”A Dangerous Method“ is a 2011 movie directed by David Cronenberg that explores the demise of the friendship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
- “A Dangerous Method” is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung — the pioneers of psychoanalysis.
- Despite some shortcomings in terms of historical accuracy, the film offers a glimpse into the origins of talk therapy, aka psychotherapy.
- The movie doesn’t have a lot of action but could be interesting for anyone who wants to know more about the origins of psychotherapy.
“A Dangerous Method,” the 2011 English-language David Cronenberg movie, is based on the 2002 Christopher Hampton stage play “The Talking Cure” — which in turn was based on the 1993 non-fiction book “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr.
The film isn’t only about the relationships between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein but a breathtaking metaphor for Freud’s depiction of the mind.
A successful effort on a multitude of layers, the movie offers us a rollercoaster ride in a car filled with a motley group of historical characters in psychology and psychoanalysis.
The movie depicts the life of Jung and Freud’s relationship from the time they first met in 1907 until their professional relationship collapsed in 1913 — a short 6 years.
Freud and Jung were important figures in the first form of talk therapy.
According to the British Psychoanalytical Society, Freud developed the new technique of psychoanalysis — what’s commonly called “talk therapy” today — after experimenting with hypnosis. He created psychoanalysis in conjunction with a colleague, Josef Breuer.
The two men published “Studies in Hysteria” in 1895, the first psychoanalytic work. Freud would publish more deeply influential ideas through 1905.
By 1906, a group of 16 doctors and psychiatrists had formed what was called the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
One of those 16 was Carl Jung, with whom Freud developed a close friendship.
It would be wrong to characterize this as a story only about Jung and Freud’s relationship. Instead, it’s a larger-than-life tale about the first days of psychoanalysis and Jung’s career, set against the backdrop of pre-war Europe, artfully relayed on many different levels.
The story is largely told through Jung’s fascination, treatment, and eventual affair with one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley).
She’s brought to the hospital where Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) works in 1904, against her will and at the behest of her father.
Jung takes her case and decides to try something different than the usual treatments of the day (such as having the patient submerged in a cold bath or bloodletting). He undertakes the “talking cure” — a method he read about in a paper by Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen).
The talking cure — what we refer to as psychotherapy today — was practiced according to Freud’s standard early routine of psychoanalysis.
The therapist sits out of view of the patient to allow them to more freely associate and talk about the issues in their lives.
The “dangerous method” refers to the fact that, at the time, this method of treatment was largely untried and came under attack by the existing medical profession as being potentially dangerous for the patient.
For dramatic effect, therapy sequences are shortened, and what might typically take months or even years to acknowledge and discuss, Sabina exposes her dark secret fairly early on in a therapy session with Jung.
Jung eventually gets to meet with Freud after some correspondence passes between them. Jung’s initial meeting with him is like two lovers meeting for the first time — they talk for hours (13 by the movie’s reckoning).
Instant best friends forever, Jung and Freud continue talking and corresponding over the intervening years.
Otto Gross, a minor character and one of Freud’s earliest disciples, is played by actor Vincent Cassel.
Gross was sent to be a patient of Jung’s by Freud early in their relationship. Gross was having some troubles with substance use, and Freud was hopeful that Gross might be helped under Jung’s supervision.
But according to the movie, Gross helped transform Jung’s way of thinking and cement his belief that Freud didn’t have all the answers.
Gross also confessed with pride his conquests in getting his patients to sleep with him. This opened the door in Jung’s mind to the possibility of sleeping with one of his patients — Sabina.
After Sabina moves away (and is technically no longer a client of Jung’s), Jung gives in to his desires for her (and her for him), and they begin a torrid affair.
In real life, Spielrein went on to become a psychoanalyst in her own right, as well as a pediatrician.
According to the International Association for Spielrein Studies, she obtained a PhD in 1911 from the University of Zurich. Her dissertation topic was schizophrenia. She was also a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and a leader in the field of child analysis.
The Association also claims that Spielrein’s own scientific contributions have been lost to history in favor of personal details about her life, including her relationship with Jung.
That narrative has been repeated often in culture, including by, according to the Association, David Cronenberg — director of “A Dangerous Method.”
Freud and Jung’s relationship begins to show cracks as Jung continues to insist that sexuality must not be all there is at the core of a person’s problems. There must be exceptions, Jung suggested.
Freud thought that while perhaps possible, it was important to stay focused and keep to the party line — in other words, lean more toward those fields that were based in science than those based in the mystical or within what’s now referred to as “pseudoscience.”
Freud became increasingly concerned with Jung’s fascination with the supernatural and mystic. He didn’t believe such theories were the proper pursuit of science or his psychoanalysts.
But in the movie, Jung’s affair with his former patient was the beginning of the end of his and Freud’s relationship.
Although Jung eventually calls an end to the relationship (forcing Sabina to contact Freud and let him know of the affair), the damage has already been done. Freud rightfully believes such relationships to be inappropriate.
That is the surface analysis of the movie and the characters moving within it.
Underlying such a shallow analysis is the deeper depiction of Freud’s theory of personality — that there’s a superego, id, and ego all battling within us to help us make decisions and shape our behavior.
These three parts can be broken down like this:
- Super-ego: your moral conscious — all that’s critical, moral, ethical, and just
- Id: your unconscious desires and all that appeals to your basest instincts
- Ego: the organized, realistic part of your conscious that tries to make sense of the id’s unconscious drives and balance it out with the superego’s focus on perfection and morals
In the movie, we see this theme played out in at least two ways.
With Jung’s romantic relationships:
- Sabina acts as the id — driving all the instincts and violence in their sexual liaison.
- Jung’s wife, Emma (played by Sarah Gadon), acts as the superego — the perfect wife and mother of Jung’s children, living in a perfectly idealistic home.
- Jung is the ego, trying to balance his life between these two driving forces: Lust and passion on one side and responsibility and duty as a father and loving husband on the other.
With psychoanalysis itself:
- Otto Gross acts as the id — suggesting all the new “talking cure” psychoanalysis should be in the service of having clients enjoy unencumbered “freedom” (freedom from society’s norms and sexual mores, in his mind at least).
- Freud acts as the superego — setting up the ideal model of psychoanalysis with a rigid, unwavering theoretical model behind it.
- Jung again is caught in-between, acting as the ego, trying to satisfy the id’s desires of helping free clients from their miseries while acknowledging the father-figure and wisdom of Freud’s superego.
Once you begin to see the different ways this movie can be viewed, it takes on an even greater depth and meaning.
The enjoyment of the performances becomes amplified, and the story even more nuanced, suggesting that a second viewing may both further enhance and explain these meanings.
Some purists may say this isn’t a realistic portrayal of Jung and Freud’s relationship and glosses over many finer academic points.
Perhaps the story too casually treated the topic of inappropriate doctor-client behavior — that a professional such as Jung would sleep with one of his clients. Keep in mind that while the movie suggests their relationship was sexual, historically we can’t say for certain one way or another.
It’s crucial to remember that this is a drama — in this case, a fictionalized account of a historical set of facts.
The movie is based upon a play, so there’s not much action after the tumultuous opening and a few sexual scenes with brief nudity. But the movie has a lot of two people just talking on screen.
Because of its intellectual nature, the movie may not have a large audience. It may find a natural audience in anyone who has studied psychology seriously and those who may have tried psychotherapy.
The movie “A Dangerous Method” gives viewers an idea of the relationship between early psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, including the rift that occurs because of Jung’s relationship with his client and later colleague Sabina Spielrein.
It may be an entertaining watch for anyone interested in talk therapy and the history of psychology.