Screening Sigmund

The father of psychoanalysis has played many roles, but few have broached his contradictory personality

On The Town | Laurence Doering | December 2011 / January 2012

The grainy black and white image flickers uncertainly on the screen. It shows an elderly man in a three-piece tweed suit, settled comfortably into a garden chair, his head resting on a heavy, ornamented cushion. But there is a nerviness about him; he utters an unheard word, twitches his head to check whether the camera is still watching him, turns back to his book.

What looks like an arthouse short film is an example of the little existing footage of Sigmund Freud, the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis. Notoriously camera shy, he allowed only Marie Bonaparte, his one-time patient and then confidante, to document fragments of his domestic life. All of them show Freud as an old man, elevating his white beard and round glasses to timeless monuments.

Perhaps this explains why, in the explosion of Freud imagery that has since taken place, most of his appearances have been reduced to the stereotypical. Few films have attempted to "screen" Sigmund Freud’s complex personality: I have found only three biopics. The fourth, Canadian director David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, hit cinemas in November.

How have this handful of cinematographers pieced together Marie Bonaparte’s fragments to reconstruct the man, his ideas, and his story?


Body worlds

David Cronenberg’s approach is through the undeniable reality of the body. His film opens with a young woman (Keira Knightley) in the throes of a hysterical fit, her kicking threatening to break the glass window of the darkened carriage taking her to the Burghölzli Clinic near Zurich. There, a young Dr Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is practicing a new treatment for mental illness, the "talking cure" pioneered by Sigmund Freud in Vienna.

We do not know yet that the woman is Sabina Spielrein who will become Jung’s pupil and lover, and later join Freud’s circle as a gifted psychoanalyst in her own right.

Clad in a beige, high-necked dress, the hysteric is deposited in a white-washed room, bare but for two chairs. "Good morning", the doctor says in a polite, yet assertive, tone as he enters. His healthy hue and focused expression strike an aching contrast to his patient’s pale, twitching figure.

Quick cuts between highly contrasting, high-resolution images give A Dangerous Method the quality of medical photographs, while at the same time appealing to the viewer’s senses. "It’s about people who wanted to be taken seriously as scientists…I wanted to emphasise that formally", Cronenberg told Der Standard in November. This translates into a cool naturalism that manages to transport the viewer back to the hospital corridors and Biedermeier interiors of early 20th century Europe.

Not only the images are cleanly composed. The narrative follows the symmetry of a classical tragedy. As Jung, the hero, falls in love with Spielrein, he must decide between two irreconcilable values: the hedonistic freedom advocated by his colleague Otto Gross, and the respect for the established order (specifically, the confines of the doctor-patient relationship, and of marriage) demanded by his father-figure Freud. It isn’t hard to see these alternatives as the conflicting imperatives of id and super-ego. Like every tragic hero – and every unhappy ego – Jung remains stuck in between.

While this makes for a compelling drama, it reduces Freud to the straw man of a moralist. This is only partly relieved by Viggo Mortensen’s nuanced portrayal of a man who can be both a sympathetic friend and a formidable opponent, jealously guarding psychoanalytic dogma against Jung’s increasing "mysticism".


The stuff of dreams

If A Dangerous Method is reductive for the purpose of drama, the other Hollywood box-office hit, Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), is so for the sake of theory.

Released in the heyday of psychoanalysis, the script was originally written by the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, although he withdrew his name from the credits when the director, John Huston, made cuts to his unwieldy text.

Yet a Sartrean seriousness remains, along with characters that are more didactic models than people of flesh and blood. We witness a young, morally upright Freud – played by the dashing Montgomery Clift – battling for knowledge against the prudery of his time. It is a classic Great Man biography, while Freud’s key patient, Cecily Koertner, is the classic ditsy, yet pliable, woman, following her doctor’s every order with or without hypnosis.

The film’s strength, however, is its use of dreams to drive Freud’s scientific discoveries. Under the influence of the talking cure, Cecily’s recurrent dream of the "Catholic hospital", in which she believes her father to have died, peels away layer by layer to reveal the repressed memory of an Italian bordello, the nuns reverting to whores.


The European way: modernism

But it is two European television productions that approach the psychoanalyt’s life with the greatest sensitivity, through the ambivalent medium of memory.

Directed by Moira Armstrong, the BBC’s six-part series Freud (1984) begins each of its episodes in the psychoanalyt’s last home in North London. Almost incapable of speech due to advanced throat cancer, this Sigmund Freud (played by Royal Shakespeare Company star David Suchet) escapes into reminiscences. As his condition worsens, his recollections, too, increasingly disintegrate, ultimately reverting to childhood.

As we rely entirely on Freud’s own memories, we end up asking whether our crown witness can in fact be trusted. This modernist trope illustrates the psychoanalyst’s greatest insight, that fantasy is the only lived reality, while facts are elusive.

Yet this doesn’t stop Freud also being the best researched and most comprehensive of the film biographies. It captures the psychoanalyst’s contradictory nature, obsessed with gaining recognition in the stuffy, anti-Semitic, late-Habsburg Vienna he so despises. His long professional isolation breeds a bitter sarcasm that manages to alienate his closest friends.

The film even picks up on the sexually charged relationship between Sigmund and his wife’s sister, Minna Bernays, who lived with the Freuds in Berggasse 19 from the mid 1890s, an episode that continues to foment speculation among Freud biographers. Contrary to his portrayal in A Dangerous Method, there is little hint here that Freud was a moralist.


The personal and the historical

The other European production was made for the Austrian public broadcaster ORF by the avantgarde film-maker Axel Corti in 1976. Like its British counterpart, Der junge Freud (Young Dr Freud) is also told in flashback, beginning with an old Dr Freud boarding the train to flee Nazi Vienna in 1938.

But the unfolding narrative of Freud’s early life is then periodically interrupted by a disembodied voice, questioning the young doctor about his work, his Jewishness, and his childhood. He answers directly, breaching the "fourth wall", with the prescience of a latter-day biographer:

"These ideas were in the air", he balks, when asked whether psychoanalysis would have existed without him.

The device hints that it is impossible to eclipse our knowledge of what Freud later became when approaching the young, pre-Freudian, Sigismund. So, while the BBC’s Freud delves into personal memory, Corti’s work stresses the intervention of cultural remembrance, the historical breaking into the personal.

This reflexive take is particularly apt for an Austrian production, given Freud’s long disownment by his native country, first on scientific, then on racial grounds.

In his History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914), Freud explains his rejection by the Viennese medical establishment with his failure to allow his antagonists to vent their outrage, once and for all, in a public hearing. He makes the point with a couplet from Friedrich Schiller’s play Wallenstein: 

"But this the Viennese will not forgive / That I cheated them out of a spectacle."

Meanwhile, cinema has given the Viennese their spectacle. Yet it is not catharsis, but Sigmund Freud’s abiding mystery that still draws them to the screen. ÷


For information on screenings of

A Dangerous Method see listing on page 26

Other articles from this issue