Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When I spoke to screenwriter Will Reiser and Seth Rogen at Canter’s deli last fall, they were about to premiere their film, “50/50,” which is loosely based on Reiser’s battle with cancer while in his 20s. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rogen as stand-ins for the real friends, the film now has Reiser competing against Woody Allen and Diablo Cody in the Writers Guild of America Awards original screenplay competition.
This comes after Reiser already racked up an Independent Spirit nod for best first screenplay and won best script from the National Board of Review. His alternately raw and poignant “50/50” has roots in how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005.
The WGA winners will be announced on Feb. 19 in simultaneous ceremonies in L.A. and New York; besides Woody (“Midnight in Paris”) and Cody (“Young Adult”), Reiser’s competition includes Annie Mumalo and Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) and Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”—McCarthy shares story credit with Joe Teboni).
In March, Reiser will be honored by a perhaps even more personal set of colleagues: He’ll receive the first ever “Stupid Cancer Extreme Survivor Award,” at the 5th Annual OMG! Cancer Summit For Young Adults. According to a press release, OMG! is the premiere oncology conference and social networking event for the young adult cancer movement. Reiser’s getting the irreverently-titled award for making a movie that’s helped change how people view these patients.
“It got very confusing, just how people would talk to me,” Reiser told me of his own experience with cancer. “A lot of people had this warped idea of what I should do — like ‘Go travel the world.’ They’d want to hug and coddle you, when you felt like sh—.”
Rogen admitted he felt ill equipped to deal with his friend’s cancer. He said his character, Kyle, is based on the “dumbest” version of himself when Reiser was sick; while Kyle cares, he doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, so he tries to make light of the situation and have fun with it. “But Kyle is rather insensitive about it,” Rogen said, while eating matzo ball soup. “I was telling Will to write a movie about his experience, which was probably my insensitive version of telling Will to travel the world or get laid.”
“I don’t think there was a cancer survivor who saw this film and did not believe for one second that it signified a cultural shift in how the public relates to cancer,” said Matthew Zachary, Founder and CEO of the I’m Too Young For This! cancer foundation, in the release. “For too long, the voice of the underserved young adult cancer patient has gone unheard and through Will’s vision, ‘50/50’ brought this cause to the mainstream in a way no other film has done.”
“I was trying to tell a good story that felt real and honest; exposing all the absurdity, humor, tragedy and dysfunction I encountered while dealing with cancer in my mid-twenties,” Reiser said. “What I didn’t anticipate was how much the movie would resonate and connect with other young adult cancer patients and survivors. I’m honored and humbled to receive this award.”
Reiser is proud he was able to turn his gruelling experience into a film—and that he made the movie with his friend, Rogen. The WGA nomination and other nods, he regards as “icing on top of the cake.”
Registration for the OMG! event can be found online at http://OMG2012.org.
5.22.13 at 12:36 pm | In June 1965, during the most violent days of the. . .
5.15.13 at 2:00 pm | A British journalist recalls how she once sat. . .
5.1.13 at 11:20 am | “I don’t think I’m in any way a. . .
4.30.13 at 4:57 pm | Bar Paly is the new hot export from Israel.. . .
4.26.13 at 11:25 am | Michael Shannon was shy and soft-spoken during a. . .
4.18.13 at 12:34 pm | In the most searing sequence in Tadeusz. . .
4.30.13 at 4:57 pm | Bar Paly is the new hot export from Israel.. . . (8455)
5.15.13 at 2:00 pm | A British journalist recalls how she once sat. . . (608)
4.26.13 at 11:25 am | Michael Shannon was shy and soft-spoken during a. . . (185)
December 30, 2011 | 8:30 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Aline Brosh McKenna pitched her very first script in her first screenwriting class circa 1990, her words were met by a hushed, possibly startled, silence. The setting was an extension course at New York University: “I just remember somebody writing something about an art gallery owner that was going to have a lot of surrealism, dream sequences and was heavily Ingmar Bergman-inspired,” said McKenna, now 44 and one of the most successful scribes in Hollywood.
Her idea was far more mainstream: “a caper comedy about two girls, one of whom falls in love with someone she thinks is a criminal, but who turns out to be an FBI agent,” she said in her office not far from Temple Israel of Hollywood, where her two sons attend day school. “I just wanted to write a commercial film inspired by all the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that I loved. I was always looking for a way to update those movies, which had such great female roles.”
By her mid-20s, McKenna had sold her caper film; she went on to become a go-to scribe for romantic comedies about plucky female underdogs who often get the job and the guy: modern-day Cinderellas. “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger and starring Meryl Streep, embroils Anne Hathaway in more than fashion hell when she becomes the editorial assistant to an ice queen of the couture magazine world. A New Yorker cartoon of Streep as the publishing doyenne hangs on a wall in McKenna’s office.
“27 Dresses” stars Katherine Heigl in a part based on a friend of McKenna’s who participated in 12 weddings before herself tying the knot. A poster from that box office hit adorns a different wall, with a wedding day headshot of McKenna’s friend photoshopped onto Heigl’s body.
Nearby hangs a logo from Britain’s Rosemoor Wildlife Park, which inspired Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo,” now in theaters, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson with a screenplay co-written by McKenna.
