David Cronenberg on Freud, Jung, and A Dangerous Method


David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg (photo by Alan Langford*)

Probing the secrets that thrive beneath the surface, David Cronenberg excels at exposing the hidden and repressed. Though often frightening in the light, the psyche’s inner workings are at the root of human behavior, and the director’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, delves into the lives of the scientists who first revealed them to the world. A great leap took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the idea that we’re only partially aware of what our minds are doing, and that our reactions, emotions, and decisions are the result of an interplay between what we know and what our brains have been brewing behind the scenes. Sigmund Freud’s theories of unconscious thought and its investigation through psychoanalysis provided a new way to treat the emotionally unstable as well as a broader understanding of humanity as a whole.

In 1904, a young Swiss psychiatrist named Carl Jung, who had been following Freud’s work, decided to try out the Austrian neurologist’s “talking cure” on Sabina Spielrein, an 18-year-old Russian patient at the Burghölzli hospital. Diagnosed with hysteria, Spielrein was nearly uncontrollable, yet when Jung sat with her and asked simple questions, she divulged the underlying causes of her ailment. As her emotions began to balance out, she revealed her own interest in psychiatry and Jung took her on as a research assistant. Graduating medical school in Zurich, she became a pioneer in the field and a prominent psychoanalyst, herself. Jung’s treatment of Spielrein was the reason he began corresponding with Freud, which brought the two men together as friends and collaborators. For several years Freud groomed Jung as his intellectual heir, until things went sour. Jung had grown close to Spielrein — with strong evidence pointing to a romantic involvement — and their turbulent relationship led to Jung’s dishonesty with Freud. This tension, combined with Jung’s resentment of Freud’s perceived arrogance and Freud’s disappointment with Jung’s introduction of spirituality into treatment methods, resulted in their acrimonious split in 1912.

The methods of Freud and Jung, the respective fathers of psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, have been practiced, debated, supported, denounced, and expanded upon to this day, while Spielrein’s accomplishments have remained in the shadows. She did groundbreaking work in child psychology and was a key player in bringing psychoanalysis to Russia. Her theory of sexuality as both a destructive and transformative impulse was a profound influence on Freud’s study of innate self-destructive tendencies, and her relationship with Jung was instrumental in shaping the mystically minded doctor’s concept of the soul. Her life ended at the hands of SS soldiers who killed Spielrein and her two daughters in 1942.

Keira Knightley channels Spielrein as the frenetic turmoil of her adolescence gives way to passion, grit, and noble ambition. Michael Fassbender presents Jung as a married man conflicted in his love and lust for Spielrein, and equally burdened by his need to leave Freud’s nest. As radical psychoanalyst Otto Gross, Vincent Cassel thumbs his nose at the idea that urges should ever be repressed and counsels Jung to do the same. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is cautious in his alliances and places the integrity of his field and his colleagues above all else.

Based on the book A Most Dangerous Method (1994) by John Kerr, the film was written by Christopher Hampton who adapted it from his play, “The Talking Cure.” A Dangerous Method is right along the continuum of Cronenberg’s work in the dark reaches of the mind. The parasites that pared down the psyche to basest instincts in Shivers (1975), the psychiatric treatment that brought emotional trauma to the surface as body deformity in The Brood (1979), the anger and greed that could reach out and kill in Scanners (1981), the melding of perversity with technology in Videodrome (1983), and the devolution of a man in The Fly (1986), each represented the forbidden rising up and taking shape. And when examined, Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007), all dipped into the mess of secrets, delusions, and impulses that define the human condition. We meet with the Canadian filmmaker to discuss Freud, Jung, Spielrein, and the historic first steps in the study of the unconscious.

In your film, Jung’s story is all about ego, id, superego, and reality, with Jung’s conflicted ego, Otto Gross as the unrepressed id, Freud as the superego father figure, and the reality of Sabina.

That’s right. Very Freudian. In fact, someone said, “You’ve used Freudian methods to analyze Jung.” [laughs] And I think there’s some truth in that.

Is that where you began when putting the story together?

