On Freud, Jung and A Dangerous Method

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Most know Viggo Mortensen by his many horse-riding macho roles. Many might not know that he also played Sigmund Freud in a 2011 film called A Dangerous Method about the relationship between Freud and Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender, the young Magneto in X-Men: First Class), and between Jung and Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley whom most know from the Pirates of the Caribbean films).

I watched A Dangerous Method without expectations and without doing prior reading (which I am wont to do when a film’s characters are based on real persons) mainly for lack of time and partly because reading — real reading — about Freud and Jung is a feat probably best reserved for PhD candidates writing dissertations about them, their work, their influence, or all of that.

Although Freud and Jung, and their theories, have entered mainstream vocabulary (who hasn’t heard of Freud’s id, ego and super-ego, and the Jungian archetypes?), I really don’t know much about their field of study except for an introductory course in Psychology back in college and the occasional background research I have occasionally made (mostly when I was still writing a newspaper column). That’s probably more than what most know about them and their work but not quite enough, at least for me, to judge whether the film was more real than mere dramatization. I did my reading after I had seen the film. But more on that later.

Every character in the film is based on a real person — from Freud and Jung to their wives and families, to Sabina Spielrein who was really the catalyst in the story. Sabina Spielrein, a Russian Jew from a wealthy family who would later become a psychoanalyst herself, was brought to a Swiss mental hospital in 1904 and Jung became her doctor. Spielrein became well, went to medical university and she worked closely with Jung, assisting him with his research while he, in turn, became her advisor in her dissertation. According to the film, Spielrein and Jung had a sexual affair and, even after the affair had ended, Spielrein was the love of Jung’s life.

Juxtaposed with the relationship between Jung and Spielrein was the relationship between Jung and Freud. The elderly Freud saw the brilliance of the younger Jung and was grooming him to be his “successor.” Over the years, as Jung explored fields of study (telepathy, astrology, alchemy, philosophy and religion) that Freud considered detrimental to the acceptance of psychology as a science, the friendship soured.

A short but significant sub-plot is the appearance of Otto Gross (played by Vincent Cassel), the bohemian and drug-addicted psychoanalyst who believed in freedom, including free love. It was after the encounter with Gross and hearing his views that Jung turned his back on monogamy and engaged in an affair with Sabina Spielrein.

The web is replete with bios of Freud and Jung; even articles about Sabina Spielrein and Otto Gross are not wanting. Whether or not they were objectively and faithfully represented in the film depends, I suppose, on how one perceives them based on what has been written about them prior to the publication in 1993 of John Kerr’s non-fiction A Most Dangerous Method: The story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein which served as the basis for the play The Talking Cure which, in turn, became the movie. I mean, how many living persons today knew Freud, Jung and Spielrein personally, and well enough, to make a credible statement about whether their representation in the film was fair or not?

One interesting thing I have found is that the sexual affair between Jung and Spielrein is disputed (or at least seriously doubted) by some quarters and is the subject of much speculation, not so much because Jung is believed to have been a faithful husband but because the source of the affair was one-sided — Spielrein’s diaries which were discovered in 1977.

Whether the film is more fact than fiction or the other way around, it is still a very interesting one to see.

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