A stack of fairy tale books suggests a project that McKenna, with her penchant for Cinderella stories, was perhaps bound to write: Disney’s new live action film, based on the classic fairy tale “Cinderella,” which sold for a reported seven figure pitch, according to Collider.com.
According to The Wrap, “Disney…made the 1950 animated classic Cinderella, and, though [McKenna’s] project was shopped around town, it fit the Rich Ross/Disney branded family film mandate like, well, a glass slipper…That Cinderella storyline isn’t virgin territory: in recent years, Fox used the concept for the Drew Barrymore-starrer ‘Ever After’ and Warner Bros. used it for the Hilary Duff-starrer ‘A Cinderella Story.’”
During our interview, McKenna described how her Cinderella would differ from previous renditions, while flipping through her own beloved book of fairy tales from childhood. “This kills me,” she said (meaning she’s touched), as she landed on an illustration of Cinderella, barefoot and ragged, sitting under a forlorn, caged bird. McKenna’s heroine will be far less pitiful: “She’s somebody who’s learning to go after what she wants,” said McKenna, settling into a chair near a gleaming, manual typewriter – her joke about the term Jack Warner coined for screenwriters: “schmucks with Underwoods.” “Basically, she gets separated from the prince and has to find her way back to him, but it’s more complicated than that. She’s very active and independent.”
“’Cinderella’ is one of the most primal of stories,” McKenna said of why she keeps returning to the motif. “The phrase ‘It’s a Cinderella story’ has become a catchall for any underdog story: ‘Rocky’ and ‘Rudy’ and all sports movies are Cinderella stories.
“Most of the time you figure out why you’re drawn to something while you’re writing it,” she added. “I’m drawn to people who are underestimated, or have to fight their way through something. It’s people who make their own lives and their own luck, which is what my parents did.”
McKenna was born in France to a veteran of Israel’s War of Independence and a Frenchwoman who, as girl, was hidden from the Nazis on farms near Lyon. “My mother was always matter-of-fact about her wartime experiences, and spoke of them like I’d talk about moving from one house in New Jersey to another,” said McKenna, who relocated to the Garden State with her family as a baby.
McKenna’s father, a sabra, was shot and wounded while on patrol with his scout troupe before the 1948 war; the young man standing next to him was killed. “But my father never talked about it,” McKenna recalled. “My parents were tough Jews who survived a lot and have lived in many countries. I was always struck by the fact that the dilemmas my brother and I had growing up were so miniscule compared to what they had been through.”
Even though McKenna’s mother had lived on farms as a girl, neither she nor her husband, an engineer, had any experience caring for animals when they bought their own menagerie in Montvale, New Jersey when Aline was 7. (This inexperience was one of the connections McKenna discovered she had to the protagonists of “We Bought a Zoo.”)
Her family’s own property was an oasis amidst the suburban sprawl, complete with horses, chickens, roosters, ducks, dogs and a cat always in the barn. “Everyone else in the neighborhood had regular houses with regular lawns, but we had this rambling property with a stream running through it and a pond we skated on in the winter,” she said. “What we started to learn from the responsibility of taking care of animals was profound. You become very matter of fact about rats and all the denizens of the barn, and you do have a different connection to life and death. The horses would get sick, and we’d spend long evenings when it would be dark out, and the vet would be there and we’d have lights set up in the barn. It wasn’t a small animal that would be down, it was this giant being.”
McKenna differed from her suburban classmates in other ways as well: “ “Where I grew up it was so ‘regular;’ it was America, people ate baloney sandwiches,” she said. “But in my lunch box there would be a hunk of salami or cheese, and when people came over our refrigerator was filled with steamed leeks and halva. All of which I would love now, but then, I was like, ‘Where’s the Wonderbread?’
”The other lady at carpool had big acrylic nails and a bouffant hairdo and smoked out the window, but my mother was still very much a Frenchwoman,” McKenna said. “A lot of American cultural norms were strange to her—she was always so mystified by Halloween, among other things. There was one year where she carefully filled zip lock bags with crudités and handed them out. It’s just that as a child you want to be like everyone else, so these differences were inherently funny – mortifying and funny at the same time.”
All this fueled McKenna’s budding sense of humor: “Being funny means you’re honest, almost to the point of transgression – you’re saying the thing that isn’t supposed to be said,” she explained. “I think that people who are in some ways outsiders have more of a tendency to name the strange dynamic that has heretofore gone unnoticed.”
McKenna continued to hone her comic sensibility at Harvard University, where she found her niche directing theater. Following her graduation in 1989, she co-authored a satirical guide for college women, “A Co-Ed’s Companion,” that was published the next year. Then came an unsuccessful stint trying to break into the women’s magazine business before the script she wrote at NYU secured her an agent. He got her her first job, a blind deal at Universal; thus McKenna was off on her own Hollywood Cinderella story.
Her big break came when she was hired to write the screenplay for “The Devil Wears Prada,” a 2006 film for which she drew on her own dismal experience in the magazine business. “Of all the things I’ve tried to do in my adult life that I’ve failed at, that was the worst,” she said. “I could not get any traction whatsoever. Like Anne Hathaway’s character, I had been that young person in New York, trying really hard to break in.
“But I also loved Meryl Streep’s character [Hathaway’s boss], a woman who has achieved so much in life yet still feels like nobody is helping her. The director would always be reminding me, ‘It’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” not “The Not-So-Nice-Woman Wears Prada.”’”
