Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Keira Knightley phoned me on a rare day off from shooting her next film, “Anna Karenina,” to discuss her portrayal of a very different kind of fraught heroine in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” now in theaters. In this period drama based on true events, Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a Russian-Jewish patient of Carl Jung’s who goes on to become his lover as well as a pioneering psychoanalyst with distinct theories on sex and death.
In bright, chipper tones, the 26-year-old actress – who has moved from “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbusters to stellar performances in films such as “Atonement” and “The Duchess”– spoke about her initial reluctance to take on her “Method” role, which has gleaned some Oscar buzz. The movie, which revolves around the “intellectual ménage a trios” between Spielrein, Jung and Sigmund Freud in the early years of psychoanalysis, opens as Spielrein screams uncontrollably. She laughs and writhes, her face a mass of grotesque ticks, as she is forcibly carried into the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital in Geneva, where her first words to Jung are, “I’m not mad, you know.”
As Jung tests Freud’s “talking cure” on Sabina, Knightley’s jaw juts impossibly forward as she chokes out the source of her “hysteria:” guilt over the childhood sexual pleasure she felt when her father spanked her naked bottom. In the film – based on Christopher Hampton’s play, “The Talking Cure”—Spielrein’s predilection for humiliation extends to the bedroom, requiring Knightley to perform scenes in which Jung (Michael Fassbender) beats her with his belt as she is tied to a bed, half-naked in her corset, all the while gazing at herself in a mirror.
Knightley was so freaked out by the S & M scenes that she filmed them only after fortifying herself with vodka: “That just isn’t my cup of tea,” the British actress said of the sadomasochistic sex. “At first, I really didn’t understand my character,” Knightley added of Spielrein. “I really needed to research exactly what hysteria andd sadomasochism was, and figure out where that came from for her. And how Jung’s and Freud’s treatment helped pull her out of that.”
Here are further excerpts from my interview with Knightley, in which she discusses how she prepared for the role, her four months of research, how Sabina’s Jewishness plays out in the film, and more.
NPM: So many scripts come your way. What was it about “A Dangerous Method” and the character of Sabina Spielrein that intrigued you?
KK: I was just fascinated because I’d never heard of her. And I was riveted by the role that she played in the lives of Freud and Jung – both in their coming together and their eventual, explosive rift. And also the birth of psychoanalysis; the fact that it was such a revolution, affecting the way we think about each other, and how we think about ourselves. It was all affected by the thoughts and writings of these three people.
I found Sabina incredibly inspiring; you’ve got this person who was totally trapped within herself and literally had been thrown out of two other institutions before Burgholzli because they couldn’t handle her. They said there was no way she was ever going to be functional within society. So the idea that through therapy, she could recover to a point where she was not only functional, but could create ideas that inspired Freud and Jung, is extraordinary.
NPM: You’ve said that you were hesitant to take on the film because of the sex scenes. What changed your mind?
KK: Even when I wasn’t sure I would do the film because of them, I always thought they were necessary. I never thought they were gratuitous. When David said he didn’t want them to be titillating or sexy in any way, but rather gruesome and quite clinical, I went ‘OK, that makes sense.’ I think they’re necessary because it’s important visually to see what Sabina was going through, what she wanted, and how that kind of brutality was necessary for her. It was such a huge part of her personality, and of her illness; what she was living with and what she was overcoming. And in terms of her relationship with Jung– it turned into a huge part of his character as well.
NPM: David Cronenberg told me the S & M mapped well over the relationship between Jews and Aryans of the time. In one scene, Freud even warns Sabina to distrust Jung – to “not put your trust in Aryans.” It’s the scene where Freud nails Spielrein’s so-called “Siegfried” fantasies as “delusional:” Her idea that as in Wagnerian opera, she would bear a blond, Germanic hero out of sin—in her case, the sin would be the Jew mating with the Aryan, and a married Aryan at that.
KK: Sabina’s Siegfried fantasy was quite interesting…Quite often she talked about the child she was going to have with Jung – a child she saw as somebody, in her words, who would unite the Jewish and Aryan races in a mythic sort of way. That was obviously hugely important to her.
