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A Dangerous Method   

Janine Burke


Like most writers, I’m often asked ‘What are you working on?’ A few years ago, when I was writing a book on Sigmund Freud’s art collection, I was surprised by the antagonism many women expressed when I mentioned my research. ‘Eeeew!’ Noses wrinkled in disgust. ‘I don’t like Freud. I like Jung!’ The reaction derived, presumably, from Freud’s unfortunate theories about penis envy and female castration while Jung – not just his theories but the man himself  – seemed to be regarded as ‘feminist’, spiritual, good. I felt forced to reply that while Freud (to the best of my knowledge) had never slept with his female patients, Jung certainly did – a situation that caused ongoing distress for Emma, his wife. The women were horrified, disbelieving, leading the conversation away from Freud (and his art collection) to a debate about whether or not Jung was a nice guy.


David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011 - he has since released Cosmopolis, 2012) explores an unedifying episode in the history of psychoanalysis – Jung’s affair with his former patient Sabina Spielrein and, when Spielrein appealed to Freud to censure Jung and to assuage her distress when Jung abandoned her, Freud’s refusal to believe her version of events. The film’s counterpointing narrative is the bromance between Freud and Jung and their ensuing break-up which rocked the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement. It is based on John Kerr’s 1994 book A Most Dangerous Method and Christopher Hampton’s 2003 play The Talking Cure. Hampton is the film’s lucid scriptwriter.


Cronenberg treats Spielrein as a case study to critique the ‘talking cure’ and he backgrounds the affair with the politics of psychoanalysis which turn out to be as venal and vengeful as most political stoushes. (It’s worth remembering that it was not Freud but Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of his colleague Josef Breuer, who invented the term ‘the talking cure’.) Cronenberg asks Michael Fassbender (Jung) and Viggo Mortensen (Freud) to underplay their characters so Spielrein (Keira Knightley) can take up most of the emotional oxygen. In 1904, nineteen-year-old Spielrein, the daughter of wealthy Russian Jewish parents, arrived at the Burghölzli sanitorium in Zurich where Jung was an assistant physician. Knightley’s performance in the film’s opening scenes, where, on her way to the sanitorium, she is imprisoned in a carriage and held by two male guards, is an orgasmic exercise in hysteria. She is a screaming, writhing, clawing maniac. What does this woman want? To be beaten or fucked, or both? It reminds us, if we’d forgotten due to the dull films in which Knightley has recently starred, that she can be a truly gutsy actress.


Emma (Sarah Gadon) has a thankless role. Cronenberg casts her as the opposite to crazy, sexy, brilliant Sabina. Emma is an impeccable bourgeoise, as pretty as a china doll, who, constantly and miserably pregnant, longs to produce a male offspring to please her husband. Jung seems baffled by Emma’s need to prove herself worthy of him/this task. What does this woman want? Cronenberg signals Jung’s ignorance in a scene where Jung asks Emma to do a word association test. Her hesitancy at words such as  ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’ leads Sabina – in her first job as Jung’s assistant and a junior shrink – to opine that Emma is anxious that her husband will be unfaithful. Jung seems surprised, choosing to respond to Sabina’s insights, and deflect his own feelings, with a compliment: ‘You’ve a flair for this.’


It’s an appalling untruth about Emma. If Cronenberg had represented Emma as the woman she was – smart and confident, an intellectual on a par with her husband who became an analyst – it would destroy the (quite conservative) balance between male and female he seeks to establish. Sex, for Emma, is about procreation, not recreation, so of course Jung would get the hots for Sabina. She’s wild! She’s fascinating! She’s panting with lust! Emma couldn’t possibly be any good in bed – so quiet, so fastidious, so dull! Emma isn’t going to ask to be tied up and have her bum smacked now, is she?


Cronenberg underscores the scenario of inevitability by pitting Jung against two devils who lure him with the temptations of the flesh: the first is Spielrein, the other is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Gross, a doctor and a psychoanalyst, was confined at the Burghölzli and treated by Jung for cocaine addiction.  The contest goes some distance towards ameliorating Jung’s irresponsible behaviour as a doctor who had an affair with a disturbed and vulnerable young woman. Jung is twice seduced: first by Spielrein and then by Gross’s libertine philosophy. Gross is clearly insane and it seems unlikely that anyone in their right mind would take seriously his gospel of unethical self-indulgence. Cronenberg pokes fun at Jung who, perhaps due to his mystical temperament, appears innocent, a virgin about passion and the dark excesses of desire. Spielrein has much to teach Jung on that score but while she is seen half-naked and in a sexual frenzy, Jung keeps his clothes on, even when making love to her. Sex, for Cronenberg, is assigned to the spectacle of the feminine.