McKenna calls “Prada,” along with “27 Dresses” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” her love-work trilogy: “They’re really about a woman’s relationship to her work,” she said. The New York Times magazine titled its recent profile of McKenna, “If Cinderella Had a Blackberry.”
After penning a coterie of Cinderella-esque features, it’s only fitting that McKenna is now writing a re-imagining of the actual Cinderella story: “It will be set in fairy tale time and done like a wondrous kind of fairy tale with some comic elements,” she said. (The director will be Mark Romanek of “Never Let Me Go” and “One Hour Photo.”)
The project began during a conversation with her friend, Simon Kinberg, a screenwriter who had worked on 2009’s remake of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law, and who will produce the new Cinderella film. “We were talking about classic stories that had not yet been updated, and I mentioned Cinderella, which in some ways I’ve written versions of, but I hadn’t seen a live-action version that was sort of fun, a bit swashbuckling and an exciting adventure. So we came up with a pitch that I took around, hoping that Disney would be interested, and they were.
“Even with these other elements, our film will definitely be a classic adaptation of the fairy tale; it will feel like one of these books come to life,” McKenna said, pointing out assorted tomes on magic and dragons around her office.
“I’ve read 345 different versions of Cinderella,” she said of her research. “It’s such a compelling story that many cultures have some version of it. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned is that because so many women used to die in childbirth, many fairy tales deal with a man remarrying and with stepmothers. It’s amazing how many cultures have an evil stepmother. So yes, our stepmother will be pretty evil.
“There’s something about Cinderella that’s really keyed into our primal imagination,” she said.
December 22, 2011 | 4:14 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Angelina Jolie set aside plans for a surprise birthday present for her partner Brad Pitt’s 48th birthday as she stood to greet me with a smile: “I’m Angie.” Poised and approachable, and clad all in black, the Oscar-winning actress was at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood to discuss her directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which follows the relationship between a Bosnian woman and a Serbian officer amid ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
That genocide took place in the 1990s, five decades after the Holocaust: “Two months ago, I visited Auschwitz for the first time,” Jolie said early in the conversation. “When Brad was filming ‘World War Z’ in Budapest, I flew up and spent the day, as I feel everyone should; the sheer scale of it had never before hit me. The organization was what was so infuriating,” she added. “This was not a crime of passion but a very planned, organized effort. And then 50 years after we said, ‘Never again,’ there it was, in the former Yugoslavia, just 40 miles from Italy. It made me angry.”
Jolie’s same anger fueled “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” which was shot in four languages and unflinchingly depicts the Balkan genocide through the lens of a love story. The Bosnian Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), an artist, and Serbian Danijel (Goran Kostic), a police officer, are, in Jolie’s words, “a couple in the thrall of early dating, at the beginning of all that good love and lust.” But as they dance intimately at a nightclub, the war literally implodes their relationship. Later, Ajla is shocked to discover that Danijel is the commanding officer in an internment camp where she and other women are being held prisoner and sexually abused. The way their affair resumes and transforms becomes Jolie’s meditation on how an emotional and sexual landscape can be twisted by war.
“They say write what you know,” Jolie explained of why she chose to tell the story through a love affair. “The film in some ways is my mind separated into different characters, and of course my closest relationship is to the man that I love. What if tomorrow I was told that we were different and we were separated somehow? I couldn’t possibly imagine Brad ever becoming my enemy. So I tried to construct a relationship where in the beginning that seems impossible. But in the end, you understand that’s where it naturally went.”
Jolie, 36, began working on the film in a decidedly domestic setting: She was at home but separated from her six children because she had the flu, when she began thinking back on her visits to conflict zones as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ goodwill ambassador. “During my first few years of traveling, all I did was cry,” she said. Eventually, Jolie immersed herself in the nuts and bolts of activism: “I had written journals and op-ed pieces about it,” she said, “but nothing ever in script form.” On that day as she was fighting the flu, she decided to try a screenplay “just as a personal meditation, not something the world would ever see.”
She began the project not long before July 2010, the 15th anniversary of the massacre of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica, and Jolie found herself reflecting on how little she knew about that disturbingly recent genocide. “I created this world in my head of people I could identify with, and in the process, I gave myself an education,” she said.
“And then I was sitting with this script that I didn’t show anybody, until Brad read it and said, ‘You know, honey, this is kind of good.’ ” Jolie was terrified that, as an outsider, she wouldn’t get the story right. “So I sent the script without my name on it to people who had been on all sides of the war,” she said. She proceeded only after they said she had it right, shooting the film over just 42 days during a freezing winter last year.
Jolie’s cast are all actors from the various sides of the brutal ethnic conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they, too, did much to vet the script as well as, through a process of improvisation, adding parts of own their lives to the story.
“It was very important to make people understand how recent this was,” Jolie said, “and that this wasn’t World War II, but 1992.” Thus her movie opens with a rock ’n’ roll song, and the cinematography and set design, at least early in the film, are vibrant and modern.
“I wanted people to sit in the theater for two hours and be uncomfortable,” added Jolie, who punctuated the film with scenes of random violence that are as sudden as they are shocking. A drunken sniper shoots a man and his son; gunmen blow up a truck providing humanitarian aid; a row of men is machine-gunned into a waiting, mass grave. “If you’re sitting in your seat saying, ‘Please make this stop,’ then you understand what the film is about,” Jolie said.