Freud telling her, “Remember we’re Jews,” and the idea that Jung was something completely different, was also a huge part of the [dynamic]. They were living in very difficult times; Freud was ostracized in many circles because he was Jewish, and he was looking for Jung to be this Christian kind of leader of psychoanalysis so that people would find it more palatable, which is an extraordinarily weird concept to me. But obviously it was a huge part of the world they were living in.
NPM: In one of the last scenes in the movie, your character is pregnant and married to another man – a man she tells Jung, with some emphasis, is a Russian Jew. Do you think she is taking a dig at Jung by emphasizing her husband’s Jewishness?
KK: Yes, I think she is being provocative; she is pushing him, pointing out the difference between Jung and her husband, saying she is going back to ‘her own,’ if you will.
NPM: What was most helpful for you in understanding your character?
KK: I found that bit really difficult. I think quite often when you play characters, you say, ‘Oh yes, I understand her on some emotional level.’ But with this one I really didn’t, particularly the sadomasochistic side of Sabina. So I spoke to analysts about exactly where that comes from, and what kind of behavior that creates in people. I think the biggest thing was the idea that even though Sabina was a masochist, there was also a sadistic side to her personality; it’s like a circle. Sabina was constantly looking for a sadist to fulfill her masochistic side, and sometimes she, herself, could be sadistic in order to push someone into that role, in a way that is quite manipulative. It’s the idea that the masochist doesn’t always have to be the victim, but can also be the one who is quite powerful as well. That was an interesting concept, because it’s something I’d never really thought about before.
NPM: Did Sabina push Jung into being the sadist in the relationship?
KK: Yes, I think in some ways, there was that level of manipulation. What Sabina was looking for was somebody to fulfill the role of her father – the father she both hated and loved at the same time, and who had played the sadistic role in her life. Sabina does push Jung into that, so I think the idea for the sadomasochistic sex would have come from her; it would have been her thing.
NPM: In your discussion with analysts, did you come to believe that Sabina’s hysteria and her masochism were caused by the same childhood trauma?
KK: Yes, I think it was all about her early childhood; when her father spanked her and in the particular way that he did. Sabina was made to strip in front of him and then she was bent over and spanked. I believe this took place until the beginning of her adolescence; she began to be turned on by it, and then because she conceived this as the way that love was shown—but also was disgusted by it since sex at that time was perceived as sinful—she thought of herself as completely disgusting and revolting. So all this was tied up within her.
If you look into Sabina’s father, he was quite a massive depressive and was constantly threatening suicide, while her mother was incredibly high-strung and quite difficult as well. I think this all combined to create a point where Sabina just couldn’t cope with the world anymore, and so the hysteria started, and the sadomasochism and quite a lot of masturbation. When you read about all of Sabina’s hysteria symptoms, it’s even more extraordinary that she managed to achieve all that she did.
NPM: When Sabina finally blurts out to Jung, during a psychoanalytic session, that she was aroused by her father’s beatings, your character struggles with facial ticks, especially a grotesque kind of chin-jutting that prevents her from speaking. She is clearly struggling to release the words. What was your internal preparation for this sequence?
KK: It was just trying to understand Sabina, so again, it was through a lot of reading and talking to analysts and trying to choose exactly what the most difficult words would be for her to say – the ones that would provoke and trigger her ticks. Also, what Sabina would see [internally] while flashing back to her childhood memories; it was getting all that clear.
NPM: The chin tick looked painful.
KK: It wasn’t particularly pleasant to do, but no, it didn’t hurt.
NPM: “A Dangerous Method” covers just the early years of psychoanalysis; it’s only in the film’s written epilogue that we learn Sabina became a renowned child analyst in Russia before an SS squad herded her and her two daughters into the street and shot them in 1942. When you’re playing a historical character with this kind of fate, do you have to distance yourself from that as an actress?