First of all, it’s Christopher Hampton’s play. We have to give him credit for distilling a very complex era, the birth of psychoanalysis, down to about five characters, because there was a cast of hundreds of characters, really. But I noticed from doing panels with Christopher, and talking to him, that I don’t think he would have used a scheme like that. That’s great to analyze after the fact and it’s not that it’s inaccurate, but creatively it would hamper you, I think, rather than release you. It’s not something that you use creatively.

So that dynamic is something that emerged by simply telling the story?

Yes, because you’re trying to be faithful to these people, the reality of them, because they are so well known — at least two of them, and then two are obscure, Otto and Sabina — but we have endless documentation. They were obsessive about letter writing and they were obsessively detailed in their descriptions of their thoughts and their feelings and what they ate and what their dreams were. So we have tons of stuff, and for me the process was one of resurrection; I wanted them to be brought back to life. I wanted to see them and hear them, as close to what they would have been as artistically possible. So that means that you’re not coming with an agenda — pro-Freud or pro-Jung or anti-Jung or whatever — and you’re not really imposing a schematic structure on them. You’re imposing a dramatic structure, yes, but the drama was there in their lives anyway, so you’re kind of taking away all the peripheral stuff and some of the complexity to reveal this dramatic structure. But it was there, in reality. All of those things, really, were pretty much as they happened, as outlined in the letters. Otto Gross really did say those things to Jung, and Jung really did say [Otto is] very seductive and makes you think that he’s right and you’re wrong. All of those things happened, so you have to say it’s kind of an amazing coincidence that it has a perfect Freudian structure, because it is historically accurate. It’s not like we forced it into some scheme, but what you say is not inaccurate, either.

What would Jung say if he heard you say “coincidence”?

He would say there are no coincidences, and I’d say you’re quite wrong. Because, you see, I part company with Jung at a certain point, philosophically. However, that’s just a disagreement. He would certainly say exactly what you said, because he did say there are no coincidences. And as a card-carrying existentialist, I say, “No, there is only coincidence.” [laughs] So it’s a really different structure.

That disagreement between Freud and Jung is explored in the film.

I think there are many ways you can posit it. For example, one way is you could say Freud was insisting on sexuality for neurosis and Jung was saying, “No.” You could say that Freud was insisting on the primacy of the human body as reality and Jung saying, “No, that isn’t the ultimate reality. Spirit is.” And that’s another way of looking at it. But you could also look at it this way, which is that I think that Freud was an existentialist — my understanding of it — and that Jung was absolutely not. And that’s part of the difference, that Freud was saying it is a contingent universe. It is random and we are who we are, who we’ve come to be, and you would consider, as he does in the movie, that where Jung went is exactly where Freud was afraid he would go — which is into mysticism and a sort of systematized spiritualism, and I would disagree with him.

You would disagree that that’s a good place to take the field of psychoanalysis?

I just don’t think it’s an accurate representation of what it is to be a human being, frankly. But really, it boils down to me. I’m an atheist so I cannot believe in the collective unconscious, which sounds like a psychological term, but it isn’t. It’s really a religious thing. He’s talking about these archetypes which are really godlike figures that live in what he called the “land of the dead,” who commune with you when you’re asleep and put dreams into your head, and I find that to be a religious concept and I’m not a religious person. Therefore, I cannot go with Jung into that territory. That is not to say that Jungian analysis is not useful for some people. I know of people who have benefited from both Freudian and Jungian analysis, so I’m not discrediting it. I’m talking about my personal relationship to it.

The film didn’t delve too deeply into Carl Jung’s
spiritual ideas.

No, because it happened later. It was after his break with Freud that it really came to the fore, and that’s when he started to work on his Red Book, which I have. You can get it from Amazon. It’s a huge book and it’s beautiful, and it’s a book that his family suppressed for years because they felt that it would hurt his credibility as a scientist and a physician. It’s full of the visions that he had. They’re all religious — guys with wings and angels and spirits and demons and stuff. It looks like a medieval illuminated Irish manuscript from monks, like the Book of Kells or something. It only was unleashed about a year or so ago when the family agreed to allow it to be published and reproduced. But that didn’t happen until after. There were little inklings of it, certainly, as you saw [in the film]. That whole thing about the bookshelves cracking is all accurate, as it’s been reported by both guys, but it didn’t get into full blossom until he had kind of a nervous breakdown after his split with Freud. And as he gathered himself up and felt that he must continue his sort of spiritual quest, he developed it later. But we are only covering that short period.