The actress credits her late mother, Marcheline Bertrand, for introducing her to issues involving human rights: “She took me to my first Amnesty International meeting when I was 9,” Jolie recalled. Because Bertrand was part Native American, Jolie knew about that genocide from an early age; the Nazi Holocaust came into focus when Jolie visited the Museum of Tolerance soon after it opened, around the corner from her Los Angeles home, in 1993.
Her film work has, at times, mirrored her interest in real-life conflict zones, such as when she portrayed Mariane Pearl, the wife of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, in 2007’s “A Mighty Heart.”
“The Land of Blood and Honey” already has gleaned a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, though the shoot in the former Yugoslavia was not without its share of controversy. Jolie’s permit to film in one area was temporarily revoked, when the false rumor spread that the heroine was a prisoner who falls in love with her rapist, which was cleared up when Jolie submitted the script to officials and they saw the truth.
Leaders of a Serbian prisoners’ group and an organization for rape survivors also declared that Jolie had portrayed them callously.
The filmmaker, however, was adamant that her film did not take sides — and that the rape scenes were anything but titillating. “I intentionally never showed nudity during the rapes; I wanted the camera to focus on the reactions of the victim and the people watching,” she said.
The most difficult sequence to shoot, for Jolie, was based on a true story about soldiers forcing elderly woman to dance, nude, as they jeered. “I had to ask three older women to take off all their clothes in front of a bunch of people who were going to be laughing and making fun of them,” she recalled. “I felt like I was torturing them, and I almost didn’t do it. I kept reminding them that I was directing people to laugh at them; that I would only shoot the scene once; that there were robes around the corner and that I’m so sorry! They were doing the scene for all the women who had gone through this, but it still felt horrible.”
Jolie said she never intended to become a director. “If anything, I wanted to do less films over the next few years, to be home a lot more and be a mom,” she said. “But then I thought, I have a responsibility to my generation.”
And to “Never again.”
“In the Land of Blood and Honey” opens in limited release on Dec. 23
December 18, 2011 | 11:25 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Steven Berkoff, the actor, director and playwright who has achieved notoriety as the bad boy of Britain’s “in yer face” theater, was uncharacteristically apologetic as he arrived on the set of David Fincher’s American movie adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international best seller, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” His fellow thespian Daniel Craig, a Hollywood A-lister since starring in the James Bond films, was to play Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish journalist who teams up with the antisocial punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to solve a mystery involving serial killers, perverts, misogynists, Nazis and anti-Semites.
Berkoff was to portray Dirch Frode, the enigmatic attorney who hires Blomkvist to find his client’s long-missing niece – and who introduces Craig’s character to the pierced, tattooed Salander.
Fincher’s set wasn’t the first time that Berkoff had met Craig. “I knew him from England,” the 74-year-old Berkoff said from his London studio. “In the theater, I once auditioned him for the part of Richard II, which I was directing. And I turned him down. I thought he was too strong for the vulnerability of Richard. So when I met him on the set, I was a little embarrassed. I said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and he replied, ‘Don’t be stupid – that doesn’t matter.’”
Berkoff, who was raised in London’s Jewish East End, has been as regaled for his startling adaptations of Shakespeare and his raw original plays (“East,” “West,” Greek,” “The Secret Love Life of Ophelia”) as he has been feared – at least by some journalists – for what they have described as his icy demeanor. During our conversation, he was more cordial, if no-nonsense, as he discussed “Kvetch,” his savagely humorous send up of Jewish angst that was performed by the SeaGlass Theatre in the Los Angeles area this past fall; his portrayal of villains in films such as “Octopussy” and “The Tourist,” opposite Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; and his monologue, “Shakespeare’s Villains: A Master Class in Evil,” which presents the Jewish Shylock as “an out-and-out rogue” seeking revenge against an anti-Semitic society.
Here’s how the critic Aleks Sierz describes “in-yer-face” theater: “The language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each another, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen, and want all their friends to see it too. It is the kind of theatre that inspires us to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation.”
Berkoff has said that film roles have supported his theater habit; he answered with blunt honesty when asked why he was drawn to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo:” “You’re offered a job, and that’s what an actor has to do, unless you’re a star actor and you can pick and choose,” he said. Berkoff added that he did find Larsson’s novel interesting, in part for its revelations about Sweden’s Nazi past, but said, “I was more interested in the director, David Fincher [“Fight Club,” “The Social Network”], who has a unique and unusual reputation for creating very distinguished films.”
Fincher is renowned for his insistence on multiple takes per scene, and Berkoff found him to be “very methodical and painstaking, a bit of a perfectionist, a very demanding director to work for. He would never accept just a first performance or a reading; he would look into it quite carefully. It reminded me in some ways of how a painter works, a classical painter who very carefully details each brushstroke to make it right and whole. He may not even be aware of what he’s looking for, but he will make you try it in different ways until he sees or feels the right [quality], which can be trying for some actors –including myself, and occasionally frustrating or wearying. But it gives you an opportunity to try out the scene in more than your usual manner, because he makes you repeat a scene until you break away from your mannerisms and your little tricks that you think are effective, and come to a kind of essential truth.”