KK: Yes, totally. Of course I know what happened to Sabina, but you can’t play the role with that in mind, because she herself doesn’t know it at that point. She has no concept of what the future holds. And in fact, a lot of her future was amazing – like when she first returned to Russia and she opened The White Nursery [her child facility] and she managed to accomplish amazing things. And then obviously she had the most horrific ending ever. But if you play the role with a sense of doom, then it becomes a very different performance, so I didn’t play it with that in mind.
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November 23, 2011 | 12:37 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It is the summer of 1912 in “A Dangerous Method” — a film whose storyline is drawn from real-life events — and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young Russian-Jewish psychoanalyst, is discussing with her mentor Sigmund Freud the link between sex and death. The talk soon turns to her own destructive affair with Carl Jung, her former analyst and Freud’s arch rival: “I’m afraid your idea of a mystical union with a blond Siegfried was inevitably doomed,” Freud (a cigar-puffing Viggo Mortensen) says of Jung (Michael Fassbender). “Put your trust not in Aryans. We’re Jews, my dear Miss Spielrein, and Jews we will always be.”
The complex relationship between Jews and non-Jews in turn-of-the-century Europe is a strong undercurrent pressuring intellectual and carnal tensions in David Cronenberg’s period drama, which has gleaned some awards buzz on the festival circuit and opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 23.
Based on Christopher Hampton’s play, “The Talking Cure,” the film draws on John Kerr’s dense 1994 nonfiction tome, “A Most Dangerous Method,” to explore the early years of psychoanalysis. The drama examines the fraught relationship between Freud and his wayward protégé, Jung, as well as the effect the brilliant Spielrein had on their theories and personal lives.
Spielrein’s contributions have been largely forgotten, in part because she died at 56 in the Holocaust in her native Rostov-on-Don. But in reality — as in the film — she was a formidable force, overcoming her own violent mental illness to become a pioneering analyst whose views of the libido as both destructive and creative sparked Freud’s “death drive” and Jung’s outlook on transformation.
Eventually she married a Russian Jew, moved back to the Soviet Union and became a leader in the field of child psychiatry, but the entire family came to a tragic end. Spielrein’s husband was killed in the Stalinist purges, and in August 1942 an SS death squad herded the widowed Spielrein and her two daughters into the streets and shot them.
“A Dangerous Method” opens some four decades earlier as the 18-year-old Spielrein speeds in a coach toward the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zurich, where her well-to-do parents have sent her for the Victorian condition known as “hysteria.” Knightley’s face contorts as she screams and writhes while being forcibly carried into the institution, where Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, then 29, decides to use her to test the “talking cure” that had been put forward by Freud in Vienna.
Spielrein, who was exceptionally well educated for a woman of that era, can barely speak without dissolving into grotesque, chin-jutting facial ticks. But her disease unravels as she explores her guilt over the sexual pleasure she felt as a child when her father spanked her naked buttocks — the source of her adult, masochistic sexuality.
When her affair begins with the married Jung, the scenes involve beatings and bondage; while it is now well-accepted that Spielrein had some kind of sexual relationship with Jung (they may not have gone all the way), the sadomasochism in the film is something Cronenberg said he “defends” but cannot definitively prove. The bondage is, rather, deduced from real-life statements made by observers such as Otto Gross (played in the film by Vincent Cassel), a depraved analyst who becomes Jung’s patient and urges the good doctor to “thrash” Spielrein in the manner she clearly craves.
Knightley, the star of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, almost declined the role because of these graphic scenes, but signed on when “David said he didn’t want them to be titillating and sexy in any way, but rather gruesome and quite clinical,” the actress recalled from the set of her latest film, “Anna Karenina.” Because the kinkier sequences were “not my own personal cup of tea,” she said, she spoke to analysts in order to understand Spielrein’s motivation. “Most helpful was the idea that even though she was a masochist, there was a sadistic side to her personality,” Knightley explained. “She was looking for Jung to fulfill the role of her abusive father, whom she both loved and hated, so there was a level of provoking him into that.”
“The character of Sabina is submissive in some ways, but she is also in control in many ways,” Cronenberg said, in a recent interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “That is the nature of the sadomasochistic relationship, and it maps well onto the relationship between Jews and Aryans in that particular time.”
