Category: Director Interviews

Interviews with film and television directors

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.
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Shelter in the Dark: Director Janet Tobias’ No Place on Earth


Janet Tobias, director of No Place on Earth
Janet Tobias, director of No Place on Earth

Esther Stermer knew the future was bleak for the Jews of Korolowka in western Ukraine, and entrance into the ghetto would be just a stop on the way to the Belzec concentration camp. The stoic matriarch forbade her family from signing in to the walled city and sent her son Nissel into the woods to find a hiding place. He decided on a tourist cave called Verteba, a few miles north, and in October 1942 several dozen Jews fled their homes to seek safety underground. They survived there for nearly half a year until the Gestapo found them. Most escaped through a secret exit that the reluctant yet now-expert cavers had had the forethought to locate, widen, and lock down months earlier. They hid on the outskirts of the villages but Esther knew they wouldn’t last if they didn’t find a new “bunker.” Tasked again by his mother, Nissel sought help from a local woodsman, who directed him to a small sinkhole he had once seen a fox run into. And so they discovered Priest’s Grotto, what is now considered the 14th longest cave in the world, with 77 miles of caverns and passageways.

Director Janet Tobias steeps audiences in this story of darkness, family, survival, and triumph with her new film, No Place on Earth. Together with renowned cinematographer César Charlone (The Constant Gardener, City of God), she has meticulously blended documentary and scripted filmmaking, including dramatic reenactments alongside interviews with Nissel’s younger brothers Saul and Sam Stermer, and their nieces Sonia and Sima Dodyk. The film also features Chris Nicola, the cave enthusiast who first brought the story to light in a 2004 National Geographic article, a collaboration with writer Peter Lane Taylor.

Tobias got her start at CBS’s “60 Minutes” as associate producer for Diane Sawyer. The Yale graduate has since produced and directed for “Dateline NBC” as well as ABC’s “Nightline,” “20/20,” “World News Tonight,” and “Good Morning America.” She was executive producer on PBS’s Emmy-winning “Life 360,” and her parallel career in health and information technology has led her to an adjunct assistant professorship at Mount Sinai’s School of Medicine. The filmmaker and media professional took some time to speak with us about No Place on Earth.

Iconic Interview: Had you had any experience with caves before you began work on this film?
Janet Tobias: It was an entirely new arena. I had probably been to the entrance to a couple of caves, like most of us, but I had never been caving before, so this whole underground [experience] was completely new to me.

What was your reaction when you first heard the story?
It was, frankly, the most incredible adventure-survival story I had ever heard. Being lucky and starting at “60 Minutes” after university, I had been privileged to hear a lot of great stories, and I had never heard a story like this, which made me want to tell it to begin with. I had seen a lot of really great documentaries and dramas about the Holocaust and I thought, should there be another [film]? But I’ve always thought of it first as an adventure-survival story for everyone. I’m not Jewish, and I was just blown away by how they told the story and what they had been able to accomplish.

You went to Ukraine and took the families back to the caves before you did their on-camera interviews. I assume you did pre-interviews, and I’m curious about the evolution of your interactions with the family members as their stories that they told you became more descriptive and personal.
Of course we did pre-interviews, and they had to get a sense that we were going to be careful with their story. They cared desperately [about], as Sam will say, “Nothing more, nothing less.” The facts are the facts. We went to Ukraine first for two reasons: They were getting very old. Saul was already 90; Sam in his mid-80s; the women in their 70s — and physically, Saul said to me that he and Sam couldn’t make it past when we went, which was in the fall of 2010. But I also thought it would be a good idea to take them back because in doing their interviews, they would have fresh memories of their return. They had told it a lot among each other. As Saul and Sam will jokingly say, they told it to each other on the golf course all the time, and they played really bad golf, because they would get so involved in the story. And then they would make a pact, saying, “For three holes, we’re not talking about [it] at all because we’ve got to have a good game today,” and it would deteriorate by the third hole. But taking them back to the Ukraine, for each of them, was a very individual experience. They were all different ages when this happened. Sima was a small child, from about three to five. Sonia was an eight-year-old girl. Sam was in his early-to-mid teens, and Saul was a very, very young adult — about 20 years old. So for them, I think they went back to those ages, and that experience. When they told it around the dinner table it was a unified story, and you could feel the differences in their individual experiences in the interviews after they had gone back.
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Director Agnieszka Holland: Escaping Death, Surviving In Darkness

by Andrew Fish

Director Agnieszka Holland (Photo courtesy of Sławek Skonieczny)

This interview was conducted for Venice Magazine.