Berkoff – who recently appeared in Showtime’s “The Borgias” – grew up in London in the 1930s and 1940s. “When we heard the menacing drums marching near us of the fascist movement, led by Oswald Mosley, we wouldn’t go out,” he said. “But the Jews were very tough in Stamford Hill, where I lived, so any kind of anti-Semitism would be set upon and thrashed, mercilessly. According to The Independent, Berkoff’s Uncle Sam, memorialized in his 2007 play “Sit and Shiver,” (a pun on the Jewish mourning ritual of “sitting shiva”) was a hero of the anti-fascist riots of 1936, “when Jews, radicals and dockworkers stood up to Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts.”
“At school, where teachers were a bit too free with the use of the cane, I had already developed a sense of self-respect and individuality,” Berkoff said. “I found [the beatings] not only abusive and sadistic, but it rather put one in the position of a slave who must obey the master—and I wasn’t going to be anybody’s slave. Once, when the headmaster wanted to cane me, I said, ‘No, you are not,’ and he looked at me, totally shocked. I think I was the only schoolboy who ever had said that to him. But he sent me home, and I was never caned again.”
Berkoff was disappointed when his father, a gambler who often frittered away the family income, didn’t give him a bar mitzvah: “I envied the other Jewish boys, and felt I hadn’t gone through that rite of passage,” he said.
“I felt a little bit of what could be called a loner,” Berkoff said of his boyhood. “Missing the bar mitzvah, possibly, going through the Blitz during the Second World War, being bombed out of the East End, evacuated to the countryside, changing schools and not being able to bond with my mates—I started to feel somehow a bit remote. And sometimes kids would say, ‘You’re a bit of a loner, aren’t you, Steve,’ either half-admiring or half-pitying.”
During his early years in the theater, Berkoff was drawn to the work of the Jewish author Franz Kafka because “he was a visionary who saw the world through an intense lens, almost like a microscope,” Berkoff said. “He felt the things an ordinary person would, to a certain extent, but he felt them as if he were bereft, bare of the skin that protects us. I felt, too, this rawness about life, the feeling that you are unprotected, lacking an outer layer that can protect you from the various whips and scorns of time. And so consequently as soon as I read him, I felt, ‘This is a man who is speaking directly to me,’ which made me feel less isolated and marginalized.”
Berkoff adapted Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and “The Trial” for the stage, in a 1930s expressionist style that hearkened back to the Russian Habima theater. “It’s horrible,” he said of what the central character endures in “The Trial,” but there’s also humor in it – savage humor – about the feeling of guilt, which is a Jewish feeling, and which has been engendered over centuries of feeling guilty merely to be Jewish.”
Berkoff later wrote original plays in a style that would be labeled “in yer face:” “It’s an interesting term that means stripped bare,” he said. “It doesn’t have niceties and a social kind of elegance; it’s direct, forthright, startling, abrasive, sometimes profane, and it moves you and takes you and sucks you in.” His Jewish background “totally contributed” to his penchant for this kind of theater: “The antennae you create are rooted in a bloodbath,” he explained. “The history you learn about is so traumatic, it makes you search for much more essence in the way you express yourself; it makes you perhaps more radical.”
Berkoff’s one-man show, “Shakespeare’s Villains,” focuses on five characters, one of them the eponymous Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice,” who wants his pound of (Christian) flesh. Shylock is what Berkoff calls a “conditioned villain:” Abuse and discrimination have conditioned him to become what society fears him to be— the “Satanic Jew.” Thus Berkoff dislikes the more politically correct versions of Shylock that have been favored by many directors: “I recoil from the idea of cleansing and homogenising the racist bile implicit in the text,” he wrote in an essay published in The Independent.
In films, Berkoff has often played villains, such as General Orlov in “Octopussy,” and he regards such characters as among the most fascinating on stage and screen. “Villains are always the ones with more energy, more passion and more commitment,” he said. “Often they don’t start out as villains, but as people who are outsiders, radicals, innovators, revolutionaries.”
Berkoff’s character in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is more difficult to place. Dirch Frode is the loyal associate and longtime friend of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the industrialist who hires Blomkvist to find his niece, Harriet. “In a way I’m Henrik’s shade, his shadow,” Berkoff said. “My character is one of these allies that men who are very powerful have – [people] of utter integrity who will serve the master.”
While most of his scenes are with Craig, Berkoff does have a most memorable scene with Rooney Mara, which one can see in trailers for the film. It’s the scene in which Frode meets the punk hacker for the first time – he’s hired her to provide a dossier on Blomkvist (i.e., spy on him), for Henrik. When Frode asks for her personal opinion of Blomkvist, who is having an affair with his co-editor of Millennium magazine, Lisbeth replies, “Sometimes he pleasures her; not often enough in my opinion.” Frode’s expression remains inscrutable.
Berkoff recalled that Mara always appeared to be in character, even in between takes: “She seemed to be very effective; and as a lot of American actors are, she was always inside her role.”
“The appeal of this film is that it’s very, very mysterious,” he said.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” opens on Dec. 21. For more information on Berkoff, his plays or his books, such as his memoir, “Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent,” visit www.stevenberkoff.com.