Cronenberg, who is perhaps most famous for his psychosexual and “body horror” cinema, which has created some of the most viscerally repulsive and disturbing images on film (think “The Brood” and “The Fly”) has also been fascinated by anti-Semitism, both in 19th century Europe and the modern-day world. In his satirical short film, “At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World,” he moves the gun in and out of his mouth, in a sort of perverse fellatio, while pondering the end of his life and his people.
The Jewish-Aryan tension in the Freud-Jung-Spielrein intellectual ménage à trois, is less covert, but deeply embedded in “A Dangerous Method.”
“Sabina’s Jewishness is tremendously important for both her and Jung,” Cronenberg said of their affair. The patient and her analyst bond, in part, over their shared love of Wagnerian opera and mythology — particularly the myth in which the hero Siegfried is born out of a forbidden, incestuous tryst. “Sabina had Siegfried fantasies revolving around Jung — the idea that their secret, sinful relationship would yield this Germanic progeny,” the director said. “And Freud, in our movie, nails her on that — tells her that her fantasy of mating with a blond Aryan and producing a Siegfried are delusional.”
Knightley agreed: “Quite often she talked about the child she was going to have with Jung, who in her words would unite the Jewish and Aryan races in a kind of mythic way,” she said. “And Freud, who was ostracized in many circles because of being Jewish, was also looking for Jung to be this kind of Christian leader, so that people would find psychoanalysis more palatable. That’s an extraordinarily weird concept to me. But it was obviously a huge part of the world they were living in.”
In the early 20th century, Cronenberg said, intellectuals — especially German-speaking ones — were obsessed with Jewishness. “I think it had to do with their understanding of Christianity — was Christ Jewish? — and their puzzlement over the preponderance of Jewish artists and intellectuals,” he said. “Jung was certainly rather obsessed with that; he wasn’t anti-Semitic for his time, but he said things like, ‘Freudian psychoanalysis only works on Jews,’ and he did talk about the classic thing that Germans used to talk about: When their ancestors were running around the forest wearing skins, Jews already had 2,000 years of culture. But at the same time, they felt, the Jews wander — they don’t have their roots in this wonderful German soils of ours. Jung felt that was a huge failing. And then, of course, he was fascinated by Jewish women; he had a couple of mistresses who were Jewish, including Sabina, so it was a complex thing.”
Fassbender, who was born in Germany but grew up in Ireland, laughed when asked about all this perception of his character as the quintessential Aryan. In fact, after shooting “A Dangerous Method,” his next role was that of the Holocaust survivor-turned-supervillain Magneto in the blockbuster “X-Men: First Class.” “But Jung did believe very much in the Aryan ideal, and that he had a lineage back to the mythology of old,” said the actor, who will further explore issues of lust and guilt in his role as a sex addict in the upcoming “Shame.” “And so his affair with Sabina is like this forbidden sort of tale — that of the taboo relationship between Jew and [non-Jew], and between the married Jung and his patient. There was a level of excitement that they were doing something that was not right socially.”
The idea for “A Dangerous Method” began back in 1977, when playwright Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Atonement”), who is also the film’s screenwriter, read about a box discovered in a basement in Geneva, obviously left behind by Spielrein when she moved back to the U.S.S.R. in 1923. Inside was one of her diaries, as well as letters she had received from Freud and Jung and drafts of letters she had sent them.
Hampton drew on these materials as well as Jung’s actual case notes from Spielrein’s treatment, which he unearthed when a curator at the Burghölzli museum invited him to photocopy the case file. (The file has since been published.) The result was his play “The Talking Cure,” which Cronenberg read when the star of his film, “Spider,” Ralph Fiennes, portrayed Jung in the London production.
In person, Cronenberg, who wears jeans and has a shock of white hair, is as calm and dispassionate as his films are disturbing. He said he has never felt the need to be in psychotherapy, even though, as a young man, he read Freud’s work because of its cultural and intellectual significance. “I am turning into an old Jewish man,” he joked when asked how he identifies with Freud. But clearly the connection runs deeper.
