Revelations and Resurrections: David Cronenberg on ‘A Dangerous Method’

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.

“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.

Stop it.

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.

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

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.