December 14, 2011 | 12:01 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author of the international best-selling “Millennium” series, including “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” died in 2004 at age 50 of a heart attack, before the publication of his crime thrillers made him one of the most famous writers of the decade. They have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, already spawned three Swedish films and, on Dec. 21, fans will no doubt be lining up for the opening of Hollywood’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, with a screenplay by the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” scribe Steven Zaillian. (The film opens in selected theaters on Dec. 20.)
But amid all this “Stieg industry,” as the late author’s life partner, Eva Gabrielsson, put it, a crucial element often has been overlooked: Just how much Larsson embedded in his novels a fundamental passion of his life — his crusade against neo-Nazism and violent far-right movements, which he viewed as anathema to Sweden and to all modern society.
“Those who see Stieg solely as an author of crime fiction have never truly known him,” Gabrielsson writes in her memoir, “There Are Things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larsson and Me” (released last June by Seven Stories,and due out in paperback on Jan. 10). The “Millennium” series, she said, “is only one episode in Steig’s journey through this world, and it certainly isn’t his life’s work.”
“The trilogy is an allegory of the individual’s eternal fight for justice and morality, the values for which Stieg Larsson fought until the day he died,” Marie-Francoise Colombani wrote in the foreword to Gabrielsson’s book.
An abiding part of Larsson’s mission was researching and exposing Sweden’s Nazi past (even though the country was officially neutral during World War II), and, more urgently, the resurgence of violent racist groups in Scandinavia in the 1980s and ’90s, during which time Larsson wrote for the anti-racist British magazine Searchlight and, in 1995, co-founded a Swedish equivalent, Expo. For those efforts, Larsson and Gabrielsson — an activist in her own right — received death threats and even bullets in the mail; their answering machine, set permanently on “record,” archived messages such as “You Jew f——- … traitor, we’ll tear you apart … and we know where you live.” In evidence collected after the murder of a trade unionist who had exposed a neo-Nazi secret, police discovered photos of Larsson and Gabrielsson.
“Stieg was absolutely the real deal — he was an expert on the neo-Nazi movement in Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia,” said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “We relied on his information in terms of tracking the movement in Europe — its growth, activism and various players. And we often shared information on the overlap between the neo-Nazi movement in Europe and the United States.”
Nazis and anti-Semites lurk throughout Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy, which includes “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” “Tattoo” introduces the odd duo of Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist and co-founder of a magazine called Millennium, and Lisbeth Salander, a pierced, punk, antisocial computer hacker, who team up to solve a decades-old mystery involving the disappearance of a teenage girl.
Blomkvist was hired to find the now middle-age Harriet Vanger by her uncle, the industrialist Henrik Vanger, who reveals early on that his family has plenty of racist skeletons in the closet. One of them is Henrik’s brother, Richard, described in the book as “a fanatical nationalist and anti-Semite … [who] joined the Swedish National Socialist Freedom League, one of the first Nazi groups in Sweden.” Richard later joined the Swedish Fascist Battle Organization and there “got to know Per Engdahl [a leading Swedish far-right leader] and others who would be the disgrace of the nation,” Henrik said.
Spoiler alert: There’s also a serial killer whose targets turn out to have been Jewish women. In “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” the chief villain is not only a sex-trafficker but also a Jew-hater, who uses as his alias the name of a Swedish Nazi, Karl Axel Bodin — a real historical figure who, during World War II, traveled to occupied Norway to join the Waffen-SS.
Gabrielsson, an architect now in her 50s, was soft-spoken and straightforward during a phone interview, reached at the Stockholm apartment she once shared with Larsson. Because Gabrielsson was not legally married to the author at the time of his death, the “Millennium” property and profits went to Larsson’s father and brother. Since then, media outlets have extensively reported her battle with the Larssons over how his legacy should be presented and involving a fourth “Millennium” novel that the author reportedly was writing on his computer when he died.
Our conversation focused on how Larsson’s politics come through in his novels.
“What you see in the first ‘Millennium’ book is what a Nazi past does to a family, and to its family members: the kind of structures that are built up, based on who has the power,” she said. “What you especially see is how the women are affected. You can only survive in that family if you submit to your lower status and do what you are told. The only one who escapes that fate is [spoiler alert] Harriet Vanger. She flees and takes on a new identity.”
Similarly, Jewish children who were hidden during the Holocaust were forced to take on non-Jewish identities.
As Blomkvist and Salander investigate Harriet’s disappearance, they discover a mysterious list of names the teenager wrote down in her journal. When they figure out that the names refer to Jewish victims, they are on the path of a Nazi serial killer.
“It was a natural thing for Stieg to make them Jewish,” Gabrielsson said. “This is a killer who is acting for political reasons, within the Nazi ideology, so he is actually committing political murders. … The first book shows the effects of an ideology on a family and its women.”
In a way, she said, Larsson was commenting on current events: “It took all of the 1980s and ’90s until the Swedish police, prosecutors and politicians understood that the extreme right wing here were not criminals in the ‘normal’ sense, but were committing criminal acts because of a political ideology,” she said. “That’s why they attacked immigrants and made their bank robberies, to finance weapons and explosives, and why they killed police officers who tried to capture them. And that’s why Stieg made this parallel to the political agenda: He meant that these kinds of acts don’t just come out of being an evil person or a psychopath, but from a political point of view.”