Like Freud, Cronenberg is an atheist. Growing up with secular artist parents in Toronto, he differed from his classmates in that he did not attend what they called “Jewish school” or become bar mitzvah. He became an atheist, or more specifically, an existentialist, while studying the works of Chaucer as a young man. While immersed in that medieval Catholic world, he came to the conclusion that all religion was “delusional.”
This atheistic (and culturally Jewish) outlook connects “A Dangerous Method” with Cronenberg’s early horror films, as well as his more recent mainstream work, such as “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.” If religion represents a protection against loss and against death, Cronenberg’s movies remind us that human existence starts and ends with the body. “The horror genre itself deals with primordial things, and its view of death tends to be extremely physical,” he said. “To an existentialist/atheist like myself, that seems to be the truth.”
In Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of “The Fly,” starring Jeff Goldblum as a scientist who merges his DNA with an insect, the character’s “disintegration, to me, is really about aging and death,” he explained.
The gore in “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg’s acclaimed film about the Russian mob and human trafficking, underscores his belief that homicide, to an atheist, is even more hideous than to a person of faith, because without an afterlife, murder equals “total annihilation.”
Before a Los Angeles screening of “A Dangerous Method” last month, Cronenberg staunchly defended the veracity of the events depicted, stating that much of the dialogue came directly from journals or letters written by the real-life analysts.
When asked about the film’s more mixed reviews, some of which have faulted Knightley’s performance as over-the-top, he pointed out that the symptoms described in Spielrein’s case file were even more extreme. And then there are the reviewers who have lauded Knightley’s portrayal as awards-worthy.
As the conversation wound down at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Cronenberg explained why he prefers one father of psychoanalysis over the other. “Freud insisted on the reality of the human body at a time we think of as Victorian, when the body was not discussed. You could tell by the way people dressed, in corsets and high collars, that the body was to be contained,” he said. “And there was Freud talking about penises and vaginas and excrement and the sexual abuse of children and incest — which is why he was considered to be so outrageous and so dangerous.
“To me, Jung’s focus on spirituality is very bizarre, and his understanding of the collective unconscious and archetypes is all religion and an escape from the reality of the body. So I’d say it’s natural for me to prefer Freud, flawed as his theories may have been.
“But at the same time,” Cronenberg said, mischievously, “Jung gets the most screen time. As a director, that’s the biggest compliment you can give a character.”
“A Dangerous Method” opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 23.
November 22, 2011 | 10:28 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Last week I conducted a question-and-answer session with filmmaker David Cronenberg about his new period drama, “A Dangerous Method,” which spotlights the “intellectual ménage a trios” between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s troubled but brilliant Russan Jewish patient who would herself become a pioneering psychoanalyst before dying in the Holocaust. My cover story on Cronenberg will be published in the Journal’s holiday preview on Nov. 23, the same day “Method” hits theaters.
After a screening at Laemmle’s Music Hall – sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival and organized by the fest’s fabulous founder, Hilary Helstein – Cronenberg and I discussed how he discovered the material; just how much the story drew on facts; how important Spielrein’s Jewishness was in her relationship with Jung; and whether it’s true that Jung and Spielrein really did have a sexual relationship – and a sadomasochistic one, as depicted in the film.
Cronenberg (“The Fly,” “Eastern Promises”), who was affable and energetic despite just having flown in from his Toronto home, answered these questions (and more) in his cerebral and droll fashion. First off, he said, he came to the material when actor Ralph Fiennes, the star of his film, “Spider,” portrayed Jung in Christopher Hampton’s play, “The Talking Cure,” about the aforementioned “intellectual ménage a trios.” In the play, the characters’ dialogue is taken verbatim from letters and journals written by the real analysts during the nascent years of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century. In fact, Hampton, who is also the film’s screenwriter, wrote the play after a box containing Sabina’s diaries and assorted letters was discovered in a basement in Geneva in 1977.
