And saying she had an intimate place among psychoanalysis' two biggest stars, Freud and Jung, is an understatement. Hampton, drawing on Kerr's book and his own extensive research, penned a play and then adapted it for this film's script. And with the material at hand, the problem with rendering the story of psychoanalysis is not a lack of drama. There's plenty of that to go around. Instead, it's finding that balance between telling the story accurately while also confronting the audience's preconceptions about the material.

Lucky for Hampton, Cronenberg is just the right auteur for a job requiring economic story-telling and thoughtful confrontation of audience expectations. Isn't a movie like this just destined to be made by Cronenberg? The quality and consistency of his work is nearly unparalleled when compared with many of his contemporaries. (This is, after all, the year of David Lynch's Crazy Clown Time.) While A Dangerous Method is unique among his other films, it addresses many of the core issues which concern Cronenberg. If we had to point to a foundational issue in Cronenbergian cinema, it's the body. As he explained to PopMatters below, “Freud insisted on the reality of the human body, which is where I connect with him greatly.” Carnality haunts every Cronenberg film, and this holds true for A Dangerous Method.

For me, what sets A Dangerous Method apart from many of Cronenberg's other movies is the level of carnality explored. This film pursues the flesh askance, not through violence (there's some, very brief) or sex (there is a good amount of that, but no quasi-marital-rape on a staircase, here). Rather, flesh is mediated by and accessed through writing and speech. This film is a deep consideration of the materiality of language. Here, words are exchanged, uttered, yanked out, ventriloquized, stifled, constantly read from the page or made to have revelatory effects. Communication is eroticized; language is burdened with the power to heal and wound. In what follows, David Cronenberg discusses the film, Freud and Jung as heroes, the horrors of World War One and the reality of hysteria, among many other interesting things.

PopMatters: Hello, Mr. Cronenberg!

David Cronenberg: Hello there!

I thought we could begin talking about, well, the beginning of the film, the title sequence.

Yes, great.

Your title sequences are always very thoughtful and speak directly to the mood and theme of the your films. For A Dangerous Method, we see images of pen strokes and what looks like paper, but no words reveal themselves. I wonder why you chose this striking way to begin the film, showing words with no words?

I wanted not to have the audience distracted from the credits by reading, of course. But with that I wanted to suggest that letter-writing was a crucial part of the relationships of the people that you're going to see. And beyond that, that letter-writing is where our movie has come from, really. Because so much of the dialogue and the actions and details of everything are embedded in the letters that these people wrote. It was an era of letter-writing.

In Vienna, there were five to eight mail deliveries every day. So if you wrote somebody in the morning, you absolutely expected to get an answer from somebody by the end of the day. So, emails, they're not a new thing, in a sense. Plus, the graciousness of the pen strokes. I wanted them to be as abstract as possible. Because penmanship was very artful back then. To be a cultured person, you had to have beautiful penmanship.

Speaking of the research done before the film then, about the letters between these principle characters. What was investigating that, reading those letters, like?

Well it was fantastic! Incredibly exciting. It's shocking at how modern it feels at times what Freud and Jung wrote each other. And how intimate the two men—one 29, the other 50—professionals, medical men, but writing the most intimate stuff, in an era that was so repressed and repressive. It did not encourage that sort of thing. They were really in the vanguard of something that was considered quite disruptive and dangerous and revolutionary, in the bad sense.

In your reading of those letters, did you see their personalities emerge?

Oh definitely. Read the letters and you can feel the clear differences in their characters. But the interesting thing is that both Freud and Jung were considered two of the most beautiful writers of the German language. In a pure literary sense, their writing, even in these letters, is exquisite, wonderful.

Do you read German?

I do not. But Christopher does. But you can tell from a good translation, the elegance and the... You know, people think they know Freud, and they think they know Jung. And they think Freud was all about sex. But what people don't know is just how aware of everything he was. He knew the flaws in his own thinking. He was quite capable in addressing those, and changing his philosophy over the course of time as his understanding grew and grew.

And as he explored so many topics, from art history to anthropology to...

Right. There was nothing...there was no aspect of human existence or culture that he found irrelevant. And that's what's also so wonderful about him. It's not a narrow field. And Jung was the same. At first, I think, that was the exhilaration of their relationship. They could both see a kindred soul on that level.

So that brings us to my next question. How familiar were you with Freud's and Jung's works and ideas before the film?

I was pretty familiar with Freud. Not so familiar with Jung. Jung of course was very popular in the '60s because of his spiritual realization aspects of his work.

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