A main difference between the two seems to be that Freud deals with one’s past and what is and how to cope with what you have, and Jung focuses on transcending who you are.

Spiritual self-realization kind of thing. This is very much why Jung was so popular in the ’60s in North America, because that was very much in tune with the hippie movement and “live your dream” and “be what you can be” and all of that. Freud was, I think, suggesting that people don’t change as much as that. That real health comes from dealing with what you really have and what you really are. Certainly, he’s not saying don’t be ambitious; he’s not saying don’t fulfill your creative or intellectual potential. Far from it, but when it comes to this very hard-to-define spiritualism, that’s where Freud signs off. He was definitely an atheist; he made no bones about that. And frankly, Jung, his father was a pastor and he had six uncles who were pastors, and though he derided them as a young man and felt they were kind of pathetic, especially his father, I think he ended up becoming one. He wanted to be a pastor, i.e., a spiritual leader and to help people find spiritual self-awareness and the realization of fulfillment. And you can see Jung talking about that on YouTube because he lived until 1961 and he did interviews, and he’s obviously a very sweet, charming, intelligent man, someone you would definitely trust yourself with, and there’s no denying that. But, philosophically, some people would buy that and some people don’t. But what we shouldn’t forget is that Freud’s “talking cure” was incredibly revolutionary. Jung was at the Burghölzli [psychiatric hospital], which was an incredible organization that was, for the era, quite advanced. It was more like a village. I’ve been there; it does have orchards, it does have trailways through the woods. Patients were encouraged to commune with nature, to get outside, but the one thing that didn’t happen was they were never listened to. You were given drugs, you were given cold and hot baths and all of that stuff, but Freud’s idea that you should listen to these raving loonies, and that if you listened carefully and asked a few questions, that they would actually tell you what was wrong with them even if they weren’t aware of it, themselves. That was totally revolutionary. No one had ever thought of that before.

Do you find it strange that an idea as simple as having a conversation with somebody who’s having a problem was revolutionary?

Well, you can see by Sabina at the beginning of the movie that it wasn’t just somebody who was having a problem; it’s somebody who’s uncontrollable. That was hysteria. Now when you think of it, “hysteria” seems to have disappeared as a clinical term, and one can easily say it was repression of women of the era, of their sexuality, of their intellect, and that women then had to act out in some extremely dramatic way to express their frustration and their anger. And as women’s roles changed, in the West anyway, the “need” for hysteria as a disease kind of disappeared. But they were, as you can see in the way we played it — which is totally accurate in terms of what hysteria was — you wouldn’t feel that you could talk to this person. This person was screaming and talking and then laughing and then crying and then doing physical contortions and couldn’t speak. You’d say, “Put this woman in a cold bath to calm her down and then give her some drug.” That’s what you would think, and that’s what the psychiatrists did think and did do. So to think that you could actually talk to this person was unusual, was revolutionary. This wasn’t a mild neurosis where someone is sitting there a little upset. It’s a big deal.

Was it intriguing for you to explore this revolutionary period in the study of the mind?

One of the things I love about looking at this is that this is a new relationship between people that’s being developed. The relationship between the psychoanalyst and his patient didn’t exist before. It’s very intimate and it’s somewhat intellectual, but it’s also very clinical. It’s quite odd and it’s quite unusual. The first film I ever made was called “Transfer” (1966), and it was about a psychiatrist and a patient, and I guess I was intrigued by that relationship, that it is an unusual one. We take it for granted now, but it was revolutionary at the time.

All of the struggles the characters in A Dangerous Method were going through were also affecting the evolution of modern thought. Is it interesting for you to investigate characters who have a broad impact on
the world?

Yes, because as a dramatist you can’t direct an abstract concept. [laughs] You can only direct concrete things, so you want these things embodied in people and characters and dialogue that you can photograph. And so it’s fantastic when the reverberations start small and then become quite huge. It’s exciting for a dramatist. It’s sort of what you live for.

Their ideas really did radiate. Without them, we wouldn’t have words like “defense mechanism.”

