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What Lies Beneath: David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method

Originally published in the Fall 2011 issue. David Cronenberg is a Tribute honoree at this year’s Gotham Independent Film Awards. A Dangerous Method opens in theaters Nov. 23.

David Cronenberg’s new film A Dangerous Method is a period piece dealing with the personal and historical relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly). It’s a work that in some ways feels out of place in the Canadian filmmaker’s filmography, and in other ways, perfectly Cronenbergian. The screenplay by Christopher Hampton (who also penned a stage play from which this was developed) is meticulously stitched together from volumes of actual correspondence, case histories and journalistic reports, as well as from John Kerr’s 1994 book, A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, & Sabina Spielrein. Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna and Zurich, the drama unfolds with an elegant and formal finish that feels distinctly remote from Cronenberg’s sometimes-messy cinematic universe. But as with Freud’s theories of the unconscious, it’s what roils just beneath the surface that counts. There the film percolates with intimations of insanity, violence, sexual desire and morbid obsession — the stuff we’ve all come to expect and love from Cronenberg.

The story, which spans over a decade, begins in 1904 with the decision by a 29-year-old Jung to adopt the theories of Freud in treating an 18-year-old Russian émigré, Spielrein, for hysteria. The success of Freud’s famous “talking cure” on the young woman not only bonded Jung with his mentor, but also freed the brilliant Spielrein from mental illness enough to let her embark on her dream of becoming a psychiatrist. But in a world where every action is a symptom, every good deed possibly repressed anger, the growing affections of the three cast a tangled web. Jung and Spielrein’s doctor/patient relationship turns into a sexual S&M affair. Freud and Jung’s intellectual mentorship threatens to fulfill the Oedipal prophecy underlying Freud’s own theory. And Spielrein, the patient and student, proposes psychoanalytic theories that challenge both Freud and Jung’s paternal hegemony. In short, the three make for a Cronenberg family drama.

If Cronenberg’s films, especially many of his early ones, are celebrated for allowing the repressed to not only return but run rabid, A Dangerous Method allows Cronenberg to revisit the historical origins of repression. And as such, the director focuses obsessively on the historical veneer, working with production designers Carol Spier and James McAteer to duplicate the look and feel of Freud’s Vienna and Jung’s Zurich, and with his sister, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, to showcase the corseted and starched fashions of the time. The production team even analyzed in detail the handwriting techniques and preferred pens of each of the three main characters. And if the effect of this historical veracity is to produce a museum-quality production, it also makes in a strange way visible everything that is unseen in the film — all that is repressed and rendered abject.

Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in November.

David Cronenberg Photo by Henny Garfunkel

You call this film an “intellectual ménage à trois,” a phrase that seems to capture its mix of erotic tension and ideological gamesmanship. These three central characters are those whose ideas would transform the 20th century. Having worked through all this material to develop the film, what did you finally think was at stake for them?

I think it was different for each one. Obviously Sabina, starting off as a patient who was basically disabled by her mental state, which technically at the time was called hysteria — the stakes for her were quite different. For her it was a matter of survival and sanity. And then, of course, as she gradually began to realize her own potential, the stakes shifted because she was a woman in what was a very repressive era for women. [She was] starting to play the psychoanalytic game, which was primarily a male-dominated field as it developed. Whereas for Jung [the stakes were] quite a different thing, and for Freud quite a different thing. Freud was 50, he was at the peak of his powers. And Jung was still trying to make his name and at first was going to make his name by attaching himself to this new exciting field. It’s different for all of them.

Your work has been filled with elements of neurosis, pathology, psychosis. How much were you interested in Freud and psychoanalysis prior to doing this film?

I don’t really think that I have been directly influenced by Freud in the way, say, Salvador Dalí was. The Surrealists really glommed onto Freud’s idea of the interpretation of dreams, the idea that dream imagery was revealing of some very deep truths. Dalí, for example, was specifically influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis. Likewise, Bernardo Bertolucci talks about using psychoanalytic methods when he makes his movies. But first of all, I’ve never been in analysis. And secondly, it’s never occurred to me to use any kind of methodology to apply to filmmaking. For me it’s all sort of intuition. However, growing up in the 20th century as I have, it’s undeniable that Freud has absolutely influenced the zeitgeist and the way that people think about the human mind and human consciousness and the terms we use — the ego, the id, an inferiority complex — or even just the idea of neuroses and dream traumas. That all comes initially from Freud, and then the members of his circle who branched out and developed their own versions of it. So I’m influenced by Freud in the way that I think any artists working in the 20th century had to be influenced by Freud. But not directly.

Have you ever thought, after the fact, of psychoanalyzing your own work?