In 1991, Larsson published a book, “Right Wing Extremism,” with Anna-Lena Lodenius, the first comprehensive work ever published on the subject, Gabrielsson said. He was already an expert on each group’s political affiliations, the members’ accomplices, milieus they frequented and how the then-flourishing white-power music industry financed extremist groups throughout the world.
One of the groups mentioned in the book was White Aryan Resistance: “Seven of its members had amassed a total of 20 convictions among them for crimes such as armed robbery, stealing weapons from military depots and homicide,” Gabrielsson said. The group’s magazine, Storm, published photos of Larsson and Lodenius, along with their addresses, Social Security numbers and phone numbers, and text that concluded of Larsson: “Never forget his words, his face and his address. Should he be allowed to continue his work — or should he be dealt with?”
Like his character of Lisbeth Salander, Larsson had to become an expert on personal security: “Stieg knew everything there was to know about tracking people, all the methods used by journalists, by the police … by extremists and criminal gangs,” Gabrielsson said.
Why did Larsson persevere with his work, despite the danger?
“I trace it back to something personal,” Gabrielsson said. Larsson’s beloved maternal grandfather, Severin, who had helped raise Stieg when the boy’s parents could not care for him, was an anti-Nazi activist who had been imprisoned in a little-known concentration camp in northern Sweden, set up to appease the Nazis. “The stories of these prisoners until recently have been wrapped up in a blanket of silence,” Gabrielsson said. “It wasn’t until five or six years ago that a film was made about these camps, and afterward researchers began to explore Sweden’s true past during the second world war. For Stieg, his work was the defense of the man who brought him up.”
Ironically, Larsson died on Nov. 9, 2004, the 66th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the date commonly considered the beginning of the Holocaust. “Stieg always commemorated this Night of Broken Glass by participating in public events,” Gabrielsson said.
His death was not only a shock to Gabrielsson, but to his fellow crusaders.
“In this house we still mourn and miss him,” Gerry Gable, the editor of Searchlight, wrote in an e-mail. After Larsson co-founded Expo, Gable participated in exchange visits to Sweden and joint investigations: “Over the years [Stieg] kept the flame alive at Expo; it stopped once but his drive brought it back. … He was also my friend as is Eva, who has the same tenacity and courage as Stieg.”
“We were all shocked and saddened by Stieg’s death,” said Leonard Zeskind of The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream,” who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and knew Larsson from the early 1980s until his death. Zeskind recalls visiting Larsson’s apartment and drinking coffee late into the night with the affable writer, who smoked cigarettes, expressed a wide range of interests, including crime fiction, was phenomenally bright and appeared to work 20 hours a day. “He once asked me to tell the [Jewish-American mystery novelist] Sara Paretsky that she should write a book about the Ku Klux Klan,” Zeskin recalled.
“There was so much grief when he died, because he was someone to us who felt like a brother.”
December 6, 2011 | 12:54 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“Shame, shame, shame, shame,” Michael Fassbender, who very much seems to be the actor of the moment, sang in a goofy baritone recently. His impromptu ditty was unexpected, given that he was in the middle of an intense discussion about his two latest films: Steve McQueen’s NC-17 “Shame” and David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” both involving excruciating (if very different) dissections of sexual shame.
But then again, the 34-year-old Fassbender in person is far less intense than he appears onscreen: Lithe and rather boyish, he punctuates a conversation with levity—which is understandable given that he’s been talking all day about two films in which his characters practically implode. Dressed casually in jeans while sitting on a throne-like chair at the Four Seasons Hotel, he’s also not above a bit of self-deprecating humor, lamenting, “My brain is s—-t today” when he’s unable to name a character in a Wagnerian opera; or “God, that was a rant, wasn’t it,” after a discussion about his turn as a Holocaust survivor turned supervillain in the blockbuster, “X-Men: First Class.”
Fassbender was born in Germany to a German father and an Irish mother, but grew up in the Irish countryside, where he was raised Catholic and served as an alter boy. He discovered acting in high school and studied at the Drama Centre in London before landing a role in the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks World War II HBO mini-series, “Band of Brothers.” Until recently he was perhaps best known for portraying the Jewish mutant Magneto in “X-Men: First Class;” an Irish republican hunger striker in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger;” and the British Lt. Archie Hicox in Quentin Tarantino’s Holocaust fantasy, “Inglourious Basterds.” Fassbender speaks fluent German but had to brush up to play Hicox, who blows the Basterds’ cover in that film’s outrageous tavern shootout sequence.
In “Shame,” Fassbender gives a haunting (and Oscar-worthy) performance as Brandon, a Manhattan yuppie whose sleek life begins to unravel after his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives for a visit – escalating his addiction to anonymous sex, pornography and prostitutes.
Then there’s Fassbender’s portrayal of a youngish Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method,” an “intellectual ménage a trios” between Jung, Sigmund Freud and their brilliant but troubled Russian-Jewish patient, Sabina Spielrein.
Early on in that movie, Jung cures the 18-year-old Spielrein (Keira Knightley) by causing her to realize that her hysteria stems from guilt over the erotic pleasure she experienced when her father beat her naked bottom. As she and Jung become lovers, he fulfills her masochistic desires (some having to do with their respective stations as an Aryan and a Jew in early 20th century Europe) with his belt in hand.