Like Spielrein, Freud was obsessed with Jung and entertained unrealistic expectations of him. Initially, Jung was Freud’s able lieutenant, ready to go into battle to defend the cause of psychoanalysis and Freud himself.  To Freud, Jung was a dream come true, telling him, ‘I formally adopted you as eldest son and anointed you ... as my successor and crown prince.’ (1) Vividly intelligent with a commanding presence, Jung had the added advantages of the academic recognition denied to Freud, and of  being Aryan. Freud confided to Karl Abraham that Jung guaranteed psychoanalysis would not become ‘a Jewish national affair.’ (2) At the Burghölzli, Jung’s workload was gruelling and he was accustomed to eighteen-hour days. When he explained to Freud that he couldn’t answer Freud’s stream of letters because he had ‘a mass of other things to attend to’, he wasn’t exaggerating. (3) But Freud was so besotted with his big, blue-eyed Teuton, it was a plea, both for time and space, that he largely ignored.


Warning bells were sounded early in the friendship. When Freud wrote that ‘many who are sensible in other respects find it possible to combine spiritualism with reason’, he defined Jung’s attitude. (4) Another sticking point was that Jung could never quite accept – and Freud could not accept that Jung could never quite accept – sex as the foundation of the neuroses, the driving force of personality and the basis of civilisation. The bromance ended in tears. Freud, in a series of clumsy attempts to impress his authority on Jung, alienated and infuriated his young colleague, placing Jung under such pressure he cracked.


Cronenberg’s decision to make Fassbender and Mortensen underplay their roles creates a disadvantage for the denouement. Fassbender’s Jung and Mortensen’s Freud are such tightly stitched-up gentleman they can’t unleash their furies. (In some scenes, Mortenesen is so close-lipped it’s difficult to hear what he’s saying.) Jung’s famous letter to Freud, an essay in bilious invective, is read by Fassbender like a mild rebuke towards his fallen father figure. The letter marked the beginning of a massive breakdown when Jung quit the Burghölzli and, for several years, occupied himself by sitting on the lake-shore near his home silently playing with the toys he had made himself. But it proved a catharsis as, in that period, Jung developed the key ideas which are synonymous with him: the collective unconscious, the archetype, the anima and animus. Freud, the tougher of the two despite his emotional dependency, retreated into his cohort of faithful followers and satisfied himself with denouncing Jung in print.


1. Freud to Jung, 16 April 1909. The Freud-Jung Letters, The Correspondence between Sigmund Freud and C J Jung. Edited William McGuire. Translated Ralph Manheim and RFC Hull (Princeton University Press, 1994), 139 F , p. 218.

2. Quoted in Deirdre Bair, Jung: A Biography ( New York : Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 2003), p. 115.

3. The Freud-Jung Letters, 79 J, p. 133.

4. Sigmund Freud, Dreams and Delusions in Jensen’s ‘Gradiva’, (1907 [1906]). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited and translated by James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974; Vintage, London, 2001), vol. IX, p. 71.


Cronenberg illustrates the aftermath of the split in a scene where Spielrein, married and pregnant, visits the Jungs’ lakeside mansion. Emma, glum as ever, takes tea with Sabina. When Sabina comments, ‘Your children are glorious!’ she is met with Emma’s uncomprehending stare. Behind the women, the Jung mansion stands as the imposing edifice of an unhappy marriage. When Sabina, on Emma’s request, speaks with Jung about Freud, the scene shifts to the lake. Sunshine is effulgent and the water glows blue and luminous – as vast, mysterious and fecund as the unconscious itself. The former lovers are positioned at its edge, and engage in a snappy interrogation: Cronenberg allows Jung to come off worst. He’s upset – about Freud, about Sabina, about everything – but is neither abject nor desperate. We learn he has another lover who is both Jewish and a former patient. ‘But she’s not like me!’ scoffs Spielrein. The film’s magisterial, final shot of Jung, seen from above, places him in an immaculately manicured, formal garden: the victor but a solitary and rather pitiful figure.


Sex or spirit? The distance has been erased and we have recalibrated psychoanalysis as closer to art than science. These days, Jung tends to be identified with the New Age and Freud with the academy. Jung is regarded with suspicion by some hard-nosed intellectuals while Freud, the self-confessed ‘godless Jew’, is dismissed as soulless and unimaginative by some believers. (5) Though the end-credits present Sabina’s life as triumphant, it is Cronenberg’s wish fulfillment and, like most happy endings, not quite true. Her marriage was unsatisfactory. She had success training analysts in Moscow but Stalinist Russia was not the place for the personal freedoms advocated by psychoanalysis. Cronenberg wants to come to Spielrein’s rescue, like a knight in shining armour, man enough to complete the task at which Jung and Freud had failed. Perhaps Sabina should ruefully ask herself, ‘What does this man want?’



5. Freud to Oskar Pfister, October 9, 1918. Quoted in Peter Gay, A Godless Jew, Freud, Atheism and the Making of Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), p. VII.

from Issue 2: Devils


© Janine Burke March 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.