Yeah. Well that’s the other thing. I’m often asked to do that. But it’s not even to psychoanalyze, it’s just to analyze. I mean, this is another thing: There are Marxist film critics, Freudian film critics — any variety you want. Of course you can bring your own angle to examining film. I’m often asked to do that, and I’m happy to do it having been a bit of an academic myself in the past. I feel quite capable of writing some kind of critique of my films. But I have to remind journalists and critics that they shouldn’t confuse their process with mine. Because when you’re making a movie, from the inside out, you don’t use that part of your brain at all. I don’t anyway. It’s only after the fact that you can do that.

While this isn’t necessarily your first bio-pic, it is maybe the first one dealing with a great historical figure. When you’re creating a story like this, how do you differentiate — or do you differentiate — between the man and the ideological figure? In A Dangerous Method, for example, you have these characters who are also a trio of historical figures whose ideologies lasted long beyond their lives, which makes the film allegorical to some extent.

It depends on what your purpose for making the movie would be. For example, you could have a political agenda making a movie, where you were trying to say that psychoanalysis was a huge mistake and has drained society ever-afterwards in the West. Or you could be favoring Jung over Freud, or Freud over Jung, or any of those things for whatever reason. But for me the project was really one of resurrection. I wanted to bring them back to life as accurately as I could, and that means being very neutral and objective. These were very detail-obsessive people, because they felt that definitely the devil was in the details of your dreams, of the interaction [with] some remembered trauma. They were very precise in recounting meetings, conversations, incidents, dream realizations. And it was a letter-writing era. In Vienna at the time there were somewhere between five and eight mail deliveries every day; it was their Internet. If you wrote a letter to somebody in the morning, you expected a reply by mail in the afternoon. We have an incredibly accurate picture and dialogue, in their letters, in their diaries. Sabina’s were only discovered in 1997 at the University of Geneva in an old suitcase that she left behind. So I felt that it was necessary to really try to resurrect [these people], revive them, bring them back to life. I wanted to see Freud, hear him speak and watch him in a way that he was never recorded. It’s delusional if you haven’t been honorable and accurate in your resurrection. So I really felt I had no agenda other than that, basically. It was such a fascinating group of people in such an incredibly potent era, that immediate pre-war World War I era in the heart of Europe.

When you were developing this, obviously Christopher Hampton did the screenplay, which he adapted from his play and, originally, John Kerr’s book —

I don’t know if you know this, but it was actually a screenplay first.

No, I didn’t know that.

It was written for Julia Roberts about 17 years ago. It was called Sabina, and it was based on not only the book, A Most Dangerous Method, but other books. And then it became a play because that movie didn’t get made. And then it became a screenplay again. So it has an even more complex genesis than you might think.

For your film, did you just focus on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, or did you try to bring in all this original archival material into the process?

Well, he did. Christopher actually went to the University of Geneva and saw that suitcase and the actual documents that Jung had annotated, for example, when Sabina was admitted. He saw [Jung’s] notes in his own handwriting delineating her symptoms. So I didn’t have to do that because Christopher had done that. Certainly, I had done my own research because I wanted to have as full a picture as I could have. That primarily meant reading everything that Christopher had read. But I didn’t do any traveling. [The research] was a combination of everything that we could get our hands on — [Hampton’s] play, but also the various books and the original screenplay as well.

When you were figuring out the production design, say, for the Burghölzli clinic in Zurich, how much did you aim towards realism, and how much towards a more stylized depiction?

It’s really not stylized other than that you’re ultimately choosing a lens and an angle and you’re doing lighting. At that point you are absolutely not shooting a documentary. But we wanted to create the Burghölzli, as it was, as close as possible. It doesn’t exist in that form anymore. For example, the wall that surrounded it is no longer there, but it used to be a walled-in, sort of weird Garden of Eden for the insane, you know? I wanted to get that feeling again and we had to fake it a bit. We went to an old monastery that had [similar] walls that were even older than the Burghölzli’s walls. There was an orchard there and this monastery. So we cheated because the original walls didn’t exist — one way or another you were going to have to recreate them. Jung’s offices, the moldings in the rooms, etc., were all accurate because the Burghölzli had been pretty well detailed photographically.

In both the production design and the costume design there’s a scrubbed crispness that almost parallels the themes of repression that are being talked about in the film.

Absolutely. Remember they were Swiss Germans and Viennese Germans. The whole idea of cleanliness absolutely had come into prominence by 1904, when the movie begins. You can see by the clothes they wore, the tight, high collars for men, and the corsets and many-layered outfits for women. There’s a wonderful book called The World of Yesterday, written by Stefan Zweig, in which he talked about the tone of Vienna at the turn of the century. The idea was that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, it was the capital of it. When I went to Vienna, I was really surprised to see the monumental scale of Vienna; it was built by people who felt they were building an empire. You can feel it. They felt society in Europe was progressing exactly as it was supposed to. Everyone was evolving from animals to angels, and rationality, reason and organization could successfully deal with any negative aspects of the human nature. And here was Freud saying, “Not really. This is just a very thin veneer, it’s very vulnerable, very fragile, and underneath are all those tribal barbarities and hostilities and cruelties; they’re all there waiting to come up and they need to be expressed.” No one wanted to hear that. But it is expressed in the clothes, as you see. Zurich and Vienna…I mean, the Viennese were considered to be quite outrageously voluptuous and sensual compared with the Swiss. But nonetheless, for us and for them, it was very organized. Everybody knew his place, everybody knew where he belonged.