No, or “inferiority complex” or “unconscious thought” or doing something “unconsciously.” I have a friend who’s a social psychologist at Stanford and he says in the last 15 years, psychology is certainly coming back to Freud in an interesting way. That is to say, with all this MRI stuff and brain imaging, we are seeing that Freud was absolutely right, that there is unconscious thought, stuff that you can’t access consciously but it’s actually going on in your brain. It’s confirmed. It is thought that’s going on, and emotion, but you’re not consciously aware of it, so what is it? He said they now are calling it “non-conscious thought,” but it’s exactly what Freud was talking about and I thought that was pretty interesting. It just confirms what I always thought, which is that we are not at all finished with Freud, yet. I read an interesting article in the New York Times about how Freud is becoming huge in China. As their middle class develops, some people are starting to think about their own inner mental states more, and a lot of American psychoanalysts are Skyping with Chinese patients, and it’s Freudian analysis.

It’s interesting to see in your film how the doctor-patient relationship was breached almost as soon as the treatment method was invented.

Remember that there were no rules then. This was all new, so when Otto Gross says, “Well, what if you want to fuck your patients?” — how do we know that’s bad? Maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s part of therapy. Maybe they can exorcize that transferred personality, whether it’s their father or their mother or their brother, whoever it is, by having sex with you. Why do we assume it’s bad? This is a new relationship. It’s sort of like Freud’s cocaine use, which preceded this movie, but at the time it was like, it feels pretty good, it seems to be harmless, and it’s pretty interesting, and let’s not assume it’s bad. And then eventually you say, “No, it is bad.” Well, it’s the same — the thing that Jung did, having an affair with a patient, was not encoded in law. It was not legally actionable because it was a new relationship; nobody knew whether it was necessarily a bad thing to do that.

The film doesn’t seem to apply any judgment to the characters’ actions.

No, it doesn’t, because that’s part of, as I said, the process of resurrection. I wanted to be absolutely neutral and let the chips fall where they may. I had no agenda, really, and to me that’s the most fun, when you don’t have an agenda. Many people who do [a biopic] or write a biography, they have an agenda and they want to attack this person because this person is held in high esteem and you don’t think they should be, so you attack them in some way and show their flaws and their weaknesses. But, to me, I just wanted to paint them warts and all, as Oliver Cromwell said about his portrait.

I noticed similarities between this film and an earlier film of yours, The Brood.

Yes, there is some of that. That’s another thing — when people say this is a departure, I say, “Well, not really.” But yes, there was a very charismatic psychotherapist that I invented, played by Oliver Reed, and once again, was he transgressing? Well, he had invented his new “psychoplasmics.” It was a new field, and an undiscovered one, and the rules of engagement were still being formed.

How do you feel, in general, about the idea that your more recent films are a departure from your earlier cinematic work?

Creatively, it’s all of a piece. To me it feels exactly the same as it always did. Really, there’s no difference at all, and the subject matter on that level is irrelevant. You love an idea for a movie, you’re interested in bringing the characters to life, you want to make the narrative work, you’re dealing with the crew — and I work with the same crew, if I can, that I’ve worked with for many years. I’ve been with the editor [Ronald Sanders] for over 30 years, Peter Suschitzky since 1988 as the director of photography, so you can see why it would feel the same, because, partly, I’m working with the same people. And the process is the same; it’s exactly the same. Peter says I shoot very differently now than in 1988 on Dead Ringers. That is just maturity; I don’t need to cover everything in different ways from a million different angles. I know what I’m going to want in the editing room. I don’t need to shoot as much, but that’s just confidence and maturity; it’s not really that the filmmaking is a different process.

I think it’s the difference in the imagery that people are reacting to. If you were to compare the imagery in A History of Violence to the images you see in eXistenZ

Yes, but eXistenZ is a sci-fi/horror film. What about M. Butterfly? What about Dead Ringers? Even Spider. These are, relatively, what we would call realistic movies. Then you’ve got a sort of hybrid in Naked Lunch. When people say, “You’ve never done a period piece,” I say, “Sure, I have.” Spider was and Butterfly was and, in fact, Naked Lunch was, because we were setting it in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, so you are recreating an era and a tone. So even there, it’s not really different. I think if it’s truly examined, most people are thinking of the early horror films and comparing them with, say, A History of Violence, but the interim films — which cover a lot of ground — there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on there.

You mentioned Spider. So far I have yet to see a better portrayal of paranoid schizophrenia.