While some still dispute whether Jung had any kind of sexual relationship with Spielrein, Sabina wrote in some of that material that “‘Jung took my maidenhood,’ which in Victorian times meant something very specific – it meant that he had taken her virginity,” Cronenberg said at the Q & A. In the film, their affair takes on S & M tones as Jung (Michael Fassbender) beats a bound, prone Spielrein (Keira Knightley) with his belt.
“Sabina’s Jewishness is tremendously important for both her and Jung,” Cronenberg said of their affair. The patient and her analyst bonded, in part, over their shared love of Wagnerian opera and mythology – particularly the myth in which the hero Siegfried is born out of a forbidden, incestuous tryst. Sabina had Siegfried fantasies revolving around Jung—the idea that their secret, sinful relationship would yield this Germanic progeny, the director said.
Of the sadomasochistic scenes, Cronenberg said, “I defend them but I can’t prove them.” Rather, Cronenberg deduced the nature of the relationship from words the real analysts wrote in their own notes and to each other. In real life, as in the film, Spielrein had become Jung’s patient while suffering from a violent mental illness – a Victorian condition known as hysteria; Jung cured her, using Freud’s “talking cure,” by causing her to realize that her symptoms were caused by guilt over the sexual pleasure she had felt as a child when her father spanked her naked bottom. Humiliation still excited the adult Spielrein.
All this was in Jung’s case file on Sabina, which Hampton read in German during his visit to the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital where the then 18-year-old Spielrein had become Jung’s patient in 1904. In his notes, Jung described the teenager as “voluptuous” and “oriental.”
Another clue to the S & M relationship came in letters from Jung’s depraved patient and fellow analyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), querying why the good doctor didn’t just take Sabina somewhere and “thrash” ther. “Gross was saying, ‘That’s what she wants. Why don’t you just give it to her?’” Cronenberg recounted of Gross’s advice. “And Jung replied, ‘Pleasure is never simple.’ These were real exchanges as embedded in letters sent back and forth.”
Below is a videotaped interview I conducted with Cronenberg at the Regent Beverly Wilshire recently; video is edited by Jeffrey Hensiek
During my previous interviews with Cronenberg for our holiday preview, the filmmaker elaborated on the sequences in which Fassbender beats Knightley: “You can see that Jung is not really enjoying himself; he is not a sadist, he’s doing this for Sabina,” the director said. “That’s love – and you could also say it’s also part of her therapy.”
So it was therapeutic for Sabina to have her masochism validated in a physical way? “Absolutely,” Cronenberg said. “It’s funny,” he added, “but a woman with the Hollywood foreign press once said to me, ‘Mr. Cronenberg, in the scene where Sabina is sitting on the couch [after a round of spanking], her nipple is visible above her corset, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Did you do this on purpose?’ And I told her, ‘Well, of course, but let me explain why. At that point in the film, Sabina is really gathering strength at all levels, including within her relationship with Jung, and she is no longer apologetic about her masochistic sexual tendencies. She is not afraid to sit there wearing nothing but a corset, which we can regard as a kind of bondage device; although it was a normal corset, it’s sort of saying that the normal corsets of the time were bondage devices for women. So of course [leaving the nipple in] was deliberate, because there are many ways we could have gotten rid of that nipple if we had wanted to.’”
Were the sex scenes difficult for Cronenberg to shoot? “Not for me,” he quipped. “But I do think those scenes were difficult for Keira. We had a very forthright discussion, and I explained to her that it’s a legitimate concern for an actor to say, ‘OK, where’s the camera going to be,’ so we just talked about it and by the time we were finished she was confident that she could do it in the way I was suggesting—that the scenes would be relatively clinical and simple and discreet, even though she is somewhat topless and so on.
Understand, though, that I felt at a certain point this all has to do with that intriguing relationship between the doctor and the patient in psychoanalysis…I think that at a certain point, Spielrein used her sexual masochism to seduce Jung; that he was intrigued by it, and that it gave her a chance to talk about being sexually aroused. To me, that was part of her seduction of Jung, and therefore I think it would also have played out when they had sex. I have no proof of that, and I admit that, but I think that’s legitimately close because of all the words that were written.”
For more information about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, visit www.lajfilmfest.org/.