It worked much to your advantage, obviously, when the appearance of blood occurs several times in the film. When you place it against the stark white of the clothes and linen, it really has an effect.

Here’s me being an analyst of my own movies. When people say, “This is not really a Cronenberg movie,” first of all I point out to them that the first movie I ever made, the first film I ever shot, was called Transfer. And it had two characters: a psychiatrist and his patient [laughs]. So if you go right back to my beginnings as a filmmaker, this was the first subject matter that I dealt with. I had completely forgotten about that until recently, but I have to take it into account. And the second thing is that Freud absolutely was insisting on the reality of the human body. At a time when people were being covered up with those clothes we’re talking about, he was talking about penises and vaginas and anuses and excrement, and he was talking about incest and child abuse. And these are all incredibly physical things that are not spoken of. He was considered a hideous, disgusting, repulsive guy for mentioning these things, and saying that they were extremely important in understanding the psychology of this empire. This was totally unacceptable. Once you start to think of Freud as the proponent of body reality, then maybe it starts to make more sense for people who are baffled as to why I would make this movie. I don’t know.

One of the things I think you did quite beautifully is the small incursions of the physical into this otherwise repressed, orderly, polite society. There was a scene in the Belvedere palace gardens where Freud is leaning against the sphinx. Obviously the sphinx is crucial to the center of the Oedipal myth. Was that something that you brought in, or did that come from reality?

Freud absolutely wrote about the beauty of those sphinx sculptures. I don’t think I have him actually leaning against it, but he’s shoulder to shoulder with it. Once again, this is completely accurate. And that’s one of the things in our production: ironically enough, none of the movie takes place in Germany, but almost all of it was shot in Germany because it’s a Canada-Germany co-production. I insisted on shooting a couple of days in Vienna, and one of thereasons was for the Belvedere gardens, which was where Freud walked. Of course, we know he was incredibly well-educated when it came to ancient culture. And the symbolism of the sphinx was very important to him. There was an attempt to see Freud doing what he did where he did it. We shot at the Café Sperl, which is a place that Freud had his coffee. It’s beautifully preserved. Even the tobacco stains on the walls and the ceilings are authentic. And the other place that we shot primarily is Freud’s apartment — the entranceway to Freud’s apartment, where the horses come in. Freud actually walked up those stairs. It was important, I felt, also for the actors to feel that real connection with the historical past.

Speaking of the physical elements, casting Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen emphasizes a more physical, virile side of Freud and Jung, much more so than the purely intellectual dimension that people often attribute to them. Was that the intention?

It’s a corrective. It’s in the service of accuracy because people know the old Freud and the old Jung — the old grandfathers with the reading glasses. But in fact, Freud was described by Stefan Zweig, who knew Freud, as handsome, masculine, charismatic, charming, witty and with a penetrating gaze. Vibrant. In other words, at 50 Freud was all of these things. He was quite a macho guy. He was not some grandfatherly, sickly, frail, cancer-ridden guy with a cigar in his hand — although certainly he always had a cigar in his hand. And the same with Jung. Jung, when we meet him, is 29 years old, and he was considered to be, by Freud in particular, the ultimate Aryan. He was handsome, gregarious, confident, hearty. These are things that Freud wanted from the new leader, someone who was going to take the baton of psychoanalysis from his hand. And it, of course, was crucial that he was not Jewish. For Freud, this was crucial because he felt that psychoanalysis could easily be dismissed as a Jewish thing, some Jewish, perverse thing. Anti-Semitism was everywhere in that society. So here we have a Christian Swiss German who, once again, was very manly and charming. These things meant a lot in that era.

How did you work with Keira Knightly on enacting the symptoms of hysteria?

Well, first of all, we have Jung’s very detailed list of symptoms that Sabina specifically had. If you read them, which we all, of course, did, you would say, “If we do this, people will be laughing and it will also be unbearable to watch.” In a strange way, I suppose you could say that for these women, it was almost a performance, an attention-getting performance. That’s one way of looking at it. It’s not very charitable but in a way it was. Because this disease, hysteria — the word hysteria is based on the Greek word for uterus, and sometimes they would actually surgically remove a woman’s uterus thinking it would cure her of hysteria. It’s very barbaric, to say the least. And, of course, miraculously this disease has disappeared since. So we say that it was a symptom of the culture at the time, the repression of women. And this is how they would express those things that they could not express, could not speak — those words that were unspeakable. However extreme it might seem, it’s very toned down compared with what it would have been if we really let it go.