Well, thank you. Unfortunately, it came out at the same time as A Beautiful Mind and I keep saying I think my portrayal was more realistic, but never mind. [laughs]

Do you think you’ll ever return to the imagery of your earlier films?

It’s not really a question of imagery; it’s what the whole movie is. I absolutely have not turned my back on anything, but I don’t want to do anything that I have already done. I often get scripts that have been so influenced by my own stuff that it would be like remaking my own movie. Why would I do that? I have no motivation to do something like that. But in terms of genre, to do something that is sci-fi or horror, I would have no qualms about it. If it was interesting and if it didn’t feel like I had done that already. Basically, you don’t want to do stuff you’ve done. It’s very dispiriting to do that, to feel that you’re on a set and you totally have 100% done this shot before. That’s not exciting.

If you were to look at your body of work, do you find themes that you tend to revisit?

Well, I don’t look at my body of work — but people ask me, of course. What I mean is, I don’t mull over it. Creatively, it’s not very productive; it doesn’t really give you anything to do that. I think if you got bound up in your own mythology, it would be a huge mistake, because you would be trapped by yourself, which is something all artists have to be wary of, frankly. I can analyze all kinds of things, but these are after the fact. It’s me stepping back and taking a more academic, analytical role. And I can do that and I could probably write a critical assessment of all my work that way, but philosophically, for me, the first fact of human existence is the human body. I’m an atheist. I think that we are the body and when we die, we are done, that’s it, it’s oblivion, it’s something we have to accept, I feel. That makes me kind of an existentialist, I think. To live the authentic life, you accept this reality, and it doesn’t mean you’re depressive, it doesn’t mean you’re terrified of death. To me, it just means you are living a real life. You are accepting the reality of it. It’s obviously not the way most people live, but I think it is a way to live that suits me, anyway. Let’s put it that way. So, if you’re going to do horror, then that is where the horror is — rather than the supernatural, rather than ghosts. Because, to me, the idea of ghosts is an evasion, a cop out. It means that you can live after you’re dead. It’s scary, but on the other hand it’s actually not scary. It’s scarier to think that when you’re dead there are no ghosts. People are alive after they are dead only in your memory, and the things that they have done, and so on. That’s, for some people, a very painful, difficult thing to accept. They want to think that they’re going to see their parents or whoever they loved in the afterlife. But I don’t think that way, so that informs my movie making. Is that a theme? I’ll leave it to you. It is and it isn’t. And certainly when I was making the movie of Dangerous Method, I didn’t think, “Yes, I like Freud because he is body conscious, because he insists on the reality of the human body at a time when it was suppressed.” But after the fact, as I’m speaking to you and others, I can see that. I can see that that might well be why I feel an affinity with Freud — but Jung has got more screen time. [laughs] So you have to give me credit for that, that I might have had a greater affinity for Freud, but I have not short-shrifted Jung.

What are your thoughts on the Internet and how it might be considered an actual collective unconscious?

Well, here’s an interesting thing. My social psychologist friend said it would have been more interesting if Jung had talked about the collective conscious as opposed to the collective unconscious. And, in a way, I think what you’re getting on the Internet is the collective consciousness, not the unconscious. But yes, it’s there and it’s very id-oriented. You get so much anger and weirdness. You go on a camera forum and people who are Canon freaks as opposed to Nikon freaks, they just go crazy, they attack each other, they want to kill each other. [laughs] It’s incredible. So yes, the Internet is a pretty interesting phenomenon, but I have to say that you can see in Dangerous Method that letter writing was huge at the turn of that century, and in Vienna there were, like, five to eight mail deliveries every day, and if you wrote a letter in the morning, you expected to get a letter back in the afternoon. So there was sort of the equivalent of the Internet, maybe not as globally, obviously. The Internet is one of the major new phenomena. There is no question about that.

What do you love about what you do?

I do love being on the set. When it’s fun, it’s incredible fun, and you are having it with a lot of people that you feel very close to. When you discover something and you all get excited about it, and you’re realizing it on film, it’s really fantastic. I love that.

In memory of Steve Jobs. Special thanks to iPhone 4S and Siri for dictation services.

Interview conducted October 18, 2011

*Photo by Alan Langford, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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