In “Shame,” Fassbender simulates explicit carnal acts and appears fully naked as his face hints of the addict’s tormented psyche. It’s not the first time he’s played a tortured soul with a devastating past: Fassbender’s turn as Magneto transformed what could have been yet another comics-inspired film into a compelling character study.
When the conversation turned back to “Shame” and “A Dangerous Method,” I asked Fassbender if he perceives parallels between how these films explore issues of sexual guilt. “Definitely,” he replied, without hesitation. “What my character experiences in ‘Shame’ is something that came up a lot in conversations I had with people who suffer from this affliction: It’s the sense that you’re no longer in control of your physical self or your impulses; that your addiction has taken over and that you have no control over your own actions. So immediately after the sexual act, the first thing that strikes you is this overwhelming feeling of shame and self-loathing.
“Keira’s character in ‘A Dangerous Method’ is very similar because her shame is also of a sexual nature. Things happened to her as a child, which she translated into a sexual sort of spark,” he added, snapping his fingers. “When her father began sending her into a special room to take her clothes off and to be beaten, she began to experience wetness, and to get excited by that. That was the first sexual trigger in her formative years, which would carry through into her adulthood.”
The S & M sequences between Jung and Spielrein map well over Aryan-Jewish tensions of the time.
“There are different camps of people, some of whom think Jung was anti-Semitic, but I don’t think so,” said Fassbender, who may next be offered the titular role in Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic, Noah, according to Variety. “What Jung was interested in with Sabina, was the forbidden sort of tale, the taboo relationship, and playing out the Wagnerian myth of the blond hero Siegfried, born out of sin. For sure, there was a level of excitement there, the sense that the two of them were doing something that was socially incorrect.”
The film—and the play upon which it is based, Christopher Hampton’s “The Talking Cure” – repeatedly describes Jung as “godlike” or Aryan. “Jung believed very much in the Aryan idea, in that he had a lineage back to the mythology of old,” the actor said. “That kind of thought was tied into Freud’s struggle as well, because people at the time believed psychoanalysis was a ‘Jewish’ science and thus, didn’t take it seriously. And obviously we know the sort of prejudice against the Jewish community in Europe that was to unfold in the coming years.”
Here are further excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: Have you ever been in psychoanalysis?
MF: I went to therapy once. I was in a relationship, which wasn’t working, so we were attempting to see if it was worth trying to continue. So I went to one session, and that was it. I think therapy is a good thing, for people to vocalize whatever’s going on. But for me, growing up in Ireland, in the Catholic religion, people in my village went to talk to the priest and it wasn’t only for confession.
NPM: Does acting serve as therapy for you?
MF: I’d be very careful to say it is therapy, because then it becomes a very self-indulgent exercise. But for sure it can lead to more understanding, in that maybe one finds out a bit more about oneself, or flaws and those kinds of things.
NPM: In “A Dangerous Method,” Jung begins an extramarital relationsihp with Spielrein – she’s a masochist. How does Jung feel about taking on the role of sadist in the relationship?
MF: I think he’s doing it for her. I think she gets off on it so he’s willing to facilitate that, and he probably gets off on the fact that she’s getting off. She had come to him and said, “I’m terrible, I’m awful,” and he had explained to her that your [masochism] is part and parcel of who you are; just recognize it, try to understand it, and then we can heal it.
NPM: Their physical relationship is almost like sex therapy.
MF: I always thought so, too. That she’s actually going through a physical form of this therapy in a way, and it’s interesting within the film’s landscape and the time we look at their lives.
NPM: What might Sigmund Freud have to say about Sabina’s issues of sexual guilt? And might that apply to your character in “Shame” as well?
MF: Freud said that having a penis and a vagina and an anus and excrement and having a relationship with these things in your childhood will carry through into your adult life and will have manifestations of whatever form. And if we don’t recognize it, it could get really ugly.
NPM: Immediately after playing Jung, you starred as Magneto, who is scarred by the Holocaust and is determined to prevent fellow mutants from suffering a similar fate at the hands of the human race. Did learning about psychoanalysis in “A Dangerous Method” help you to analyze that character?
MF: Psychoanalysis in a lot of ways relates to what I do as an actor. I have an interest in human nature and behavior—what motivates a certain character, where does his moral compass lie. In terms of Magneto, there’s so much rich information within the “X-Men” comic books; I went to the source material, and found so much there. I hadn’t really known much about “X-Men,” because I never really read comics as a child. But one of the first things that drew me in was this idea of outcasts; of people feeling like they didn’t belong, whether because of their religion, their ethnicity, or sexuality. That reflects my feeling that in the end we’re all the same, in that we all want to be loved, we all want to feel accepted and relevant. I thought, this a really interesting world to play with. And then with Magneto, of course, he’s got such a crazy past; he goes through the Holocaust and we see that in the film. There’s another significant story, which ends horribly, where he falls in love with a Gypsy girl during the Holocaust, and he wants to save her…. his house ends up getting burned down and [their] child with it. For me, that was his last relationship, his last attempt to live among humans and to accept humans. He decides they’re inferior, as he has seen their destruction first hand. And you know, history has taught us that yes, we are super destructive and we have been killing each other for thousands of years and it doesn’t seem to be changing much, does it?
November 26, 2011 | 1:47 pm
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.
November 23, 2011 | 1:37 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.