Jean-Martin Charcot, who was Freud’s mentor, had photographically documented hysterical women.

That’s right. There was a silent film from the era that we watched. On one hand it’s comical, and, at the same time, it’s horrible because it’s almost like some weird kind of self-mutilation –– to deform yourself, to cripple yourself, to paralyze yourself, to mute yourself so that you can’t speak. With Keira, I said, “The face and the jaw and the mouth, I think we should concentrate on that, because [Sabina] is trying to say these unspeakable things.” One part [of her] is trying to say it and the other part is trying to prevent it. That’s how we arrived at that particular performance. But it certainly makes me crazy, as you can understand, if people say, “Keira overacted in the beginning, but then she settles down and gives a nice subtle performance.” [Laughs]

I was actually thinking that she so accurately reduplicated the photographic evidence of hysteria. It was also a strange thing that Charcot was Freud’s intellectual father, whom he turned on. And your story is another father-son betrayal.

Freud couldn’t have been surprised, really, could he? With the Oedipus complex and all that, he couldn’t. At the same, in the real world, you hope that the theories won’t hold, in your particular case. Because he really was desperate for Jung to be his successful son, and not the son who tries to murder him. And as it turns out, Freud’s theory held and Jung did try to murder him — not literally, obviously. But Freud felt very betrayed by Jung, of course.

You include Otto Gross [played by Vincent Cassel] as one of the other historical figures, but didn’t include others.

The group surrounding Freud, that eventually surrounded Jung, was enormous. And full of incredibly eccentric, wonderful characters, any one of who could deserve his own miniseries. Certainly Otto Gross could. And even Eugen Bleuler, the head of the Burghölzli, who only has a tiny cameo, was an incredibly important figure. But we don’t really have time to do more than allude to him and I wanted to at least get his magnificent forked beard on screen [laughs]. It’s just too rich. We included Otto Gross because Gross is a crucial part of the story. He did convince Jung — although maybe Jung didn’t need that much convincing — to commit adultery. To become an adulterer in the name of anti-repression. In the name of unleashing your potential, in the name of giving your patients what they really need, even if it’s sex.

Gross also has an odd father/son relationship.

Yes, that’s right. In fact, we did shoot some of him speaking about his father, because his father was sort of the inventor of forensic science, fingerprinting and everything else, but it was too much. It was too much to absorb. Other than to say, “Yes, I have a very intimidating father.” But his father was ready to put him in jail! [Laughs] He was the first one who said, “My son should go to jail.” So it’s incredibly rich and it does extend beyond the movie. But you have to, at a certain point, decide how much can a movie hold? How much can it contain?

Can you talk a little bit about the film’s score? You brought in elements that were crucial to the theory and to the ideas of the movie into the score.

Yes, it’s very Wagner-based, and of course Wagner and his operas are discussed specifically. The myth of Siegfried is very important to Sabina and to Jung. One of the wonderful things about these characters is that there was no separation between their theories and their lives. The obsessiveness about what they were thinking was immediately applied to their lives. It wasn’t just theory. And that even went to mythology and the idea that from a sin can be born a hero. For Sabina, that meant if Jung impregnated her, she would give birth to this Siegfried because their sex would be a sin, given [their] various differences and the fact that Jung was married and so on. She was ready to be part of that mythology. And so Howard Shore and I had talked about that, and his idea was really wonderful, which was to use the structure of Wagner’s Siegfried opera musically to progress throughout the movie — in particular, the “Siegfried Idyll,” which became part of Wagner’s opera. It was, in fact, written for his wife, Cosima, as a birthday present. It’s a beautiful piece of music and not what people expect of Wagner. It’s not bombastic or anything like that. It’s incredibly delicate and sweet and beautiful. And we hear it many times throughout the movie. So that’s the structure; it’s really Wagnerian.

The 20th century has been a time when the concept of the unconscious was birthed and it changed our whole perception of who we are and how we operate. What kind of filmmaker do you think you would have been if Freud hadn’t existed?

[Laughs] It’s very difficult to say, but probably an impoverished one. Both financially and creatively.

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Bizarrely enough, I’ve already shot another movie, which for me is unusual. And that is Cosmopolis, which is based on a Don DeLillo novel. I just actually did my last little bit of editing yesterday, and Howard is doing the music for that. It’s a totally different kind of film from A Dangerous Method, obviously. This is me doing my Woody Allen, you know? [Laughs] I’ve never really done two movies back to back before, something that he seems to do every year. We literally shot Cosmopolis to the day the same schedule as we shot A Dangerous Method a year before. It was shot in Toronto with most of my crew intact. And I’ll probably be talking to you next year about Cosmopolis.

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