How the brilliant, disturbed Sabina Spielrein influenced Freud and Jung
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.