The remaining Jews of the Lvov Ghetto know their time is up. Having seen their friends and family beaten and shot and the survivors sent to extermination camps, a small group digs a hole into the sewer system to escape the fenced-in city’s final liquidation. While scouting out the tunnels, they’re spotted by a couple of thieves who agree to help them for cash. The elder of the crooks is Leopold Socha, a Catholic sewer worker who starts out taking their money with no intention of loyalty, yet slowly develops a love and sense of responsibility for them which gives him a sense of purpose and threatens his own survival.

In Darkness, the new film by Agnieszka Holland, sinks into the dank catacombs of 1943 Poland and tells the true story of this group of disparate Jews — including a businessman, a religious loner, two young children, and an adulterous couple who has left the man’s family behind — as they eke out a makeshift life for 14 months amid the rats and filth. Based on Robert Marshall’s book, In the Sewers of Lvov, the film stars Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha and Benno Fürmann as Mundek Margulies, a Jew and reformed criminal who falls in love with Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), a fellow sewer dweller. Margulies is wary of Socha’s motives until Socha helps him infiltrate a concentration camp in an attempt to rescue Klara sister. Meanwhile, another of the group becomes pregnant. With Socha’s wife (Kinga Preis) fearing the repercussions of his secret, and his friend Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), a Ukrainian officer, prodding him to locate any Jews who may be hiding in the tunnels, the pressure builds aboveground and below. In Darkness is Poland’s 2011 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

Holland has explored this point in history before, most notably with Europa Europa, her 1990 film about an orphaned German-Jewish teenage boy who survives the Holocaust by posing as a pure-bred Aryan, which earned the director an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Before that, her World War II-era Angry Harvest (1985) with Armin Mueller-Stahl was Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. She went on to direct Olivier, Olivier (1992) in French and The Secret Garden (1993) in English. Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995) starred David Thewlis and a young Leonardo DiCaprio, who played out the volatile relationship between respective 19th-century French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. She then helmed the big-studio picture, Washington Square (1997), with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin, and Jennifer Garner, based on the 1880 novel by Henry James. After HBO’s “Shot in the Heart” (2001) and Copying Beethoven (2006) starring Ed Harris, Holland began directing for American television, with stints on “The Wire,” “Cold Case,” “The Killing,” and “Treme.”

Though taken with the script, Holland turned down In Darkness screenwriter David F. Shamoon twice before it was agreed that the film would be shot in its authentic languages of Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ukrainian. “With this Holocaust reality in the Second World War,” Holland explains, “I think in some ways it’s so connected to those places and to those people and to those languages, that shooting in English immediately changes it into some kind of theatrical convention. I just wanted to be as close to the these people and to this reality as possible. I love a lot of American and English actors. I’ve worked with them, but in those parts I didn’t think that they would be right, that they would be real, that [audiences] will believe them.”

Holland is also quick to point out that the events in Eastern Europe during World War II represent human tendencies that are still alive and well. Recent atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia are cases in point, and the director sees a looming danger in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. “You’re seeing now a chain reaction,” she submits, “that countries are falling apart. It is kind of a global crisis, at least in this democratic world, which can lead very easily to the outburst of populism, frustration, anger, fury, and hate.” And quelling the rumblings of neo-fascism, she says, “is in the hands of the new generation, because they have to do something. If not, they don’t have a chance to have a normal life.” We meet with Holland in Beverly Hills.

What first drew you to the story of In Darkness?

The screenwriter; he was so perseverant. In principle, I didn’t want to do a Holocaust movie. I knew how painful it is, and I knew how difficult a sell it is, and I knew that it would be giving blood and sweat for two or three years, but the story was fascinating and the characters were fascinating and the challenge to do a film which happens 80% in darkness was very fascinating. I felt that I could probably do it better than anyone else. I had this pretentious feeling that I would be really strong, fighting for the truth, for authenticity, and that this story must be told in the most authentic way possible. I felt that I know how to do it — a bit. Of course, I was full of doubts. Finally, I decided to do it.
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